An unavoidable element of the discourse around educational disadvantage or equality is how we define and assess equality. One definition will see this as being in equality of access to education, funding for education and/or resources. Such an approach has largely been seen in government funding models however subtle variations on this theme have resulted in significant differences in resulting policies.
A simplistic funding model would see each school that is funded by the government receive a fixed amount per student (something like $9,697 per primary student and $11,945 per secondary student in 2011 (Gonski et al 2011 p59)). In Australia subsidies for non-government schools (Independent and Catholic) has resulted in relative disparities in socio-economic status with government schools. Parental choice for school type has resulted in a higher concentration of high-socioeconomic status families in non-government schools according to Watson and Ryan (2010). 'Adverse peer effects generated by high concentrations of low-SES students in public schools can be expected to place further downward pressure on student performance in the public school system’. (Watson & Ryan 2010 p104)
This concentration of low-socioeconomic status children in public schools means that funding demands for these schools will be higher conclude Watson & Ryan (2010). Complicating the distribution of students between public and private sectors is research by Levin (1998) who found that families with high-socioeconomic status and high academic achievement levels are more likely to choose a school other than the default public school option for their children. ‘Families that are better-off may be more likely to take advantage of school choice than those that are worse off because of better access to information, greater ability to afford transportation, a higher penchant to exercise educational alternatives, and greater generic experience with choice and alternatives.’ (Levin, 1998 p379)
An alternate funding model was proposed by Gonski et al in what is commonly referenced in the media as the Gonski Report and has given rise to the social media campaign ‘I give a Gonski’. According to Gonski 'Public funding arrangements need to react to the nature of the educational challenges faced by a system or school given its characteristics and student population, regardless of whether it is in the government or non-government sector.’ To do this a new schooling resource standard was suggested; 'The standard would be explicitly linked to expected educational outcomes, rather than historical levels of resource inputs, and geared to providing all students with the opportunity to meet agreed national educational outcomes.’ (Gonski et al 2011 p69) Gonski uses socio-economic status as a value in determining the need of schools using data from Australian Bureau of Statistics to adjust the required funding level. This report resulted in additional funding for schools to be provided over six years starting in 2014. This funding is now under review by the present government.
Models such as that outlined by Gonski are aimed at providing schools with the level of funding they require to achieve a national standard of educational outcomes and aim to take into account many of the factors which influence the success of schools in areas of economic disadvantage. 'Likewise, pressing for additional skilled support to help ensure the successful launching of children’s education and to help maintain their meaningful engagement in school and post-school training and education, would also address another of the recurring features of the most disadvantaged areas'. (Vinson, 2015 p14)
As the largest percentage of school operating costs are directly associated with teacher salaries (78% for private schools (Watson & Ryan 2010 p92)) it is not surprising that much of the debate around school equity relates to teacher quality and teacher/student ratios. Attracting quality teachers into areas of socio-economic disadvantage is a goal proposed to enhance the quality of learning that occurs but is one that significantly oversimplifies the reality of what is required.
Having attracted quality teachers into an area the imperative is to then keep them and to extend and enrich their capacities. Access to professional development is essential and this carries direct and indirect costs. A culture of collaboration and efforts to develop professional learning communities are effective strategies towards this goal. Free quality Professional Development is increasingly available through a mix of social media and free events such as Teach Meets. A school culture that promotes participation in these learning communities has benefits for all.
In Part Three we turn to the question of pedagogical adjustments which benefit students from from low socio-economic backgrounds.
By Nigel Coutts
Full references published with Part Three.