Rising education inequality should worry us all

In the opening pages of Aldous Huxley's famous dystopian novel Brave New World we are introduced to the Social Predestination Room.

On a tour of the room, a supervisor rubs his hands and points to the hatching embryos. Babies will emerge as "socialiased human beings, as Alphas and Epsilons," especially grown to be less intelligent.

A keen student asks why the temperature and oxygen levels are set where they are. "Ass!" says the director, "Hasn't it occurred to you that an Epsilon embryo must have an Epsilon environment as well as an Epsilon heredity".

I was reminded of the explanation while reading What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, a new report from the Public Education Foundation (PEF).

It finds that inequality in educational outcomes actually increases as Australian students move through their school years. In other words, disadvantaged students become more disadvantaged over time.

Examining six years of testing data from 2009 to 2015, it finds that Australia’s school performance has been falling relative to other countries, "kids at the bottom of the performance distribution are falling faster and further than kids at the top".

It's at odds with our idea of 'fair go’, the ‘lucky country’. It's a picture painted with every new study on inequality: haves and have-nots start far apart at birth and grow further apart over time.

The report finds that educational inequality is increasing across a wide range of dimensions. It is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance.

Inequality exists within sectors - public and private - as well as between them but more so in the public system.

In terms of financial cost, to quote from the PEF report:

The OECD calculates that a 50 point fall in test scores leads to a decline in long-term GDP growth of around 0.87% per year. Based on this, we have estimated the net present value of the economic loss to Australia of our falling educational performance. We calculate the loss attributable to the 2009-15 fall in performance to be $118.6 billion.

The current crop of school leavers (and potentially the next one, if nothing much changes) will experience declining livings standards.

The Foundation did not measure the impact of educational inequality on social cohesion. We can only imagine the adverse and corrosive ripples.

While not the focus of the report, it offers a range of recommendations to improve the performance of our lowest achieving students to ultimately reduce inequality. These include targeted teaching approaches, the randomisation of a share of enrolments to selective public schools (to counter the effect of taking high achieving students away from neighbourhood schools), the introduction of second classroom teachers to support underperforming students outside the classroom, especially in disadvantaged communities, alternative learning programs; and of course, firm commitment to needs-based funding for schools. Some of this is already happening but clearly more must be done.

A fairer funding model is essential. But we must also not shy away from discussing the implications of a multi-sector system, especially elite and private schools heavily subsidised by the state that intensify privilege and class. That debate should be driven by a shared understanding of what we value in Australia.

Deepening inequality is not intractable, but we are at a point that if we don’t tackle this with a bipartisan approach, we are reducing the prospects of not just our children but the wellbeing and common good of the nation in the long term.

Find the full report here

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