Picture of the grounds of a wealthy private school. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Australian schools are becoming more segregated. This threatens student outcomes

Australian schools are becoming more segregated. This threatens student outcomes

The Australian school system is concentrating more disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools, with serious implications for student achievement

A report released today by the Gonski Institute says schools in Australia are more regressive, divided and socially segregated than in most other rich countries.

Our report examines how well Australian education meets our agreed national educational goals. These were most recently articulated in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) declaration as “improving educational outcomes for all young Australians” through “excellence and equity”.

When governments provide funding to schools, obligations and expectations rightly flow from this. If one of those is promoting “excellence and equity”, it’s time for a serious revision.

We’re becoming more segregated

The Australian school system is increasingly concentrating disadvantaged and advantaged students in separate schools.

For example, all Australian schools have an ICSEA score, which stands for the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage. ICSEA provides an indication of the socio-educational backgrounds of students. The higher the ICSEA, the higher the level of the school’s educational advantage.

Our analysis shows that in the government sector higher ICSEA schools are 26% bigger than they were in 2011, while lower ICSEA schools are marginally smaller than they were in 2011. Lower ICSEA Catholic schools are around 10% smaller than they were in 2011.

Our data show higher ICSEA schools in all sectors are not only growing in size, but have an increasing concentration of highly economically advantaged students. The reverse is happening in lower ICSEA schools.

While some might think this is just the natural order of things, rising inequity creates major and ongoing structural problems that hold back our national education system. Both the OECD and UNICEF have warned Australia of the risks of our growing educational inequity.

The rise in inequity is not just a problem for the most disadvantaged. It creates a burden with impacts across schooling. The distortions in school growth, according to level of advantage and location, mean management of the school system is unstable — and policies that give all students “a fair go” are actually difficult to implement.

This leads to “needs-based” approaches. But these are inevitably complex and often fail in implementation. The Gonski funding model is one example.

We’ve gone backwards since Gonski

The first Gonski review argued additional funding for schools should be allocated on the basis of need. If implemented, this would have boosted equity funding to all sectors. But while funding since the Gonski review pays homage to the language of equity, the data about the overall distribution of funding don’t tell the same story.

Since 2011, the percentage increase in government per-student recurrent funding of Australia’s low ICSEA (under 1,000) schools has been more than the increase to high ICSEA (over 1,000) schools. However, funding aggregated from all sources shows less advantaged schools are no further ahead. And some schools and school sectors have received greater growth in funding – even when needs are matched and accounted for.

My School data also show Australia’s very remote schools, on average, received the same percentage funding increases as major city schools – despite metropolitan areas having clear social and educational advantage.

A school bus sign on a rural road.
Remote schools, on average, have received the same amount of funding as metropolitan schools — even under a needs-based funding model. Shutterstock


There is no simple answer to why this happens, but it is an inevitable consequence of a competitive system of schools. While the Gonski review recommended independent oversight of the funding arrangements, this was never implemented.

So, what do we do?

We acknowledge responses to the report will include the perennial “it’s too hard”.

And while we acknowledge choice of schooling has a strong hold on the Australian psyche, we are calling for a new conversation about what obligations might contribute to more equitable outcomes in all schools. Our report offers ten policy recommendations.

These include fully funding non-government schools with comparable governance and accountability arrangements as government schools, and banning them from charging fees. This means reframing all schools, and consequent funding, as a “public good” across all sectors.

The fully funded non-government private schools would still be run by the same organisations as before, and abide by the same educational philosophy. But no student would be turned away.

Our previous study revealed combined state and federal recurrent funding of non-government schools is close to, and in many cases exceeds, combined government funding of government schools.

In effect, this means the taxpayer saves little by funding competing systems.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving educational equity is the lack of routine reporting of school education outcomes relating to equity groups, as is required in higher education. For example, the ICSEA does not make a single appearance in any annual national reports on schooling.

To improve equity in schooling, we need clear analysis, monitoring and targeting of inequity. To gain due policy attention the National Report on Schooling in Australia needs to report on school data and student attainment across all equity groups, across time. We simply cannot allow this growing problem to go unrecognised in our annual national school report card.

Our report team includes two former school principals (one government, one non-government) and a former education minister. We are sensitive to the positioning of diverse interested voices, but we can’t help concluding that something’s got to give.

Rising school inequity means inclusive schooling, providing “a fair go” for all Australian children, is increasingly a pipedream. Growing segregation and residualisation among Australian schools also mean students are less likely to engage with peers from a wide range of backgrounds. In the long term both these issues will lead to shifts in Australian society and character.

We cannot continue to put the important work of structural school reform in the too-hard basket. If we do, countless students, teachers, communities and our nation will continue to suffer.The Conversation

Rachel Wilson, Associate Professor in Education, University of Sydney and Paul Kidson, Lecturer in Educational Leadership, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

UOW academics exercise academic freedom by providing expert commentary, opinion and analysis on a range of ongoing social issues and current affairs. This expert commentary reflects the views of those individual academics and does not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the University of Wollongong.