The latest international PISA tests have made grim reading for Australia’s education system – but the biggest worry is that it has again exposed the inequities in our school system.
While Australia remains above the OECD average, it has continued its slide down the global rankings with our average scores for maths, science and literacy all declining.
Australia’s results remain divided by location and family background with gaps equivalent to three years of schooling between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students.
This is higher than the OECD average and exactly what the Gonski Review warned us of in 2012 when it noted our slipping PISA scores and stated that: “International evidence confirms that targeted investment in disadvantaged students is the most cost-efficient way to improve.”
If we let student achievement be dictated by postcode then we entrench disadvantage and squander the potential of students who can’t get access to support when they need it.
PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) is the most comprehensive global testing of students, with over 70 countries participating and students in primary and secondary schools tested.
The 2015 PISA data for Australia showed:
- The difference in results between students from the highest SES quartile and the lowest were a full three years of schooling in maths, science and reading.
- Students from advantaged backgrounds were five times as likely to be high performers as students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- The difference in results between students from metropolitan areas and regional areas was equivalent to at least one full year of schooling in maths, science and reading.
The decline in scores were almost identical for public, independent and Catholic schools.
Dr Sue Thomson, from the Australian Council for Education Research, says that the problem of inequity is hurting Australia’s overall PISA performance.
"I was quite saddened to look at that data. There's no difference over 16 years of reading and 13 years of maths. We are still not attending to those gaps," she said.
Scores highlight pre-Gonski funding failure
Some have used the results to mount that argument that increases in schools funding aren’t delivering results, or that the Gonski funding which has made it to schools is not working.
Our slide in the PISA rankings dates back over a decade, while Gonski funding only began flowing to schools in 2014. What’s more, less than 10 per cent of the extra funding in the Gonski agreements had been delivered to schools by the time the PISA testing was done in 2015.
Priort to 2014, funding was skewed away from disadvantaged schools and students. From 2009 to 2014 combined government funding per student for private schools increased by 30% per student, compared to a 14% increase to public schools.
The PISA Report for 2015 found equity of resourcing is vital for improving the overall success of a school system
It stated that: “How educational resources are distributed among students of different backgrounds can be an important determinant of equity in education opportunities. Education systems that are successful, both in quality and equity, attract the highest quality resources to where these resources can make the most difference.”
Gonski making a difference
That’s what Australia has begun to do through Gonski funding, and we need to fund the full six years to ensure that all schools have the resources they need.
Malcolm Turnbull’s plant to cut Gonski funding after 2017 will see schools miss out on $3.8 billion in extra resources in 2018 and 2019 alone.
They will not be able to build on the success they are achieving, and students will miss out on the smaller classes, one-to-one support and extra literacy and numeracy programs they need.
Because Gonski funding is based on need, it will be our most disadvantaged schools and students who are hurt the most.
Without the full six years of Gonski, students will continue to miss out and the next set of PISA results will tell the same story.