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Anna Pons: The role of schools in upending our increasingly fractured societies

If there is something that I retain about the woke and anti-woke comments that plague our social media today is that our societies are increasingly fractured, or that those that are bringing us apart (instead of together) have a stronger voice than ever. This increasing polarisation is coupled with worrying trends on inflation, housing, employment which point to growing inequalities and adversity for an increasing number of people. Schools have traditionally been the engine of the social contract in Australia and elsewhere, what role do we want education to play in fostering equity and social cohesion?

The call for a heightened focus on equity arises amidst a backdrop of declining student performance. The average Australian student who took the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in the latest edition in 2022 perform about a year (25 points) below his or her peer who took the first one in the year 2000. At a time of declining performance, there might be a temptation to think that a focus on equity might lower standards. This is a false trade-off. The highest performing education systems across OECD countries combine high quality and equity (Figure 1).


Figure 1. The false trade-off between equity and quality in education

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But, what does equity in education mean? Equity in education can be understood as all learners reaching at least a basic minimum level of skills (inclusion) as well as personal or social circumstances such as gender, ethnic origin or family background, not being obstacles to achieving their educational potential (fairness). Enhancing inclusion and fairness in education not only reinforces these values but also represents a strategic investment with significant returns. More education correlates with improved employment prospects, healthier lifestyles, enhanced civic engagement, more robust economies and public finances, and ultimately, more cohesive and resilient societies.


In an international perspective, Australia is doing slightly better than the average OECD country in ensuring that all students are equipped with a minimum. In PISA, Level 2 is considered to be a minimum with, for example, students being able to interpret and recognise how a simple situation can be represented mathematically (e.g. comparing the total distance across two alternative routes, or converting prices into a different currency). About 74% of Australian students attained at least Level 2 proficiency in mathematics, more than on average across OECD countries (69%), but well below neighbours such as Singapore, Macao (China), Japan, Hong Kong (China)*, and Chinese Taipei where over 85% of students achieved at least that minimum.


The impact of students’ socio-economic background in Australia is similar to that on average in OECD countries. However, students of similar socio-economic background tend to score significantly higher in Estonia and Japan (Figure). Moreover, the gap between socio-economically advantaged students (the top 25% in terms of socio-economic status) and disadvantaged students (the bottom 25%) is 101 score points in Australia. This is equivalent to over 3 years of schooling.


Figure 2. Mean performance in mathematics, by international quintiles of socio-economic status

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Note: The size of markers is proportional to the share of the student population within each quintile of socio-economic status (as determined by the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status, ESCS). Quintiles are defined at the international level, to include 20% of PISA participants in each quintile; within each national sample, the proportion can therefore differ from 20%.

Vertical bars that extend beyond the markers represent a measure of uncertainty associated with each estimate (the 95% confidence interval). Horizontal, dashed lines represent the uncertainty associated with the mean score of the largest group of students (as defined by international quintiles) within Australia.


Beyond the numbers, there are stories of students, teachers, and school communities. In societies that place a high value on equity the variation of student performance is found within schools rather than between them. This is the case in Iceland, Estonia or Finland where the variation in student performance between schools accounts to less than 10% compared to 31% in Australia. This suggests that it literally does not matter to what school parents take their kids in these countries. The closest school is always the best school.


The limited differences between schools also mean that teachers do not have to choose between schools. Attracting the best teachers to the most disadvantaged schools can prove very challenging. In fact, 22% of teachers in these schools have 5 years of experience or less according to the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018. Schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students are best served by more experienced teachers, who tend to be more confident in their ability to work in challenging conditions. There is nothing more important than teaching quality to the success of any education system, and this is also true for all of its individual schools.


Often, the compounding of challenges in disadvantaged schools means that these schools tend to have greater needs. Beating the odds might require having greater resources to, for example, build a strong school leadership team to turn around the school and create a positive and supportive environment; committed and experienced teachers that can craft appropriate learning strategies for students with diverse needs; or, more effective outreach strategies for those harder-to-reach parents.


We learn to live together in schools. We shape our sense of identity and community, nurturing the skills necessary for thriving in society. Thus, when addressing equity issues, we must consider the important role that schools play in shaping the society we want. Schools are a mirror of tomorrow’s society.

Anna Pons provides advice on education policies and practices at the OECD. She leads the Global Teaching InSights and the Schools+ Network teams, two projects that aim to bring together teachers, school leaders, researchers and policy-makers to accelerate change in education. She has also written reports on the quality of education systems and provided advice to ministries of education in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

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