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Tom Greenwell: Measuring & Addressing Australia’s Segregated Education System

As the 2024 ASPA National Education Summit contemplates ‘Equity in Australian Secondary Education: Crossing the Divide’, the recommendations of the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System, commissioned by Minister Clare, are of critical importance. 


The expert panel concluded that “Compared to similar Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Australian schools have some of the highest levels of social segregation, and this trend has worsened over time.” 

It further stated that “this has a direct impact on outcomes: students from educationally and socio economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be behind in learning when enrolled in schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students than when enrolled in schools with a more diverse student profile.” 


In presenting a significant range of evidence in support of these conclusions, the review confirmed the findings of similar research extending back as far as the Gonski Review. But the expert panel went further than identifying the problem; it also recommended a series of concrete steps towards a solution. 


The review acknowledged that in school systems around the globe a range of policy levers are employed to increase socio-economic diversity, including fee and enrolment regulation and legislated quotas for disadvantaged students. On this basis the panel called for a new review to identify the right mix of interventions for the Australian context. Additionally, it recommended that governments, school systems and approved authorities track and annually publicly report on the socio-economic diversity of schools and systems. 


The 2024 ASPA National Education Summit provides a timely opportunity to highlight the importance of acting on these recommendations with urgency and energy. It is vital that all governments and political parties commit to annual public reporting on socioeconomic diversity in our school system, and a review which thoroughly explores international policy responses and their potential application in Australia. 


The summit also provides a valuable forum to unpack what these recommendations might look like in practice. Annual public reporting on socio-economic diversity in Australian school education could include the following elements: 

●    the extent to which highly disadvantaged students (Q1) and disadvantaged students (Q2) attend schools with other students from similar backgrounds
●    the extent to which the student profiles of Australian schools are representative, in socio-economic terms, of the communities in which they are located
●    the proportion of students from priority cohorts enrolled in the public, Catholic and Independent sectors respectively
●    the impact on student learning of concentrations of disadvantage in the Australian education system


The Improving Outcomes for All report pointed out that high concentrations of social disadvantage are generally found in the public system, and that non-government school fees and enrolment practices can be prohibitive for low-income families. Accordingly, annual public reporting on socio-economic diversity could include measurement of: 

●    changes in compulsory fees and charges over time
●    the impact of compulsory fees and charges on the accessibility and affordability of schools for students from low-income and/or disadvantaged backgrounds
●    the impact of selective enrolment practices on the accessibility of schools for students from low-income and/or disadvantaged backgrounds


The implementation of annual measurement and public reporting on the socio‐economic diversity of schools and systems by the end of 2025, as recommended, would itself be a positive step forward. Regular measurement of the problem will also support the second recommendation: a new review into the right combination of interventions required to increase socio-economic diversity in the Australian context. 


The expert panel has laid the groundwork for a new conversation, one that questions established ways of doing things and invites us to reimagine our school system. The National Education Summit presents an exciting opportunity to take this conversation forward in a manner that is sensitive to different perspectives, realistic about the challenges, and singularly focused on ensuring our schools effectively serve all our young people. 

Tom Greenwell teaches history and politics in the ACT public education system. He writes about Australian education policy for Inside Story and The Canberra Times. He has explored a wide range of topics including growing segregation in Australian schooling, the history of Australian education, and contemporary trends and challenges, and is the co-author of “Waiting for Gonski”

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