Placing a value on learning - the great divide in Australia

Where you live and the postcode of the school you attend will have a significant impact in determining your opportunities. We need to start addressing the educational bias that limits opportunities for people living in rural and regional Australia, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie.

Placing a value on learning – the great divide in Australia, Pro Bono News, 12 September 2019

“Imagine an Australia where your postcode or cultural identity does not define your chance of getting an education or a job or living a long life? Imagine an Australia where creativity drives real innovation and achievement, not just in our arts, but also in our schools and local communities? Imagine a humane and sustainable Australia, where people are more connected and engaged in the communities they live and work in … Imagine the Australia we want?” – Rev Tim Costello, Australia We Want Second Report.

In a follow up to the second Australia We Want report, CCA launched the It Takes A Village campaign. The goal of this campaign was to promote the value of education, not just through schools and parents, but through the whole community embracing the role we can all play in encouraging and supporting education. This work was grounded in research telling us that education is the key to opportunity, and that the value a community places on education is critical to student achievement. 

Education seems to have slipped down the national priorities list since the heady days of the David Gonsky Report when some commentators were openly expressing concern about how our education was falling behind countries like Korea and Canada. Increasingly, other countries are prioritising investment in developing education systems that can equip their young people with the skills they need to successfully navigate a rapidly changing world.

Within broader discussions about the value of education, the relationship between educational opportunity and inequality is emerging as critical to national economic and social wellbeing. This is not a position being championed by do-gooder charity workers, but is advanced by seasoned public policy experts and knowledgeable economists around the world. 

Martin Parkinson, the former head of the Treasury and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, recently highlighted:

“Our history has bequeathed a degree of entrenched disadvantage that should be seen as a disgrace in any country, but particularly one as developed as Australia. More than 50 per cent of those in the bottom decile in 2000 were still in the bottom 20 per cent 15 years later. Ideally, people should only be at the bottom of the income distribution spectrum temporarily due to life events, not whole families and communities sentenced to it for generations. If you want a single thing to blame for the disadvantage we see in Australia, particularly in our remote areas, look no further than an understandable lack of hope. With those kind of odds, anything else would be irrational. Education is a key way for us to even-up those odds but to do that we need the best education system we can build and a culture that values learning.”

This “understandable lack of hope” Martin Parkinson refers to is partly driven by the geographical bias within our education systems.

Australia is not a high performing nation when it comes to education. Our retention rates (completion of year 12 or equivalent) put us just below the middle of the OECD pack. But these figures fail to tell the real story of education in Australia. 

Our city kids achieve year 12 retention rates that place them close to the top 10 nations in the OECD along with Finland, the US and Canada. Less than 15 per cent of city kids will fail to complete year 12 or its equivalent by the time they are 20. Our country kids are at least 25 places below in the bottom 10 OECD countries along with Greece, Portugal and Luxembourg. Around one third of regional and remote students will fail to complete year 12 or its equivalent by the time they are 20. 

The further you live from the city, the less likely you are to complete year 12. Where you live and the postcode of the school you attend will have a significant impact in determining your opportunities. The Australian education system perpetuates rural disadvantage and inequality. 

Interestingly, research conducted by Essential Media shows that only a third of adults under the age of 35 were aware that high school completion rates were much lower in the country compared to the city.

There will be many students who defy the odds, but the facts are that a city student has a better chance to realise their potential, to achieve more in education, to gain better employment and live a longer life. Is this the Australia we want?

There is no magic wand in education, no way to suddenly change educational outcomes built up over years of practice. This lack of immediate solutions is not an excuse for inaction. We can be more aware of our educational biases, invest more strategically in innovative ways to engage regional and remote students, create new possibilities for learning and work experiences beyond the rural horizon, better support students and encourage the village they rely on to place a higher value on educational achievement. 

There are many charities working to support rural students at school, at home and in their communities. Often those struggling to stay at school face multiple challenges. Life does not always allow young people to dream big and pursue their aspirations – sometimes we need to provide options beyond what is available in rural regions. This work supporting rural students, their families and their schools, is grossly undervalued and under-resourced.

If we want a fairer Australia, a more inclusive and successful economy, there are few places more important to start than in addressing the educational bias that limits opportunities for people living in rural and regional Australia. 

NB. CCA would like to acknowledge the funding support provided by the Origin Foundation for the It Takes A Village Campaign, and Essential Media for their extensive research into attitudes towards education.


Read in Pro Bono News: placing-a-value-on-learning-the-great-divide-in-australia