Through education, we desire to see students achieve significant academic growth; experience increased access to opportunities; develop positive attitudes about themselves and their learning; and develop aspirations, interests and excitement that propel them forward. Combined, these factors support students to build a future of their choosing.
Of particular concern is the inequity between educational outcomes of students from different backgrounds.
Students from the lowest SES households are twice as likely to be developmentally unready for school compared to those from the highest SES households (Mitchell Institute 2015).
While academic achievement is the most apparent indicator, educational disadvantage also impacts a student’s non-academic experience at school.
Students from low SES households show lower levels of cognitive, behavioural and emotional engagement in school, resulting in a gap in regard to traits such as attempts to master new skills, application to school work and feeling happy at school (Mitchell Institute 2015).
In higher education, Indigenous Australians make up only one per cent of the student population. Less than half of these students will complete their degree (ACER 2015).
Accessing the national curriculum can be extremely difficult for the many Indigenous Australian students in-country who begin school with little or no English. In some schools, the proportion of students who cannot speak English can near 100 per cent (Wilson 2014).
Where students live is linked to their outcomes at all stages of education. Compared to their metropolitan peers, students from rural or remote communities tend to show poorer educational outcomes.
Emotional wellbeing is a significant factor in a student’s experience at school. Students from remote communities self-report lower levels of belonging, self-confidence and perseverance (Mitchell Institute 2015).
In addition to the individual factors of disadvantage faced by students in rural or remote communities, schools in these communities are not always able to offer the learning environments that students need to reach their potential.
Schools are more expensive to run, teaching staff are hard to find and difficult to keep and students have less choice in the subjects they study, especially in their senior levels of schooling (Lamb et al. 2014).
Many students from a refugee or asylum seeker background struggle through their school years, being taught in a foreign language and at a level beyond their educational ability (Refugee Council of Australia 2016).
Even today, formal education is not a global norm. Some students may never have been given the opportunity to go to school, or may not have experienced the same kind of schooling in their home country (Refugee Council of Australia 2016).
While some schools have developed their own strategies, there is an overall lack of readily available strategies enabling schools to support these students to achieve educational success, acculturate and integrate into the school and community (Jackson 2014).
‘Disadvantage’ is not something that a child chooses – it’s something that they experience. Educational disadvantage describes the challenges that students in our education system experience as a result of their social or historical background.
It is often the case that students experience more than one factor of disadvantage. For example, Indigenous Australian students, students from rural or remote communities or students from a refugee or asylum seeker background are often from low socioeconomic households.
This causes the challenges that students face to be compounded.
The lower the level of education a child obtains, the further their opportunities in life diminish. Access to employment and earnings are reduced. Levels of health and wellbeing are impacted.
If carried on to the next generation, a cycle of disadvantage is created.
Quality teaching and school leadership are vital contributors to breaking the cycle of disadvantage, but addressing educational disadvantage is a shared responsibility and everyone can play a role.
This article is part of a series related to the SBS documentary Testing Teachers. To find out more about Testing Teachers click here.