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2 April 2017

The cycle of disadvantage

Educational disadvantage is not a characteristic. It's not something that a child chooses. But it can impact their entire future.

As a nation, Australians aspire to a fair society in which every student can realise their potential.

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.

As it stands, not every student is receiving the educational opportunities that they need to reach their potential.

Of particular concern is the inequity between educational outcomes of students from different backgrounds.

Students from low SES households

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).

By age 15, these students are on average almost three years behind their peers from the highest socioeconomic households.

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).

Students who are Indigenous Australians

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).

While NAPLAN testing shows some gains in the outcomes of Indigenous Australia students since 2008, they are still on average six times more likely to be below national standards than their peers (ACARA 2016).

Students from rural or remote communities

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.

They attend school less regularly, are less likely to go to university and, if they do enrol, are more likely to drop out (Mitchell Institute 2015).

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).

Students from a refugee or asylum seeker background

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).

The misalignment of what students are ready to learn versus what they should be taught based on their chronological age can result in a lack of basic literacy skills (Woods 2009).

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).

Disadvantaged is not a characteristic

‘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.

Disadvantage affects a student’s outcomes early in education and, without intervention, the gap continues to grow over time.

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.

Despite the barriers that students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds face, it is possible for them to catch up.

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.

Find out more

This article is part of a series related to the SBS documentary Testing Teachers. To find out more about Testing Teachers click here.