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ASPA: Equity in Australian secondary education: crossing the divide

On March 26th, Australia’s leading public secondary school principals, education authorities, academics and policy leaders will gather for a conversation led by the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) about the future of secondary school education. 

They will meet at Parliament House in Canberra for frank discussions on redressing the now widely acknowledged disparities limiting our national potential. With widening achievement gaps correlated to socioeconomic disadvantage, public schools educating our most at-risk young people urgently require funding and resources for quality, inclusive education. 


Meanwhile, the traditional learning attainment and certification pathways from year 10 to year 12 are not serving the needs of many marginalised learners. This national policy summit seeks to shape a policy agenda for equity, achievement, and sustaining the school leaders that are essential for flourishing schools.


Unequal access and outcomes

Public schools educate most students in our lowest socioeconomic strata and face the highest proportion of systemic disadvantage. Some estimates suggest that the achievement gap for such students has tripled, as indicated by the long-term decline in academic performance in Australia.


To address the disparities in educational outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged students, we urgently need to fully fund public schools to the School Resource Standard (SRS) at a minimum. Currently, only 1.3 per cent of public schools meet this standard, which is well below the OECD average. Every young person in Australia deserves the opportunity to succeed.


Equity must underpin the solutions, as the current landscape short-changes already disadvantaged schools and students. Chronic underfunding has left 98 per cent of public schools languishing, while students in other sectors have enjoyed funding well above that minimum level.


International evidence tells us that the ‘ideal school system is one in which there is high performance among all students, regardless of socioeconomic background’ (ACER - PISA 202: Reporting Australia’s Results). Sadly, that ideal is not realised in Australia. These resourcing shortfalls directly impact outcomes, with the 2022 PISA results indicating performance gaps between privileged and disadvantaged students have widened. 


Fully funding all schools and equitable access for vulnerable students is an essential prerequisite to reducing the opportunity divide, and we must ensure it all goes to schools. 


The 4 per cent loophole licensed under the last agreement for capital depreciation has enabled states and territories to offset their operational costs. In real terms, this shortfall of approximately $2 billion annually has not been going to those who need it. 


Additional measures above the 100 per cent SRS minimum are also required to help catch up, such as increased investment to upgrade school infrastructure and ensure reliable internet connectivity, particularly for our remote and regional public schools. These together with the introduction of national metrics and reporting on accessibility, social segregation, and the fiscal impacts of financing schools in each sector will promote both excellence and equality.


With over 80 per cent of students from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds concentrated in the public system, counteracting inequalities that compound over time is urgent. As Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education for the OECD, said recently, “the recipe for equity is all about aligning resources with need”, and Australia has been doing the opposite.


Rethinking assessment and certification

Australia’s approach to senior secondary assessment and certification is outdated and inequitable. It does not provide the value for young people that it should. Only 26 per cent of students access tertiary pathways via the ATAR, an increasingly irrelevant ranking mechanism that is often unfair to those starting from a position of educational disadvantage. 


Our senior secondary curriculum primarily celebrates achievement in traditional academic domains and schooling structures. However, is this enough to prepare our young people with the digital literacies, life skills and other metacognitive competencies that research tells us they will need? Though there are emerging efforts in some states and territories, national leadership is required for all young Australians to thrive into the future.


Rethinking senior secondary certification frameworks to incorporate greater integration of academic and vocational training can expand student options beyond a narrow focus on tertiary admission rankings and support national productivity. According to Professor Peter Dawkins, “the status of VET needs a big boost in Australia, as does the status of skills relative to knowledge in our education system”, to address our growing skills shortage (National Press Club Address October 6, 2023). 


Recognising capabilities beyond test scores, enhancing transitions through earlier career guidance from Year 8 onwards, and funding research on re-engaging those failed by mainstream schooling should be new priorities.


Increasing the number of VET courses available to students and removing the requirement for tertiary qualified VET teachers to attain Certificate IV in Training and Assessment at significant cost and without commensurate salary recognition, are obvious ways to reduce barriers to accessing these pathways for students.


Better metrics to assess and accredit student, school and system success are required; as Professor Sandra Milligan of the Melbourne Assessment project says, “young people must now be educated and assessed in new ways, so they are prepared for a very different future”.


The continued dominance of traditional 20th-century secondary schooling models undoubtedly fuels disengagement for many of our young people. A broader recognition system will assist our young people to engage and succeed in life and work into the future. Increased investment in careers education and VET will lead to more sustainable career paths and improved employment prospects.


We celebrate what we measure: accrediting new pathways will encourage and engage learners to develop the competencies they need to adapt and thrive. 


Sustaining leaders, enabling achievement

Policy reforms alone won’t lift outcomes for our learners. Wellbeing and engagement among Australia’s secondary school-age learners have been in long-term decline. This is especially true for the most disadvantaged students who attend predominantly public schools. 


Meanwhile, the long-running ACU Principal’s Health & Wellbeing Survey reveals alarming stress, exhaustion and burnout rates that continue unabated. Given that principals play the most critical enabling role in our schools, their health, wellbeing, and efficacy are essential prerequisites for happy, healthy, and successful schools.


Our public school leaders need to be retained and sustained. In the face of teacher shortages, increasing occupational violence, and entrenched inequity of resourcing to support the majority of disadvantaged Australian students, effective interventions are required. 


Practical strategies to enable more sustainable working conditions must be implemented. Nationally uniform legislation based on the Victorian Government’s Education and Training Reform Amendment Act 2021 protecting school communities from harmful behaviour, would be of practical use.


Increased resourcing and development for administrative, support and allied health staff, and improved business administration systems would help reduce intense workload pressures. Increased accountability and responsiveness to the needs of schools from education systems, and ongoing funding for monitoring principal welfare and evidence-based interventions will help sustain the profession.



Future directions

With the pragmatic engagement of policymakers and practitioners, the upcoming summit seeks to place equity at the centre of national education strategy by producing practical ‘next-best-step’ solutions for optimal resourcing, accreditation, and pathways through a healthy education system.


Reducing obstacles for principals and schools and targeting resources and programs where they are most needed will help all our students access a high-quality education.

A collective commitment to inclusion is vital so schools can give every student the tools to realise their potential. Supporting public school communities and our least disadvantaged ultimately uplifts society overall.


If the post-pandemic decade holds any hope of transforming secondary education to serve all young Australians, then policy leaders must prioritise listening and responding to the evidence and advice from school leaders and their communities. The graduates destined to steward our shared future into the coming century deserve no less than a system built around enabling their success.


But meaningful change begins with this commitment to engagement with schools. Perhaps from a solutions-focused dialogue focused on all of our students, not scores or ideology, a fairer path to educational opportunity may finally emerge.


By Andy Mison

President

Australian Secondary Principals’ Association














02 6232 0060


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