The year 2009 marked one of the revolutionary moments in the history of Australian educational regime. It is during this particular year that it held a high-profile convention consisting of the territory, state and Commonwealth Ministers of Education. Convening under the auspices of Ministerial Council of Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA) in Melbourne, Victoria state capital, the respective education Ministers adopted a Declaration guaranteeing a set of educational goals for the young Australian population (Perso, 2012). In what has now become known as The Melbourne Declaration (MCEETYA, 2008), the declaration enumerated some educational Goals. The first Goal under the Melbourne Declaration obligates the Australian government to ensure that the Australian educational system is one that furthers equity and excellence. All the respective parties expressed their intention and goodwill to pursue a broad spectrum of measures to operationalize and promote the attainment of the goal. The efforts included but not limited to the following: First, every level of a government committed to providing access to high-quality schooling to every student that is non-discriminatory on any grounds such as gender, culture, geographic location or socio-economic background and ethnicity. Secondly, the governments at their respective jurisdictions committed themselves to basing the schooling system on values and principles that promote local cultural knowledge as well as tap into the experiences of indigenous students as the core learning foundation. Likewise, the various levels of government vowed to partner with the local communities on every aspect of the educational process such as bolstering the learning outcome expectations of the indigenous students. The third line of action was to institute mechanisms to upgrade and streamline the learning outcomes of the indigenous learners with those of the other non-indigenous students. Fourthly, the governments through their respective departments of education committed to ouster all forms of socio-economic disadvantages which has historically been a significant player in tilting the scales against the needy students with respect to learning outcomes. Moreover, modality adopted by the governments was to use the schooling process as an essential tool tailored towards cultivating and promoting a cohesive society where religious, social and cultural diversity is appreciated and respected.
It is against this background that the scope of the current paper is anchored. It is unequivocal from the Melbourne Declaration, and one can correctly infer that, in part, the objective of the Declaration was to mitigate the impacts of socio-cultural factors that perpetuate inequity in terms of access and attainment of quality education as well as student performance nationally. A quick glean at the first Goal of the Declaration reveals at least three of such factors. The latter include the socio-economic status of the students, gender, race and ethnicity (Tyler, 2011). The paper will, therefore, endeavor to canvass all the elements mentioned above independently. In so doing, the paper intends to examine the current situation critically, the nature of the policy intervention measures proposed by the Melbourne Declaration and other policy documents and the extent of implementing such interventions. Based on the research findings, the paper will enumerate elaborate recommendations to the State Minister of Educations going forward.
A 2015 study conducted by Centre for International Research on Education Systems (Lamb, Jackson, Walstab & Huo, 2015) demonstrates that educational inequality in Australia is persistently escalating. According to the study, one in every four young Australians is left behind as the gap between the poor and rich students stretches further. The latter is a reflection of the reality that the Australian education system is not working for a larger population of the Australian children. The same study further reveals that Australia has perhaps one of the most segregated learning systems. Notably, a majority of students are shifting or joining private schools, a situation that has led to most public schools steadily acquiring residual status. The preceding, according to the study report, is because of the families that have the advantage of cultural social, economic and cultural capital hence can send their children to very high-end private schools with state-of-the-art curriculum and extra-curriculum facilities that befit their so-called socioeconomic and cultural classes. Additionally, the report shows that eighty-five per centum (85%) of children from indigenous communities attend public schools representing a larger percentage of the population of poor students in public schools (Lamb, Jackson, Walstab & Huo, 2015).
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) through a 2015 report also revealed that the educational inequities in Australia are relatively high compared to the average of developed countries (OECD, 2016). The report published in 2016 further establishes that there is a solid connection between students’ performance or achievement and their respective socio-economic backgrounds. Strictly speaking, the report shows that students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds achieve relatively lower performances than their counterparts from well-to-do families. Furthermore, other studies also document that it is not just the social and economic factor that contributes to the inequities and disparity in student performances. Other factors that induce such outcomes include gender, race and ethnicity and so forth (Sheehan, 2012).
According to Educational opportunity in Australia 2015 report (Mitchell Institute, 2015), family background of a student was discovered to still play a major role in determining the path the student will take academically. It has a significant influence despite the government’s active efforts to enhance equity and opportunities for all the students regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. The study shows that socio-economic status of the student’s family background is at the summit of the list of factors that impact access to educational opportunity considered during the research. The survey infers that the present system is ineffective for most of the economically and socially disadvantaged students. The study further shows that the different outcomes are as a result of differences in terms of accessibility of educational services. Based on this finding, the study reports that most of the economically disadvantaged students are likely to spend few hours of their early childhood education, register relatively lower class attendance rates as well develop the propensity of dropping out of school and never joining universities.
But what exactly is socio-economic status? There is no single definition of what is meant by the phrase. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines socio-economic status (SES) in relation to the peoples’ access to social and material resources and their ability to take part in social activities (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). Bradley and Corwyn (2002) views SES as constituting an assessment of capital for instance, human capital, financial capital and social capital that relates to a person’s welfare. The American Psychological Association in their Psychology Dictionary (2007) defines socio-economic status as the position a person occupies on the social and economic scale. The socio-economic status of an individual or group of persons culminates into the formation of various social classes in the society. As such, individuals with higher socio-economic capital occupy a high position on the social class ladder while those with low socio-economic power will occupy lower positions along the very same ladder. Individuals, therefore, have different levels of access to essential social and economic resources depending on which position they hold on the social ladder. The latter realities transcend the Australian education sector as well.
Under this arrangement (as previously indicated), students or learners who come from high social class background tend to access better (private) schools with state-of-the-art educational facilities and overly-qualified instructors alongside other high-end privileges that accompany them belong in such schools. Inversely, research demonstrates that learners who come from the low socio-economic status backgrounds tend to performance dismally that those from high social status (Considine, 2001; Graetz, 1995). The studies also take into account the fact that other factors such as the innate ability as well play an imperative role in determining the educational outcomes of the students. Such studies indicate that learners from low socio-economic status families or backgrounds are more likely to exhibit lower levels of comprehension, literacy, and numeracy. Additionally, this group of students has relative lower retentive memory hence are more likely to drop out of school, experience problems with their studies such as the tendency to develop negative attitudes towards school. Moreover, school to employment transition rates is low among such category of learners as noted by Margot (2013).
Another socio-cultural factor influencing equity and educational performance in most Australian schools is gender. Studies reveal that educational performance tends to vary in relation to sex of the student (Horne, 2000). Specifically, studies show that girls enjoy an educational advantage in comparison to boys especially in literacy (Buckingham, 1999). Some factors account for this escalating gender gap within the Australian educational system. According to Buckingham, these include gender biases (where reading is viewed as not being a boy’s thing), the biological dissimilarities, socio-economic elements, the mode of teaching, the curricula design and assessment mode. Buckingham suggests that because of adoption of an approach where the teaching of grammar, for instance, is less structured a good number of male learners may potentially have been weakened. A rather more important socio-economic explanation to leverage in this gender gap debate is that fact that studies have shown girls to out-perform the boys regardless of the side of the socio-economic scale the argument tilts towards (Teese et al., 1995).
Yet another sinister argument would be: what of a boy or girl who studies in an environment where gender inequality affects both of them on a scale of balance concurrently or alternatively? What would become of the academic performance of the boy or girl who studies in an environment where gender inequality is prevalent? Sheehan (2012) argues that each may potentially develop the mental disposition that since they see and experience such disparities in their learning institutions that gender inequality is everywhere including in employment opportunities later in life. As a result, they may not be able to attach any premiums or incentives on the need to cultivate more effort in their academics. The latter will potentially have adverse consequences on their cumulative educational performance. That is not desirable of any learning system.
Race and Ethnicity
Race and ethnicity are also significant variables when it comes to educational inequities and performance in most learning institutions across the globe. In Australia, race still permeates some learning agencies and at different levels of education despite Australia being multi-ethnic and multi-racial. According to Margot (2013), the populace falls into two broad categories, the indigenous and the non-indigenous population. The racial and ethnic diversity notwithstanding, there still exists discrimination along the lines mentioned above. And sadly, the same has degenerated into our education system. Gulson (2006) describes racism as the categorization of another person or groups of persons by an individual or group of individual based on their physical appearances such as skin pigmentation, hair or eye coloration. Similarly, Ninetta (2009) defines ethnicity as the group of individuals with a commonly shared culture.
The Australian education system, like the American system, is one that is built on the principle of non-discrimination where everyone has a fair shot to fully exploit their potentials. However, because of the deeply entrenched racial disparities and ethnic norms that are highly segregative, discrimination in the education system is still a growing concern (Forrest & Dunn, 2006). Students feel alienated and sometimes result in them losing self-esteem and confidence in their academic abilities because of the ethnic and racial inequality and discrimination. The overall effect is likely diminished educational performance.
The question at this point goes to the nature of policy interventions the policy interventions proposed by the Melbourne Declaration and whether implementation of such interventions is adequateimplemented and if at all, any other executive response alternatives augment the existing ones.
On Gender, the New South Wales government has instituted the Boys’ and Girls’
Education Strategy in line with the first goal of the Melbourne Declaration. The policy intends to aid all the New South Wales government schools to initiate a strategic approach to addressing gender as an educational issue. The object of the strategy is to protect student participation, achievement or performance from effects that emanate from gender-based issues or limited gender roles expectations. The current strategy is anchored upon six primary objectives including to assist boys and girls achieve their full educational potentials without gender limitations and to create awareness among students, parents, and students to fully appreciate the impact of gender within the context of their learning environments including gender implications on their educational performance and achievements.
Nationally, there is the National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-97 which is national educational policy aimed at promoting education among the girls. The policy prioritizes among other things the examination of gender constructions, protection of girls at risk, stemming motivated harassments and so forth. Furthermore, although numerous studies have recommended a national framework to cater for the educational interests of the boy child adequately, there exists no such comprehensive national policy yet.
On Race and Ethnicity, the Australian government’s anti-racism education policy is meticulously pronounced in The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century of 1999. The most express anti-racism in the education system is captured by goal 3.1 which aspires for a socially just schooling system so as safeguard the learners from inculcating adverse impacts of discrimination on any ground including culture, geographical and socio-economic background.
Finally, on Socio-economic status, there is no robust regime of national policies to cater for the socio-economic disadvantages that are still a major obstacle towards educational access especially among the low-income families and communities. Despite the lack of an elaborate policy framework in existence, some interventions have been undertaken by the national government including directing more resources and funds to regions where there is greatest needed. However, an improved participation and corporation at all the levels of government is necessary due to the complexity of the educational inequalities and different performance outcomes that are traceable to different levels of engagements as well as participation.
The national government in collaboration with the other levels of governments has fronted a concerted effort to address itself to the myriad of challenges that are the result of the social and cultural implications on inequities and educational performance in the education system. That notwithstanding, some recommendations for policy reforms and considerations for administrative review by the State Minister for Education can still lie. They include the following.
First, the State Minister for Education should do more to enhance certainty and compliment the educational performance by focusing on the formulation of national policies that will further stem the current inequalities. It is worth noting that some of the current inequalities are the result of system-level policies such as policies regarding funding. A good example of the poor funding policies is where States fund the government schools with inadequate top-us from the Commonwealth (Harrington, 2013). Inversely, the Commonwealth funds private schools with to-ups from the States. As a policy reform, States funding of private schools should be scrapped off and the Commonwealth be allowed to fully cater for educational costs in private school. Moreover, the Commonwealth should increase of funding budget for government schools. The rationale lies in the fact that it is the government schools that enroll a bigger percentage of students from low income backgrounds.
Secondly, the Minister should direct his ministry to develop further policies, in conjunction with other stakeholders that would cause a reduction in the economic disparities in various Australian schools. Such policies should focus on reducing student residualization, enhancing access to quality teachers, furthering useful and practical school improvement practices. Some of the current policies further the disparity in the schooling process by creating different types of schools and allowing streaming of students on the basis of academic ability. As a policy reform intervention, the proposed policies should revert such kind of discriminatory policies. The reforms should ensure a reduction in the amount of school fees payable and outlaw selective admissions.
Finally, the Minister is advised to initiate and fast track the formulation of further policies especially those that cater for the seemingly growing lack of attention to the educational plight of the boy child. Nationally, there is the National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-97. The policy has enhanced the national campaign for education for the girl child to the extent that studies have shown (supra) that the boy child has gradually been ignored. A robust all-inclusive national policy framework should therefore be crafted to bring on board the educational concerns for both gender so that the boy child is not written off in the quest for girl child empowerment.
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