Three things we should do to close the education equity gap - Grattan Institute

The 2021 NAPLAN report published on Wednesday paints a worrying picture of school education in Australia. It is a stark reminder of how much work we need to do to close the shocking achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

NAPLAN – the National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy – provides an indication of student learning achievement and progress over time in the core areas of literacy and numeracy.

This year’s results show the long-standing achievement gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds has widened in some areas compared to 2019 – the last time the national assessments were held.

In Victoria, disadvantaged Year 9 students in 2021 had made six months less progress in reading between Years 7 and 9 than similarly disadvantaged students did in the two years before that. And advantaged students in 2021 had made two months less progress between Years 7 and 9, compared to their advantaged peers two years earlier. Rates of reading progress also declined across Australia.

What’s more, the overall achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Australia remains shockingly wide, despite decades of attempts to close it.

For example, the 2021 NAPLAN results show that the average Year 3 student in Victoria from a disadvantaged background is now one year and five months behind the average advantaged Year 3 student in numeracy, and almost two years behind in reading. By Year 9, the gap is enormous: the average Victorian Year 9 student from a disadvantaged background is three years and six months behind in numeracy and four years and five months behind in reading, compared to their advantaged peers. The gaps for Australia, as a whole, are even larger.

Closing learning gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students must remain the top priority for Australian educators. And we need to act quickly. To make headway, there are three things we should focus on.

First, governments and schools need to treat teachers’ instructional and preparation time as a precious resource. Effective teaching takes time, particularly when there is a lot of ground to cover.

There is a tendency in Australia to expect schools to tackle many of the complex challenges we face in society, from obesity to cyberbullying. Schools are also feeling pressure to address a broad range of social and emotional issues facing children, as well as academic learning. In our well-intentioned efforts to address all the problems young people face, we risk limiting the time teachers have to focus on academic performance, the core goal of school.

Second, governments must work harder to ensure all students, regardless of their background, receive excellent teaching in every classroom every day. We have many great teachers in Australia, but there is much more we could do to attract young high achievers to the profession and ensure we recognise and deploy teaching expertise across all schools.

Governments should introduce scholarships to attract more high achievers to take up teaching. They should also create two new roles for expert teachers. New school-based instructional specialists should be paid about $140,000 and new master teachers, who would work across multiple schools, should be paid around $180,000 a year. Together, these expert teachers would be responsible for ensuring that the whole teaching workforce is equipped with the knowledge and skills to close learning gaps.

Third, governments should investigate the long-term benefits of small-group tutoring to close the learning gaps. Compelling international evidence suggests small-group tutoring could make a sizeable dent in this problem. Working with groups of up to five students, well-trained tutors implementing effective teaching programs can boost learning by around four months over two school terms.

The good news is that the Victorian and NSW governments have already committed to large investments in extra tutoring for struggling students in 2021 and 2022, following the extended COVID-enforced lockdowns in each state. This will provide an important opportunity for governments to learn which tutoring programs are most effective.

But just because money is on the table for small-group tutoring, it doesn’t mean that improved student learning will automatically follow. Disadvantaged schools will need more support than others to design and deliver effective tutoring programs.

Finally, it is hard to overstate the extent of the disruption schools and students have suffered since the start of last year. But this challenge also sparked a tremendous wave of innovation, including in how some teachers used technology to deliver quality teaching, how students worked together, and how schools interacted with parents and the wider school community.

Among these innovations may be hard-won lessons that could help improve Australian schooling. Ensuring that all teachers and schools have a similar capacity to integrate technology into their learning programs will be important to prevent the existing equity gaps from widening even further.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

Owain Emslie

Senior Associate
Owain Emslie is a Senior Associate at Grattan Institute. He has worked in the Transport and Cities, Household Finances, School Education, and Budget and Governance programs. He has co-authored reports on transport infrastructure procurement, female workforce participation, retirement incomes, and measuring student progress.

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