Two-year study identifies best practice and policy needed to remove education inequities in post-pandemic Australia

A new report published today by the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) examines key drivers of inequity within Australia’s educational system and the impacts on students, and provides recommendations on what needs to be done both inside and outside the school gates to deliver a more equitable education system post-pandemic.

The research follows the 2017 global research by UNICEF where Australia ranks in the bottom third of the high and middle-income countries in achieving quality education, with significant structural barriers remaining for marginalised groups to reach fair and inclusive potential. According to the Productivity Commission’s 2021 Report on Government Services, combined commonwealth and state government funding for private schools has increased sixfold compared to public schools over the past decade.

The two-year research project by CSI is an innovative roadmap to creating change within Australia’s education system, and includes achievable actions government, education leaders, institutions, and community services can take to improve equity throughout the entire schooling and vocational training journey for young people.

Lead researcher, Dr Meera Varadharajan from CSI UNSW, said the report demonstrates how strongly education inequities are influenced by the wider cultural and societal context of each student, and how innovative initiatives and partnerships that bring the classroom closer to the community will shape the future of education for the better.

“From our research it’s clear a new framework is needed to evaluate and document students’ skills and competencies acquired outside the classroom to keep up with a changing post-pandemic world and competitive job market. There is a greater urgency in addressing these inequities than ever before and we need to shift our thinking on what counts as ‘success’ in learning,” Dr Varadharajan said.

“Changes to the delivery of learning that help compensate for structural and cultural inequities are necessary to even the playing field and allow all students to thrive. We’ve seen this play out through the pandemic, and our evidence-based study has been able to identify the initiatives, or levers of change, that demonstrate evidence of reducing education inequity.

“These include employing holistic approaches to school readiness; embedding First Nations perspectives, language and culture into curriculums; establishing a sense of shared ownership from the wider community into student programs; engaging students in social learning programs for building resilience in a changing world; and providing alternate learning models or flexible options for First Nations, rural, low socio-economic and new Australian students, and students with disability.”

Importantly, the research highlighted many successful programs that are improving education equity already exist, but there are barriers to scalability including lack of long-term evidence, available resources, or siloed operation.

“The programs that are reducing inequities are partnership based and focused on shared community ownership or engagement; engaging students across their whole self-identity; and providing a holistic approach that aims to deliver on both academic and extra-curricular outcomes.

“There needs to be a focus on promoting and amplifying successful programs, especially for First Nations students. In many cases the solutions are already there, but they need to be scaled up or implemented on an ongoing basis instead of a series of pilots. Education inequity is everyone’s business and we must work together to address it.”

CSI founder and leading education academic Professor Peter Shergold AC notes the report findings build on existing literature, such as the 2011 Gonski Report, and Looking to the Future Report which was released in 2020. It adds new post-pandemic learnings and updated recommendations that cover all levels of influence within the education community.

“This important research shows the need for long-term planning and innovative thinking, if we are to provide young Australians with flexible educational pathways to employment satisfaction and active citizenship. It provides the evidence to inform and inspire reform,” Professor Shergold said.

There are 22 recommendations in the report, actionable by different stakeholders at all levels of a student’s education journey, including:

  • Explicitly acknowledge the limitations of Western definitions of ‘school readiness’ in transition programs
  • Invest in flexible education model options that embed non-ATAR based pathways of learning to capture general capability skills and competencies acquired in outside education settings
  • Improve evidence base to counteract the significant longitudinal gaps of high-quality evidence in literature and inconsistent approach to program evaluation and by incorporating voices of students and families in an inclusive manner into regular assessment and evaluation practices
  • Develop and implement system level initiatives: school-based, school-linked, community-based or a combination of these, that work in strong partnership with external agencies to improve the range of extended services to students, schools, families and local community
  • Support, reinforce and incentivise partnerships between schools, universities and communities for creating linkages and diverse pathways to education and employment in local and outer regions