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Inequality and Education: Should our Schools Segregate?

A central tenet of clinical/therapeutic work at Bower Place is that ‘inequality, justice and fairness are at the heart of all human problems and symptoms and at the heart of all appropriate interventions and solutions.’ This applies at all levels of system, from the individual and family to the social and political institutions with whom they interact. Ignoring this most fundamental issue will see even the cleverest solutions fail.

Is this Relevant to Schools?

School choice is a major concern for parents and figures collected in May 2023 revealed that enrolment in Independent and Catholic schools had grown in the last decade fueled by the belief that children would receive a better education. However, research has shown that once socio-economic factors are accounted for, outcomes are similar, and it is the student’s family background that is the key variable. This has resulted in significant attention and funding being directed towards additional resources to support indigenous, rural, and remote and low socio-economic status children.

Michael Sciffer, PhD candidate of Murdoch University, has a different view. His research focused on segregation, whereby students enrol in different types of schools according to their social background resulting in an uneven spread with privileged students clustered in some schools and disadvantaged students in others. With the social background of peers also impacting outcomes, some children are doubly disadvantaged.

The Research

Sciffer and his colleagues explored the effect of segregation outcomes using NAPLAN results in years 5 and 9 for students attending State, Independent, and Catholic schools. They explored ‘the relationship between average school socioeconomic status and an individual student’s academic growth’ while also considering their parents’ education and occupation, Indigenous status, language, gender, school sector and the academic achievement of peers.

The results demonstrate that a school’s socio-economic status predicted a student’s prospect of achieving minimum standards in literacy and numeracy, meaning those who attended a disadvantaged school were unlikely to achieve minimum benchmarks. They discovered that primary school students in a disadvantaged school lost half a term of learning per year, increasing to one term per year by high school. The increase is explained as due to increased segregation in high school with more students going to Independent and Catholic schools. The author concludes ‘Australia’s schooling system exacerbates social inequality’ and excludes many students from academic success.

What are the Implications?

Sciffer notes that some of the world’s highest performing education systems are also the most equitable, and that substantial structural reform is required if disadvantaged children are to achieve their potential. A failure to understand and address this matter also leaves families at risk of being blamed for their children’s poorer performance relative to more advantaged peers. Ensuring inequality, justice and fairness are addressed at every level of system is central to better outcomes.


Sciffer, M. The type of school does matter when it comes to a child’s academic performance The Conversation, Published: June 15, 2023

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