Quality and Equity in School Education

Opening Address

“Quality and Equity in School Education”



The Research Conference
of the Australian Council for Educational Research


Conference theme:
Quality and equity: What does research tell us?


Adelaide Convention Centre, SA

9 am Monday 4 August 2014


It’s a pleasure to join you to formally open this conference – the theme of quality and equity in education is important as these are too often seen to be in contradiction to each other. They are not though too often they are seen as such.


Before doing so let me acknowledge the work by ACER both now and in the past and its contribution to education policy and practice in Australia and internationally.


ACER is Australia’s National Program Manager for a number of international assessments of student performance, and the reporting from these international assessments is an essential tool to improve education quality.


ACER is currently involved in a number of priority projects with my Department in relation to teacher education and developing

a literacy and numeracy test for education students which is expected to be implemented in 2015.


Quality and Equity


Quality and equity is an important issue in current education policy.


Certainly, I believe quality should be the prime goal of education policy, and as I will outline, this should reinforce, not undermine equity. We know the many public and private benefits for improving education quality for a nation and for individuals.


It promotes a more productive workforce and hence a more competitive and successful economy.


And for individuals a good education leads to better jobs, income, health and greater self-sufficiency.


For a nation, a quality education contributes to lower levels of crime, higher levels of institutional trust, more participation in democratic processes with better informed debate in public policy.


Key issues


The problem is that the debate about ‘quality’ has been more concerned by what has been called the surrogates for quality, like, spending levels, class sizes and teacher-student ratios.


Education policy has also been dominated, as in many other countries, with attempts to address the correlation between low socioeconomic background and poor student performance.

While this link is well documented there are several issues this conference might like to consider.


First, how much is poor student performance due to low socio-economic status in comparison to many other factors like family support, health, the labour market, welfare arrangements, housing and other factors that affect student outcomes?


Second, has what some people regard as a preoccupation with this issue achieved any real improvements and has it stopped us from focussing on the other equally important issues like teacher quality, parental engagement, the robustness of the curriculum and school autonomy?

Third, what exactly is meant by equity in relation to education policy – fairness, access or equality of outcomes? Has this been properly debated? Do present definitions need to change?


Where has the debate been?


While there must be an adequate level of funding to support any quality education system I believe that quantity rather than quality and performance has over-dominated much of the education discussion.


Contrary to some of the public debate, Australia is not a low spending country when it comes to schools.


In fact, we perform very well internationally in the spending stakes across a range of indicators – share of GDP, per student spending and needs based funding. Reports by the OECD, Productivity Commission and independent researchers confirm this.


Between 1987-88 and 2011-12 total Australian government (all levels) spending on schools doubled in real terms (a 100 per cent increase) while student numbers rose considerably less by only 18 per cent – in other words we spent more per student. A lot more!


And to clarify, the Abbott Government over the next four years is providing $64.5 billion in recurrent funding to ALL schools/sectors.


Total Commonwealth spending to all schools over the forward estimates will grow by 37 per cent with the government sector increase being 53 per cent and the non-government sector 29 per cent.


Spending will continue to grow after 2018 on a CPI and enrolment basis. Grow not contract. In other words, there are no cuts. Commentary that suggest there are cuts is misleading people and probably maliciously, upsetting parents and school communities.


The 2012 PISA survey as reported by ACER highlighted that “schools across Australia’s jurisdictions in general had access to a high quality of resources compared to the OECD average” (p264).


Australia has also invested heavily in more teachers, improved teacher-student ratios and smaller classroom sizes – another indicator often used to highlight quality.


We should also note that the 2012 PISA report found Australia is a relatively high-equity education country and that socio-economic background factors are less important in determining student performance in Australia compared to the OECD average, than what goes on in the classroom and in different schools.




Despite this spending and focus on equity, education quality and the performance of lower socio-economic groups has not improved in Australia as much as we would like.


PISA tests suggest that while Australian students generally receive a very high standard of education outcomes for Australian students they are declining relative to other countries.


Moreover, our top students’ performances are declining and the lower socio-economic group has made limited improvement over a long period of time despite the funding and programmes.


Obviously, there is a need to reassess where we are going with school education policy. Since September 2013, that is exactly what I have been doing.


Equity and quality


I propose, that rather than thinking of quality and equity as independent and perhaps contradictory, we should be discussing instead how a focus on quality actually boosts results for equity.


Instead, we need to explore the goal we all share of delivering the best possible education outcomes for students, through a focus on improving quality.


Research on equity in education highlights the need for policies addressing underachievement to focus on quality rather than socio-economic status or disadvantage itself and to be based on knowledge of what works for particular groups of students.


The United Kingdom Government’s 2010 White Paper on Schooling(The Importance of Teaching, The Schools White Paper) asserts:

The very best performing education systems show us that there need be no contradiction between a rigorous focus on high standards and a determination to narrow attainment gaps between pupils from different parts of society; between a rigorous and stretching curriculum and high participation in education; or between autonomous teachers and schools and high levels of accountability. Indeed, these jurisdictions show us that we must pay attention to all of these things at once if our school system is to become one of the world’s fastest improving. (2010:8)


Professor John Hattie’s research shows that the factors most strongly associated with student achievement happen or are caused outside the school – students own innate abilities, the home environment and expectations. He underlines the need for education policy to focus on those in-school factors that can make a difference to achievement – that is, for the most part, the quality of teaching combined with the nature of schools themselves, school leadership, peers, and school system related factors.


I’m glad to have had the opportunity to appoint Professor Hattie as Chairman of AITSL.


Other researchers across the OECD and USA have also stressed that accountability, autonomy of schools and choice of schools contribute to equity, higher achievement and higher outcomes.


Beyond the needs-based funding already in place, it’s my belief that we can help school students who are vulnerable or experiencing disadvantage the most by building a quality education system.


What we are doing to tackle quality and equity


Significantly, the OECD (2010) suggests that only 6 per cent of the differences in average student performance across OECD countries are explainable by GDP per capita influences. The remaining 94 per cent “reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference.”


International evidence shows that clear accountability for school results helps create a learning environment that encourages innovation and excellence from school leaders, teachers and students.


Greater access to information has been shown to inform better decision making at both the policy making and school levels, enabling teachers, parents and students to make better informed choices for their child and within their schools.


So with the states and territories we are developing and investing in improved performance information so we can track progress, inform policy development, evaluate interventions and hold education systems to account.


This is obviously a priority that the Government shares with ACER and many people here.


We also need accountability and transparency, so that stakeholders, parents and taxpayers have confidence in our education spending.


Students First


With this background, we have identified four significant areas of school education where there is the potential to implement evidence-based practical initiatives to improve student outcomes.


These are the four pillars of our Students First framework, being quality teaching, school autonomy, engaging parents in education and strengthening the curriculum.



Teacher quality


At the heart of our Students First approach is lifting the quality, professionalism and status of the teaching profession.


We are focusing on this, not because we think teachers are doing a poor job, but because research strongly suggests that the most significant in-school factor influencing students’ achievement is the quality of teaching.


The Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group will provide advice on how teacher education programmes could be improved to better prepare new teachers with the practical skills needed for modern classrooms.


I am anticipating they will report back later this year.


AITSL under its new chair, Professor Hattie, is also being refocused to develop improved accreditation arrangements for teacher courses and to improve school leadership.


School autonomy


The second pillar of our Students First framework is encouraging school autonomy.


Giving school principals freedom to make local decisions is vital in establishing the foundations of effective school leadership and ensuring schools can respond to their particular school populations.


Increasing school autonomy is occurring internationally and across most Australian jurisdictions.


So the Government is supporting measures that enhance the professional development for school leaders, and also rolling out our Independent Public Schools initiative to support schools across Australia as they move towards greater autonomy and local-decision-making.


Many school leaders are expanding beyond educational roles into new areas of responsibility, and schools across Australia have been moving towards more autonomous and independent models to improve education outcomes.


Engaging parents in education


There’s a wealth of research showing that the earlier parents show an interest in a child’s education, the more positive the effect on student performance, school attendance and student wellbeing.

When parents are engaged in their children’s education, their children are more likely to attend school and to perform better.


And when parents set high expectations, talk regularly about school and the value of learning, and encourage positive attitudes and respect for school and teachers, their children perform better.


I’m pleased to say the message is getting through and there is increasing interest in this topic from parents, schools and education authorities.


A robust curriculum


The fourth pillar in our approach to school education is strengthening the curriculum.


As will be clear from my earlier remarks, we need a curriculum that delivers what students need for their future, what parents want and what the nation requires in our increasingly competitive and globalised world.


We are waiting for the report from the Review I established earlier this year to identify improvements and ongoing developments in this area.


In addition to these measures this Government is committed to the bipartisan policy long established in Australia of supporting choice in education by providing resources to the non-government sector.


OECD reports and other research strongly suggest that choice, when coupled with support to allow greater access to different schools, underpinned by reasonable measures of accountability, enhances both education quality and equity.


These are issues that are too often overlooked in discussions about quality and equity in education.




My central message to you today is that if we are to give people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged more choices and opportunities in life we need urgently to reframe this quality/equity discussion.


The way forward is clear.


We need to focus on quality and the evidence that makes a difference in the classroom, so we can offer more people, more choices, and more opportunities.


This is in some ways a new direction for education policy and in other ways very familiar.


I wish you well as you discuss these issues during this conference, to hear its outcomes and I am delighted to formally declare the conference open.



Written and authorised by Hon Christopher Pyne MP, 429 Magill Road, St Morris SA 5068

Back to top