It's not the school that breeds successful students. It's the parents.
DOWN by the bay, year 9 student Nadia is studying medical science with plans to become a doctor. ''I'm not really scared of blood,'' she says with a smile. Across the city at Thomastown Secondary College, 16-year-old Michael is interested in playing guitar and a prospective career as a music teacher.
Each teen enjoys school and has dreams of what they want to be. But the uncomfortable truth is that it's where they come from, and their parents' income, that often plays a big role in determining their future. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said last week that by year 9, an average child from a ''battling family is three years behind classmates from the most well-off quarter of Australian homes''. It's the equity gap, the key battleground in the debate over education funding.
It is impossible to generalise when it comes to individuals but Nadia Oosthuizen, 15, knows she is lucky to be attending Mentone Girls' Grammar, where year 9 fees are more than $23,000. ''People in a lower socio-economic class, if they had the money I am sure they would want to put their children in the best school possible, but it's not always possible, which is not always fair.''
It isn't the school so much as a student's socio-economic status that makes a demonstrable difference in educational outcomes. The most cost-efficient way to close the gap is targeted investment in disadvantaged students, according to the Gonski review into school funding.
But it will take more than money, said Monash University education expert David Zyngier. ''Children come to our classrooms with what has been called the 'invisible backpack' and some come with their backpack full of privilege and others come with a backpack of disadvantage,'' he said.
Those backpacks weigh more heavily on Australian children than their peers in Canada, Finland, Shanghai and Korea. Students' backgrounds account for 55 per cent of performance differences between schools in the OECD's developed industrial economies - in Australia it's 68 per cent.
Studies show that when a child starts school, 50 per cent of their future academic achievement is already determined by their family background, socio-economic status and intellectual ability. ''Children from a low socio-economic background have a working vocabulary of two to three thousand words at the age of six, whereas a child from a middle-class family where both parents have university degrees will have a working vocabulary of between 10 and 20 thousand words,'' Dr Zyngier said.
''Teachers are unable to bridge that gap no matter how hard they work if they don't have support, such as more support staff, smaller class sizes and more professional development time.''
The disparity is compounded by the siphoning of wealthier children into the independent system and high achievers into state selective schools. Government schools cater for 80 per cent of children from low socio-economic backgrounds, 85 per cent of indigenous children and 79 per cent of children with disabilities, Gonski says.
Thomastown Secondary College hosts children from 50 countries, who speak 30 different languages. ''If you've got a child coming out of Somalia who hasn't been in school for five years, or if you've got a child with a learning disability or who hasn't spoken English until grade 4, of course they are going to be behind, and most of our kids fit into those categories,'' said principal Leonie White.
Year 10 student Michael Mitrevski is doing fine by comparison. His family isn't poor, but isn't wealthy either. He admits to slipping behind at times but is determined to finish school to study music at university. His older brother dropped out in year 12 to work for their dad's airconditioning business. Neither parent went to university. His mother, Vanessa, recently quit work at a deli. ''It's important to have an education, not like years ago when children could leave in year 11,'' she said.
Nadia, who is on a partial scholarship at Mentone, won academic honours in years 7 and 8. An only child, she lives in a five-bedroom home in Patterson Lakes with her father, an IT software manager, and mother, a school integration aid counsellor.
To close the equity gap, some government funding should be shifted gradually from the private to the public sector, said Richard Teese, director of the Centre for Research on Education Systems at the University of Melbourne. ''If Shanghai were faced with the achievement gap we have in Australia heads would roll,'' he said. ''Of course, some parents are working hard to pay private school fees but they're also getting a huge benefit and that is just miles out of perspective from poorer families. There has got to be a re-balance.''
Mentone Girls' Grammar principal Fran Reddan rejected this: ''You don't want to rob Peter to pay Paul … There is need in every sector.''
Finland and Shanghai have achieved success in part by working one-on-one with disadvantaged students and Shanghai's performance is also boosted by private tutoring. Finland also invests comparatively more in primary schools to address disparity early, said Stephen Lamb, of the University of Melbourne.
With Rachel Browne
The story The invisible backpack, and why it makes the education gap hard to close first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.