Australian students at richer schools have unfair advantage in science – report

Australian students who attend wealthy schools have an unfair advantage in science education, an OECD report has found.

The report, released in September, used the latest Program for International Student Assessment – or Pisa – results to examine the factors that impact on science education in 69 countries.

When it came to access to resources, exposure to science and instructional practices, only students in Australia and Singapore were consistently better off in richer schools.

It also found that about one-third of the variation in science performance across OECD countries is explained by the degree of equity in the allocation of resources, and that countries with more equitable systems performed better on average.

The report argued that countries with successful science results were the ones which “provide additional support to disadvantaged schools”.

“Allocating additional resources to socioeconomically disadvantaged schools is not only a way to compensate inequalities across schools; it can also help improve overall student performance in science,” the report stated.

The OECD’s latest findings echo those of previous studies. An analysis of Pisa results in 2016 found that students in the top socioeconomic group were about three years ahead in science, reading and maths compared with those in the lowest group.

Correna Haythorpe, the federal president of the Australian Education Union, said the results were a “wake-up call” for the federal government.

“Australia’s investment in education is lagging as a share of GDP,” she said. “What this paper shows is that equity in sharing resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools makes a significant difference to how schools perform.”

She said the government’s Gonski 2.0 funding package “further privileges wealthy private schools over public schools that educate the overwhelming majority of students with disadvantage”.

But the education minister, Simon Birmingham, said the new funding model would see funding for government schools grow by an average of 6.4% per student per year over the next four years compared with 4.2% growth for nongovernment schools.

“Our plan ensures that within six years all schools receiving less than their commonwealth share of the Schooling Resource Standard will be brought up to that level and all notionally overfunded schools will be brought down to the SRS within a decade unlike the 150 years it would have taken if we’d let Labor’s arrangements continue,” he said.

“It’s extraordinary that after years extolling the virtues of the 2011 Gonski review, the union are turning their back on that landmark report for political expediency.”

Birmingham accused the union of hypocrisy for criticising the equity of the government’s needs-based funding model when it had backed Labor in opposing cuts to overfunded private schools.

The report also found that while gender and socioeconomic status was important, “what happens in the school and in the classroom” also made a crucial difference in student outcomes. And many of the countries with more equitable science education fared worse than Australia in the Pisa rankings.

Birmingham said while funding mattered, “what’s more important is how that funding is used”.