Opinion article

New evidence to break the cycle of educational disadvantage

There is a clear link between low-socioeconomic status and poor education and employment outcomes. But it doesn't need to be this way according to research from the Smith Family. Head of Research and Advocacy, Anne Hampshire explains.  

Australian children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk of poor educational outcomes from their first year of school. This risk increases as they move through school, with lower proportions of these young Australians completing Year 12 and moving into work or further study post-school, compared to their more advantaged peers.
This is deeply concerning, as poor educational outcomes affect young people’s life-long employment prospects, health, social connectedness and reliance on welfare. The lost opportunity experienced by individual young people has, in turn, a significant economic and social impact on the Australian community. The lifetime costs for each young person who does not complete Year 12 has been conservatively estimated at close to one million dollars.

A young Australian’s background should not define their educational and employment destiny. With targeted and timely support, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can complete Year 12 and move into work or study post-school. But what are the early flags or indicators that identify students at educational risk who would benefit from additional support? Can these indicators drive more efficient and, most importantly, effective allocation of educational resources, by directing support to students who need it?

New research, drawing on data collected over seven years from 30,000 disadvantaged Australian school students on The Smith Family’s Learning for Life educational scholarship program, provides evidence that can contribute to breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage.

In an Australian-first, the research shows that students’ school attendance and achievement in English or Maths provides an early indication of who is likely to leave school early and, in turn, not be in work or study post-school. For example, less than half (48 per cent) of students who had low attendance in Year 7 subsequently completed Year 12, compared to 75 per cent who had high attendance.

Further, eight in 10 (82 per cent) students who attended school at high rates in 2013 were engaged post-school in work and/or further study in 2017, compared to only 66 per cent of those who had low school attendance.
This research confirms what we would intuitively suspect – that the key educational outcomes of school attendance, achievement, school completion and post-school engagement in work or study influence each other.

One would expect – and indeed hope – that strong levels of school attendance would be associated with satisfactory or better achievement in English or Maths. Attendance and achievement, in turn, influence the likelihood of completing Year 12 and being in work or study post-school.

The power of this research lies in its practical implications and contribution to the Australian educational evidence base. Both achievement and attendance can be used to identify, and target for additional support, students at risk of not completing Year 12.

Rather than waiting to provide additional support once students have dropped out of school – which is a more costly and potentially less effective option – timely and targeted support as young people move through school can help them complete Year 12 and move into further study or work.

Importantly, this research demonstrates that improvements in school attendance and achievement as students move through high school are possible, and result in longer-term educational benefits. Students with very low attendance rates in Year 7, who improved their attendance by Year 9, were much more likely to go on and complete Year 12, compared to those whose attendance remained very low.

Key to improving the educational outcomes of young Australians is tracking students’ individual progress and using educational data and evidence to identify, as early as possible, which students need additional support to achieve. For students on the Learning for Life program, this targeting is possible because of The Smith Family’s use of a national Unique Student Identifier – something which should be implemented for all Australian students as a matter of urgency.   

This new research should contribute to a sense of optimism and confidence that it is possible to improve the educational performance of Australian school students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A student’s background does not and should not determine their educational destiny.

CEDA research: Read and download How unequal? Insights on inequality.‚Äč

About the authors

Anne Hampshire

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Anne Hampshire has over 20 years’ experience working across the community and government sectors, including at national, state, regional and local  levels. Anne has researched and written in a range of areas, including children, young people and families, unemployment, social capital and rural and regional communities. Anne has contributed to the development of a range of initiatives aimed at addressing disadvantage, including for young people, families and communities.


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