Students going without the basics: ‘I was heartbroken when I missed school’



Bec* loves school and wants to go to university so she can become a social worker, and help children who grew up in similar situations to her own.

The Aboriginal teenager missed a lot of classes when she was younger – from grades five to seven. Her mum was in an abusive relationship, and money was so tight affording petrol just to get to and from school was difficult. Her Naplan test results nosedived in that period, her principal says.

“I was heartbroken when I missed school from years 5-7,” she wrote in her application to the Public Education Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that provides financial aid to students in public schools.

“Not only did I have to face what was happening at home, I was missing out on learning, new friends, and skills.”

By the time she was in year 10 though, Bec was living in a more stable situation with her brother and his partner, and her attendance was back at almost 100%.

“If I was granted $5,000 it would improve my learning and my knowledge,” she said.

“It would help me access internet at home, hire a tutor to help fill gaps in my learning, and cut my hours at work so I can focus on my studies.

“I would like to attend university and become an Aboriginal caseworker to help young children that were like me to know that there is a good ending to it all.”

Bec’s story is far from unique. Guardian Australia was provided with a range of anonymised applications for these scholarships; all were from ambitious students swimming against a current of financial hardship to try to get the best education possible, and to one day make a generational break with poverty. They needed the money not for expensive school fees, but for everyday basics – uniforms and well-fitting school shoes, laptops, internet access and excursion fees.

One student hoped to study nursing at university after spending so much time with her single mum in hospital, two years after her dad died. She said the scholarship could help her get there by covering the cost of tutoring, uniforms and stationery. Another Year 12 student wrote her application while living in refuge accommodation. She was already financially independent and working two casual jobs, and said the scholarship money would make a huge difference in alleviating her financial strain and allowing her to complete school and attend university without going into major debt.

A Torres Strait Islander boy wrote that his mother left home when he was little, then his father committed suicide after a car accident left him with chronic pain and depression. He and his two siblings moved in with their grandma.

“We live in a housing commission and my grandma has low income and struggles to pay for education, resources, excursions, and uniform. My grandma never went to Tafe or University however she has always encouraged me to do my best, my attendance at school is very good, I try my best at school but with all the things that have happened in my life, it’s very hard.”

David Hetherington, who oversees the disbursements as executive director of the foundation, says: “The promise of public education is that any student can attend a public school at no cost to themselves and can get a proper education.

“But we know that there are students who are going without these educational basics.”

Though the scholarships aim to address these immediate financial needs, their aim is something bigger – to disrupt, if only for a select few, the ongoing link that exists in Australia between poverty and poorer educational outcomes.

Despite decades of school funding wars, the landmark Gonski report and major increases in commonwealth funding to schools, children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds in Australia are still falling well behind their wealthier peers at school.

By Year 9, Australian teenagers from the most disadvantaged quartile are still, on average, around three years behind their peers from the most advantaged group in science, reading and maths.

More than a third of students from this most disadvantaged group still do not finish high school, and only a quarter go on to university.

Though the general public may have grown weary of discussions about inequality and education, experts stress there is still much unfinished business. Too many public schools in particular continue to be funded below government targets, while the problem of school segregation – particularly of disadvantaged kids being concentrated in disadvantaged schools, that are being abandoned by other families – is worsening.

It’s a much bigger problem than charities and not-for profits can fix alone.

“Educational investment can break the cycle of economic disadvantage – that’s the wonder of education,” says Hetherington. “But it’s got to be properly resourced and properly managed, and I think that’s still where we’re falling down in Australia.”


“Demography is not destiny” was a favourite mantra of former prime minister Julia Gillard, and one she said guided her government’s signature education reforms.

Addressing the inequity in Australia’s education system was a major focus of the landmark 2011 report by David Gonski and a committee of experts, which set the framework for reform for the decade that has followed.

At its core was a new “needs-based and sector-blind” funding model, to distribute higher levels of public funding to those schools educating students with the highest levels of disadvantage. The report established these schools were overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, public schools: almost 80% of students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds attended a public school, along with 85% of Indigenous students and 83% of students from remote areas.

But eight years on, many schools, particularly public schools, are not meeting the government’s own funding benchmarks set in the wake of theGonski reforms.

Attempts to ensure “no school would lose a dollar”, a web of special deals in the years and shortfalls in funding, particularly from some state governments, have left the full vision unmet.

“Funding is not everything, I agree,” says Trevor Cobbold, the convener of the public school advocacy group Save Our Schools.

“But it’s pretty fundamental to being able to employ extra teachers, extra support staff, and so on … we have to direct much larger funding increases into disadvantaged public schools than we have been.

The Gonski model was built around a tool called the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), the amount of money a school needs to properly educate each child, made up of a base amount of funding plus additional loadings for key areas of disadvantage.

In 2017, government schools were only reaching, on average, 90% of the SRS, while non-government schools were reaching 95%, according to the Grattan Institute.

Julie Sonnemann, a school education fellow at the Institute, points to the funding split between the commonwealth, which is the primary source of funding for non-government schools, and the states and territories, which are the main source of funding to government schools.

“There has been a lot of progress made in channelling more funding to disadvantaged schools, however still a long way to go,” she says.

“Because some state governments have been less effective in meeting the new school target set out under Gonski, government schools have got the short end of the stick.”

Under current Coalition policy, the amount the commonwealth will contribute to government systems will be at least 20% of SRS by 2023, and education minister Dan Tehan has touted the fact education spending has grown every year the Coalition government has been in power.

“We are providing a record $21.4bn for schools which is an extra 66% since we came to government and we can afford to pay for it without increasing taxes,” he told Guardian Australia.

Labor is pledging an additional $14bn for public schools over a decade, effectively lifting the commonwealth contribution to at least 22% of the SRS in the first term, as well as cracking down on some deals that allow states to deduct costs such as transport from their spending on public schools.

Those policies would, according to the Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss, “put government schools on track to reach 97.2% of SRS.”

“Not quite full funding, but within touching distance.”


While the wide gap in achievement between kids from the lowest SES group and their more advantaged peers may seem like an intractable problem, many experts don’t agree – for a simple reason. The size of gap varies significantly between different countries.

In Canada, a similar country to Australia in many ways, this gap between students is markedly less, at 2.4 years (compared to 3.1 in Australia) and Canadian students from the most disadvantaged quartile routinely outperform disadvantaged Australian students in international PISA tests.

Canada spends a higher proportion of GDP per capita on school education than Australia, but researchers point to another factor too.

“The thing that I keep coming back to is that schools are more socially mixed in Canada than they are in Australia,” says Laura Perry, an associate professor at Murdoch University .

“Canada has one of the highest proportions of kids in the OECD that go to a socially mixed or diverse school … Australia is the opposite.

“School choice”, the idea that parents should pick the “best” school for their child and not necessarily attend the local comprehensive high school, has long been a governing philosophy in Australia, and one encouraged by the generous public funding of non-government schools and supercharged by publicly available comparison data on the MySchool website.

One result is that disadvantage is increasingly concentrated in particular schools, and the social mix of students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds is often missing.

More than half of students (51.2%) classified as coming from a disadvantaged background in Australia attended disadvantaged school in 2015, according to a recent OECD analysis, while less than 5% attend a socio-economically advantaged school (the remainder attend schools classified as socio-economically average).

Those figures are more polarised than they were a decade earlier, when the proportion of disadvantaged students at disadvantaged schools was 46%.

The trend comes despite a growing proportion of parents choosing public over private schools, in a recent reversal of a decades-old trend.

Research conducted by Chris Bonnor, a former Sydney principal and fellow at the Centre for Policy Development, shows that more advantaged families are seeking out more advantaged public schools – such as selective schools, or ones that have a higher socio-economic profile. As a result, some public schools serving poorer populations are getting left behind.

When Bonnor taught in Mount Druitt in the 1970s, a working class suburb on Sydney’s western fringe, he says there was more socio-economic diversity in the local public high schools than today.

“Even in those very difficult schools – Mount Druitt High, Shalvey High, there was always a small but significant group of high achieving kids,” he says.

“But what MySchool data clearly shows is that sort of critical mass of aspirant kids are less likely to be found in those schools now.”

This trend matters because the concentration disadvantage is compounding the difficulties students face, and is believed to be leading to poorer educational outcomes.

The same OECD analysis found that, on average, students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending more advantaged schools scored markedly better results in standardised tests.

“If you have a school with a significant disadvantaged enrolment there are negative impacts that build on each other,” Bonnor says.

“It’s partly about teacher expectations of kids, partly about resources that the school has, it’s certainly about the intellectual capital that kids bring to school everyday … There’s a whole pile of things that interact with each other to further reduce opportunities for students in low SES schools. And that’s often despite the best intentions of teachers and reformers.”

Concentrating disadvantage in these smaller, public schools also compounds the need for more funding, Perry says.

“When you concentrate students with high needs – and poverty is a high-needs, high stress situation – it makes teaching and learning a lot more difficult, and it also makes it a lot more expensive,” she says.

“Low SES schools are small. Even though their per student allocation is quite generous compared to other schools, you don’t have the economies of scale you have at other schools.”

But while debates about funding have featured prominently in education policy-making for some time, tackling the issue of segregation and residualisation has proved far more taboo in Australia.

Policy solutions could take the form of mandating non-government schools take more students from low SES backgrounds in return for their public funding, removing fees at some non-government schools, as well as changes to entrance policies to make sure selective public schools and more advantaged government schools take a wider range of enrolments.

“There are some parts of the US that have tried to tackle this issue with admissions policies, to ensure there is a diversity of kids in every school, and perhaps Australia should consider policy settings like that,” says Sonneman.

But most experts know this is likely to face deep opposition.

“There is a really strong sense of entitlement among the Australian community that they have the right to choose the best school for their child, and as long as that cultural norm exists, it’s pretty difficult for governments to do much.”



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Josephine Tovey

Is associate news editor at Guardian Australia.