Our outrage is missing when it comes to poor kids in the classroom

As a prelude to the release of VCE results in December, this paper tracked down top students from previous years to see where they landed.

Patrick Walker got an ATAR of 99.95 in 2011 and is training to be a paediatrician. Credit:Penny Stephens

One of them, Patrick Walker, a 2011 graduate from McKinnon Secondary College, shared some observations that stayed with me. Walker’s perfect ATAR – the competitive ranking system for university admissions – got him into medicine at Monash University. Once there, he was struck by the realisation he was one of the few medical students who attended a public school.

McKinnon College always pushed him “to do better”, Walker told The Age’s Adam Carey, “and I think you get that at private schools.” But other public schools lack the resources to offer such intensive support, Walker surmised.

Why did his remarks linger?

After all, it’s commonly assumed that graduates from elite schools dominate elite professions such as medicine or law.

It’s commonly assumed that graduates from elite schools dominate elite professions such as medicine or law.Credit:Robert Pearce

And that’s precisely the point: Walker’s reflection appears mundane when it ought to be shocking. Despite our seemingly endless capacity for outrage we seem almost resigned to the notion that poorer kids with big ambitions have the odds stacked against them in the classroom.

The government data on university admissions doesn’t give an accurate picture on which students from which schools get into medicine, or other courses. We do know that last year 365 university applicants from a low socioeconomic background – a measurement based solely on where people live – received offers in medical studies, compared with 1864 from medium to high socioeconomic backgrounds. The pattern is much the same for university offers overall; about 20 per cent went to Year 12 graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

By the way, universities aren’t the problem here: the sector is working hard to make higher education more accessible to disadvantaged groups.

Children from wealthier families aren’t inherently smarter than poorer children.

Children from wealthier families aren’t inherently smarter than poorer children – we can agree on that, right? I suspect many people assume richer kids get better results because they can afford “better” schools.

But the evidence shows that’s not so.

Wealthy kids enjoy an educational headstart – in homes with plenty of books on the shelves, healthy food in the fridge and their parents’ framed university degrees on the walls – and cluster in schools that shepherd them over the finish line and onto the podium.

With poorer kids the reverse is true: they start from further behind, clustering in schools that struggle to keep them in the race full-stop.

I could go on, as I have on countless occasions, about Australia’s segregated education system, one of the most inequitable among OECD nations, and how governments exacerbate the inequity by delivering millions of taxpayer dollars to already rich private schools.

But this time an even more uncomfortable subject demands my attention.

Let’s assume Walker is right and educators in the schools that are up against it don’t push their students to do better. Is limited resources the only reason? Or do such schools succumb to a kind of fatalism and keep expectations low?

The questions are especially compelling in light of a recent education scandal in Britain. Due to the pandemic, students’ A-Level exams were cancelled. A-Levels determine university placements, much like our ATAR. In the absence of testing the government substituted a complicated grading system. First, teachers estimated how their students would have performed had they taken the tests. Those grades were then adjusted externally according to a computer algorithm that gave much weight to the historic performance of individual schools. Predictably, kids from wealthy private schools came out with higher scores, while those from poorer schools saw their marks dragged down. Well, who said Britain was a meritocracy.

In a skewed educational playing field there’s good reason to be sceptical of league tables and ranking.Credit:Joe Armao

The New York Times reported the case of one student, a first-generation Briton of Afro-Hispanic descent, who had been homeless and worked three jobs while finishing her schooling. She had secured a tentative place in law programs at two universities based on her results in practice exams.

“Your personal circumstances, your efforts overcoming adversity, it doesn’t matter,” she said after receiving her depressed grades. “Because a person like you, a person from your background, from your socio-economic class, you aren’t expected to do well. That’s the same brush they paint you with.”

Faced with a furious public backlash, the Department of Education walked back from the allotted grades and made the mess even bigger. But the scandal showed how subconscious classism can infect an education system.

In a skewed educational playing field there’s good reason to be sceptical of league tables and ranking.

Dandenong High School dux Abdul Basit with his parents, Jamila and Sajjad Ahmad. Credit:Luis Ascui

The thing is, sometimes ranking can be illuminating, revealing extraordinary aspiration and grit. Such as Dandenong High School’s 2020 dux, Abdul Basit Ahmad, ranked in the top 3 per cent of the state despite arriving in Australia as a refugee only two-and-a-half years ago.

Such as Frankston High School. Last year, 20 per cent of Frankston’s Year 12 students finished in the top 10 per cent of the state. It boasted as many high study scores in English as several notable private schools.

And yet only a quarter of families at Frankston High are classified as highly advantaged. At other high-performing state schools, including McKinnon, more than half the cohort belong to the top socio-educational grouping. Is Frankston’s success evidence of complacency and underperformance in other schools, both richer and poorer?

We need to know because apart from being unfair, a system that entrenches low academic achievement slows economic growth.

And maybe we’d enjoy more success in the fight against obesity, addiction and other diseases of poverty if more doctors hailed from the other side of the tracks.

Julie Szego is a regular columnist.

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