Australian PISA results indicative of educational inequity

The latest reports from two major international assessments of student learning – PISA and TIMSS – show that educational disadvantage is a substantial problem in Australia.

Educational disadvantage is a reality faced by many Indigenous students, students who reside outside metropolitan areas, and/or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The problem is large and worrying. 

While educational disadvantage is a problem in almost all education systems across the globe, it is especially large in Australia. 

Findings from both assessments show that educational disadvantage is a bigger problem in Australia than in many comparable countries, such as Canada. And it has not improved over the past 15 years. 

A reduction in educational disadvantage will not happen on its own. Like any ambitious goal, it requires a comprehensive and innovative strategy.

Continuing the status quo will not reduce disadvantage, and over time may even increase it. 

What is educational disadvantage?

Educational disadvantage comprises inequalities of three dimensions: 

  • Opportunities: this is around the access students have to resources and facilities available to students, as well as to effective teachers. 

  • Experiences: this includes students’ relationships and interactions with teachers and fellow students, their sense of belonging in their school, and their experience of classroom discipline.

  • Outcomes: how the students turn out, in terms of character, as well as the skills and knowledge they gain. 

Differences in educational outcomes between individual students are normal and natural. After all, individuals have different abilities, motivations, interests and aspirations. 

Differences in educational outcomes become inequalities, however, when they are consistent between groups of students, or between particular types of schools. 

We should also be concerned about consistent inequalities in students’ educational experiences and opportunities. 

All students, regardless of where they live or attend school, should have equal opportunities to develop their talents and interests and enjoy supportive relationships with their teachers and peers. 

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Inequalities of opportunities

Results from PISA 2015 show some shocking inequalities in educational opportunities between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. 

  • Australia has the largest gap in the shortage of teachers between disadvantaged and advantaged schools among all OECD countries. The gap is also one of the largest of all 70 countries/cities participating in PISA 2015. Australia also has one of the largest gaps in the shortage of teachers between urban and rural schools.

  • Low socio-economic status (SES) schools in Australia have far fewer educational materials (books, facilities, laboratories) than high SES schools. This gap is the third largest in the OECD. 

Inequalities of experiences

  • One third of students in advantaged schools report (PISA report) high levels of noise and disorder in their classroom, compared to half of students in disadvantaged schools. 

  • Disadvantaged students are less likely to report supportive and engaging relationships with teachers compared to advantaged students.

Inequalities of outcomes

  • The achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is very large, equivalent to three years of schooling.

  • There are also large achievement gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. For example, 47% of Indigenous meet the minimum proficiency science standard in TIMSS compared to 77% of non-Indigenous students.


Where one goes to school matters in Australia. This is because Australia has one of the highest levels of school social segregation of all OECD countries. 

Socially segregated schools mainly enrol students from low or high socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Socially integrated schools, by contrast, enrol students from a range of social backgrounds. 

Compared to Canada, for example, advantaged students in Australia are much more likely to attend school with other advantaged students. And the same is true for disadvantaged students. 

School segregation is a problem because it is related to educational inequalities between schools. These inequalities then lead to further segregation, creating a vicious cycle of stunted learning and wasted opportunity. 

Improving teaching and learning in residualised schools is difficult and the results are rarely large or long-lived. 

School-based reforms can help, but systemic and structural change is much more effective. 

We need to change our system of schooling. In particular, we need to reduce differences between schools. 

Accomplishing this task is possible – Finland, which performs better than Australia on both assessments, did it more than 40 years ago. 

Closer to home, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and Ireland have changed how they fund government and non-government schools to reduce inequalities between schools. All four of these countries have lower levels of school segregation than Australia. This is not surprising: between school inequalities are both a cause and a consequence of school social segregation.

The key to reducing educational disadvantage in Australia is reducing school stratification and segregation. 

This will require concerted effort and a strategic plan that involves all school sectors and education authorities at all levels of government. To be successful, the plan needs to place students and communities first.

creative-commonsThis piece was written by Laura Perry, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Research, Murdoch University. The article was first published on The Conversation.

Laura Perry

Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Research, Murdoch University.

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