Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, very remote areas, and Indigenous Australians are up to two times more likely to start school developmentally vulnerable than the national average.
In 2018, 21.7% of Australian five year olds (70,308 children) were not developmentally ready when they started school. And in Year 7, nearly 25% of students (72,419) didn’t have the required numeracy and literacy skills.
The statement aims for a quality education system for all young people, that supports them to be creative and confident individuals, successful learners and active and informed members of the community.
But our report finds students’ location and family circumstances continue to play a strong role in determining outcomes from school entry to adulthood.
Disadvantaged children missing out as school progresses
The Alice Springs declaration sets two ambitious goals:
the Australian education system promotes excellence and equity. In part, this is about ensuring all young Australians have access to high-quality education, inclusive and free from any form of discrimination
all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community. This includes all children having a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual and physical well-being.
The declaration was signed last year, and builds on previous ones signed in Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne over three decades. It recognises the role education plays in preparing young people to contribute meaningfully to social, economic and cultural life.
Our report uses the best available data to paint a comprehensive picture of Australia’s performance against the above important goals.
It shows the gap in academic learning as well as other key areas, such as creativity and confidence, is clear from school entry and usually grows over time.
Analysis in our report tracked students’ learning from when they started school in 2009 to when they were in Year 5 in 2014. It showed that in literacy and numeracy for instance, the gap between the proportion of children from the most disadvantaged and advantaged families meeting relevant standards grew from 20.6 percentage points at school entry to 27.2 percentage points in Year 5.
The report also shows too many students in the senior years of school are not developing key skills. In 2018, 27.8% of 15 year olds (88,314) didn’t meet or exceed the international benchmark standards in maths, reading and science.
While some students receive the support they need to catch up to their peers, many don’t.
A lot of young people are also not developing the qualities needed to confidently adapt to challenges in adulthood and contribute to their communities.
The report shows that in 2017, 28.1% (110,410) of 23 year olds were not confident in themselves or the future and 29.9% were not adaptable to change and open to new ideas. It shows 38.1% (145,056) of 23 year olds were not actively engaged in their community and 33.2% were not keeping informed about current affairs.
Additionally, many young Australians are not being well prepared and supported to find and secure meaningful employment. Overall, according to the 2016 census, nearly 30% of 24 year olds (112,695) weren’t in full-time education, training or work.
Around half of all 24 year old Indigenous Australians, and one in three of the most disadvantaged Australians, were not engaged in any work or education, compared to 15% nationally.
This failure to address educational inequality reproduces and amplifies existing poverty across generations. It saps productivity, undermines social cohesion and costs governments and communities billions of dollars.
There are no quick ways to fix educational inequality, but there are several key improvements that will make a difference.
Closing gaps in participation and lifting the quality of early childhood education services — particularly in disadvantaged communities where services tend to be lower quality — should be one of our highest priorities. Early childhood education is critical to giving every child the best possible start. Evidence shows preschool raises children’s chances of being developmentally ready for school in key areas by around 12 percentage points.
Despite efforts through the Gonski reforms, there is still significant room to improve how Australia targets funding and support to schools with the highest level of need. We need to address the imbalance in resources between advantaged and disadvantaged Australian schools, which is the worst in the OECD.
Government projections show 90% of employment growth in the next four years will require education beyond school. This means we must prepare young people for an economy requiring higher levels of skill than ever. We need to rethink existing models of tertiary education to make it accessible to all students.
Addressing educational inequality is as much about what happens outside the classroom as inside. Nurturing every child’s development and well-being is best achieved through a partnership between schools, families, communities and other support services.
Australia cannot afford education systems that fail so many students. That’s not just in economic terms – because the cost of lost opportunity is even greater down the track – but also in human terms. We know the social and health costs of disengaging in education are significant.
During times of crisis, people find themselves faced with lifestyle changes. One of the earliest and most noticeable changes seen during the COVID-19 lockdown was how we consume media — and especially how we read.
People tend to find comfort in certain books, and reading habits and genre preferences can change during periods of stress. This helps to explain why much genre fiction has roots in times of significant social, political or economic upheaval. Gothic literature is, in part, a British Protestant response to the French Revolution (1789-99).
Science fiction, which emerged as a genre around the fin de siècle, was galvanised by both the industrial revolution and the theories of Charles Darwin. The hard-boiled detective story, which appeared in the 1930s, takes its cues from the privations of the great depression.
In view of these patterns of changing reading habits during times of upheaval and signs that such changes were happening during COVID-19, our team decided to research reading habits among the UK public. We were particularly interested in the following questions about the effects of the pandemic:
How much people have been reading;
What type and genre of texts people have been reading;
To what extent people have been returning to previously read books.
As many as 860 participants took part in our online survey, which was advertised through social media. Our findings show that the COVID-19 lockdown changed not only how people read during times of stress, but also what people turn to for comfort or distraction.
Respondents generally reported that they were reading more than usual. This was largely due to having more free time (due to being furloughed, or not having a commute, or the usual social obligations or leisure activities).
This increased reading volume was complicated for those with caring responsibilities. Many people with children reported that their reading time had increased generally because of their shared reading with children, but had less time than normal for personal reading.
Reading frequency was further complicated by a quality vs quantity snag. People spent more time reading and seeking escape, but an inability to concentrate meant they made less progress than usual. In short, people spent more time reading but the volume they read was less.
Despite the early figures showing spikes in interest for content about pandemics and isolation, it appears that people quickly tired of these topics. Many respondents sought out subject matter that was at least predictable, if not necessarily comforting. Many found solace in the “security” of more formulaic genres (whodunnits and other types of thrillers were often cited). Others found themselves significantly less picky about genre than they were before the lockdown: they read more, and more widely.
Many found the lockdown to be a great opportunity to explore things they didn’t normally have the time or desire to read (like hefty classics that seemed too dull or heavy to bring on a commute) or to fill other gaps in knowledge (the protests over police brutality and racism were cited frequently as the catalyst for many readers seeking out more texts by non-white authors).
Much as with the choice of genre, readers generally fell into two camps: those that read for exploration and those that re-read for safety. The re-readers found solace in previously read books: familiar plots and known emotional registers helped stressed-out readers avoid suspense and surprises.
Unsurprisingly, lockdown also made re-reading a physical necessity for some. Some respondents noted how they were unable to visit the library or browse at the bookshop for new books. Others reported that they simply wished to save money. On the other hand, the participants who reported re-reading less than normal during the lockdown period wanted to use their newfound time to seek out new topics and genres.
The two groups also drew on different metaphors to describe their experiences: some of the non-re-readers talked about time as a commodity (for example, valuing reading something new), while the re-readers discussed the ability to travel easily, and with little effort to familiar places, characters and experiences.
Our research shows that the lockdown really did affect the reading habits of those who took part in our survey. But what might be the longer term implications of the lockdown on how and why we read? And what might happen given the possibility of a second lockdown? It remains to be seen if and how the pandemic might be responsible for continuing changes in our relationship with books.