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  • The great divide: ATAR results offer a snapshot of inequality in Australian education

The great divide: ATAR results offer a snapshot of inequality in Australian education



On the day Victorian Certificate of Education study scores and ATARs were released, The Age newspaper breathlessly announced they would continually update the top student results. ‘As the day goes on, we will be adding to this list of the schools that the students who achieved ATARs of 99.95 attended. So far, the tally is: 2 - Fintona Girls’ School, 2 Haileybury, 1 – MLC (Methodist Ladies College).’

Later in the day, 12 high-fee paying independent and private schools were listed and one government school, Melbourne High School, a selective-entry school. The Age also kept a tally of school results, ‘based on the percentage of year 12 students who achieved an ATAR of 90 or above’. There is a long list again of high fee-paying private schools.

Other news outlets also revealed these results, including the obligatory story and accompanying pictures of high-performing students receiving scholarships from the University of Melbourne. The university’s media release shows that of the 41 students who gave permission for their names and schools to be mentioned, four went to Melbourne High School, four to non-selective government high schools and 33 attended private schools.

At the time of writing, students in other states were still waiting for the release of their ranking. However, a search of articles from previous years shows that high-fee paying private schools and selective-entry government schools dominate in the media reporting of high ATARs. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald reflects this. The story examined what top year 12 students were doing now after completing their studies 40 years, 30 years, 20 years and 10 years ago. Of the 11 people interviewed, six had attended private schools such as Sydney Grammar, Ascham and Ravenswood. Two had gone to selective-entry government schools and three to other government schools.

This snapshot of the coverage of year 12 results reveals two important observations. The first is that high-fee paying private schools have the money to employ marketing people who crunch their schools’ results to send to journalists who unquestionably lap up the media releases. These private schools must relish the free publicity when they are in competition with other schools for the ‘right’ students.

The second, more insidious observation, shows the socio-economic divide in our education system. By and large the students attending high-fee paying schools come from more wealthy suburbs and families. Many of these schools, for example, are in the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne such as Kew. This suburb is home to six high fee-paying private and independent schools.


'One of the major jobs for education ministers will be to examine how funding can be linked to improving outcomes for students, especially for those most at risk of falling behind.'


Year 12 fees at Methodist Ladies College in Kew for next year are $38,790, according to the school’s website. At Carey Grammar, also in Kew, the year 12 fees for 2024 are $37,976. In NSW, fees this year for a year 12 student at Ravenswood is $37,040 and at Sydney Grammar $42,189. There are some private schools in Melbourne’s western and north-western suburbs but these are mostly low-fee Catholic and Islamic schools. 

The educational divide is further highlighted in a new report. The announcement of ATARs coincided with the release of the 271-page Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System, conducted by an expert panel, including eminent educator Professor Pasi Sahlberg. The report was commissioned after the Productivity Commission’s review earlier this year of the National School Reform Agreement. The commission lambasted the NSRA initiatives saying they have done little, so far, to improve student outcomes.

One of review panel’s most significant statements is that almost all public schools are not fully-funded to the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). This is an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. On average, almost all private and independent schools get the SRS or an amount above it.

The commonwealth and state governments fund schools. This year, the Commonwealth funded at least 20 per cent of each government school’s SRS and 80 per cent of each non-government school’s SRS. On top of the base SRS, there are additional loadings for schools that have students with disability, students with socio-educational disadvantage and who have low-English proficiency. There is also the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander loading.

The Capacity to Contribute reduces the SRS base amount for most non-government schools. This is a measure of the ability of parents who have students at students private and independent schools to contribute financially to the operating costs of the school relative to the capacity at other non-government schools.

The expert panel says it is critical that ‘all schools have access to 100 per cent of Schooling Resource Standard funding as soon as possible’ to ensure that every student can ‘thrive and transition to further education, training and employment post-school’.

The panel emphasises that all students should have ‘access to a high-quality education, irrespective of their circumstances, background or postcode’. The panel, while meeting with groups around the country, says they heard many stories of students facing barriers to learning and not being able to realise their full potential. Some of these students included First Nations pupils, those living in regional and remote locations, students with disability and those from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, in the report, the panel conspicuously sidesteps the root causes behind the glaring $6.6 billion annual shortfall in public school financing. The silence speaks volumes: it seems state governments are either scrimping on their contributions or playing a fiscal game of chicken, hoping the Feds will up their ante from 20 to 25 percent. Meanwhile, another 2023 report for the Australian Education Union suggests that private schools receive an excess of $800 million, underscoring that this issue isn't just about redistributing funds but a deeper, systemic imbalance in our approach to education equity.

Speaking on ABC’s Radio National about the report, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare admitted there was inequity in the education system. ‘What this report showed us is that we have one of the most segregated school systems in the OECD. Not by the colour of your skin, but by the size of your parents’ pay packet,’ he said. The report’s reform agenda also includes measures to increase the standing of teachers such as improving their pay.

The current National School Reform Agreement has been extended for another year. After that, the next round of federal funding for schools begins in 2025. One of the major jobs for education ministers will be to examine how funding can be linked to improving outcomes for students, especially for those most at risk of falling behind. Unless ministers can fix our inequitable education system, we will continue reading the same stories and statistics about study scores and ATARs.




Dr Erica Cervini is a freelance journalist and sessional academic.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erica Cervini, ATAR, Schools, Inequality, Funding, SRS



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Existing comments

As I explained in “The myths of school funding”, adjacent to this article, there is no such thing as each school’s schooling resource standard. The SRS is a set amount ($13,060 for every primary school student and $16,413 for every secondary school student before loadings for disadvantage), so non-government schools do not “get the SRS or an amount above it”. They get a discounted amount of it based on parental income, the only example I know of in which the means test is applied nto a body other than the one being funded.

As I also explained in my article, the claim that non-government schools are overfunded assumes that the SRS is allocated according to a fair method, but it is not. The so-called overfunded schools are the ones still on Labor’s needs-based model the 1990s and have not yet finished being forced onto the non-needs-based Howard/Gonski one.

If society wanted to reduce inequity, it would get the non-government sector to take more disadvantaged students, not adopt a funding model that forces them into government schools.

Chris Curtis | 14 December 2023  

A few points - while education unions love to tell how the Federal Govt majority funds go to independent schools - they neglect to mention the State Govts are meant to put in 80% state school funding.
If you take a ruler from CBD to suburban fringe - the distance from CBD will be an accurate predictor of education standards.
The myth of the education unions is that if we only increased the funding to state schools and decreased independent schools disadvantage would disappear. There is a reason that parents on suburban fringe look for low fee independent schools - because the culture of the administration is focused on education and student welfare - unlike state govt education departments.

RN | 14 December 2023  

Cervini makes a case for an alternative and fairer means of assessing school performance. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has listed the best performing schools throughout Australia, taking into account socio-educational advantage, to give a more accurate picture of student performance.

ACARA creates the list by looking at which schools have continually achieved high NAPLAN results from 2021 to 2023, compared to others of similar backgrounds, excluding selective schools. Of the schools, 106 are public, followed by 31 independent and 17 from the Catholic sector.

Socio-educational advantage is calculated by accounting for:

Parents' jobs (not their income)
Their highest level of education
Where the school is
Whether students are Indigenous

Across all sectors, those located in urban areas were more likely to appear on the list, with 101 of the 154 schools located in major cities. Accordingly, rurality and remoteness are major determinants of the provision of socially-just schooling if disadvantage is to feature as a major factor in Australia's future improved school-funding calculus overhaul.

(Source: ABC RN's National Education Reporter Claudia Long's December 15, 2023 account, 'High-performing schools in each state and territory revealed as state NAPLAN results released.')

Selective Catholic Colleges need to take note!

Michael Furtado | 16 December 2023