OPINION: We can't expect teachers to solve disadvantaged children's health problems or housing issues.
The NSW government has taken the lead and signed up to the Gonski school funding reforms. The premise of the sensible, research-based reforms is that it takes more money to provide a quality education to a disadvantaged child. The more disadvantaged that child is, the more money it takes. Because of this, funding should be allocated equitably, accounting for the real cost of educating a child.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard says the reforms are meant to “give our kids the best start in life”. This implies that school is where children start out. But by the time these students reach school age, the die has already been cast.
The reforms are not a silver bullet for completely closing the education achievement gap between our lowest and highest-achieving students. They should not be a clarion call for policymakers and politicians to demand that schools with the lowest achieving (and by association, most socio-economically disadvantaged) students simply work harder to close the gap between students from middle class families and those from poor families.
Indeed, our lowest achieving students are, on average, those from the poorest Australian families. Education reform alone cannot help these students overcome the effects of poverty.
Students from poor socio-economic backgrounds suffer from several factors related to poverty that hold them back from achieving at the same level as students from higher socio-economic backgrounds.
Students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds disproportionately suffer from (often untreated) health issues, such as asthma, ear infections, tooth decay and vision problems. These health issues, which have nothing to do with schools, make learning more difficult.
A student with chronic ear infections, for instance, will be less able to hear what the teacher says, and sometimes will suffer delayed speech and communication. A student with undiagnosed vision problems will have trouble tracking what is written on the board, and so will have a harder time learning the content.
Research has shown that by the time children from lower-income families enter school, they will have heard about 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers. This literacy disadvantage is in place before students even set foot in a school and has been shown to persist through schooling.
Further, the housing situation of children from lower income backgrounds is often less stable than that of children from higher income families. Moving schools because of an unstable housing situation makes following the curriculum more challenging. It also demands that students readapt to new learning environments, peers, teachers, and teaching styles, all things out of a child's control that can take away from the essential job of learning.
We can ask schools to do well in what they are meant to do, which is teach the curriculum, and the Gonski reforms support our schools to do this better. Still, we cannot expect our schools and our teachers to fix low-income children's health problems, close the literacy gap that exists before school age, and stabilise students' housing.
This is the role of social policy. While the Gonski reforms are aimed at repairing our funding system and making it more equitable, believing that these reforms alone can remedy entrenched problems of poverty is whimsical, at best, and damaging, at worst.
Indeed, putting our faith in the power of education reform to fix poverty can make it appear that teachers and schools are not doing their jobs, that students must simply work harder, and that education policies must be ever more demanding of schools, and ever more strident
Dr Leila Morsy is a Lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.