An enduring view of Australia is of a fair and egalitarian place in which opportunities exist for all to get ahead and succeed in building secure futures. Education is viewed as one of the main vehicles through which this happens. But to what extent is this true of modern Australia? To what extent are the benefits of success available to all?
Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who succeeds and who misses out is one of the most comprehensive data studies undertaken into Australia’s education and training system. Prepared by the Centre for International Research on Education Systems (CIRES) for the Mitchell Institute, this study draws together information on the opportunities being provided to young Australians as they negotiate the various stages of education and training and attempt to establish themselves in the workforce during their transition to adulthood.
The findings are presented as an index of educational opportunity which measures how many students are on track and missing out at important developmental milestones, as well as who catches up and slips behind.
Four milestones are used, constructed as an index of opportunity. For the early years the milestone is the proportion of children who are developmentally ready at the point of entry to school, as measured across five domains: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills. For the middle years it is the proportion of Year 7 students who meet or exceed international proficiency standards in academic skills. For the senior school years it is the proportion of young people who have completed school and attained a Year 12 certificate or equivalent. For early adulthood it is the percentage of 24-year-olds who are fully engaged in education, training or work.
At each milestone most young people are succeeding but some are missing out – insufficiently prepared to take on the challenges of the following stages of their lives. For those missing out at any one milestone, some make up ground and move back on track, while others succeeding at some points fall behind at others, for various reasons.
The results show the proportions succeeding and missing out at each stage (our best estimates, based on available data). They show about six in 10 or more of all children starting school get through early and middle childhood with the kinds of academic and social skills needed for later success. The same proportions complete school and are fully engaged in education or work by their mid-20s. For this large group of young Australians, school works well and they succeed across all stages. They make the most of the opportunities our education and training system provides.
Some children begin school not developmentally ready and remain behind across all stages. Our estimate is that this affects up to 10 per cent of the population. Between entry to school and Year 7 one in 10 remain behind. Roughly this number are behind at the beginning of secondary school and do not complete Year 12 or equivalent, and the same proportion remains marginalised at age 24, not able to secure full-time work or be in study or training. This proportion misses out across all stages and is not gaining the preparation needed to take up later opportunities in life.
Helping young people who are falling behind to catch up and take advantage of opportunities over later stages is no easy task, because they are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. Success at each stage varies by indigenous status, language background, region and gender, and markedly by the socio-economic status (SES) of students.
But what we learn from the patterns is that young people who are missing out can recover and gain ground. Being behind at any point need not be a life sentence, even for the disadvantaged, though even here the chances of recovery and of gaining ground are still in favour of students from more advantaged backgrounds. The most advantaged learners are not only less likely to fall below expected standards in the first place but more likely to catch up again if they do.
Learning about what predicts success and failure requires information about experiences during each of the main stages of education and training. To do this, we use a number of indicators that reflect the experiences of young Australians leading up to each milestone. They include information on student engagement, academic achievement, attendance, participation, and progress. This important information on the quality of educational experiences helps build an understanding of the factors associated with success and failure.