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Education and poverty: Desperately seeking a ladder

By Gillian Considine - posted Thursday, 16 December 2004

In recognition of the recent Anti-poverty week, a number of forums were held across the country to discuss the role of education in alleviating poverty. Some of these forums went off with more of a whimper than a bang. Not, as some kind observers noted, because of the calibre of the speakers, but because of the nature of the topic.

As I was one of the speakers at one of the whimpering forums I was both heartened, for obvious ego-saving reasons, and dismayed by these observations. Are we, collectively, really so bored with the issue of poverty? Or, do we think it has gone away? Or, worse still, is it that we don’t believe there is anything new to be said about it?

In a country like Australia, measuring poverty is a political, an emotional and an uncomfortable issue. Why? Because fundamentally we want to believe that poor Australian’s just aren’t trying hard enough. Politicians help convince us that this is so. Rhetoric of ladders of opportunity and rags-to-political leader anecdotes are very compelling. But there’s also a part of us that desperately wants to believe the poor are to blame for their lot in life. It eases the guilt. And, it justifies our own perpetual search for one of those damn ladders.


Education is, undeniably, one of those ladders.

Research repeatedly shows that young people who complete Year 12 have better labour market outcomes than young people who don’t. Year 12 completers are more likely to go onto further study and training, more likely to enter full-time employment, more likely to earn higher wages.

Early school leavers, on the other hand, increasingly find themselves churning in and out of the labour market while working in part-time or casual jobs. They are less likely to enter into post-school study or training. And, even more concerning, they are more likely to engage in activities that marginalise them from the rest of society: activities like long-term unemployment, teenage pregnancy, drugs, and problems with the law. And, of course, they are more likely to end up living in poverty.

But the problem is not just one of early school leavers ending up in poverty after school. It’s that they come from poor families in the first place. Approximately, one in six Australian school children lives in poverty and these children have a much greater chance of becoming poor adults. How does this happen, on the scale that it does, if our education system can make political leaders out of Aussie battlers? What is actually going on with that education ladder?

There is a very long history to the sociology of education, too long to cover here. But there is a critical element that provides the context from which to understand the structural changes in Australia’s education system.

The mass growth of secondary schooling after World War II was driven by the notion of an inclusive education for all children. Comprehensive schools were seen to be the bastion from which all children gained a “common” education that reflected the (middle-class) values and interests of Australian society. Comprehensive public education (or the ideal of it) was about diversity and building community. Children from vastly different backgrounds were intentionally mixed together to teach tolerance and understanding.


In the early 1980s, fuelled by concerns of getting their children onto the “right” ladders of opportunity, parents increasingly opted out of the public comprehensive system and into the seemingly superior private system.

In 1982, 24 per cent of all Australian school students were enrolled in non-government schools. By 2002, non-government school enrolments had risen to 32 per cent of all school students. At the secondary school 37 per cent of students were non-government schools.

In 1988, the NSW Department of Education (DET) response to declining enrolments was to restructure the public education system. Schools were partially de-zoned giving parents the option to send their kids to schools outside their local residential area. The number of academic selective high schools, and specialist high schools, was increased from 12 to 59, 5 stand-alone senior secondary colleges were established and 35 secondary schools were transformed into 9 multi-campus colleges.

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About the Author

Gillian Considine is a researcher with the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney.

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