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Teaching trumps background

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 29 January 2015

In The Australian (28 January, 2015) Justine Ferrari argues, “In Australia, family background is still the biggest determinant of student achievement, and that is primarily related to the money available to educate the child, at home and at school”.

Non-government school critics like the Australian Education Union, when arguing that governments must increase funding to government schools (and cut back funding to Catholic and independent schools) also argue that home background is the main factor determining educational success or failure.

Both are incorrect.  The reality is that while home background, or socioeconomic status, impacts on student achievement research proves that there are a number of other factors equally, if not more, significant.


Firstly, how influential is family background?  A 2009 study analysing PISA results by the Australian Council for Educational Research concludes, “Almost 13 per cent of the explained variance in student performance in Australia was found to be attributable to students’ socioeconomic background”.

Gary Marks, a researcher at the University of Melbourne writing in The Australian, November 6, 2014, puts the figure at between 10 to 15 per cent when he argues, in relation to home background, “Socioeconomic status has only a weak to moderate relationship with educational outcomes”.

An earlier study also carried out by the ACER in 2002 analysing what most determines Year 12 success puts socioeconomic background 3rd in influence after students’ “proficiency in literacy and numeracy in the early years” and the impact of a school’s culture and classroom environment.

A more recent study published in 2013 investigating the impact of schools on transition to university reaches a similar conclusion when it states, “the average socioeconomic status of students at a school does not emerge as a significant factor, after controlling for individual characteristics including academic achievement from the PISA test”.

In relation to the likelihood of students completing Year 12 research associated with the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) also downplays the impact of home background when it argues factors like family background and income are “shown to be less significant than previously indicated”.

Secondly, what most influences educational success or failure?  Research associated with the LSAY and also by Gary Marks and the ACER identifies a number of factors that are more influential than home background.


This includes what in the US is known as a school’s academic press.  This refers to the culture and climate of a school involving factors like classroom discipline, having high expectations, consequences for success and failure and the belief, with hard work and application, that students can succeed.

Such schools, generally speaking, outperform other schools with a similar socioeconomic profile.  As noted by a second LSAY study investigating the impact of schools on students’ performance, “As academic quality increases, individual socioeconomic background becomes less relevant in relation to the probability of completing Year 12”.

Factors like teacher commitment and expertise, effective school leadership, school autonomy and having a rigorous, evidence-based curriculum also have a significant influence on outcomes.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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