Mind the Gap musing – Do we all believe in the equation [school + university = a good job]?

Regularly commentators and researchers return to the discussion of the influence a student’s socio-economic status has on their achievement levels at school and future earning capacity. A recent article for The Conversation, by Kevin Donnelly (Senior Research Fellow – ACU) once again raised the topic by focusing on challenges to the assumption that social inequity has the greatest impact on a student’s level of achievement at school (see: 7 March 2014, The Conversation, Social class affects school achievement less than you think). Donnelly concludes his piece by saying, “Instead of accepting what can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, believing that with a rigorous curriculum, motivated and talented teachers, sound school leadership and strong parental engagement, it is possible to raise standards for all students across a range of backgrounds.” What is probably more interesting than the article itself is the conversation it generated through the postings. The comments highlighted the extraordinary challenge of identifying the most significant influences on a student’s performance at school. A thought has been running through my head for a while now.


Lunch at a Helsinki school

Communal lunchtime in a school in Helsinki – freshly cooked each day, set menu with only two healthy options, milk or water to drink and fruit for dessert.

A number of years ago I commenced work in a school that had a SES index lower than my previous school. There were also many other differences, such experience of the staff, size of the school, location and so on. According to the debate, the SES index should have either a significant impact or little impact in comparison to other factors on the levels of achievement of these students. Over the years I began to notice there were aspects of this debate that were usually absent, and perhaps it was in these areas that I would find a better indicator of which aspect of a student socio-economic context had the most impact on students’ achievement. Perhaps these areas are researched, perhaps data and observations about these aspects are available but nonetheless they do not seem to be widely reported.

Firstly, are we capturing a definition of “real” economic wealth through the emphasis on the SES index and therefore, are we actually exploring a very narrow understanding of how people generate resources and the role school education plays in this process. In numerous conversations with parents and students, I am observing a trend that indicates making an income by any route so long as it delivers sufficient funds to provide the target lifestyle is the educational priority of some students and families. In their experience, not all routes to adulthood and the workplace involve the assumptions that contemporary Australian educational policies make. In my school community, I have been observing this is a less acknowledged influence on engagement with education and schools. Another observation I could make is that research does not seem to capture the extent of real resources behind individuals. For example, in a local electorate the rate of non-mortgaged, home ownership is high despite less than average incomes and lower than average university qualifications. The SES index does not fully account for individual resources within the cohort or community. An index such as this averages the community and is reliant on the information supplied by individuals through the census. These indexes cannot capture information about the wider network of support and resources these students access.

Middle school in Finland

Middle school in Helsinki – Despite a high SES index, this school did not pour vast amounts of money into physical resources and yet student levels of achievement are high – what does that tell us?

As educators, we talk career and qualifications and work opportunities and life-long learning and achievement but often I pause to wonder if this is the same for my students. Is lifestyle a driving force in choices behind education and work for some of our students? Current statistics reporting trends in job and career change, casualisation of the workforce, increased use of contracts in a wider range of industries, emerging trends in preference for mobility and taking time off to travel (the gap year that occurs anytime from Year 11 to post-university) or ‘try something new” amongst the under 30’s suggest something different is driving the choices and pathways of this generation.

Senior school in Finland

Senior school in Finland – The classrooms I visited looked very much like the ones we have, so it cannot be just the environment and resources.


For a number of years, I have been reading a range of research articles, scholarly books, literature reviews and commentaries in the area of improving student achievement. The consensus seems to be: the high-performing education systems in countries like Korea and Finland are doing some things different to us; students in these countries have a different attitude or approach to education and the importance of teacher quality is supported by more than rhetoric or monetary incentives. In many of the books that have reached the wider community through the best-seller list, such as Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, a conclusion that students have to believe their school education matters and is part of their long-term planning is evident. Students need to personally build what schooling offers into their lives. As an exchange student in Ripley’s book discovered when she asked classmates in Finland what made them work hard in school, the question confused the students because they were puzzled why you would ask such a question in the first place. However, it seemed that at the heart of it all was a widespread respect for the basic premise of school. The question we need to ask may not be what are they doing well or different but what have we stopped doing? When did we some students and families stop believing in the equation that school + university* = a good job? In the next posting I will consider the arguments for focusing on teacher quality as something we can do to make a significant impact upon student performance.

* includes all post-school formal training and qualifications

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