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  • John McDonnell

Families matter more than funding when it comes to success in life

It is a key tenet of Labor policy that education is the most important factor in upward social mobility. There are a large number of studies that show that this is the case.

A major study by Princeton University in the 1990s estimated that incomes in the United States increased by 7 per cent for every year of post-secondary study for seven years.

When Julia Gillard was minister for education in the Rudd government, she endorsed this view and commissioned the ‘Gonski review’ to make recommendations on how the education system could be improved to achieve higher standards and improve social equity.

Since then, an enormous amount of additional funding has been poured into the school system, but standards have fallen on all objective performance indicators.

No analysis has been done, in Australia, of the impact on social mobility and equity in social outcomes.

One of the academics that supporters of the Gonski review were fond of quoting, was James Heckman. Professor Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, won the Nobel prize for economics in 2000. His area of expertise is the role of education in social mobility and he was particularly influential in relation to the importance of early childhood education to subsequent educational outcomes.

Professor Heckman has now undertaken a ground-breaking study into the impact of educational funding on educational outcomes and social mobility.

In his study, Professor Heckman compared outcomes in Denmark and the United States. In the United States, public schools receive funding from state governments, with some states providing more funding than others. In Denmark, all education is free including childcare and university. In addition, tertiary studies are free and students are provided with a living wage for as long as they are studying.

It is important to note that Professor Heckman was not comparing Denmark and the United States in terms of educational outcomes, he was only interested in social mobility. The objective was to determine whether education funding led to changes in social and economic status of people who were socially disadvantaged.

By way of background Professor Heckman found that when the government handouts were excluded (in Denmark these are tied to services such as health and education as well as the universal basic income) the level of inequality in both countries was pretty much the same.

What Professor Heckman found was that despite the much greater funding in Denmark, the social mobility and social equity outcomes were pretty much the same as in the United States, which had very little variation between states. Students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds had poorer educational outcomes than students from middle-class backgrounds regardless of whether poor students had access to an abundance of resources.

When Heckman drilled down into the data, he concluded that when it came to social mobility, family influence was much more important than funding.

This was demonstrated many years ago in South Australia in a number of schools in Northern Adelaide’s disadvantaged areas. In those schools, educationalists found that there was education hesitancy among parents, who thought that if their kids were educated, they would think they were superior to their parents.

The solution was to get the parents involved in the school, doing maintenance, gardening and pruning the vineyard or assisting with lessons. Parents who didn’t work had to pay school fees. The result was much better educational outcomes and greater ambition for their children.

Labor is still wedded to the Gonski recipe of a massive flow of resources into education as a mechanism for social justice, but the time is overdue for a review of the evidence.


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