Postcodes like 2839, 3047, and 6770 are among the most disadvantaged in the country.
That’s according to the report Dropping off the Edge (DOTE), which identified areas of educational disadvantage across the country.
If you come from any of these communities – Brewarrina in north-western New South Wales, Broadmeadows in outer Melbourne, and Halls Creek in Western Australia – numerous barriers exist that make it harder for you to succeed at school before a class even starts.
Geography is one. Other statistical sources suggest that schools in rural and remote areas like Brewarrina must contend with insufficient resources as well as teacher shortages, while students often face a limited choice of subjects, particularly in senior years.
In low socio-economic postcodes like Broadmeadows that are beset by low incomes and chronic unemployment, children are more likely to be developmentally unready for school than their peers who come from more affluent households. By 15, they are on average three years behind more advantaged students.
Indigeneity is another factor. Indigenous kids like those who live at Halls Creek make up just one per cent of the student population in Australia. Only half of them complete Year 12. In NAPLAN testing, Indigenous children score on average six times below the national standards. Many of these kids “come to school speaking multiple languages that are not necessarily English, as a first or even second language,” says Melodie Potts Rosevear, CEO of Teach for Australia (TFA).
Fighting disadvantage on multiple fronts
The 2015 DOTE report found that many postcodes throughout Australia were “multiply-disadvantaged” or ranked in the “most disadvantaged” group on more than five indicators of 22 indicators used to measure social wellbeing, health, community safety, economic and education outcomes and locations.
Residents of those postcodes were also more likely to have experienced time in prison, long-term unemployment, low levels of education, domestic violence, disability and mental health problems. The report found that youth disengagement was a common problem in these areas.
The entrenched nature of much of this disadvantage makes it even harder to overcome. In NSW, nine of the 12 most disadvantaged postcodes identified in DOTE 1999 appeared in the 2015 list.
So why does disadvantage translate into poor performance at school?
Family and community factors outside of school have a compounding influence in the classroom, says Potts Rosevear. Parents, who themselves may have a low level of education, often work long hours to make ends meet, making them unavailable to children at home.
“It's schools that then take the strain,” says Potts Rosevear, when children’s needs aren’t met at home and in the community. Schools “need additional resources to be able to work through the issues that present, whether it’s low literacy or English as a second language or issues of trauma,” she says. “It's just one of those catch-22s and it can become quite vicious. That's why we call it a cycle.”
“Disadvantage concentrates in areas that attract the things that we know correlate to poor performance and poor outcomes.”
The disparity between postcodes reflects how we segregate ourselves in society, says Potts Rosevear. “Disadvantage concentrates in areas that attract the things that we know correlate to poor performance and poor outcomes.”
Increasingly non-government and selective schools cater to the most advantaged students. MySchool’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) shows that disadvantaged kids – that is, students who fall into the bottom quarter of the ICSEA – made up just two per cent of students at NSW selective high schools in 2015.
This social segregation is felt in schools. According to the PISA 2015 report, which compares educational outcomes among OECD countries, there is an ever-widening gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children in Australia. Disadvantaged schools were more likely to have less resources, inadequate infrastructure, teacher shortages and higher student-teacher ratios.
“Roughly 80 to 90 per cent of those then continue on into a third year, with roughly two-thirds of our alumni still in teaching and another 15 per cent in education-relevant work around the system."
The non-profit organisation TFA, the subject of Testing Teachers - a three-part documentary broadcast on SBS debuting on 19 April - aims to address this educational disadvantage by placing high-calibre new teachers in areas where they are needed most.
“The number one factor that makes a difference is the quality of teaching and then second to that is the quality of school leadership,” Potts Rosevear says.
TFA candidates are high achievers from non-teaching fields who undergo a rigorous selection process, where they are assessed across eight key competencies, including leadership, communication, problem solving, resilience and humility. During their two-year TFA placement in schools in the ACT, Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria and WA, they complete their Masters of Teaching and receive important leadership training.
While some are critical of the radical program, Potts Rosevear is happy to spruik its positive results. Around 94 per cent of participants complete the two-year program. “Roughly 80 to 90 per cent of those then continue on into a third year, with roughly two-thirds of our alumni still in teaching and another 15 per cent in education-relevant work around the system,” she says.
Principals are universally satisfied with the performance of TFA’s teachers, a positive view Potts Rosevear says is also held by many students. “Increasingly we have these vignettes of record-breaking results, Year 12 results, kids who have gone on to be first in family, which they attribute back to the encouragement as well as the competency of the teaching of their TFA associates.”
Testing Teachers features six teachers and three public schools, all with one aim: to make a difference in young lives. The documentary debuts 19 April on SBS and will be available on SBS On Demand after broadcast.