Condemned to innovate

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  • Published 20060307
  • ISBN: 9780733316210
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

OVER THE PAST 30 years, the level at which disadvantaged schools have been funded has increased and there has been a greater emphasis on student-learning outcomes, but it is questionable whether there has been a more basic shift in the way we view disadvantaged schools. Perhaps we should now try a radical approach, and recognise in these schools an opportunity not available elsewhere – to experiment and innovate in the interests of the children attending them and the system as a whole.

In the early 1970s, educational disadvantage was seen as something that needed to be compensated for but not eliminated. It is arguable whether we have higher expectations today or whether we still see disadvantaged schools as an inevitable feature of the landscape whose inhabitants can be consoled and made more comfortable, but who will never escape their surroundings.

The Karmel Report, which was released in May 1973, set the framework for addressing educational disadvantage for several decades. The Karmel committee was not optimistic about the prospects of overcoming social disadvantage. It documented the degree of inequality in Australian education and reasoned on the cause. Karmel was determined to bring about much greater fairness and equity and was confident this could be done. But when the committee looked at the position of the poorest 10 to 15 per cent of children, this confidence evaporated.

Karmel pointed to the unpromising experience of the War on Poverty in the United States and the lack of any evidence that intervention programs did or could improve educational standards. The members of the committee saw the entrenched poverty in inner cities and the overwhelming impact of these environments on levels of achievement and participation in school. They knew the research commissioned by the Plowden review of primary education in Britain. That was more positive but in a vein of hope of improvement, rather than evidence, because the decaying inner cities of Britain showed not only crumbling physical infrastructure, but also a culture of despair and low aspirations.

These experiences injected a note of caution, if not pessimism, into the Karmel Report. As a result, supplementary funding was not tied to measured gains in student learning. Additional spending was justified on the grounds of improved quality of school experience, not achievement. Karmel wanted to see stronger links between schools and communities. These were not easily quantifiable outcomes. But the committee was not going to demand cognitive gain from schools that were considered severely disadvantaged. That might never happen or might take decades of patient work to accomplish. So it was careful to pitch its objectives broadly.

Karmel’s reservations about progress did not stem simply from the extreme end of disadvantage. As they assembled the evidence of social inequalities, the committee members could not fail to register the low overall levels of educational participation in Australia in the late 1960s and the marked gaps between middle-class and working-class achievement. Certainly, there had been strong growth in retention, but from a very low base, and the divisions between rich and poor after two decades of growth remained very sharp. American reformers, such as James Coleman, were calling for a radical shift from “equality of opportunity” to “equality of outcomes”. Looking at the depth of social differences in Australian education, the Karmel committee refused to endorse this. It declared that the “doctrinaire pursuit” of equal average outcomes would be ruinously expensive and, in any case, certain to fail.

So the pessimism about severe disadvantage and the limited impact that poor schools could make reflected a sombre diagnosis of the prospects of social change more widely. Education alone could not transform a deeply divided society. The reassessment of Coleman’s data by Christopher Jencks in Inequality (Basic Books, 1972) only tended to confirm this diagnosis. The implications were clear. Governments could compensate for disadvantage by giving additional funds to poor schools, but little more than this could or should be expected.


IF WE WERE asked now, 33 years later, to assess whether the Karmel committee was right to have been cautious, if not pessimistic, from what perspective would we do this? Should we focus on disadvantaged schools and ask whether they have been effective in some or all of the domains that Karmel envisaged? We might marshal our conceptual and technical resources and attempt to measure the historical impact of the poorest schools on student outcomes. It seems a good idea. But it isn’t, because we cannot meaningfully examine the impact of these schools in isolation from how other schools have fared.

Suppose we were to have invested heavily over the same period in the high end of schools – to have invested both public and private funds in large doses in selective schooling, both private and public? The poorest schools would have trailed, always being re-created to catch the children falling behind. And, of course, we would set modest objectives for them, knowing they would probably always trail. So the historian coming after us would find little change and might conclude that the disadvantaged schools had failed.

The question we need to ask is not whether the schools serving the poorest 10 to 15 per cent of the population have succeeded, but whether the systems of which they form a part have been successful. For, like it or not, the poorest schools serve the whole system. They look after all the children who are not wanted elsewhere, who cannot move elsewhere, whose parents cannot educate them well, whose parents either don’t care or don’t understand or have too little time or resources to help. The health of the whole system is reflected in the performance of the poorest schools.

So the test of whether disadvantaged schools, taken as a group, have been successful is whether the school system, taken as a whole, has shifted one inch in equity over the past three decades.

The logic of this perspective is troubling. We want to be able to see the unique contribution made by disadvantaged schools. If equity has improved, people want to be able to attribute it, to identify the source. Many want disadvantaged schools to be the vehicle of equity. They keep slipping up on the same fatal assumption.

Based on what we actually did in terms of funding approaches and other systemic policies, we can’t really say we asked disadvantaged schools to produce equity, except in an indirect way. We recognised the need to give additional support to schools serving marginalised populations. We freed the rest of the system of these students so that mainstream schooling could get on with equity. Every year, hundreds of teachers move out of the poorest schools in search of professional advancement. Operating a transfer system like the one we do sends the message that we are not asking disadvantaged schools to produce equity, because we routinely remove the most important resource they need to promote student achievement – experienced teachers. If we have achieved equity, it has been despite systemic policies rather than because of them, and it owes, at least in part, to freeing mainstream schooling from doing the hardest work that equity demands.

So it is growth in equity across the whole system that we must look at to capture the effectiveness of disadvantaged schools, not just what they do in often unquantifiable ways for their own pupils. They contribute to equity as much by what they give up for other schools as what they achieve directly in their own precincts. They give up trained teachers through high turnover, they give up their best pupils through drift to other schools, they give up more advantageous staffing through the formal equity of class size – reductions that have benefited mainstream schools disproportionately to need.

This is not a comfortable conclusion, but it really is time we stopped looking at the work of disadvantaged schools in isolation from how the rest of the school system operates. The first illusion that we have to give up is that disadvantaged schools do not contribute to the success of the rest of the system, partly by what they do for the most demanding pupils and partly by what they surrender in the form of teacher resources, pupil mix and operating conditions.

To develop a more productive policy orientation towards disadvantaged schools, we have to come to terms with the complex ways in which disadvantaged schools contribute to equity. To justify supplementary funding of these schools solely on the basis of measured, but purely relative, gains in the learning of their students is too narrow an approach and fails to recognise the wider role these schools play.


IN CONSIDERING WHETHER the school system as a whole has made progress in terms of equity since the mid-1970s, let’s look at the growth in retention. This will remind us of the low levels of participation in secondary school at the time the Karmel Report was written. The retention rates for both boys and girls in 1973 in Victoria were about 33 per cent. In other words, only one young person in three completed school. Since then, participation in upper secondary school has increased far beyond the expectations of the Karmel committee. The most recent data shows that, in 2004, nearly 90 per cent of girls and 75 per cent of boys stayed at school until Year 12. On the surface, at least, these are big strides and poor schools have made a major contribution to this, even though retention rates in poorer suburbs and rural areas are today still lower than in affluent city areas.

See Figure 1 at end of document

But not all retention is good. It is only good it there is quality of learning behind it. Some of it is accompanied by under-achievement, student dissatisfaction and low morale and motivation. Not a few young people who complete their senior certificate have trouble finding work or a place in tertiary education. We have not helped them enough to build a platform of successful learning and positive attitudes. So, if the retention rate of the poorest students is accompanied by low achievement while the retention rate of the most advantaged young people is accompanied by high achievement, is that equity?

Today, there is mass economic dependence on success at school. This makes high-quality learning essential for all students and, in disadvantaged schools, we need to ensure that as school retention levels rise, they are accompanied by a real opening of access to all areas of the upper secondary curriculum, not only more recent general studies or accredited vocational studies, valuable as these are. The policy perception of such schools has been that they have little to contribute to the academic side of things and should focus on the “basics”, plus Vocational Education and Training (VET).

Equity must include areas of the curriculum of high cognitive demand and one of the most disturbing effects of social change affecting poor schools in Australia has been the decline in access to science and humanities programs. Shrinking rolls and resource problems, together with the experience of high failure rates in these subjects, have pushed many disadvantaged schools out of the older academic streams and into newer general and vocational studies.

The older curriculum is based on social assumptions that, under current policy conditions, cannot be met by the poorest schools. They have been attacked for failing to provide opportunities. But they would need to be resourced in quite different ways to turn this situation around, and there would also need to be system-level changes to curriculum design, evaluation and accreditation – that is, there would need to be substantial innovation in the design and delivery of school programs. If these changes are not made, whole areas of the curriculum will continue to decline, and children living in the poorest suburbs will have few opportunities to access these subject areas and the careers that depend on them.

This contraction in study opportunities in poorer communities stands in marked contrast to the overall trend in enrolments. Take the physical sciences as an example. In the very early postwar years, only about five in 100 young people completed school in a chemistry or physics class. Growth in retention rapidly increased this because, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was still only a minority who completed school and they had few study options. Today, there is a much larger range of options and growth in participation in the physical sciences has been slower. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a young person finishing school in a chemistry or a physics class is very much higher than it was in the early postwar years.

See Figure 2 at end of document

However, it is in mainstream schools that students are able to get on with the business of learning chemistry and the subjects of high cognitive demand, while in disadvantaged schools young people have much lower chances of studying physics or chemistry and their achievements are much lower. For example, the lowest fifth band of schools in Victoria in terms of socioeconomic status (SES) contributes about 15 per cent of all Year 12 students but only 12 per cent of all chemistry candidates. By contrast, the highest fifth band of schools in terms of SES contribute about quarter of all Year 12 students, but as many as third of all chemistry candidates.

See Figure 3 at end of document

The problem of low participation and under-achievement in the physical sciences is not confined to disadvantaged schools. Young people from poorer backgrounds attending schools in more affluent areas and with an above-average social intake have less chance of success. For students from all social backgrounds attending schools in the highest tenth SES band in Victoria do very well by statewide standards, but marks fall as social level falls and the dispersion of results also becomes greater.

See Figure 4 at end of document

So we cannot deal with the issue of social access simply by creating specialist, selective schools in poorer suburbs. Innovation in program design and teaching is the answer, not institutional segregation.

As we have said, the improvement in levels of enrolment in subjects of high cognitive demand, such as chemistry, has occurred in mainstream government and Catholic schools. However, this success has occurred, in part, because they have not operated under the same conditions as disadvantaged schools. Their pupil-mix has been broader; they have retained their teachers or attracted them from disadvantaged schools; they enjoy greater flexibility of resources and are able to focus on an academic curriculum, controlling access through selective admissions or promotions. The teachers in mainstream government, upmarket and Catholic schools have more experience and are more academically oriented and networked. It is the teachers from mainstream and upmarket schools who sit on curriculum and assessment committees, not generally the teachers from disadvantaged schools.

So, through the ways in which disadvantaged schools have had to surrender resources, they have helped us get our equity results, while at the same time being denied access to the academic measures that would prove their effectiveness. Disadvantaged schools are the least likely to contribute chemistry candidates, basically because we have set them up not to. These are schools that, at the time of the Karmel Report, often did not even have science laboratories, let alone qualified teachers or students able to manage chemistry under routine classroom conditions. We also set them up not to when we installed the teacher-transfer system, when we set up selective schools (private and public) to relieve them of their most academic pupils, when we ran down federal funding of disadvantaged schools to derisory levels, when we provided supplementary funding only sufficient to offer temporary solutions and address social needs, when we wrote academic programs without testing them in poor schools, when we trained teachers as if they would only ever teach in affluent schools.

So disadvantaged schools have helped us get our equity results, even while being denied access to the academic measures that would prove their effectiveness. They are an invisible part of the success story of public and Catholic education. We simply do not acknowledge them. Is this because we operate policies in bad faith, knowing we have isolated these schools and that we keep them isolated for fear of diverting additional resources to them? Or is it because we are blinded by the successes of the schools that operate at the high end of the system, and therefore we can only enjoy their success in good conscience if we believe that they enjoyed no advantages and did not have the invisible slave of the disadvantaged schools working for them?

When we look at the high-end schools, we congratulate ourselves on their achievements, while recognising these achievements will be, as it were, “naturally” greater, given social intakes. We can even be critical of schools that could do better, given these intakes. There is always room for improvement.

But do we really question how good the achievement is? Are globally high marks an unproblematic measure? Do they mean depth of learning, individual mastery of concepts, independent learning, high levels of personal commitment? Are the very strong chances of top grades – for example, every second candidate from a high socioeconomic background getting at least a B+ in literature – just a reflection of solid teaching? Or are they also a measure of examination tactics, careful management of content, filtering of students into a hierarchy of academic options, weeding out failures, a critical mass of experienced teachers, online library and database resources, state-of-the-art laboratories and technical support, and selective admissions?

Do the highly trained academic students from the high-end schools survive university as often as those from more modest backgrounds? Have they really been given any choice over where they are going, why they’re in school, what they can study? And within high-end schools, is it all equal? Have these schools solved the equity issue, even when their location in social and institutional space presents them with only a limited challenge?


SO FAR HAVE we been questioning the real quality of achievement – of education – at the high end of the school system that we have looked on these schools as the bearers of innovation, as leaders in system-wide reform.

This story can be found in the Karmel Report itself. Remarkably, the Karmel committee members relayed one of the most persistent, but baseless, claims made for the funding of wealthy independent schools. They claimed to be innovators and we took them at their word. Of course, no one can doubt that there have been resources enough in that sector to support innovation. But energies have been diverted to competitive advantage and examination performance, to product branding and business strategies for growth and market position.

Is more innovation to be found in selective schools in the public system? Or are their efforts more focused on exploiting relative advantage and selective intakes and driving up examination standards to levels unattainable by comprehensive schools?

Real innovation would be about breaking the link between social position and learning outcomes so clearly evident in the map of achievement. It would be about depth of learning, about intrinsic learning satisfaction, about interactive teaching styles that fully engage learners, about transparency of learning objectives, evaluation of programs from a pedagogical perspective, about freedom of choice based on interest and enjoyment of learning.

Real innovation is not going to come from the high end of schooling. The high-end schools are committed to conservation, to entrenchment of advantage, to predictability, to the routine production of success for the groups for whom success is routinely expected.

We have to look elsewhere for innovation – for system-wide change in the fundamental qualities of teaching and learning. And our most likely candidates are going to be the schools where everything depends on relationships between individuals. These are the disadvantaged schools. It is in these schools that the fundamental question of a child’s relationship to learning in a social environment is posed in its most acute form. It is in these schools where nothing can be taken for granted regarding a child’s readiness for school, his or her language skills, attitude to work in a classroom, respect for others, comprehension of the “craft” of being a pupil.

We could innovate elsewhere. We could find schools that were exactly average in social and academic terms and fund them for generalisable innovations. But if we want innovations that get to the root of the teaching relationship, we should choose schools where this is the number one priority. And if we want to train beginning teachers so well that they can manage the most demanding environments, what schools would we pick? Exactly the ones we currently pick.

We would choose schools that are condemned to innovate in order to achieve the most modest outcomes. For only then could we be sure that we were going to the root. We want children to relate undistractedly to their learning, to be free to learn in the classroom, to love the experience of learning, to share their experience, to teach themselves and others. Teachers who can create environments in which these learners thrive are needed at all levels and in all locations of the school system, including at the high end.

So we would choose as our engines of innovation not high-end schools, but disadvantaged schools. We would make them laboratories of teaching and learning reform. We would relate to them as sources of systemic renovation aimed at fundamental improvements in quality of learning on behalf of the system as a whole.

Of course, for that to happen, we would have to stop isolating disadvantaged schools. We would have to abandon all the practices that we employ to keep them isolated, which cut them off from the mainstream, which expose them to constant failure, to public slander, to low expectations. We could not keep taking their teachers and their most able students. We would have to fund them for durable improvement. We would need different initial teacher training, incentives to stay on, stable staffing and leadership, specialist support to address welfare and social needs so that education funds are concentrated on educational activities.

All these could not happen without more targeting and scaling of support. There would have to be greater transparency, more monitoring and evaluation. Schools would need to develop programs of innovation, patterns of documented and evaluated activity with known positive effects, accessible to other schools. Only through programs can benefits be generalised beyond the locations in which they originated, sustained beyond the individuals who initiated them and carried into new settings in search of a wider impact.

Policy-makers across Australia – at any rate, those committed to equity based on quality – need to forge a different relationship with disadvantaged schools. These schools should not be funded to compensate for environmental adversity and be tested simply on whether, in the narrowest of terms, they have overcome that adversity and advanced only so far as their social intakes will on average allow them. This is the wrong emphasis.

They should be funded as vehicles of system renovation, aimed at delivering benefits to the school system as a whole. The justification of their funding should lie in their role as innovators for the system, not as residual sites of under-achievement that we have created. In the end, the quality of a school system can be judged by the experience of the most vulnerable children in it. A real commitment to them is a real commitment to all children everywhere in the system. It therefore must be supported by an intensity of effort, high expectations and solidarity in sharing resources. 



Jencks, C. 1972. Inequality. A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (New York: Basic Books).

Karmel, P. 1973. Schools in Australia. Report of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission (Canberra: AGPS).

Teese, R. 2000. Academic Success and Social Power. Examinations and Inequality (Carlton: Melbourne University Press).

Teese, R. and Lamb, S. 2005. Academic curriculum and school setting. How school subjects lead different lives in different schools, research in progress.

Teese, R. and Polesel, J. 2003. Undemocratic Schooling. Equity and Quality in Australian Secondary Education(Carlton: Melbourne University Press).




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About the author

Richard Teese

Richard Teese is professor and director of the Centre for Post-Compulsory Education and Training at the University of Melbourne, and the co-author with John...

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