General education

Improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged young Australians

Anne Hampshire / 20 October 2016

It’s essential that we find scalable and cost-effective solutions that improve the educational attainment of disadvantaged children, writes The Smith Family’s Anne Hampshire. Here she explains why their Learning for Life program is succeeding.

Education’s a topic that’s constantly in the media and everyone has a view on. This isn’t surprising, given its relationship to individual and national prosperity, and because we’ve all experienced ‘school’ at some point in our lives.

This interest can be helpful – giving it high priority on the public policy agenda – as well as challenging. There are so many diverse opinions and so much educational data, that getting consensus on what matters and implementing coherent and effective policies can seem a herculean task.

As a former teacher, I’m particularly interested in understanding whether our schooling system is helping all children to achieve to the best of their ability. In particular, are our schools helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed?

While Australia’s education system is generally of high quality, there are persistent, and for me, disturbing gaps, in the educational achievements of different groups of students.

Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to start school behind their more advantaged peers. This gap is reinforced in NAPLAN, Year 12 completion rates and young people’s involvement in work or study post-school. At age 24, two in every five Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds, aren’t fully engaged in work or study. This compares to 17 percent for those from the most advantaged backgrounds.

These achievement gaps matter - for individual young Australians, their families, communities and the nation as a whole.

Importantly, there is evidence on how we can do better. This, coupled with the clear engagement of many individuals and institutions, means we should be optimistic that change is possible.

Key to improving disadvantaged children’s educational outcomes is providing early and sustained support - beginning before they start school and continuing as they move through and beyond school, into employment and further education. Nobel economist James Heckman has shown that providing balanced long-term support for disadvantaged young people is the most cost effective way of improving their educational outcomes.

The evidence is confirmed by our intuition. For very disadvantaged children, it is highly unlikely that short-term, one-off support – even of the highest quality – will be sufficient to ensure their long term educational success.

There is no ‘silver bullet’. But consistent quality support over time, that builds young people’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills, takes account of their individual circumstances, and helps families be engaged in their children’s learning, has been shown to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged young Australians.

The Smith Family’s long-term educational scholarship, Learning for Life, which began almost 30 years ago, is founded on these principles. Children can start on the program in the first year of school and continue all the way through to tertiary education. Parental engagement, high expectations and a strong focus on outcomes, are at its core. Research on the program has recently been published, showing the positive impact it is having on young people’s educational outcomes.

Learning For Life

The Learning for Life program is currently supporting 34,000 highly disadvantaged children and young people a year, across all states and territories. Partnerships with families, educational institutions, philanthropy, business and the wider community are a critical part of implementation.

The program particularly aims to improve the school attendance and completion rates of young people, as well as their involvement in work or study after they leave school. These outcomes have been shown to be important for both the short and longer-term wellbeing of young people.

The recently published research report on Learning for Life, shows that seven out of ten students on the program complete Year 12 or equivalent and 84 percent of former students are in employment or further study a year after leaving the program. These are strong outcomes, particularly given the level of disadvantage experienced by these young people. All of them live in low income families; around 6,000 are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds; many have a health or disability issue; school mobility is a fairly common experience; and the majority have parents/carers who are not in employment.

Learning for Life is targeting, and importantly retaining, young people, who without support, are likely to struggle to achieve educationally. It is achieving strong outcomes because it is both using, and helping to build, the evidence of what works to improve disadvantaged young people’s educational outcomes. Both the program’s scale and its long-term engagement with students are critical here.

Analysis of student outcomes, feedback from participants, staff and key stakeholders, and external research, are informing the program’s evolution. There is more to be done, but analysis has led to a range of program refinements which have contributed to year on year improvements in students’ outcomes.

Understanding the particular circumstances which contribute to educational success for different groups of students is complex and painstaking work - young people are highly diverse, live in a range of circumstances and are involved in education over many years.

But it clearly is possible for young Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve educationally. We should be confident that through appropriate investment, increased use of data and evidence, collaborative efforts that scale effective initiatives and a focus on continuous improvement, all young Australians can realise their potential.  

Anne Hampshire is Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family and has a background in education, research, social policy, service innovation and advocacy.

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