Metiria Turei

Inequality in Aotearoa: Education

by Metiria Turei

It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually depend on reducing the social gradient in educational achievement in each country. – The Spirit Level p 108.

Apologies for the wee hiatus in my Inequality in Aotearoa blog series! I’ve been busy with all the anti-mining activity lately, plus the great news that my Bill to help protect schedule 4 lands was drawn from the ballot last week.

However, I am still working away on inequality, and it seems that awareness of this issue is picking up speed (see the cover story of this week’s Listener, “All things being equal”).

In this blog, I want to focus on the links (and there are many) between inequality and education.

You don’t need me to tell you that this Government has identified improving educational achievement as one of its key goals: that’s where the deeply flawed national standards come from.

I agree that this is an incredibly important and valuable goal. I just wish they’d done even a little bit of research, because if they had they would have found stacks of evidence telling them that if you want to improve educational standards, the single most important thing you can do is address educational inequalities. Catherine has been pointing this out for a while now.

The biggest influence on how well kids do at school is their family background. Kids do better if their parents earn a good income, value education, and provide a home for their kids with books, newspapers, and space to study. Kids who don’t have these things do worse – so far, so straightforward.

What’s interesting is that the more unequal the overall society is, the harder it is for those at the “bottom” to overcome these barriers and achieve well in education. Even though they have similar barriers to overcome, kids in Finland whose parents didn’t graduate from high school do better than kids in the US whose parents didn’t graduate from high school. The difference: inequality.

And you know what else is interesting? Even kids who don’t have as many barriers to overcome do better in more equal countries. Taking the same two countries, kids whose parents have a university qualification in Finland do better than kids in the US whose parents have a university qualification. Even for the most privileged, inequality bites.

So this is obviously a worry for kids in New Zealand, which has one of the worst rates of inequality in the OECD. (Wilkinson and Pickett note that on the face of it, New Zealand has quite high literacy scores, given how unequal we are, but also note that this could be due to the fact that we have a high proportion of kids who are not even being assessed because they have dropped out or are truant).

It is useful to think about national standards with these findings about the relationship between inequality and educational performance in mind. One of the biggest concerns raised about national standards has been that they will be used to rank schools according to performance. These in turn could be used to justify closing or removing support from schools which are perceived to be “failing”.

As Michael Marmot points out in his great book The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, all league tables really measure is socio-economic status. When you compare tables of the “best” and “worst” schools, they are almost identical to areas with the “best” and “worst” measures of social and economic deprivation.

We don’t need national standards to tell us that our poorest kids are doing worst: we need to address the underlying inequalities that influence their education so that they can do better.

Check out Catherine’s Education Ideas poster for where the Greens would start.

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