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Closing the Gap in Education?

Closing the Gap in Education?

Ilana Snyder & John Nieuwenhuysen

Monash University

The impetus for this collection was a conference held at the Monash South Africa campus, near Johannesburg, in November 2009. As the title for the conference, ‘Closing the Gap?’ did the trick. It attracted the participation of international leaders in education and related fields interested in exploring a range of interconnected questions on marginalisation, and highlighted the pressing issues of inequality that urgently require solutions. It was the catalyst for important conversations across national borders and suggestions for moving forward. But the metaphor was criticised by many of the participants, who saw it as unsatisfactory and polarising. They made this point in one way or another and provided compelling elaborations of its limitations.

The two-day conference focused on the numerous challenges facing educational systems in three southern world countries – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The central concern was the identification of ways in which educational systems meet the needs of marginalised students. Two main categories of marginalised students were considered: children and young people who live in remote Indigenous communities; and deeply disadvantaged students in low socioeconomic circumstances on the fringes of urban areas. Relevant issues were identified, research findings shared and recommendations made for policy renewal and reform.

Although there are significant differences in educational provision and outcomes between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it was evident that there are some remarkable parallels. All three countries were colonised – with the remnants of that experience still evident – and are multicultural. All have marginalised communities that are not benefiting equally from the wealth enjoyed by parts of the population, and all have some examples of success in enhancing educational opportunities and futures for disadvantaged young people. And in each country there is the will to improve education for marginalised students, yet achieving that goal has often been elusive.

Integral to the conference papers and the chapters that developed from them is the belief that education systems have a moral responsibility to take seriously the plight of those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. Communities historically experience marginalisation through colonisation, systemic racism and other forms of structural oppression. Their marginalisation is inherited from past policies: in South Africa, for example, colonisation was succeeded by the long-entrenched oppression of apartheid, while in Australia and New Zealand the invasion of the white settlers carried often terrible consequences for Indigenous peoples.

The chapters in this collection show how marginalisation is experienced and interpreted in schools and how its origins are found in unequal degrees of power established by those whose interest it is to maintain or even extend inequality. Above all, the chapters highlight how complex and various power relationships underlie marginalised education.

Among the indicators of disadvantage in a society, such as poverty, unemployment and poor health, low educational outcomes are among the most important. In the three southern world societies covered by this book, the relative proportions of each total population falling into the disadvantaged category vary, with South Africa displaying the greatest comparative inequality in income, employment, living conditions and educational standards. However, despite these differences in degree, a common question remains: How can the wealth and taxation resources of the affluent, more privileged segments of each economy be employed to help close the gap in education standards between the rich and poor schools, training institutions and universities?

The foundation for the major themes of the conference and the book was provided by two keynote contributions. The first was delivered by Professor Mick Dodson AM, Australian of the Year 2009, from the Australian National University, and the second by Professor Leon Tikly, from the University of Bristol. They spoke about the challenges and opportunities in Australian and South African education respectively. Dodson highlighted the very marked disparities between the educational attainment of Indigenous and other Australian children. He suggested that, while performative measures of competency in literacy and numeracy are an essential part of improving the education of Indigenous students, there is a danger that this approach will become a form of management and regulation that destroys Indigenous culture, failing to confront the deeper social factors affecting Indigenous education. With an eye to the future, Tikly argued that the quality of education is fundamentally a political issue and that its definitions and frameworks need to be informed by vigorous public debate and advocacy. He outlined a social justice framework for analysing the challenges and opportunities facing South African education in the global era, with a special focus on the quality of basic education experienced by disadvantaged learners.

Difficulties associated with closing the gap in education policies are examined in many of the chapters. Jon Altman and Bill Fogarty, from the Australian National University, focus on those adopted in Australia. They identify three main difficulties: the lack of consultation with the people who are to be the subject of the proposed improvement; the statistical goals of closing the educational gap, which have effectively become abstractions quite separate from the daily reality of life for the people concerned, and which have been converted into quests for ‘technical, managerialist’ solutions; and the principles designed to achieve the closing the gap outcomes, which do not take into account the diversity of circumstances of the disadvantaged, their beliefs and the practices that separate them from ‘mainstream norms’. These difficulties illustrate the complexity of closing the educational gap policies in countries that share the experience of colonial settlement and conquest of existing occupants of the land.

Ensuing themes that were explored at the conference and in the book include: the scope and substance of marginalisation in education in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; the structure and entrenchment of disadvantage; Indigenous educational challenges in Australia and New Zealand; educational disadvantage and gender; education, social justice and equity.

In this collection a number of key questions about marginalisation in education are examined by the contributors:

  • What does marginalised education mean? What is its extent? Are there indices to measure it?
  • What form does educational disadvantage take? What is the relationship between ethnicity and educational opportunity, relative outcomes and employment income after completion of study?
  • Can the substantial financial and other resources of the well-endowed segment of the economy and society bring better standards and opportunities to those in poorer segments?
  • Are there gender inequalities in educational opportunities in diverse societies and do these vary according to ethnicity?
  • How can social justice and equity be enhanced by altering educational policies?

Many insights emerge from the chapters included in this collection. Chief among them is the need to recognise the complexity of education policy in diverse societies. It is hard to see how one universal approach can succeed or satisfy all. However, there is a common theme integral to all the chapters. All acknowledge the inequalities in education in past years and ask the pressing question: To what extent are these inequalities entrenched today despite the best efforts of governments in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to close or at least narrow the educational gap?

In her chapter Thobeka Mda, from the Human Sciences Research Council South Africa, vividly highlights the idea of long-term entrenchment by focusing on the structure and persistence of disadvantage in South Africa. In the apartheid era of the past, there was a deliberate, designed educational policy aimed at ensuring that black people would occupy only menial and unskilled positions in the labour market. However, Mda contends that today the unified national South African Education Department does not adequately tackle inequality in the education system:

Just as South Africa has two nations (haves and have-nots/rich and poor), so is the education system divided into two. Inequality remains between provinces: Gauteng and the Western Cape are the privileged and rich provinces, with better schools, more resources, and better school results. Moreover, the gap between the rural areas and the urban areas is growing wider.

In Australia, this is also evident, as noted by Mick Dodson in his chapter:

Quite simply, the experience of school for many Indigenous children in Australia is negative. It remains a place for the formal assessment of how far you fall short. The measureable gap in educational outcomes is preceded and produced by subtle, subjective factors – attitudes and beliefs and expectations feeding off and reinforcing low levels of self-esteem. Schools are not frequently seen as integral to Indigenous communities. Our children do not see them as an extension of their home life, but rather as entry into an alien environment that is, at best, indifferent to their culture and identity. At worst, it is antagonistic.

By contrast, Richard Bedford, from the University of Waikato; Paul Callister, Victoria University of Wellington; and James Newell, Monitoring and Evaluation Research Associates NZ, who write about the New Zealand context, conclude:

Gaps in education attainment in New Zealand between major ethnic groups persist, especially when the standards for attainment used are those for the majority European population. However, there is evidence in the aggregate statistics… that these gaps are narrowing.

They note that rather than an emphasis on gaps to be bridged, the preferred approach in New Zealand is ‘strengths based, one that emphasises the potentials of people rather than persistent deficits or gaps… between measures of performance’.

The causes of differing educational outcomes for various groups in comparative countries are, of course, the product of each nation’s history, composition, policy and other circumstances. Lessons of achievement in one country in improving educational standards and reducing equality cannot readily be transported as a policy base to another national setting. But the analysis in this book does cast light on different possible avenues of improving educational outcomes in each of the three diverse countries examined.

In addition to the over-riding need to recognise the complexity of education policy in diverse societies, a number of other important insights about marginalisation are developed in this book. First, there are dangers in a diverse society in trying to apply an educational policy that adheres too tightly to national mainstream benchmarks and does not encompass local needs and aspirations.

Second, the ways in which students are empowered to learn in the mainstream classroom setting is sometimes a more critical issue than the idea of ‘closing the gap’.

Third, in an unequal society, a sense of national ownership of the difficulties of becoming a ‘knowledge’ society is necessary and policies regarding funding need to be specific. Effective educational reforms require adequate, continuing, long-term funding.

Fourth, in societies with a ‘toxic mix’ (see Bloch this volume) of crime and violence in schools, disruptive and ill-disciplined behaviour undermines the scope for learning and creates wider adverse consequences in the general community. An agreed vision and clear plan, with priorities and targets, and national mobilisation to make education a first priority, is one part of the effort required to counter the toxic mix.

Fifth, a variety of background initiatives can help to bolster the quality of educational services in poor, remote societies. These include, for example, better access to material child and health care services, kindergarten facilities, and culturally inclusive learning environments.

Sixth, in disadvantaged communities a broad range of activities needs to be linked to the school experience of children – for example, the school house should be in a central position, encouraging parental participation.

Seventh, there is added scope in dualistic societies to broaden the contribution that schooling can make to social and intercultural as well as economic benefits.

Eighth, social participation depends critically on access to new technologies and their integration into society and its institutions, enabling children and young people to use these technologies in the cultural and economic life of those on the periphery.

In his chapter Yusef Waghid of Stellenbosch University explores the notion of a ‘discourse of ethics’. He argues that education has abdicated from its task of engaging in ethical deliberation and imagining the good life. Increasingly, it has become an instrument of performativity within the global economy, concerned solely with transmitting the knowledge and skills needed to prepare for economic productivity. By so doing, Waghid argues that education has relinquished its primary mission of cultivating goodness in people and suggests that the way forward is to undertake ‘the monumental task of reclaiming goodness by connecting education to critique’.

He explains what a discourse ethics to guide education might look like. It is not just about imposing views on others, but entails actually engaging students and colleagues by offering some justification for the reasons. A discourse-oriented education is one underpinned by norms of justification through making the point clearer to others, who in turn offer an account of their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the arguments.

The educational practice advocated by Waghid captures the mood and spirit of the conference and this subsequent volume. At the conference there was open trans-cultural discussion. It epitomised what Waghid rues the academy is losing in the culture of performativity that prevails. All the contributors recognise that although education often marginalises various groups, it can also be the means for improvement. Even when it disappoints, education has the potential to promote social justice for both individuals and groups.

Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen