Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 29/06/2015

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Is education the great equaliser?

Last week, New Zealand got a glowing report card from the OECD for our economic performance and the policies set in place to bolster it. Yet the same report showed up areas of our nation that need some work,  education in particular. The report puts it this way:

“…income inequality and poverty have increased, rising housing costs have hit the poor hardest, and the rate of improvement in many health outcomes has been slower for disadvantaged groups than for others. Gaps in education attainment have narrowed, but the influence of socio-economic background on education achievement has increased.”

While New Zealand’s PISA scores representing reading, maths and science achievement across the board are just above average compared to other OECD nations, they’ve been falling in recent years. The data here isn’t new, but the trend is troubling. Possibly even more troubling is the growing opportunity gap for those struggling.

The potential for a well-grasped education to transform the lives of children born on the wrong side of the tracks is broadly acknowledged. As Horace Mann, architect of the public school system in the US put it, “education … is the great equaliser of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

But sadly, this potential to rise above is less likely to be realised in New Zealand than in most other OECD countries. The OECD highlight New Zealand schools’ inability to push up against socio-economic barriers, where “socio-economic background explains 18.4% of the variance in student performance in mathematics in New Zealand, compared with an OECD average of 14.8%.” Norway is around 7%, Finland, Canada and Japan around 10%. We’re also near the bottom of the OECD heap when it comes to “resilient students,” students in the bottom quarter of socio-economic status but top quarter of educational success. The proportion of resilient students fell from 8% in 2003 to 5% in 2012.

This is a huge concern, particularly because education has a profound impact on life chances—both within and between generations. Last year, the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions found that “poor child educational outcomes” is the main factor “making some poor children more likely to become poor adults.” A better education tends to lead to a better job in the future, leading to a higher income and the benefits that flow from this security.

In New Zealand, for example, 25-34 year-olds who’ve been tertiary-educated are over twice as likely to avoid unemployment than those without NCEA level qualifications. Families with parents who have low qualifications are also more likely to be in poverty, and thus spirals the appalling cycle of disadvantage. It begins before school even starts, with educational inequality “already apparent by the time five-year olds start school,” according to the OECD.

We as a nation believe in a fair go for those who put in the hard yards. If education isn’t the “great equaliser” it once was, we’ve got some hard yards to do ourselves on this issue.

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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