Staying on at school is not just a matter of money

 There is considerable evidence about the correlation between socio-economic status (SES)–particularly parental income, education and occupation–and educational attainment. Hence the inclusion of a measure of SES on the Myschool website, which allows for the comparison of ‘SES-equivalent’ schools, and higher education institutions receiving funding on the basis of meeting targets for the representation of students from low SES backgrounds.

While traditional SES measures may allow for comparisons or targets, they provide little guidance to policy makers on how to overcome such disadvantage–it is generally not possible to change the education level of a student’s parent for example. However a new study has emphasised the role of student characteristics–aspirations, poor school experience and participation in activities such as smoking and alcohol consumption–which may prove more amenable to direct policy interventions.

In the study, undertaken by researchers at the Social Policy Evaluation, Analysis and Research Centre at the Australian National University, a comparative analysis was conducted between the data from two large, nationally representative surveys of young people, which contain complementary measures of disadvantage. This allows for a much richer analysis of the key factors that make a difference to school completion.

The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) are a series of surveys that trace young people’s transition from secondary school to further education and the workforce. The sample of over 10 000 participants is those students selected to take part in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study at around 15 years of age. The students are from a randomised sample of schools across Australia, and the survey includes an assessment of ability in English and mathematics, as well as school characteristics, study intentions and a range of demographic information.

The Youth in Focus (YiF) study participants are drawn from those born between October 1987 and March 1988 who had any contact with the Centrelink system in the period from 1991 to 2006, including through their parents’ receipt of family payments. It is estimated that this includes about 98 per cent of Australian youths born in the period. The administrative data was then supplemented for some 4000 participants with a phone interview when they were aged 18 (and where possible also an interview with a parent, usually their biological mother) that explored the circumstances under which the young person grew up, as well as additional demographic information.

Analysis of the demographic and family background characteristics common to both surveys confirms the findings of other studies in that being male, having a large number of siblings and coming from a single parent family are associated with lower Year 12 completion, while having parents employed in higher-status occupations and attending a private school are associated with higher completion rates. Indigenous status is associated with a much lower likelihood of completing Year 12, as is being born overseas in an English-speaking country, but being born in a non-English speaking country increases the probability of completing Year 12. Not surprisingly self-assessed school performance was also highly correlated with Year 12 completion, with those who assessed themselves as below average being less likely to complete their secondary schooling. Interestingly the two Australian Bureau of Statistics standard SEIFA measures included did not directly explain any of the difference in school completion rates.

However the more interesting findings from the study come from considering variables which are not commonly considered in analysis of disadvantage. This analysis shows that poor earlier school experiences, in particular repeating a school year or being suspended, were very strong predictors of low Year 12 completion rates, although other school characteristics, such as the type of school attended, student-teacher ratios and school resources had very little or no influence when the additional variables were included. Those who at 15 planned to participate in Year 12 or planned to go to university were also significantly more likely to complete Year 12, but 18 year olds who had ever smoked or ever drunk alcohol were less likely to have completed.

While these characteristics are probably associated with some of the more commonly considered attributes–for example more highly educated parents are probably more likely to encourage their children to aspire to higher education–they nonetheless give some pointers to possible interventions in the school environment to address issues around poor schooling experiences or to influence students’ aspirations.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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