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School comparison: The haves and the have nots

Stark differences between the resourcing, safety and orderliness of ‘affluent’ and ‘disadvantaged’ schools contribute to large student achievement gaps, as Kylie Hillman explains.

Studies show that students from disadvantaged homes tend to perform lower, on average, in formal assessments of achievement than students from more affluent homes. They also show that achievement in schools with higher proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds tends to be lower than in schools with more affluent students.

Studies supporting these claims include the most recent administrations of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted nationally by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in 2011.

PIRLS and TIMSS show that, at Year 4 level in Australia, there is an average difference of 56 score points in reading, 58 points in mathematics and 56 points in science between ‘disadvantaged schools’, in which more than a quarter of students come from disadvantaged homes and less than a quarter come from affluent homes, and ‘affluent schools’, in which more than a quarter come from affluent homes and less than a quarter come from disadvantaged homes.

Analysis of the teacher and principal questionnaires that form part of PIRLS and TIMSS illustrates further differences between affluent and disadvantaged schools, and suggests reasons behind the achievement gap.


When asked to indicate the extent to which instruction was affected by a variety of resource shortages, 55 per cent of students in affluent schools had principals who reported being ‘somewhat affected’ compared to 75 per cent of students in disadvantaged schools.

Teachers are obviously a key resource when it comes to providing a high-quality education to all students. Along with issues such as qualifications and training, teachers’ confidence in their ability to teach can be an important factor to consider. Just 27 per cent of teachers in disadvantaged schools reported feeling ‘very confident’ teaching science compared to 51 per cent of teachers in affluent schools, while 66 per cent of teachers in disadvantaged schools were ‘very confident’ teaching maths compared to 81 per cent in affluent schools.

Figure 1: Teacher confidence in teaching mathematics and science

Safety and orderliness

To investigate perceptions of safety and orderliness, principals were asked whether their schools had problems such as tardiness, absenteeism, classroom disturbances, cheating, profanity, vandalism, theft, intimidation or verbal abuse and physical fighting among students.

About half (51 per cent) of students in disadvantaged schools had principals who reported minor problems in these areas, and a further eight per cent reported major problems. In affluent schools, only 20 per cent of students had principals who reported minor problems in these areas, and none reported major problems. Notably, Australian students in schools with ‘hardly any problems’ scored higher on average in reading and science in TIMSS and PIRLS than students in schools with minor problems.

Towards equity

A key message from the most recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report released by ACER in December 2013 is that high-performing countries tend to allocate resources more equitably across socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. The finding from PIRLS and TIMSS that disadvantaged schools appear to be more affected by resourcing shortages than affluent schools, indicates that more needs to be done in Australia to address equity issues and raise academic achievement. ■

Read the full report:
Snapshots Issue 3, February 2014, ‘Equity and effectiveness’ by Sue Thomson and Kylie Hillman.

Further information:
For further snapshots from PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, subscribe to ACER’s free series: Snapshots: Global assessment // local impact


About the author

Kylie Hillman is a Senior Research Fellow in ACER's Surveys and International Assessments research program. 

More [rd] articles by Kylie Hillman

View selected works of Kylie Hillman

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