After a rollercoaster of support and censure for the Gonski regime since its genesis in 2012, the Australian education system is still slipping down a dangerous slope through declining results.

The latest UNICEF report, which ranks the educational systems of 41 nations, lists Australia at 39.  The report assesses basic measures of teaching and learning and confirms suspicions that the clamour and debate surrounding the 2012 Gonski reforms have achieved little in the way of progress. Over a quarter of Australian 15-year-olds are not reaching minimum standards in maths, science and reading. To compare, ten per cent more Finnish 15-year-olds meet standard levels for these three key areas, compared with Australian students. 

Both Finland and Malta – ranked first and second in the UNICEF report, respectively – boast 99.9 per cent preschool attendance rates (for at least one year), while Australian data indicates only an 80.3 per cent attendance rate. According to Amy Lamoin, UNICEF Australia’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, it’s early education which heavily impacts the academic level of the 15-year-olds who form the basis of the report. In all of the fields investigated by UNICEF, education was where we ranked the lowest.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a survey which evaluates 72 countries’ education systems worldwide, 61 per cent of Australian students met the National Proficient Standard, while only 11 per cent were high performers in 2015. Since PISA testing was introduced in 2000, average Australian scores have been in steady decline for all three areas of maths, science and literacy. 

So, why have the results of Australia’s efforts to provide quality education not been demonstrated? According to PISA findings, the answer is inequity. 

When we look at only high performing inner-city and metropolitan schools in Melbourne, Sydney or Canberra, the reason behind Australia’s low ranking seems unclear. However, taking into account the vast range of students’ backgrounds, both geographically and socioeconomically, the less-than-impressive figures are not so astonishing. 

After all, we don’t need the 2015 PISA results to tell us that a considerable discrepancy exists between regional and metropolitan areas of Australia, and between affluent and disadvantaged families. It is this inconsistency which will continue to skew data – and more importantly, perpetuate real mechanisms of inequality nationwide. 

In fact, we might go as far as to question – what was really so surprising about these figures? 

Did we forget about the millions of students who come from underprivileged backgrounds? Did we choose, too, to overlook the children in country towns, rural areas and Indigenous communities who are afforded only a fraction of the support and resources available in the major cities? 

With the presence of organisations such as the Salvation Army, Eastern Emergency Relief Network, The Smith Family and many more in the local community and beyond, it is difficult to imagine that any Australian would be totally ignorant of the challenges posed to those who come from underprivileged families. If we are fully aware of the burgeoning gap between poverty and prosperity in Australia, how can we really expect to receive overwhelmingly positive results from reports such as that of UNICEF or PISA? Somewhere along the line, we have allowed words like “funding” “package” and “boost” to persuade us that tangible progress is being made towards providing every child with a stellar education. But it’s not the words that are the solution. Neither should we presume that the data – which has become the focus of debate on the topic of education – is the real issue. 

Rather, it is our inability as a nation to respond to and improve the inconsistencies and inequalities that give rise to these statistics which will continue to engender decline in our education system.