An uneasy relationship: choice and equity in education

Bronwyn Hinz highlights why allowing choice in the education system can impact on equity outcomes.

Throughout our history, Australia’s school education system has been shaped by two central and competing principles – choice and equity.

Likewise, our broader political system is influenced by these duelling principles, which were major drivers behind the establishment of our federal system of government in 1901.

It’s useful to consider this when unpicking how the school policy landscape has been transformed over the past half a decade as policy makers strive to enhance choice and equity into the system – through mechanisms such as the Gonski reforms and NAPLAN testing.

The Gonski review highlighted systemic problems such as inefficiency and, most worryingly, the entrenchment of inequity in Australian education. It found that resources were still not targeted to where they were most needed and fragmentation of our school systems and governance posed obstacles to innovation and improvement.

These two ever-present principles of choice and equity have an uneasy relationship, and the relative influence of the two has waxed and waned over time and between governments. We know that choice can drive innovation and responsiveness, and yet on the flip side choice can undermine equity and, in some ways, limit the effectiveness of Australia’s schooling system.

Understanding the interaction between the two principles in schooling, and the interactions between the schooling system and broader federal system is the key to unlocking the potential of our school system, its students and teachers, and an essential foundation for any positive, lasting reform.

Learn more about Australia’s complex schooling system - its performance, recent changes and future directions - in Bronwyn Hinz’s chapter in the latest edition of Social Policy in Australia, published this month by Oxford University Press.

Read about the Mitchell Institute’s four propositions for school policy reform in New approaches to persistent problems.

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