Family matters for education outcomes – and we have to accept and celebrate this.


The Australian headline story is Wealth key to school success. The article notes:

FAMILY and money are the most influential factors in a child’s success at school, with elite independent and government schools serving students from well-off and well-educated backgrounds dominating the list of the nation’s highest achievers.

It notes:

The Weekend Australian’s analysis shows selective schools, which have an entry test to enrol students, sit at the top of the results for secondary and primary schools, with government selectives from NSW, Victoria and Western Australia dominating the secondary rankings.


Excluding academically selective schools from the analysis reveals that independent schools dominate the ranks of highest-scoring schools, with only a handful of government or Catholic schools making the grade.


The students of the best-performing government comprehensive, or non-selective, schools, also rank above average in socio-economic and educational terms.

The story is behind a paywall. But it notes something that anyone involved in the education system knows: Family background (including parental education), family income (probably because it is correlated with parental education) and family attitude matter a lot for the educational outcomes of children. Children are not equal before they arrive at their first day of school. Children from families that value education cluster in selective government schools and the more expensive private schools. And they are more successful at school.

Unfortunately the accompanying story – The evidence is in, not all children are equal – does not address this difference but focuses on money. As the Australian study doesn’t actually have any data on funding, the story goes back to the Gonski report to conclude:

In other words, some schools are not receiving the money they need to be able to educate the students in their charge.

Undoubtedly, funding for students is part of the answer. But if family background and attitudes are a source of difference in education outcomes, throwing money at schools cannot be the whole solution. And the approach of focussing just on school funding can lead to attempts to bring the high achievers ‘back to the pack’.

So – a simple prediction. Even if ‘all schooling were equal’, so that children from families that value education highly and children from families that value education less highly, received identical schooling, my prediction is that the children from families that value education would still outperform the others in terms of education achievement.

We cannot level the playing field in education through schooling and school funding anymore than we can level it for height (chop off the feet of children with tall parents), sporting ability (if your parents are athletes you are forced to not to exercise and to eat junk food) or a host of other differences. School funding is one input to our education system. But we must avoid the temptation to try to cut down our youngest and brightest ‘poppies’  in the name of some unachievable equality of outcome.

8 Responses to "Family matters for education outcomes – and we have to accept and celebrate this."
  1. Stephen,

    Socio-economic background is important, but so is peer effect and teacher quality. I agree that throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer because the current system doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean a fully public system doesn’t work. In fact we know a fully public system may be superior to other systems via the Finland Education Model. What needs to be done is a transformation of the education system + throw money at it.

    Here is Pasi Sahlberg discussing the Finlnd Education Model on Lateline a couple of weeks ago.

  2. Btw, the Finland Education Model shows you can increase academic standards across the the income distribution and decrease variance in education outcomes at the same time.

  3. SBS Insight recently ran a session on funding for schools. One of the invited experts said something like “It may cost up to $30,000 per year to educate some children, because of pre-existing disadvantage.”  Setting unbounded limits on something as fundamental as teaching of children is a formula for corruption. 

  4. We cannot level the playing field in education through schooling and school funding   …
    Of course not.  But just because we can never make the playing field level is no argument at all that we shouldn’t do what we can to reduce the tilt.  Still less is it an argument for funding arrangements that add even more tilt – which is what our current system of aid to private schools does.
    Your argument is identical to that of the Victorians who used to  quote the gospels saying “the poor ye have always with you” as a reason not to fight poverty.  In both cases it uses poor logic to justify a privileged position.

  5. It should be noted that the “Finnish Model” (as somebody put it) requires less education funding as a % of GDP to achieve a better result than Australia. And from direct observation I don’t believe Finns are any smarter – or dumber – than Australians. I’m sure there is more information to be had from those basic numbers however.
    Next time a teacher or education academic tells us we need more funding, we should ask how they intend to use it other than throw it at perceived problems.

  6. “The students of the best-performing government comprehensive, or non-selective, schools, also rank above average in socio-economic and educational terms.”

    Wouldn’t that be true almost by definition?

  7. Looks like the PM has jumped on the back of Ferrari’s excellent article (in The Weekend Oz). Hasn’t popped up free in Google yet, so may have to fork out the $1.70. 
    Kevin Donnelly harps on about “choice”. That’s the problem, alright. Not that some parents choose to buy houses near Balwyn High, but that many parents choose to ignore their children’s educational needs.
    The taxpayer picks up the tab for the schooling of kids from neglectful households, since the most disadvantaged kids will always attend government schools. 
    If the PM pitches her response to an implied dollar amount required to ‘bridge the gaps’, I’ll be most disappointed. 

  8. Trevor,

    Not all parents can afford to buy their kids a private school education, provide private tutoring, or as you say move to Balwyn. The lack of means does not make those parents ‘neglectful’. And even if some parents were ’neglectful’ should the kids of those parents and the parents who lack means be left behind? Unfortunately their is no market for parents.

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