Research shows schools can break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage, but many do not. 

Many young Australians are on the road to a less fulfilling life due to poverty and disadvantage, but schools can play a critical role in changing those stakes, according to a new study led by Flinders University.

“The risk factors for social exclusion at school are worse for young adolescents who live in low income households or who experience poverty,” says sociologist Professor Gerry Redmond.

“Adolescents who live with a disability, care for a family member, speak a language other than English at home, or identify as Indigenous are all more likely than other adolescents to be living in poverty.

“Feedback from marginalised young people in the study shows how the experience of disadvantage and exclusion affects their life satisfaction, which is a predictive indicator of wellbeing and mental health in adulthood,” he says.

The researchers conclude that, in general, Australia’s weak social investment policies are failing to make a difference because they focus mainly on individual responsibility or ‘self-reliance’, with limited efforts to reduce inequality in educational outcomes through focusing on bigger inequities both within and outside the education system.

“There is no reason why poverty should be associated with experiences of exclusion at school,” Professor Redmond says. 

“Yet the evidence we have gathered suggests that this is what happens in Australian schools.”

The last time the Australian Government pledged to address child poverty in 1987, child poverty rates fell significantly; however rates of child poverty have not fallen significantly since, and Australia remains mid-table in the OECD child poverty rankings.

The paper covers more than 3,500 Australian 13-14 year olds, and confirms their experience of social exclusion at school, in terms of engagement, teacher support and bullying victimisation.

It shows prospects for Australian children living in low income households have been relatively unchanged this century. 

“If schools don’t have the resources and systems to counter or fully address the needs of marginalised young people, then there’s clearly the need for wider reforms and actions to support these young people’s situation,” Prof Redmond says. 

Children living in rural and remote communities, or those that have difficulty with learning or live in out-of-home care, also face similar prospects for marginalisation at school.

The experts say that there is a weakness in school systems - particularly in rich countries - in the handing back of responsibility to the family and student.

According to Diana Harris, acting CEO of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), the study highlights the “systemic forces in play” which continue to lead to the marginalisation of low income, children managing disabilities or chronic disease, and those from an Aboriginal or culturally diverse background.

“This characterisation of exclusion as failings of a young person’s own level of ‘grit’ or resilience, or the behaviour of a school bully who needs to learn empathy, fails to recognise the systemic forces in play,” Ms Harris says. 

“These aren’t things that a school can fix with an anti-bullying policy or a buddy bench, and they have real-world, long-term effects on a young person’s life and future.”