ignite mentoring: Public Education and Volunteers
The 25th of May 2018 is Public Education day in Australia, which this year falls in National Volunteers Week. As a charity working in public schools, Ignite Mentoring is deeply invested in each area. Ignite Mentoring began six years ago with the goal of addressing educational inequality in Western Australia through mentoring by university-aged volunteers. Since then, we have expanded to four new schools, reached over 1000 students, and attracted an incredibly bright group of volunteers.
Unfortunately, many of the problems we aimed to tackle back in 2012 remain today. Late last year the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) published a comprehensive study of educational inequality in Australia Educate Australia Fair?. The results paint a disappointing picture. The differences in academic performance between our highest and lowest performing students are large, and more dependent on the influence of class, family and social background than in similar states such as Canada, Ireland, Austria, Korea, Finland, and other Scandinavian countries. The OECD puts us in the 'high quality/low equity' box in its international comparisons of educational quality (Key Findings, viii). With regard to our state in particular, the report BCEC report concludes:
The Western Australian system generally performs poorly in terms of accessibility for disadvantaged students with the lowest or near-lowest equity ratios for Indigenous students, students from low socio-economic and non-English speaking backgrounds, and from regional and remote areas (Key Findings, viii).
In Western Australia, an Indigenous student is 40% less likely to finish school than a non-Indigenous student. Students from low-socioeconomic areas are five times more likely to be low-achievers than students in high socio-economic areas. This equates to a 2.5 year gap in schooling by age 15 (PISA, 45). As the BCEC report is careful to note, even with increased spending on low-SES education, the gap is rapidly widening (Key Findings xiii; 87).
These trends give clear cause for concern. However, there have been positive developments too. The link between strong public education and positive social outcomes has only become clearer over time: testing has shown that a strong system will produce citizens who are more fulfilled, healthier, more politically and socially active, less likely to depend on welfare and less likely to be involved in crime (Argy, 3). The BCEC also recommended several pragmatic policy changes that can improve the state of education (BCEC, 111-115). Chief among them are:
1) Innovative solutions to the problematic transition from primary school to high school;
2) Local community involvement in schools, and
3) Bespoke programmes to target equity groups that aren’t achieving the same outcomes as other children
These three recommendations validate Ignite Mentoring’s operations since 2012, and strengthen our resolve going forward.
Another cause for optimism is our own experience within the public education system. The teachers and support staff who have facilitated our program are dedicated and compassionate individuals, fully committed to giving young Australians better opportunities. The 2018 Gonski report urges recognising teachers with an award in the field of the Order of Australia (81). We fully endorse this recommendation.
Our greatest source of optimism is our experience within the community. In our relatively short lifespan, Ignite Mentoring has attracted a volunteer-base of diverse, thoughtful young people who are committed to serving others. Our mentors willingly give their time to support the students they work with. We are continually amazed by how many are willing to do more: to go to extra classes, to help out with our broader organisational operations, and to spend time supporting each other. Even independent of our own operation, the student volunteer space is thriving: our friends from Robogirls, Teach for Australia, Teach Learn Grow, and a wealth of other youth volunteering initiatives continue to attract and inform group of young people. The University, and the community in general, is incredibly willing to support educational development.
Inequalities in our education system exist, and the situation outline in the 2017 BCEC report is undeniably bleak. The opportunities that will be afforded to a child born today remain largely dependent on their postcode. And yet, as we hope is clear from this statement, there is concerted action for change in the community.
Ignite Mentoring restates its continued dedication to ending educational inequality. We urge the continued involvement of the community in programs such as ours, and in the conversation on education more generally. We remain indebted to the individuals that make up the public education system, which has welcomed us so fully over the past five years.
Above all we thank our volunteers, who are our friends. They continue to lead the students and the community. More importantly, they continue to lead us: our mentors don't get their drive from our program, they bring their drive to it.
Harry Sanderson, President
Helena Trang, Operations Manager
Australian Council for Education Research, PISA 2012: how Australia measures up, (February 2013)
Bankwest Curtin Economic Centre, Educate Australia Fair?: Education Inequality in Australia: Focus on the State Series, No. 5, (June 2017) <http://bcec.edu.au/publications/educate-australia-fair-education-inequality-australia/>
David Gonski, Department of Education and Training, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, (28 March 2018)
Fred Argy, 'Educational Inequality in Australia', The New Critic, (May 2007)