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‘Big five’ education challenges: The ‘long tail’ of underachievement in Australia

‘Big five’ education challenges: The ‘long tail’ of underachievement in Australia

In 2015, Professor Geoff Masters identified the 'big five' challenges in school education in Australia, including the ‘long tail’ of underachievement. The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is revisiting those challenges in a webinar series called 'The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World' and the third session asks what progress has been made towards addressing Australia's underachievement problem. Dr Sue Thomson will be joined in the discussion by special guests Anne Hampshire, Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family, and Steven Kolber, teacher and literacy lead at Brunswick Secondary College in Victoria.

One of the biggest challenges facing educators is to find better ways to meet the learning needs of the many students who fall behind in our schools. The latest findings from PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) show that in Australia, roughly one-in-five 15-year-olds are failing to achieve the international baseline proficiency level in reading literacy, and about the same proportion in mathematical literacy and scientific literacy. This is Australia’s ‘long tail’ of underachievement.

This international baseline of proficiency is set at a fairly low level – these are the students that the OECD has deemed are unable to demonstrate the capacity to use their reading literacy skills to acquire knowledge and solve a wide range of practical problems. It is considered the baseline proficiency at which students are able to participate fully in society.

While it is true that there are many countries with a longer tail than Australia, these are not countries to which we normally make comparisons, and it is notable that a few countries such as Estonia, Singapore and Ireland, record rates of around 11 per cent of students below the international baseline proficiency – close to half that of Australia.

We know that students who perform poorly at 15 are at risk of dropping out of school completely (OECD, 2010), and that students who are poor readers at school are unlikely to improve much by the time they become young adults (Danish Ministry of Education, 2014). A range of studies have shown that low levels of literacy and numeracy skills limit access to well-paid and rewarding jobs, and, among other things, are reflected in poorer health outcomes and lower levels of social and political participation (Erikson et al., 2005; OECD, 2013). And, while raising standards is an important goal in its own right, it is also essential in ensuring that our education system is capable of achieving the aims of the Mparntwe Education Declaration – including ‘providing all young Australians with equality of opportunity’ (Education Services Australia, 2019, p.19).

Little progress has been made over the past six years (or even 20 years) in addressing this tail of underachievement. In fact, the spread of scores on PISA reading has widened over time – from 261 points in 2000 to 284 points in 2018. This can be seen in Figure 1, which shows achievement at the PISA proficiency levels from 2000 through to 2018 (note that, over time, the OECD has expanded some of the lower and higher levels to provide a more defined picture of achievement, resulting in more levels in 2018 than 2000). In 2000, 12 per cent of Australian students did not achieve at the baseline of level 2; by 2015 this had grown to 18 per cent and in 2018, 20 per cent.

Figure 1. Percentages of students across the reading literacy proficiency scale, Australia

Paraphrasing Masters (2016), proposed solutions to the issue of our ‘long tail’ include looking at more flexible ways of organising teaching and learning to better target individuals’ current levels of achievement and learning needs, and reconceptualising successful learning as the progress that individuals make in their learning, regardless of their starting points.

However, if we are to hope to achieve a 'stage-not-age'-based school system, we need to make sure all learners experience a level playing field, otherwise we are at risk of enshrining the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'.

Such soft bigotry leads educators, and education systems, to not have the same expectations of all students, to judge one group of students as less likely to achieve well based on their defining characteristic – be that gender, cultural or linguistic background or socioeconomic background, and so to fail to provide the scaffolding necessary for these students to achieve at the same level as their peers.

For example, PISA reports results by student immigration background: Australian-born; First-generation (student born in Australia, at least one parent born overseas); and foreign-born (student and parents born overseas). However, as can be seen in Figure 2, there are no striking differences between the proportion of students from any one of the three categories – 19 per cent of Australian-born students, 16 per cent of first-generation students and 21 per cent of foreign-born students do not achieve proficiency level 2.

Figure 2. Percentages of students across the reading literacy proficiency scale, by immigration background

Compare this to the distribution according to student socioeconomic background, shown in Figure 3. Thirty-one per cent of students in the lowest quartile of socioeconomic background (students from a disadvantaged background according to the OECD nomenclature) failed to achieve proficiency level 2, compared to 10 per cent of those in the highest quartile of socioeconomic background (students from an affluent background). Socioeconomically disadvantaged students have been and are still disproportionately represented in the 'tail of underachievement' in Australian schools. If the aim of education is to improve opportunities for all students, not just maintain the social status quo, then this is not working.

Figure 3. Percentages of students across the reading literacy proficiency scale, by student socioeconomic background

Disadvantage has many layers. Outside that of the home, disadvantaged students more often attend schools with a shortage of resources – physical, educational and teaching. As Chris Bonnor has said, we have ignored ‘the tenacious grip that family background has on student achievement. Although all schooling systems face that challenge, few concentrate disadvantaged students within disadvantaged schools to the degree evident in Australia does. Our schools are increasingly characterised less by what they do and more by who they enrol. Our framework of schools has become more regressive, divided, and segregated,’ (Bonnor et al., 2021). Until the playing field is level, we cannot contemplate a ‘stage not age’ system.

Join Dr Sue Thomson, Anne Hampshire and Steven Kolber for the free webinar Reducing the ‘long tail’ of underachievement on Wednesday, 24 March 2020 at 4pm (AEDT). Click on the link for more details and to register.

The first two webinars in the series are now available to watch on YouTube: Equipping students for the 21st century: Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World; and Reducing disparities between Australian schools: Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World. Diary date: The final two events in the series will be on Wednesday 5 May, 4pm – Getting all children off to the best start in life, and Wednesday 19 May, 4pm – Raising the professional status of teaching. Stay tuned for articles on both of these topics, and details of how to register for the events, nearer the dates.


Bonnor, C., Kidson, P., Piccoli, A., Sahlberg, P. & Wilson, R. (2021). Structural Failure: Why Australia keeps falling short of its educational goals. UNSW Gonski Institute.

Danish Ministry of Education. (2014). Danish PIAAC results.

Education Services Australia. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. (4.9MB)

Erikson, R., Goldthorpe, J. H., Jackson, M., Yaish, M., & Cox, D. R. (2005). On class differentials in educational attainment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(27), 9730-9733.

Masters, G.N. (2016, February 1). The ‘long tail’ of underachievement. Teacher magazine.

OECD. (2010). Pathways to Success: How Knowledge and Skills at age 15 Shape Future Lives in Canada. OECD Publishing.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills. OECD Publishing.

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