Educational disadvantage

On Monday 27 February I was invited to speak with the Advancement Team at the University of Sydney. This body is responsible for providing the direction, coordination and management of the fundraising programs for the university.

Part of their role also involves connecting with University of Sydney’s alumni to discuss their views on the direction and strategic priorities of the University. In this case it is to encourage philanthropic support for the University’s ventures. Part of this role is to increase scholarship support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A scholarship student

Graduation day, University of Sydney 1970

I’m not in a position to take a financial part in philanthropic initiatives, but I can provide energy and time. My particular interest is in the progress of students from disadvantaged backgrounds goes back to my own time at the University of Sydney and also to subsequent professional interests.

As a scholarship student I came a from a family without previous university, education.

Arriving at the University of Sydney was an interesting encounter for me, I think my transition was facilitated by several factors:

1. an assiduous habit of summarizing and further summarizing notes that I made when I read books;

2. being confident enough to avail myself of the rich, social life that the university presented through its clubs, and societies; and

3. high levels of literacy at home.

Our family’s challenges

At the end of her primary school education my mother gained a place at Sydney Girls High School, this was during the great depression of the 1930s, so she was unable to attend because the family couldn’t afford the more comprehensive uniform required at that school.

My father was from a sole parent family that struggled through the depression years. From 1928 until 1942 they lived at 16 different addresses until an eventual move to Denning Street Coogee, in 1942.

At home we spoke standard English. We used irregular verbs correctly and we didn’t use much slang, except in context. Ten years before I started school, after the Japanese shelled Sydney, rich people moved out of the eastern suburbs when they could and working class people from inner Sydney moved in. This brought a specific industrial working class tone coupled with linguistic influences from the horse racing industry. Growing access to radio, and television from 1956 onward, ensured that standard forms of English were increasingly common in the suburb.

My maternal grandfather’s death

My grandfather, Sid Thompson, was a most important in my life. My father was mostly away at sea and Sid was my special older male figure.

When he died in 1952 I was grieved and in a depressed state for some time. At school my performance slowed. I was disengaged and inward sometimes wandering around the playground alone and alienated from the entire experience of schooling.

One day in first Class while I was in a bit of a trance our teacher took the class out to another part of the school, unnoticed by me. When I realised I was alone I slipped out of the room. My class was nowhere to be seen so I decided to go home. Surprisingly, I met another boy, perhaps in the same situation, so I accompanied him to his place on the other side of the suburb before walking to my own house. All this occurred a short while before school finished for the day. Next day I was bemused by the strength of the reaction, there was nothing punitive about it simply surprise, amazement and concern that I had left the school and gone home alone.

My depressed state continued into second class, my concentration continued to suffer. Miss Johnstone our teacher, and the Infants Mistress, was stern. One day she had me stand in front of the class and spell each of ten words from a list that she read out. Every time I made a mistake she hit me with a ruler. We had a student teacher with us at the time, and I knew from her reaction how inappropriate my teacher’s behaviour was. I hadn’t realised how cruel she could be before that incident.

Not until Fourth class did I reengage with school. That year I was fortunate enough to have a male teacher, perhaps he reminded my of my grandfather, we called him Pop Fowler. He grew up in the country and regaled us with stories of country life as a child. This captured my imagination and helped to populate my sense of Australia. Thanks to his narrative style, when we began to study Australian history, in those days just the history of white explorers, it it made sense, and I began to gain an understanding of some of the major rivers they followed in their attempt to open up opportunities for European settlement in the rural parts of New South Wales.

Fourth class was also the year when we sat for our first test of learning ability, or maybe it was an IQ test I can’t be certain. My big problem with it was that I could see more than one answer to some of the questions, I don’t know whether I was simply misunderstanding them, or whether I was understanding the questions in a more sophisticated way, I can’t remember, but what I do remember is bursting into tears of frustration and a profound sense of failure. Those who did well in the test were sent off to an Opportunity School where they were prepared for entry to Sydney Boys High School. Their curriculum was enriched, with lots of field visits.

By this time I joined the Cubs so this made up for some of the extra mural activities enjoyed by the ‘gifted’ students.

By the time I reached Sixth class, I was a competent enough student, but there was a lot of pressure to study formally since there were selective classes in some high schools, and another chance to qualify for Sydney Boys High School. Students could also go to Sydney High if their father or a sibling had gone there.

I went to Randwick Boys High School where I thought I was going to prepare for a trade, so I studied wood work, metal work and Descriptive Geometry (Technical Drawing) up to the end of middle school. By this stage I realised that I was competent in English, History and Geography. Along with Economics, theses subjects became my passion in the senior school.

Geography was my strongest subject, assisted by skills I learned in the scouting movement.


Being the first member of my extended family to attend a university felt strange. My pass in the old Leaving Certificate was sufficient to leave me with three scholarship offers. 

  • Commonwealth Scholarship
  • Teachers Scholarship
  • NSW Public Service Scholarship

Coming from a family of five children my parents were adamant that I must take the scholarship with a living allowance, the Teachers Scholarship. This meant my trajectory was determined:

  • History
  • Geography
  • Economics

Disciplines like Anthropology and Archaeology were unknown to me. So, governed by necessity and familiarity, my approach was to continue studying in the familiar disciplines of history, geography, economics.

Eventually I picked up Government (Political Science).

Campus Life

After entering university and embracing campus life, I happened to meet several people who were tutoring in anthropology. Listening to their fieldwork experiences engaged my interest. Yet my academic path was determined by the requirements of the education system. There was little scope to change direction. 

Fortunately, this being the 1960s, I eventually became so absorbed in the student movement against conscription and the Vietnam War that I neglected studies in my strongest area, geography. Rather arrogantly, I thought that with an honours pass in Geography at the Leaving Certificate, I could just cruise. I lost my scholarship. 

To support my continuing studies I managed to get work, as a camera operator, with the Sydney University Television Service. This work exposed me to a wide range of academic disciplines including Archaeology Biology, Botany, Dentistry, Medicine, Physics, Veterinary Science, Biblical and Semitic Studies studies.  We also made videos for a Sunday morning called Television Tutorial telecast on Channel Seven.

After completing a major in Economics, in the last years of my degree, 1969, i majored in History – United States Historiography.

Improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students

As a scholarship student I gained a sense of the role of privilege in access to tertiary education. So after my early years of teaching I was appointed to educational consultancy role by the Education Department, as the Project Officer for the Disadvantaged Schools Program (DSP), and the Disadvantaged Country Areas Program (DCAP). I worked in this role from 1980 till 1985. 

About the DSP

This was generated using ChatGPT. I’m familiar with the DSP so to save research time I used the tool.

The DSP was established by the Australian Schools Commission in 1973 with the objective of improving educational opportunities for students in schools facing socio-economic disadvantage. The program aimed to achieve this by providing additional funding and resources to these schools, enabling them to better address the specific educational needs of their disadvantaged students.

Specifically, the objectives of the DSP were:

  1. To provide additional financial resources to schools facing socio-economic disadvantage, so they could provide better educational opportunities and support for their students.
  2. To improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students, including their academic achievement, retention rates, and transition to further education or employment.
  3. To support schools in developing programs and initiatives that address the specific needs and challenges faced by disadvantaged students, such as literacy and numeracy support, English language development, and targeted intervention programs.
  4. To encourage greater community involvement in disadvantaged schools, by promoting partnerships between schools, families, and local community organizations.
  5. To promote equity and social justice in education, by providing additional support and resources to schools serving students from low socioeconomic background.

From The NSW Teachers Federation Journal 60, No. 4 MARCH 14, 1979

The disadvantaged schools programme: caught between literacy and local management of schools

The Disadvantaged Schools Programme (DSP) is the longest‐running Commonwealth equity programme in Australian schooling. It provides extra funds to those schools serving the poorest students. Initially, the paper traces developments in the programme since its inception in 1974 against a backdrop of changing political contexts, from the Keynesian progressivism of Whitlam through the post‐Keynesian corporate managerialism and ‘national’ approaches in schooling of the Hawke and Keating Labour governments. The main focus of the paper is on the likely impact of changes to Commonwealth schools programmes introduced by the Howard Coalition government, whereby the DSP has been regrouped as a literacy programme and accountability requirements on the states have been considerably weakened, with the states given the option to ‘broadband’ the programme with English as a Second Language (General Support) and Early Literacy. Simultaneous with these changes have been the moves by all the state systems of schooling towards school‐based management. The paper evaluates the likely impact of both the Commonwealth and state level changes on the DSP and documents the potential dangers to the programme, particularly the loss of programme memory, the abdication of system responsibility for the education of all students, the reification of literacy as the only educational problem, and the return of the individual deficit explanation for the links between socio‐economic background and school performance.

About DCAP

This was generated using ChatGPT. I’m familiar with the DCAP, later just CAP, so to save research time I used the tool.

The Disadvantaged Country Areas Program (DCAP) was another program established by the Australian Schools Commission, aimed at improving educational opportunities for students in schools located in remote or isolated areas of the country. The program had similar objectives to the Disadvantaged Schools Program, but with a particular focus on addressing the unique challenges faced by schools in rural and remote areas.

The objectives of the DCAP included:

To provide additional funding and resources to schools located in disadvantaged country areas, so they could improve the quality of education and support for their students.

  1. To improve the educational outcomes of students in remote and isolated areas, including their academic achievement, retention rates, and transition to further education or employment.
  2. To support schools in developing programs and initiatives that address the specific needs and challenges faced by students in remote and isolated areas, such as distance education programs, boarding facilities, and access to technology and resources.
  3. To encourage greater community involvement in remote and isolated schools, by promoting partnerships between schools, families, and local community organizations.
  4. To promote equity and social justice in education, by providing additional support and resources to schools serving students in disadvantaged country areas.
  5. Overall, the DCAP aimed to address the unique challenges faced by schools and students in remote and isolated areas, and to ensure that all students had access to high-quality education, regardless of their location or circumstances.

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