Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 13, 2023


Educational Equity

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (15:44): Over a decade ago, the University of Adelaide School of Law signed into being a program called the Adelaide Law School Achievement Program. It is an entry pathway that accepts the student from any South Australian secondary school who achieves the top selection rank among their school's year 12 cohort who nominate a law preference. An early student to take up this entry pathway was a top achiever from one of the most disadvantaged high schools in Adelaide. Although a very strong student, her ATAR score would not otherwise have been high enough to study law at Adelaide. She thus became the first student from her high school ever to be accepted to law at the University of Adelaide.

A few years later, she became the first student from her high school ever to earn a law degree, but this cannot be because no other kid from her school ever aspired to become a lawyer. It is widely understood that kids who grow up in environments of social economic disadvantage face massive barriers to educational achievement that their more privileged peers rarely have to contend with. It is a reality that begins affecting their chances in life long before they start school. Talent is equally distributed across our community; opportunity, however, is not.

Rich kids do not start life smarter than disadvantaged kids. Disadvantaged kids simply do not have a level playing field on which to develop their skills. An unknown number of talented students, due to the circumstances of their lives and often due to their postcodes, are fighting uphill from day one. Their school performance is far less likely than their more privileged peers to reflect their true intellectual potential. Expecting them to keep fighting uphill amid all their challenges for long enough to finish year 12 with strong results is asking too much and is leaving too many behind. It is hard to prioritise school work if, as just one example, you also have to hold down a job to help put food on the table and keep the lights on.

It takes a whole-of-system approach to education and child development policies that starts in the early years and a government willing to invest meaningfully in their efforts to see a nontrivial proportion of talented disadvantaged kids access the opportunities in education and in life that they deserve, but that is exactly how a just society should operate. It should take steps to level the playing field by implementing effective means to distribute opportunity, supporting all young people to make the most of their innate ability. There is a term to describe this: capitalisation of talent. Until I heard it, I did not have a specific phrase to capture one of the main reasons that drove me to get involved in politics.

A jurisdiction's capitalisation rate is the proportion of people within that jurisdiction who can realise their potential whatever the circumstances of their lives. It is one measure that reflects how successful and how fair a society is. When we maximise the capitalisation of talent, everybody wins. It is not just the right thing to do; it is a clear economic and productivity imperative. The individual student benefits, along with their family, their community, their state and their country. With a genuine distribution of opportunity, barriers to economic mobility start to evaporate. If you are serious about capitalisation, you must recognise that supporting disadvantaged secondary school students to access university pathways is only part of the endgame.

The most crucial years of a child's development are the earliest years. I am proud of the Malinauskas government's commitment to delivering on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care. Prioritising the 1,000 most vulnerable children in our state in the rollout of universal access to preschool for three year olds is exactly the sort of action that will help to distribute opportunity where it is needed and to facilitate better capitalisation of talent. Each of the 12 recommendations that we will implement will help make a difference.

To see meaningful progress you cannot just do a few things. Success requires a massive shift in the way your systems operate. You must play a very long game. This is a government that I know will keep working to improve how we distribute opportunity for young South Australians. However long I personally remain here, I will embed the principles underlying the effective capitalisation of talent in my work and in my advocacy.