Making the Classroom a Level Playing Field

Western Sydney University education experts have developed new approaches to improve the educational standards of children from underprivileged communities in Chile and Australia.

A child’s early years lay the learning foundations for their lives. Research shows that a child’s brain has the highest potential for learning around three years of age, demonstrating the critical role early education plays in a child’s learning, cognitive skills development and socio-emotional growth.

However, children from poor communities often lack access to the educational and development resources available to children from higher-income families. Additionally, aspects of curriculum can sometimes feel disconnected from their reality, creating further educational disadvantage for these children at a critical time in their lives.

Research teams from Western Sydney University’s School of Education, led by Christine Woodrow and Wayne Sawyer, are helping to address this inequality by working with teachers and families. Through two main programmes of research, their work focuses on better equipping children from socioeconomically-disadvantaged communities in Chile and Australia with the skills to succeed and contribute to society.

Transforming futures

Chile, South America’s most prosperous nation in terms of GDP per capita, has one of the highest levels of income inequality among OECD countries. This disparity is most evident in its school system, where the quality of education is dependent on a child’s socio-economic status (SES).

To address inequality issues, in 2007 the Chilean government launched the Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows with You) initiative. The CCC provided a platform for supporting the development of under-fives, bringing together education, health and social and community services.

Under the auspices of the CCC, the Futuro Infantil Hoy (Children’s Future Today) programme was created, initially as a three-year pilot in 2008. FIH focused on raising the educational standards of children from impoverished communities in northern Chile.

Over the next eight years the programme was rolled out across an entire region, comprising the provinces of Antofagasta, El Loa, and Tocopilla, and several very poor communities in Santiago, Chile’s capital. In 2010, Woodrow, an associate professor in the School of Education and senior researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, led the design and implementation of a project based on the findings of the pilot, which aimed to improve children’s learning achievements and to meaningfully engage families in their children’s education. The project was funded through a private-public partnership involving Fundacion Minera Escondida, local municipalities and the government.

“Following presentations we had delivered at an international seminar in Santiago, the Chilean government asked us to develop a programme with them that would contribute to strengthening the quality of early childhood education in the country,” explains Woodrow.

“They liked our focus on recognising diversity, developing locally relevant pedagogies and approaches that emphasised the importance of engaging families and family knowledge in their children’s learning.”

Photo Credit: Wooden Earth Ltd

Need to know

  • WSU researchers were invited to advise on Chilean education policy
  • The successful approach incorporated children’s cultural knowledge
  • In Australia, a teacher mentoring programme showed significant advances in child learning

A new approach

Using research from FIH, and in partnership with colleagues in Chile, Woodrow developed a model of pedagogical practice that supports educational success for children in vulnerable communities, with a particular focus on literacy, family engagement and culturally responsive pedagogies.

“This approach requires a shift in how the teachers conceptualise the children they teach and their childhoods, and to view children as already capable and competent,” says Woodrow.

Educators built on what are known as the child’s ‘funds of knowledge’. These are created from the out-of-school experiences gained with their family and community. By bringing this knowledge into the classroom and by placing children at the centre of the pedagogical framework, FIH allows them to be more autonomous and engaged in their learning.

“The ‘funds of knowledge’ concept was invaluable in motivating the educators in developing relations with families and communities and to build learning experiences based on the idea of teachers and children as collaborators, with teachers as leaders of children’s learning,” says Woodrow.

“A key outcome from the programme was greater engagement from disadvantaged families in their child’s learning.”

Better engagement, improved learning

The creation of an exemplary model of pedagogical practice in early childhood centres located in high poverty areas informed the Chilean government’s national standards for early childhood teacher development learning for children up to six years and was incorporated into Chile’s national policy framework in 2012.

Results from literacy and maths tests in Chile demonstrated that children whose teachers had participated in the FIH programme significantly outperformed those who did not, and that early childhood centres that had taken part in the programme achieved performances ranked as ‘outstanding’.

A national quality assessment undertaken in 2010 found significant overall improvements for all participating early childhood centres compared to non-participating centres, with one centre achieving a top position in the National Quality Validation process in 2013.

Likewise, when the programme was implemented in Australia, all 18 Western Sydney preschools participating in the programme were rated in the Australian Children’s Education and Care Authority (ACECQA) Assessments as ‘Exceeding National Quality Standard’ — the highest possible rating.

To date, the programme has benefitted more than 5,500 children and 530 educators in underprivileged communities in Chile and Australia.

“Parents from communities have increased aspirations for their child’s learning trajectory and are keener to learn how to support their children’s learning, attend more events and participate in centre-based learning activities,” says Woodrow.

Giving kids a fair go

A student’s socio-economic status has a significant effect on their performance at school, with students from low-SES backgrounds achieving lower test scores and having a higher drop-out rate. Ensuring that low-SES students engage with the learning process is key to addressing this educational disadvantage.

Responding to this challenge, researchers from Western Sydney University, co-led by Professor Wayne Sawyer of the School of Education, in partnership with the NSW Department of Education, created the Fair Go Project (FGP).

“The programme began in response to the ongoing, international reality that schooling outcomes for students are intimately tied to their socio-economic status,” explains Sawyer. “However, teacher action in the classroom also has an effect on a child’s education, so we focused on assisting teachers by developing a model of classroom engagement.”

Established in 2000, the FGP created a student engagement framework for teachers in low-SES schools. This was then used with teachers who had been identified as particularly successful in engaging students from low-SES backgrounds. Working directly with teachers, including those in their early careers, the FGP implemented the framework in a number of classrooms.

The project also worked on a model of the teacher being a researcher of their own practice by using teachers and academics to mentor others as well as training early mentees to later be mentors themselves.

“We set up mentoring relationships between newer teachers in schools and teachers who had been on Fair Go projects previously,” says Sawyer. “This relationship was assisted by what we called ‘teacher-research assistants’ who would meet with the mentor-mentee pairs regularly and assist with their planning, observe and give feedback on the teaching.”

One assistant principal who was a participant in the study gave glowing feedback to Sawyer: “The Framework [developed by the FairGo project] has certainly shaped who I am as a teacher and a leader. I have moved from being a classroom teacher into being a senior school executive since my introduction to that framework. It is very much a part of who I am and is in our school plan now.”

The FGP’s pedagogical framework has been implemented in more than 50 schools in Western Sydney and in almost 40 low-SES rural schools, and is “helping to address educational disadvantage by changing teaching practices and raising engagement,” says Sawyer.

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Christine Woodrow

Christine Woodrow is Associate Professor in the School of Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney. Her most recent research has been focused on developing sustainable models of pedagogical land community leadership with a particular focus on early childhood literacy and numeracy pedagogies and parent engagement in vulnerable contexts.   Her research also includes early childhood policy analysis, transnational investigations of professional identities, the place of visual research methodologies in program evaluation and capacity building,  and the nexus between early childhood education and school. Dr Woodrow has been the Australian project leader for an innovative transnational program, Futuro Infantil Hoy in northern Chile for the last 6 years.  Christine’s other current projects include a cross- national study of early childhood professional identity, and family participation in children’s literacy learning. She has been an activist in the early childhood policy arena both nationally and regionally in Australia and has a deep understanding of the early childhood policy context, nationally and internationally. She was a recent keynote speaker at the International IRECE conference in Santiago, Chile and has presented her research in numerous international forums. Christine has been involved in diverse curriculum projects in Australia, including  the development of the early childhood curriculum: National Early Years Learning Framework: Being, Belonging and Becoming. She is also a chief investigator for a study researching curriculum and quality improvement in early childhood in western Sydney.

Previous research includes a 7 country international study of conceptualisations of professionalism in early childhood contexts, school readiness and the role and effectiveness of the supported playgroup model in effective transitions to school.


This research was partially funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council.

©  James Horan
©  Paz Errázuriz 

Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.