‘School funding on a budget’ paper (a justification for dumping Gonski) is nonsense, here’s why

By Bob Lingard

The Centre for Independent Studies is an Australian free market think tank that produced a policy discussion paper School funding on a budget in the lead up to the first Coalition federal budget in April, 2014. The paper was part of the think tank’s campaign to get the Australian Government to reduce spending.

The paper got substantial media coverage in the lead-up to the Abbott/Hockey budget that reduced funding to states and territories by $80 billion. This is significant because the paper provided a justification for the government’s failure to implement Gonski and helped push an agenda for further privatisation of Australian schooling.

As these policies have implications for all Australians I decided to have a closer look at what the paper said, how it was said and the evidence used to justify its stance.

School Funding on a Budget (SFoB)

SFoB is an exemplar of the think tank report genre. It is written in plain language, by author Jennifer Buckingham, and purports to be a research report, with this claim affected through some academic accoutrements (such as tables, footnotes and appendices). It has the user in mind and is readymade for mainstream media. Even the campaign name, TARGET30 (all in upper case) has the feel of an advertising slogan about it. The length of the paper is 27 pages; long enough for policy makers, politicians and journalists to take seriously, but not too long to put them off reading it.

There are eight tables, nine figures, 60 footnotes, and two appendices. In the footnotes, there is cross-referencing to other CIS reports and those of other think tanks, the work of a conservative free choice US Foundation that promotes the use of school vouchers, and to the reports of consultancy firms such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers. These references are granted equivalence with academic research by influential Australian education academics such as Steve Dinham and John Hattie and to analyses by the OECD in PISA reports and in Education at a Glance.

Something of the political framing is indicated in the section of the report outlining why government spending on schools has to be reviewed – because of the supposed need to reduce government expenditure and to enhance ‘productivity’ in schooling. This is an economistic construction of the work of teachers and their achievements.

The argument goes that increased funding does not result in better outcomes for students, therefore funding should be linked to improvements in outcomes. To do this, tight controls should to be in place.

Please go to my full paper (link at the end of this blog) for more detail about my thoughts on all of this.

Here, I want to take serious issue with the argument categorically stated in SFoB that there is no relationship between increased funding and improved student outcomes.

The OECD demonstrates quite unequivocally that schooling systems with the most equitable funding approaches are those that achieved the best PISA outcomes, that is, higher quality and more equitable outcomes. Beyond a threshold level of funding, what matters is the equitable targeting of additional funds. This is the Gonski approach to school funding – targeting those most in need. It is also important to acknowledge that across the time since the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, the strength of socio-economic correlations with performance in the 34 member countries has grown.

Additionally, across this period there has been a decline in the percentage of resilient students in all OECD countries, that is, students in the bottom socioeconomic quartile who perform in the top two categories (poor students who achieve top results.) For Australia, this figure was 8% in 2003 and 6 % in 2012. This is the period of school reforms supported by the CIS and that the SFoB seeks to strengthen even further. It is also the period of growing inequality, a reality not acknowledged in SFoB.

SFoB speaks of the decline in Australia’s PISA performance. On one reading this is correct. However the performance of different states and territories are added together to depict a crisis. The substantial differences between school systems are hidden. If it is broken down we see a vastly different, but more informative picture: Western Australia and the ACT, for example, perform very well indeed, while Queensland is at the overall average for both quality and equity. It is the very poor comparative performance of the Northern Territory and Tasmania that contributes most to the picture of declining Australian PISA performance.

This evidence about the Northern Territory tells us more about structural poverty in remote Indigenous communities and high levels of youth unemployment in Tasmania, along with a lower level socio-economic community in total. I would stress that the pressing educational policy issue in contemporary Australian schooling is equity. This is silently denied by SFoB.

The report gives Eight ‘Tips’ for reducing government expenditure on schools

Here are the ‘tips’ and my responses. (I see the use of ‘tip’ rather than recommendation is another way this report seeks particular media attention.)

Tip 1 is to ‘revise the federal government funding model’

The Coalition government has been forced to do this, given its rejection of the Gonski model.

Tip 2 is ‘abolish the federal Department of education’

Any remaining programs, it is suggested, could be run through other federal departments or agencies. It is also argued that 90% of federal recurrent and capital funding for schools could be funded and overseen through Treasury. In assessing, and rejecting, this recommendation, we need to think about the Whitlam government’s reasons for federal involvement in schooling. It was to ensure that all young Australians, no matter where they lived, their socio-economic background or which schools they attended, had the same educational opportunities as all others. Back then it was mainly about giving more funding to poor Catholic schools.

This was an equity framing of federal involvement in schooling and it is one still needed. This is why we need a federal department, redistributive funding as articulated by Gonski and targeted federal programs such as the Rudd/Gillard government’s National Partnerships, which were abolished by the Abbott government.

Tip 3 is ‘reduce the cost of state and territory bureaucracy’.

This amounts to reduction of ‘out of school’ costs compared with ‘in school costs’. It is linked to more devolution of education policy and funding directly to schools. Interestingly, in research I have conducted recently with a group of schools in regional Queensland, the major criticism proffered by the principals has been that they are now responsible for everything, without systemic support.

Tip 4 is to remove ‘mandatory class size minimums and eschew further class size reductions’

This is a covert criticism of the teacher unions, who have lobbied hard and long for class size reductions. It is also seen as a straightforward way to rein in expenditure. Here SFoB also links class size reduction to the employment of more teachers, pointing out that in most OECD countries the ‘major commitment of education expenditure is teaching staff’. Interestingly, the evidence on class size relationships with student achievement and other kinds of outcomes is equivocal, and it suggests the biggest impact is in early years and for disadvantaged students. Class size is an equity issue, but not recognised as such by SFoB.

SFoB also argues class size reductions have negatively affected both teacher salaries and teacher quality because of the growth in teacher numbers. The evidence provided in SFoB for rejecting any relationship between class size and student performance is think tank reports, including from the CIS itself and the Grattan Institute.

Tip 5 is ‘Education Bursaries for low-income students to use at non-government schools’

SFoB argues that such bursaries would save money, as there is more government money expended on government schools than on independent schools. SFoB states, ‘Low-income students could be offered an education bursary valued above the average per student expenditure on non-government schools but below the average cost of attending a government school (say $10,000)’. This is choice at the extreme, and destabilising of the democratic and social justice purposes and qualities of government schooling.

TIP 6 is ‘charge high-income families to attend government schools’

The specific charge mentioned is $1000, a small amount, but which would be the ‘thin edge of the wedge,’ so to speak. It is noted that there are half a million ‘students in government schools from families with a household income that might be considered high’. Reflecting the ideological bent of CIS, this call is argued to be equitable because the schools these high earning parents attend received $15,000 per student of government funding, at the same time as some low income families pay for their children to attend non-government schools with less government support. This is a perverted reconstruction of equity.

Tip 7 is ‘reduce the oversupply of teachers by elevating entry standards to teaching degrees’

I have some sympathy for this ‘tip’. We see here the tension between state intervention and market driven approach to university enrolments. This ‘tip’ is represented as a supply and demand question and one of economic efficiency at one level. It is interesting that the recent Review of teacher education commissioned by the previous federal minister rejected such a call for minimum entrance standards to teaching degrees. The Australian Education Union supports a minimum entrance score.

Tip 8 is ‘decentralise teacher employment and make it easier for principals to dismiss ineffective teachers

This is also part of devolution that is supported by CIS. Historically Australian schooling systems have had centralised staffing because of the difficulty of staffing schools in remote communities and in very disadvantaged urban communities. There is also an issue of social justice and equity.


SFoB is about agenda setting and ideas for policy in the context of a down-sized state and fast policy making. It sought to use a political moment to drive an agenda that, in my opinion, would further entrench inequalities in Australian schooling.

The Abbott government appointed Professor Steven Schwartz, currently an academic advisor for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), to chair the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority ( ACARA) and Dr Jennifer Buckingham, author of the SFoB paper, to the Board of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership ( AITSL).

I won’t be alone in wondering if CIS will be as influential with the Turnbull government as it was with the Abbott government.


SBS-017Bob Lingard is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, where he researches in the sociology of education. His most recent books include: Globalizing Educational Accountabilities (Routledge, 2016), co-authored with Wayne Martino, Goli Rezai-Rashti and Sam Sellar,  National Testing in Schools (Routledge, 2016) (The first book in the AARE series Local/Global Issues in Education),co-edited with Greg Thompson and Sam Sellar, and The Handbook of Global Education Policy (Wiley, 2016), co-edited with Karen Mundy, Andy Green and Antonio Verger. Bob is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and Co- Editor of the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.  You can follow him on Twitter  @boblingard86

The paper  Think Tanks, “policy experts’ and ‘ideas for’ education policy making in Australia can be found here