Deb Hayes

Q:Which major party will fully fund public schools? A:None. Here’s what’s happening

You would be forgiven for thinking that policy related to schooling is not a major issue in Australia. In the lead up to the federal election, scant attention has been paid to it during the three leaders’ debates. One of the reasons could be because the education policies of the major parties have largely converged around key issues.

Both Labor and the Coalition are promising to increase funding to schools but neither is prepared to fully fund government schools to the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).  Under a Coalition government public schools will get up to 95 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard by 2027, under a Labor government they will get 97 per cent by 2027. Either way we are talking two elections away and to what degree public schools will remain underfunded.

Both the Coalition and Labor plan to fully fund allprivate schools to the Schooling Resource Standard by 2023. Some private schools are already fully funded and many are already over funded

Yes, Labor is promising to put equality and redistribution back on the agenda in areas such as tax reform and childcare policy, but its Fair funding for Australian Schools policy fails to close the funding gap between what government schools get, and what they need.  And yes Labor is promising to put back the $14 billion cut from public schools by the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 plan and will inject $3.3 billion of that during its 2019-22 term, if elected.

The point I want to make is neither major party is prepared to fully fund government schools to the level that is needed according to the Schooling Resource Standard.

I find this deeply disappointing.

There are certainly differences between Coalition and Labor education policies, the main being that Labor will outspend the Coalition across each education sector from pre-schools to universities.

However, as I see it, neither major party has put forward an education policy platform. Instead, they have presented a clutch of ideas that fail to address key issues of concern in education, such as dismantling the contrived system of school comparison generated by NAPLAN and the MySchool website, and tackling Australia’s massive and growing equity issues.

Both major parties believe that the best mechanism for delivering quality and accountability is by setting and rewarding performance outcomes. This approach shifts responsibility for delivering improvements in the system down the line.

And let’s get to standardised testing. There is a place for standardised tests in education. However, when these tests are misused they have perverse negative consequences including narrowing the curriculum, intensifying residualisation, increasing the amount of time spent on test preparation, and encouraging ‘gaming’ behaviour.

Labor has promised to take a serious look at how to improve the insights from tests like NAPLAN, but this is not sufficient to redress the damage they are doing to the quality of schooling and the schooling experiences of young people.

These tests can be used to identify weaknesses in student achievement on a very narrow range of curriculum outcomes but there are cheaper, more effective and less problematic ways of finding this out. And the tests are specifically designed to produce a range of results, so it is intended for some children to do badly; a fact missed entirely by the mainstream media coverage of NAPLAN results.

National testing, NAPLAN, is supported by both Labor and the Coalition. Both consistently tell us that inequality matters, but both know the children who underperform are more likely to come from communities experiencing hardship and social exclusion. These are the communities whose children attend those schools that neither major party is willing to fund fully to the Schooling Resource Standard.

Consequently, teachers in underfunded government schools are required to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of educating the young people who rely most on schooling to deliver the knowledge and social capital they need to succeed in life.

The performance of students on OECD PISA data along with NAPLAN show the strength of the link between low achievement and socio-economic background in Australia; a stronger link than in many similar economies. This needs to be confronted with proper and fair funding plus redistributive funding on top of that.

A misuse of standardised tests by politicians, inflamed by mainstream media, has resulted in teachers in our public schools being blamed for the persistent low achievement of some groups of children and, by extension, initial teacher education providers being blamed for producing ‘poor quality’ teachers.

There is no educational justification for introducing more tests, such as the Coalition’s proposed Year 1 phonics test. Instead, federal politicians need to give up some of the power that standardised tests have afforded them to intervene in education. They need to step away from constantly using NAPLAN results to steer education for their own political purposes. Instead they need to step up to providing fair funding for all of Australia’s schools.

I believe when the focus is placed strongly on outputs, governments are let ‘off the hook’ for poorly delivering inputs through the redistribution of resources. Improved practices at the local level can indeed help deliver system quality, but not when that system is facing chronic, eternal underfunding.

Here I must comment on Labor’s proposal to establish a  $280 million Evidence Institute for Schools.  Presumably, this is Labor’s response to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to improve the quality of existing education data. Labor is to be commended for responding to this recommendation. The Coalition is yet to say how they will fund the initiative.

However what Labor is proposing is not what the Productivity Commission recommended. The Commission argued that performance benchmarking and competition between schools alone are insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. They proposed a broad ranging approach to improving the national education evidence base, including the evaluation of policies and building an understanding of how to turn what we know works into into common practice on the ground.

Labor claims that its Evidence Institute for Schools will ensure that teachers and parents have access to ‘high quality’ ‘ground breaking’ research, and it will be ‘the right’ research to assist teachers and early educators to refine and improve their practice.

As an educational researcher, I welcome all increases in funding for research but feel compelled to point out according to the report on Excellence in Research for Australia that was recently completed by the Australian Research Council, the vast majority of education research institutions in Australia are already producing educational research assessed to be of or above world class standard.

The problem is not a lack of high quality research, or a lack of the right kind of research. Nor is it the case that teachers do not have access to research to inform their practice. Without a well-considered education platform developed in consultation with key stakeholders, this kind of policy looks like a solution in search of a problem, rather than a welcome and needed response to a genuine educational issue.

Both major parties need to do more to adequately respond to the gap in the education evidence base identified by the Productivity Commission. This includes a systematic evaluation of the effects of education policies, particularly the negative effects of standardised tests.

The people most affected by the unwillingness of the major parties to imagine a better future for Australia’s schools are our young people, the same young people who are demanding action on the climate crisis. They need an education system that will give them the best chance to fix the mess we are leaving them. Until we can fully fund the schools where the majority of them are educated in Australia we are failing them there too.

Dr Debra Hayes is Head of School and Professor, Education & Equity at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is also the President of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her next book, co-authored with Craig Campbell, will be available in August – Jean Blackburn: Education Feminism and Social Justice (Monash University Press). @DrDebHayes

Time’s up. Australia needs to ditch its bad education policies

What kind of schooling system do we want for our kids in Australia? I ask because In England, after almost thirty years of high stakes testing, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, is talking about a decline in England’s quality of education and blaming “an endemic pattern of prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education”.

The very organisation Spielman leads, the Office for Standards in Education, has played a significant role in driving the decline she is now so concerned about. But it is good news that she is openly questioning the effects of testing and wants to discuss “the real substance of education”.

Singapore, a country often touted for its success on international test comparisons, has announced that starting in 2019, exams for primary years 1 and 2 students (aged six and seven) will be abolished. The change is aimed at discouraging comparisons between student performance and encouraging learning. But it is nonetheless driven by economic concerns. Singapore wants schools to concentrate more on developing ‘soft skills’, those supposedly needed for 21st century economies (such as decision making and collaborating in a team) to bolster personal development and help students acquire ‘real-world skills’.

So, what lessons can we learn in Australia from these initiatives in other countries?

Well, we are indeed “prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education” with the NAPLAN regime, so you might think the UK is ahead of us in coming to the realisation that something is going badly wrong. And while Australia considers imposing a national test on six year olds (a phonics test) Singapore is busily getting rid of tests for six and seven year olds. However, we are also not England or Singapore.

The problems we have in Australia are largely of our own making. The education policies pursued by both major political parties in recent years have created a unique set of problems.

Australia’s unique set of problems in education

The problems we are facing in Australia include the following:

  • Most alarmingly, we have an inequitable system of school funding, skewed in favour of independent and Catholic schools. A recent analysis of school finance data compiled by ABC News shows that, the income divide is wider for many schools than at any point in the past decade. And the proportion of public money being spent on private schooling in Australia is higher than in any other advanced economy and has increased significantly over the last decade.
  • The income divide is also reflected in student performance. A recent UNICEF report shows Australia doesn’t do well at ensuring equality across the three stages of children’s education: preschool, primary and secondary – it ranks in the bottom third of countries in all three stages.
  • Despite massive investment in national testing and reporting, analysis of the most recent NAPLAN results of writing, conducted by Associate Professor Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra), shows that the numbers of low-performing students are increasing, and the numbers of high-achieving students are decreasing as they move through school.
  • Many young people are unhappy at school. According to OECD figures, about 30% of Australian children don’t feel as though they belong at school, and almost 25% report having been bullied at school.

As we build towards a national election, what education policies should the major parties propose that will improve our system of schooling?

We should not be going down the pathway to more testing.

Research conducted by Johanna Wyn and her team (University of Melbourne) shows that NAPLAN has had significant unintended consequences. Professor Wyn states that two of these include a negative impact on both the quality of learning and student wellbeing.

We are flooded with data that we don’t seem to be paying attention to, and we don’t have access to some data that would enable us to have a clear-headed assessment of how school systems are faring, and how specific education policies are affecting them.

The kind of data we need to make good education policy

For example, there has been a spike in suspensions and exclusions in recent years. Research conducted in Queensland by Linda Graham (Queensland University of Technology), shows the growth in suspensions outstripped growth in enrolments, which suggests that student numbers alone are not driving the increases.

Professor Graham argues that the increases do not necessarily mean that student behaviour is getting worse, education reforms and policies also contribute, such as zero tolerance behaviour policies and the expansion of principals’ disciplinary powers. These are policies that gained a lot of political traction, and popular support when they were announced, as they were intended to do. However, they changed how some teachers and schools interacted with their students and school communities.

I doubt those who were most affected by these policies were ever consulted about the perceived problems they were supposed to solve.

If we knew more about who was being suspended and where we might see the bigger consequences more clearly and our school systems could more easily work on solutions. Recent separate analyses conducted by the NSW (2017) and Victorian (2017) Ombudsman, noted the absence of central collection and reporting of suspensions and expulsions data across government schools. The problem is succinctly described by the Victorian Ombudsmen.

The lack of data makes it difficult if not impossible for the department to recognise patterns in which student groups are being expelled and to subsequently develop policies to address any issues identified. There is a clear need for better data and oversight systems. (p. 5)

I am very aware this is only a discussion about the collection of expulsion and suspension data from public schools. The collection of similar data from private schools is of equal concern and would pose a whole new set of problems and issues to discuss and work through, but it is not collected even though private schools are increasingly funded by public funds.

The point I want to make is that if we gathered such data systematically it could be used by teachers, school leaders, system personnel, and political parties to understand how policies, however well intentioned, are specifically affecting young people.

For too long we’ve made families doing it tough, teachers, schools and initial teacher education providers the political scapegoats of students’ underperformance. In the process, we’ve ignored how educational policies have contributed to kids struggling at school and, for an increasing number of young people, leaving or being expelled from school.

Beware election promises that require others to be more accountable, because that is political speak for more testing, and it continues to shift the focus from failed education policies.

Let’s do an audit

I believe we need to do an independent audit of the success of intended consequences, as well as the unintended consequences of past policy regimes. This is the sort of valuable data we should be collecting. Is there a political party with the courage to undertake such an audit? Tragically, without such a reckoning, I fear that one of our great public institutions, public schooling, will remain in unsafe hands.

But I hope we will do something before our education chiefs start publicly blaming our testing regime, or the economic damage of how we are schooling our children becomes so obvious we have to act.

And educators like me keep saying it but I’ll say it yet again: education policies should be informed by the experiences of students, teachers and school leaders, the expertise of education researchers, and especially the hopes of our young Australians.



Deb Hayes is Professor of Education and Equity, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. Commencing 2019, she will be the School’s new Head. She has just returned from a stint as Hallsworth Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester, where she is working with Professor Ruth Lupton on a new book titled Great Education Policy Mistakes, to be published by Policy Press.


This week Deb begins a two-year term as President of the Australian Association for Research in Education, which is currently holding its annual conference 2018 AARE in Sydney. All the Australian researchers cited in this article are members of the Association.