Evidence Institute for Schools

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

Labor proposes a new $280m Evidence Institute for Schools, but where is the evidence we need it?

The Australian Labor Party recently announced it would invest $280 million to fund a new educational research institute if it wins the next federal election. The Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek said Labor’s proposed Evidence Institute for Schools would “take politics out of the classroom” and be “independent of government”. She also said the new institute would “put an end to decades of ideological battles about school education”.

According to mainstream media the idea was warmly welcomed by several education stakeholders, including by the President of Australian Primary Principals Association who said there is currently “no one place” he could go to for “valuable independent, peer-reviewed research” in Australia, and the director of the Grattan Institute, Peter Goss, who was reported in The Australian as saying that there is “not enough education research in Australia” and “an independent body is the way to go”.

You would be forgiven for believing that Australia is lacking high-quality independent research in education. But the evidence says quite the opposite.

In the current policy environment, which claims to be ‘data-driven’ and evidenced based, Labor’s proposal for a new ‘independent’ educational research institute seems lacking in credibility.

Evidence that we are already producing world-class independent educational research

World Rankings

The evidence is Australia produces some of the best education research in the world. Work by education researchers in Australia impacts education practice both here and internationally. According to world rankings such as the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings we have five universities in the top 30 ranking universities in the world for education research and eight in the top fifty. Compare that with the United Kingdom for example. The UK has more than twice the number of university departments of education, but with four in the top 30 and seven in the top fifty. On the world stage, Australia punches above its weight in terms of quality education research.

These rankings are based on quality independent peer-reviewed research produced by university education departments, as judged by world-leading scholars.

Above average in educational research

An article published in Higher Education Research and Development Journal, found that “most Australian universities are performing above the world average in educational research. Australian universities perform especially well on citation indicators, with more than 75% of universities performing above the world average.”

Our education research is highly regarded around the world. Take for example research by Australians Lingard and colleagues on a ‘rich tasks’ approach to assessment, which has informed curriculum development in Singapore and also in Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”. Or Gale and Parker’s research on university student transition in Australia ,which has been used by the University of Edinburgh to develop an Academic Transitions Toolkit for use by lecturers and also by Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland to develop a Student Transitions Map. And there are lots more examples like these. So, to say that Australian education research is non-existent, not well regarded internationally or not transferrable into policy and practice is purely ideological. It is not based on the evidence.

The threat of political interference in the proposed research institute    

But what happens if we ignore the evidence and establish a not-so Evidence-Based Institute anyway? So-called independent research bodies have been established in other countries, such as in the United Kingdom and in the United States (e.g. The Institute of Education Sciences).

One potential threat of these ‘independent’ research bodies is that a political party can essentially ‘purchase’ research to support their desired political agenda. Education policies may be established with very little reference to research that exists outside of the Institute. They can also impose one particular way of doing research as the ‘gold standard’. That is what’s happening in the UK with the government-sponsored Education Endowment Fund, with its exclusive bent for random control trials, despite these being discredited in the social world of education.

The effects of this political interference in education research is concerning for the future of education in countries like Australia. For example, independent research has shown that current reforms into the initial teacher education sector in Australia is based on highly questionable data and tends to be dominated by cherry-picking of out-dated reports. The prevailing logic of teacher education policy is now very clearly ideological rather than based on the research evidence.

The money could be better spent

We also need to consider the ramifications for education and schools. The expenditure of $280 million towards an evidence institute for schools—when we already have some of the best research in the world—will divert much needed funds away from schools.

In an environment that is consistently calling for increased funding for under-resourced schools, it is questionable whether this large sum of money is being more attentive to political agendas, than paying attention to more pressing concerns for parents and students—over-subscribed schools and under-resourced schools. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that there has been “a record number of demountable classrooms pop up around public schools, with more on the way”.

It is difficult to support this amount of funding being diverted into external institutes, given the pressing need for greater resourcing in our neediest schools and especially when we already have the infrastructure to produce quality research.

It is true that increased funding for schools will not guarantee improved performance. But research has consistently demonstrated the relationship between ‘resource rich’ environments and school performance. Education researcher Jeanne M Powers found that school performance is positively correlated with the level of resources within a school, including ‘qualified teachers, sufficient and up-to-date textbooks, and adequate, safe facilities’. Further research in this area refers to ‘resource-rich and ‘resource-poor’ schools, stating that ‘resources and school performance are positively correlated’ .

It is essential that funding is driven into the classroom, rather than away or outside of the classroom, as much as possible. When it is driven away from the classroom, this becomes a larger problem around effective distribution.

The United States of America is an excellent example of demonstrating this distributional problem. The US maintains high expenditure, but low results on standardized tests. It spends more per student than most countries in the OECD:

For example, Estonia and Poland, which spend around US$40,000 per student, perform at the same level as Norway, Switzerland and the United States, which spend over US$100,000 per student. Similarly, New Zealand, one of the highest performing countries in reading, spends well below the average per student.

In spite of their high expenditure, the United States continually falls behind in literacy, mathematics and science test results (according to PISA), whereas our lesser spending Kiwi neighbour consistently achieves higher outcomes. It is not the expenditure that is the problem for the United States, but more so how the expenditure is distributed. According to some commentators:

America tends to tie up more of the resources in administration. There are more layers of administration and therefore less money getting into the classrooms in schools in many system… The place you really want to spend the money is as close to the classroom as possible.

The ALP’s pledge to fund an ‘Evidence Institute for Schools’ lacks attention to what is needed most—funding for schools and classrooms. Further, the effectiveness of this large sum of funding spent on an institute is premised on the notion that it will produce significantly more effective research than is already available.

Here’s what could be done

We believe providing funds for educational research is, indeed, invaluable and important. Many educational researchers in Australia would support a pledge for increased investment. However as we see it the current systems are not broken. There is already so much existing and emerging world class, independent educational research in Australia. The problem is, it is not being widely distributed or acted upon.

If Labor wants to do something about educational research, we would recommend investigating more efficient ways to encourage the uptake of educational research in our schools and universities. Schools and teachers reportedly find it difficult to access peer-reviewed journal articles, due to the cost of peer-reviewed journal articles. They can also be difficult to locate and employ quite dense language. It is important to ensure that existing research is readily translatable to classroom practise for time-poor teachers.

As we see it, Australia needs to improve overall accessibility of education research to the public. This could be achieved by researchers discussing their research or disseminating their research more broadly via public platforms. As academics such as Megan Boler reminds us, it is important for researchers to engage with the media and the public, in order to speak back to challenges towards democratic institutions such as education.

Education policy has a tendency be influenced more by populist politics, than by research, as James Lloyd and others have pointed out, but nevertheless there are specific steps that researchers can take. For example,

researchers have a responsibility to ensure non-technical summaries of their research are available, their publications are properly logged in searchable depositories, and to engage with relevant opportunities, such as calls for evidence from Parliamentary Select Committees.

If the Labor Party or the Australian Government are seriously looking for ways to move closer towards research-informed teaching and schools, they should start by promoting and distributing the world class educational research that Australian educational researchers are already producing.


Emma Rowe
is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. Emma’s research engages with matters around school choice and privatization, global reform and critical policy studies. Her book, published by Routledge (2017) is entitled ‘Middle-class school choice in urban space: the economics of public schooling and globalized education reform’. Emma is interested in the role of public schooling within the market economy and how the consumer engages with public schooling in the market economy. Her research draws upon visual ethnographies to ensure that data is grounded in space. Emma publishes widely in peer-reviewed journals, and is currently serving as a Special Issue Editor for Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. She has recently joined the editorial team for peer-reviewed journal Critical Studies in Education. Emma is on Twitter at @emmaelitarowe 


 Trevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice, and Head of the School of Education at The University of Glasgow. His research focuses on inequalities generated by and within education systems, drawing on a predominantly sociological imagination. His books include: Just Schooling, Engaging Teachers, Rough Justice, Educational Research by Association, Schooling in Disadvantaged Communities, Policy and Inequality in Education and Practice Theory in Education. With Russell Cross and Carmen Mills, he is currently contracted by Routledge to write ‘Social Justice Dispositions in Education’, drawing on their recent similarly named ARC project. He is co-CI on a current ARC project Vocational institutions, undergraduate degrees: distinction or inequality. He is editor of the journal Critical Studies in Education and of the book series Education Policy and Social Inequality. He is a past president of AARE and founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, when it was located in Adelaide. He is a member of the Wales Education Commission. Trevor is on Twitter at @trevagale