School funding

How the brilliant democracy sausage reveals the secrets of school funding

WATCH: There’s a snag in school funding.

New Education Minister Jason Clare is like any other student on their first day of school – there is a lot to learn about the problems facing the education system in Australia. But, in this case, Mr Clare can discover the answers by revisiting one of the highlights of the recent election campaign – the democracy sausage. 

Federal election day 2022 has arguably marked a new beginning for Australian federal politics and policy, and the road forward will be tough. Education is one of the portfolios that was policy-lite during the campaign, from all sides of politics. But it is through equitable education policy, that many of the key challenges facing Australians can be addressed. 

A key to understanding this is the humble democracy sausage.

The distribution and availability of a sausage on election day represents a country with the fourth most segregated schooling system and a major housing crisis connected to gentrification.

Approximately $8billion dollars in non-government or private funding flows through the school system each year. Those who receive the most are the very advantaged school and the very disadvantaged schools, probably due to targeted philanthropic donations to both. External income raising for a school is time intensive and in most public schools done by Parent and Citizen organisations. Basically, the quality of resources available to teachers is connected to parents’ inclination and willingness to donate funds, time and skills to a school. The least willing are middle income earners in gentrifying suburbs. 

The democracy sausage and volunteering

Volunteer organisations barbequing sausages on bread has become a familiar sight on election days in Australia. It has a hashtags and a hashflag (automatic emoji of a sausage on bread). Facebook community pages advertise where to find a sausage on election morning when choosing where to vote. There is even a dedicated website to tracking the availability of sausages and other stalls around the country. 

DemocracySausage.org 2022 Federal Election data suggested that 43.4% of Australian voters had access to a sausage on election day based on Australian Electoral Commission poll booth attendance statistics from the 2019 election. DemocracySausage.org’s data correlated with publicly available data about schools shows that only 46.9% of school-based polling booths provided access to a sausage.

This incorporates data from © Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Electoral Commission) 2022, DemocracySausage.org and ACARA School Profile 2021

Information on other treats provided by school-based fundraising, like whether a polling booth had a cake stall, halal or vegetarian options, or coffee, mapped against a school’s socio-economic school ranking (Index of Community Socio-educational AdvantageICSEA), reveals something Mr Clare should pay attention to. 

The provision of options outside the sausage shows there is not much difference between different school communities. However, when the percentage of booths that provided variety is mapped against the ICSEA value of the school, things look different.

This incorporates data from © Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Electoral Commission) 2022, DemocracySausage.org and ACARA School Profile 2021

Schools within the middle socio-economic range are less likely to have a P&C provide a variety of options for voters. So, what does this data mean for Education policy?

The ability to volunteer is related to demographics

That more than 50% of schools are unable able to field fundraising barbeques is a reflection of a nationwide trend in all community volunteering over the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a two-thirds drop in people willing to volunteer was reported, with work commitments and family care being the reason for less people being willing to volunteer. 

Variety in election barbeques is directly related to the number of volunteers an organization can field. The more options, the more people are needed. This reality explains why school P&Cs in the medium-to-high ICSEA ranked areas are less likely to provide variety in their election day stalls. 

Schools in middle income areas are most likely to be schools in areas which are gentrifying. This means that the homeowners in the area are most likely to be double-income earners juggling high mortgages or rents alongside expensive child-care. They are, therefore, less likely to donate time or money to public schools. The families in these areas who earn higher incomes, and therefore have less financial and family pressure, are also more likely to bypass the local public school and enroll their children in schools in the higher ICSEA ranked areas. Those are the P&Cs they will donate to. This means that it is harder for P&Cs in the medium-ranked 50% of schools to attract donations. They are also less likely to attract the large philanthropic donations of low and high ranked schools. 

Australia’s market-driven approach to school funding means that schools are more reliant on an active Parent and Citizens Association. Parents and teachers are exhausted in at least 50% of schools. Teachers are exhausted because they are under-resourced. Parents have volunteer fatigue. The downward spiral in school-based volunteering will severely affect schools going forward. School funding, and subsequently quality, is affected by housing affordability and participation in the community. 

The market-based approach to schooling is not working in Australia and it has to change. So next time you buy a democracy sausage, remember your access to this little symbol of Australian civic duty is determined by enormous inequity in Australian schooling policy.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, hstory and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

The map in our header comes from https://democracysausage.org/federal_election_2022

Everything you never knew you wanted to know about school funding

Book review: Waiting For Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor

With the 2022 federal election now in the rear-view mirror and a new Labor government taking office, discussions about the Education portfolio have already begun. As journalists and media commentators noted, education did not figure largely in the election campaign, notwithstanding the understandable public interest in this area. One of the enduring topics of education debates –  and the key theme of Waiting For Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor – is school funding.

It is easy, and common, to view the school funding debate as a partisan issue. Inequities in school funding are often presumed to be an extension of conservative government policies going back to the Howard government. Waiting for Gonski shows how inaccurate this perception is, and how far governments of any political persuasion have to go before true reform is achieved. 

The first part of the book is an analysis of the context that gave rise to the Review of Funding for Schooling in 2011, commonly known as the Gonski Report. Greenwell and Bonnor devote their first chapter to an overview of the policy arguments and reforms that consumed much of the 20th century, leading to the Gillard government establishing the review. This history is written in a compelling, detailed and interesting way, and contains many eye-opening revelations. For example, the parallels between the 1973 Karmel report and the 2011 Gonski version are somewhat demoralizing for those who feel that school funding reform should be attainable in our lifetimes. Secondly, the integral role that Catholic church authorities have played in the structure of funding distributions that continue to the present day is, I think, a piece of 20th century history that is very little known. Julia Gillard’s establishment of the first Gonski review is thus situated as part of a longer narrative that is as much a part of Australia’s cultural legacy as are questions around national holidays, or whether or not Australia should become a republic.

Several subsequent chapters detail the findings of the 2011 Gonski review, its reception by governments, lobby groups, and the public, and the immediate rush to build in exceptions when interest groups (particularly independent and catholic school bodies) saw they would “lose money”. The extent to which federal Labor governments are equally responsible for the inequitable state of school funding is made more and more apparent in the first half of the book. Greenwell and Bonnor sought far and wide for comments and recollections from many of the major players in this process, including politicians of both colours, commentators, lobbyists, and members of the review panel itself. This certainly shows in the rich detail and description of this section.

Rather than representing a true champion of equity and fairness, the Gonski report is painted as one built on flawed assumptions, burdened with legacies that were not properly unpacked, and marred by a multitude of compromises, designed to appease the loudest proponents of public funding for private and catholic schools. The second Gonski review, officially titled, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, is given less emphasis perhaps because this second review was less about equity and funding and more about teacher quality and instructional reform – a book-length subject in itself.

Waiting for Gonski is most certainly an intriguing and entertaining read (a considerable achievement, given its fairly dry subject matter), and is highly relevant for those of us working towards educational improvements of any description in Australia. My main criticism of the book is that it tends to drag a little in the middle third. While the details of machinations between political leaders and catholic and independent school lobbyists are certainly interesting, the arguments in these middle chapters are generally repetitions from earlier chapters, with reiterated examples of specific funding inequities between schools. 

A second concern I have is the uncritical focus on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data to support claims of widespread student academic failure. While it’s true that PISA shows long-term average declines in achievement amongst Australian school students, these assessments are not the only standardized tests of student achievement in this country. The National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is briefly touched upon in Chapter 8, but not emphasized. The reality is that while average student achievement on NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests have not increased – after their initial boost between 2008 and 2009 – nor have students’ results suffered large scale declines. Figure 1 demonstrates this graphically, showing the mean scores for all cohorts who have completed four NAPLAN assessments (up until 2019).

Figure 1. Mean NAPLAN reading achievement for six cohorts in all Australian states and territories. Calendar years indicate Year 3. (Data sourced from the National Assessment Program: Results website) 

It seems somewhat disingenuous to focus so wholeheartedly on one standardized assessment regime at the expense of another to support claims that schools and students are ‘failing’. For example, in Chapter 3 the authors argue that,

 “…the second unlevel playing field [i.e. the uneven power of Australian schools to attract high performing students] is a major cause of negative peer effects and, therefore, the decline in the educational outcomes of young Australians witnessed over the course of the 21st century” (p.93) 

In my view, claims such as these are over-reach, not least because arguments of a decline in educational outcomes rely solely on PISA results. Furthermore, the notion that the scale and influence of peer effects are established facts is also not necessarily supported by the research literature. Other claims made about student achievement growth are similarly unsupported by longitudinal research. In this latter case, not because claims overinterpret existing research, rather because there is very little truly longitudinal research in Australia on patterns of basic skills development – despite the fact that NAPLAN is a tool capable of tracking achievement over time. 

Using hyperbole to reinforce a point is not a crime, of course, however the endless repetition of similar claims in the public sphere in Australia tends to reify ideas that are not always supported by empirical evidence. While these may simply be stylistic criticisms, they also throw into sharp relief the research gaps in the Australian context that could do with addressing from several angles (not just reports produced by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], which are liberally cited throughout).

I hope that the overabundance of detail, and the somewhat repetitive nature of the examples in this middle section of the book, don’t deter readers from the final chapter: Leveling the playing field. To the credit of Greenwell and Bonnor, rather than outline all the problems leaving readers with a sense of despair, the final chapter spells out several compelling policy options for future reform. While structures of education funding in Australia may seem intractable, the suggestions give concrete and seemingly-achievable options which would work presuming all players are equally interested in educational equity. The authors also tackle the issue of religious schools with sensitivity and candour. It is true that some parents want their children to attend religious schools. How policy can ensure that these schools don’t move further and further along the path of excluding the poorest and most disadvantaged – arguably those whom churches have the greatest mission to help – should be fully considered, without commentators tying themselves in knots over the fact that a proportion of Australia’s citizens have religious convictions.

Questions around school funding, school choice and educational outcomes are perennial topics in public debate in Australia. However, claims about funding reform should be underpinned by a good understanding of how the system actually works, and why it is like this in the first place. This is the great achievement of Greenwell and Bonnor in Waiting for Gonski. The way schools obtain government funding are obscure, to say the least, and there is a perception that private schools are not funded to the same extent as public schools. Waiting for Gonski clearly shows how wrong this idea is. As the book so powerfully argues, what Australia’s school funding system essentially does is allow children from already economically advantaged families to have access to additional educational resources via the school fee contributions these families are able to make. The book is a call to action to all of us to advocate for a rethink of the system.

Education is at the heart of public policy in many nations, not least in Australia. Waiting for Gonski is as much a cautionary tale for other nations as it is a comprehensive and insightful evaluation of what’s gone wrong in Australia, and how we might go about fixing it. 

Waiting for Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools by Tom Greenwell & Chris Bonnor. 367pp. UNSW Press. RRP $39.99

Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27

How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

In the final part in our series of what the next government should do to save Australian education, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie and Katrina MacDonald ask: What is the problem of schooling in Australia and how can we fix it?

Education has been politicised over the last three decades, yet it has not been a key feature of the current election campaign. To be sure, we have heard public statements from Federal Education Minister (acting) Stuart Robert about ‘dud’ teachers in our public education system as well as his approval of increasing student demand for private sector schooling. Amid both parties’ support for parental choice in education and concerns about Australia’s under-performance on standardised international and national tests such as PISA and NAPLAN, the focus in this election campaign has largely been on how teacher quality might be improved through attracting and retaining better teachers. While quality teaching is important, this focus misrecognises the ‘problems’ of Australian education in a number of ways.

First, the yardstick of a successful education cannot be measured by student performance on standardised tests. These are highly narrow indicators of school success but continue to be put forth as evidence that our teachers and schools are effective/ineffective. For decades, education policy and practice has mandated the multiple purposes of education (academic and social). It is more important than ever before as we witness the social and economic costs of rising global and local conflict and the continued degradation of our environment that schools develop students’ critical, social and relational capacities as future active citizens to change a world on the brink of destruction. Although, it is promising to see the inclusion of sexual consent education in the Australian Curriculum as well as efforts to better recognise and integrate Indigenous perspectives and learning, it seems that politicians remain focused on narrow academic outcomes as the indicator of school success. Decades of research has told us that the testing culture in schools continues to degrade quality teaching and learning. Standardised testing of literacy, numeracy and science is not the problem. The problem is the way it has been weaponised to blame schools, teachers and students within a marketized and competitive education systems where under-performance on these tests is equated with bad teachers and schools (Smyth, 2011). How might this be different? Some have suggested that testing a randomised sample of schools to represent the diversity of schools in Australia might be a good way of gauging school performance on these markers.  Many countries reject standardised assessment, and have adopted this practice, such as New Zealand did in 2018.

Second, the emphasis on teacher quality in current political arguments tends to focus on teachers as individuals rather than as part of a feminised and (now) marketised profession that continues to be maligned publicly including by our elected representatives in government (Barnes, 2021). Raising the status of the teaching profession is a laudable goal amongst Labor’s education policy promises. Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. They are overworked, confronted with increasing violence from students and parents, and they are operating in marketized systems where they must prioritise improvements on the measures that count (i.e., narrow academic outputs) lest their school becomes labelled as failing. In this pressurised environment, teachers are exhausted by increasingly untenable amounts of administration, accountability checklists and external demands (Heffernan, Bright, Kim, Longmuir, & Magyar, 2022). Teaching is therefore no longer attractive to many and even those who become teachers are disenchanted and exit because of the conditions of work and lack of professional autonomy. Both major parties have a commitment to attract high academic performing students into the profession through various programs and incentives. These initiatives may raise the status of teaching to some extent for some schools but they will do little to change the devaluing of the profession as feminised or the marketized system that has de-professionalised teachers.

Third, improving Initial Teacher Education is another policy focus for both major parties. Again, as it is situated within a competitive marketized system, Initial Teacher Education has been damaged as a consequence of JobReady policies. Federal funding to Education faculties has declined at the same time as they are expected to teach more students. This has led to a degrading of teacher education courses. Competitive market and education policy pressures have led to a burgeoning of shorter courses provided by multiple providers and intensified measures of accountability. Teaching is a complex profession that will not be mastered through short university courses. Teacher quality that leads to creating active, informed and critical citizens who can change the world for the better requires degree courses that foster deep, critical and broad learning about this complex job.

Fourth, both parties are silent on the gross funding inequality within and between our education system. In 2020, the total gross income available (including state and federal recurrent funding, equity loadings, fees and charges) per student was $16,020 for public schools, $17,057 for Catholic schools and $22,081 for independent schools (Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority). The reality is that public schools are chronically underfunded according to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) (less than 1% of public schools will receive the minimum funding by 2023). In addition, the Catholic Education Office and ‘Independent’ schools have fewer accountability requirements. These schools are, of course, selective in who they accept (on the basis of ability to pay but also other factors such as religion and gender) which segregates children and fortifies inequality. Public schools, on the other hand, are left to support the most disadvantaged students with less resources. 

Fifth, both major parties support the right for parents to shop around and select the ‘best’ school for their children. What politicians don’t divulge is how this practice has been highly damaging for school equality. School choice policies over decades have encouraged competition, stratification and residualisation within and between education sectors assisted by the public availability of standardised testing data (MySchool) where schools are ranked on their performance. This has increased inequality between schools, students, communities, families and teachers – the ‘good’ schools get more students and more funds while ’bad’ schools get less students and less funds. What politicians don’t say is how school choice privileges already privileged parents and students who have the capacity and resources to select schools (including moving house to be close to ‘better’ schools). 

State governments are ostensibly responsible for public schooling in Australia, however federal governments can do a lot to improve education. If political parties are serious in this endeavour, the following (at least) needs to occur:

  • Remove standardised testing of narrow academic performance of all schools to testing of a random representative sample of schools
  • Improve the work conditions of teachers and school principals through greater pay, less intensive workloads, greater access to specialist support, greater time for professional development and planning, and greater security of employment (e.g. reducing casualisation)
  • Stop blaming teachers especially those in the public sector for problems that the system and society have created (schools cannot cure the ills of neoliberal, capitalist societies)
  • Implement the Gonski funding recommendations fully and immediately as they intended. This means equitable and fair redistribution of resources on the basis of need. This will mean recalibrating federal and state funding models to reduce or remove funding to ‘independent’ schools that do not need this funding.

From left to right: Jill Blackmore AM Ph D FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia and Vice-President  of the Australian Association of University Professors.  She researches from a feminist perspective education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; leadership, and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; and teachers’ and academics’ work. Recent projects have focused on school autonomy reform and international students’ mobility, identity, belonging and connectedness. Her latest publication is Disrupting Leadership in the Entrepreneurial University: Disengagement and Diversity (2022, Bloomsbury). Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie. Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Strategic Research Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI). Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, spatiality, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina’s qualitative research has focused on principal’s social justice understandings and practices, and the impact of school reform policies on the provision of just public schooling. She tweets at @drfeersumenjin

Stop all government funding for private schools. (Why and how we could do it)

Along with many fellow Australians I was momentarily heartened last year by the United Kingdom’s Labour party announcing that it would scrap elitist private schools in the UK (which are confusingly called “public schools”) if it won the UK election. Had it happened, those UK private schools would have been nationalised, their charitable status removed and their endowments, investments and properties redistributed to the state sector.

I have often called for the defunding of private schools in Australia, but I want to make the distinction between defunding and nationalising. I don’t believe all private schools in Australia should be nationalised. I do believe no private school should receive public funding via governments. Private schools that are unviable without being funded by governments should transition into becoming faith-based public schools, similar to the UK model of faith-based public schools.

UK faith-based public schools

Most faith-based schools in the UK are part of the public system (as they are in most European countries and in Canada).  Religious schools (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) are public schools and almost fully funded by the public. They do not charge additional parental fees – and follow the same National Curriculum, enrolment and staffing rules as public schools.

The difference between the UK and Australia

In the UK, private schools are not publicly funded but have tax deductible status and there are far fewer of them than we have here in Australia, currently they educate only around 7% of the UK population. They rely totally on fees raised from parents and donors.

This was also the situation in Australia prior to the 1963 with the beginning of what has been termed State Aid to Catholic schools aimed at bringing their “systemic” or parish school science facilities up to a comparable standard to science facilities in public schools.

So began the long-term process of providing federal benefits to private schools in Australia. At that time some 25% of students were enrolled in private schools in Australia and in 1965 these schools received 25% of all Commonwealth funding. 

The morphing of Australia’s school funding into the unsustainable model we have today

Today private schools in Australia receive 75% of all federal funding. We have gone a long way past just bringing poor Catholic parish schools up to public school standards. These days the poor schools across Australia, those needing help, are public schools. Today we don’t just fund Catholic schools, we now fund all religious schools including two Scientology schools with fewer than 50 students, each receiving almost $10,000 per student every year from the public purse. We also fund 31 Exclusive Brethren schools that in many cases get more government funding per student than nearby government schools.

In Germany the “Church” of Scientology is an illegal organisation. In Australia they are a tax-exempt charity. And you might remember Kevin Rudd labelled the Brethren group as “an extremist cult that breaks up families.” But now we gift them more money for their schools than we give to many public schools.

The recent OECD Education at a Glance 2019 shows that Australia is the 4th most privatised country for education. Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education, Australia ranks 4th as the most privatised school education spending in the OECD after Mexico, Columbia and Turkey, with 35% of students attending private schools.

In Australia private schools on average receive about $10K per student from combined government funding on top of the parental fees which can be as much as $35k per student (non-boarding).

According to research by former Productivity Commissioner Trevor Cobbold, real government funding (adjusted for inflation) for public schools between 2009-2017 was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic schools increased by $1420 per student (+18.4%) and $1318 (+20.9%) for so-called Independent schools per student.

Total real income per public student over that time period fell by $58 (-0.5) per student for public schools but increased by $1888 (+17.8%) in Catholic schools and by $2,306 (+15.1%) in Independent schools.

May I remind you most Australians (around 65%) still send their children to public schools.

Value for money spent on private schools?

It is claimed by conservative commentators that private schools are more efficient in their use of money. In 2018 2,558,169 or 65% of Australian students attended public primary and secondary schools. Combined government recurrent (non-capital) expenditure (latest figures 2016-17) averaged $17,531 per student across all states and territories. In the Catholic and Independent schools this figure was $19,302 including $10,664 of public funding per student, the rest being mainly made up of parent fees.

For example, public schools in NSW are operating with less than 70 per cent of the income per student of private schools, with public schools reporting a net yearly income of $13,318 a student compared to the private schools’ income of $20,053 a student.

Given recent research finds that public schools (excluding select entry schools) equal or outperform private schools when socio-economic status is considered, one must ask why does it take so much extra money to educate private school students? Perhaps it is because the decline in Australia’s performance in international tests over the decade is primarily due to falling results in private schools, the falls being similar in both Independent and Catholic schools.

Money matters for disadvantaged schools

Study after study indicates that money does really matter in education in disadvantaged communities but not in wealthier ones.

Unfortunately, in Australia it seems that most of the additional government spend on education flows to private schools that don’t need this additional money.  According to ABC research

  • Half of the $22 billion spent on capital projects in Australian schools between 2013 and 2017 was spent in just 10 per cent of schools
  • These schools are the country’s richest, ranked by average annual income from all sources (federal and state government funding, fees and other private funding) over the five-year period. They teach fewer than 30 per cent of students
  • They also reaped 28 per cent (or $2.4 billion) of the $8.6 billion in capital spending funded by government.

Over the past decade, public funding to private schools has risen nearly twice as fast as public funding to public schools. Recurrent public funding to private schools topped $14 billion in 2017.

What should happen

I believe any private school that charges fees over the agreed Schooling Resource Standard (the SRS is $11,343 for primary and $14,254 for secondary students in 2019) should immediately lose all public funding. Elitist schools across Australia charging over $20,000 in fees do not need public money. They will not lose too many students if they need to raise their fees even higher. Those private schools unable to meet their recurrent costs could voluntarily become public schools, opening enrolment to all students in their local area.

Private schools charging less than the SRS should have their public funding reduced gradually by 10% per annum until it is zero. Again, if these schools cannot meet their financial obligations they could be taken over by the state and become, as in the UK and elsewhere, state-run faith-based schools open to all children in their local area. This would be an actual saving of money for Australian tax payers over time.

Given that Catholic and Independent schools in Australia were subsidised by $14.03 billion in public funding  in 2018, should some close and even if 5-10% of their students were to enrol in public schools there would be no problem integrating all these kids into an equitable multicultural diverse public education system. We would then return to the same situation prior to the beginning of the “school choice” phenomenon.

I believe this is what we should be planning because all of the data indicates that what we are doing with school funding in Australia is blatantly unfair and financially unsustainable.

David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier

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

Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong

Much has been said about David Gonski’s second review of school funding in Australia. It is a document made up 46,327 words aimed at advising the Australian Government on how school funding can be used to improve student achievement and school performance.

Within those 46,327 words in the 150-page document, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, the term ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘ is only used 10 times. This is less than 0.1% of the total focus within the entire document.

Deficit discourse

It gets worse. When reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is used in the document, it is predominantly based on ‘deficit discourse’, that is discussion that represents people or groups in terms of deficiency, absence, lack or failure. And it sets up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be considered different to the dominant norm.  For example:

“This holds regardless of a student’s circumstances, whether they are students with disability, students in rural or remote locations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,those from non-English speaking backgrounds, low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, or any combination of these” (p. x, emphasis added);

“The review Panel heard from a range of stakeholders that there are common fundamentals needed to support all students – those in capital cities and territories, those in rural or remote locations, students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, academically advanced or less-advanced students, or any combination of these” (p. 4, emphasis added); and

“The strategy seeks to lift students’ foundational skills in STEM learning areas, improve Australia’s STEM performance in international comparative assessments, reverse the declining number of skilled graduates in STEM-related subjects, and address the under-representation in STEM of girls, of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and of students from non-metropolitan areas (p. 37, emphasis added).

By consistently listing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander uniqueness as a deficit, it maintains the dominant norm and perpetuates stereotypes.  The use of “or any combination of these” is also an interesting clause.  It seems a blasé term of reference acting to minimise the varying forms of inequity that peoples face and in turn, dismisses the lack of focus on addressing inequity.

Representation

Another mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the report includes an explicit mention of the need to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher representation.  As I see it, this limits the expectations of Indigenous peoples. They are seen as teachers not also as principals or educational leaders.

In the same way the document lacks promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within educational decision-making, even though this is advocated within numerous current policies.  Instead, the reasoning given for increasing representation is that “it promotes student creativity, motivation, deeper learning and problem-solving skills” (p. 73).

The reasoning seems very lack lustre when considering that an entire chapter within the document is focused on “Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators” (Chapter 3 pp. 56-81). This chapter draws on the work of Professors Jo Lampert and Bruce Burnett and their project, National Exceptional Teaching in Disadvantaged Schools programwhich seeks to address disadvantage by seeking exceptional pre-service teachers to fill ‘hard to place’ schools’ staffing issues. Little mention is made of the clientele of these schools or the reason for the schools being deemed ‘hard to place’ except for a mention of low socio-economic status schools.

Missed opportunities for positive acknowledgement

Yet, aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational research is used to emphasise the importance of classroom teachers and their role in education as well as the involvement of parents and community within the classroom setting.  For example, the Families as First teachers programis mentioned to illustrate the important role of parents supporting cognitive development. This program grew from a project within Kuranda to build parents capacity to assist their children in early childhood.

The omission of recognition of this being an Indigenous-led project now adapted within schools nationally, further silences the achievements and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Further to this, the notion of mentoring is also discussed.  While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not explicitly mentioned, the Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students report (OECD, 2017) was used as the substantiating evidence for mentoring.

The needs based funding loading specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is omitted from the actual report but needs based funding is championed as “levelling the playing field” (p.6).

The Review Panel was established “to examine evidence and make recommendations on how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes”, so these omissions are interesting.

One mention only of Cross-Curriculum Priorities

There are three cross curriculum priorities of the Australian National Curriculum. These are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. The cross curriculum priorities are part of the national curriculum, which is made up of three dimensions: specific disciplinary knowledge (such as English, science, maths), general capabilities (such as creative thinking, social and emotional skills) and the three cross curriculum priorities (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability).

Mention of the cross curriculum priorities is limited to one occasion within the report. And on that one occasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures is omitted.  That is, when describing the Australian Curriculum, the report states,

“The Australian Curriculum can be depicted as a cube of three dimensions: disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding in learning areas such as English, mathematics and science; general capabilities such as personal and social capability; and cross-curriculum priorities such as Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” (p. 38).

Why the omission?

I believe the omission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures may have been intentional. Previous reviews and reports commissioned by the Liberal Government by the likes of Kevin Donnelly have argued (paywalled) that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures within the curriculum is “hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that makes this nation unique”.

So is the omission purposeful; to align with the Liberal agenda of shifting focus? At least the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as the lone cross-curriculum priority is interesting. Considering the Liberal’s stance on climate change it is probably not surprising that Sustainability, the other cross-curriculum priority is also omitted.

In its defence, the report does acknowledge the numerous reviews undertaken addressing rural and remote education and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and that it “has sought to complement them, rather than go over the same ground. [Stating that,] our specific focus has been on improving school education outcomes for all students across Australia” (p. 14).

However if the review panel’s focus was on improving student outcomes and school performance, how can the needs of specific groups that are identified within governmental data sets as struggling to meet national minimum standards be so readily dismissed and silenced?

 

 

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.