Education ministers recently met in Adelaide to begin designing a new funding model that will apply to government and non-government schools across Australia, beginning in 2018. What is the best way to fund schools and how much should state, territory and Commonwealth governments contribute? The answers are vital, as investment in school education amounts to $50.4 billion, based on 2013-14 figures, and education is central to the nation’s future.
According to the Australian Education Union and non-government school critics, such as Jane Caro and Trevor Cobbold, the answers are simple. Each argues that additional billions must be invested and that the Commonwealth Government must pay the lion’s share. Ignored is that investing more is not the solution. A recent Productivity Commission draft report ‘National Education Evidence Base’ argues, despite record levels of funding, that “national and international assessments of student achievement in Australia show little improvement and in some areas standards of achievement have dropped”.
Despite a 37% increase in school funding over the ten-year period 2002-03 to 2012-13 the ‘Reform of Federation White Paper 4’ reaches a similar conclusion in noting that results for Australian students have either flat-lined or gone backwards in international tests. Research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development analysing the characteristics of stronger performing education systems also argues increased investment is not the solution. The OECD’s ‘PISA in Focus No 44’ concludes “the amount of resources spent on education –including financial, human and material resources – is only weakly related to student performance”.
Instead of investing more in education, as argued by the Australian Education Union, the most effective way to raise standards is to identify why stronger performing education systems perform as well as they do. This is especially important given the evidence for advanced economies like Australia that once a certain level of spending is reached then investing more is ineffective. Far more important than spending more is ensuring that the school curriculum is academically rigorous and that the focus is on essential knowledge, understanding and skills.
It’s no secret that state and territory curricula, especially at the primary school level, are superficial and overcrowded where the emphasis is on politically correct issues like indigenous studies, the environment and Asia. Having well-resourced and enthusiastic teachers well versed in their subject and capable of engaging and motivating students is also critical. Currently, such is not the case with too many beginning teachers, because of short-term contracts, micromanagement and being overwhelmed by red tape, ho are leaving the profession.
Research proves that what happens in the classroom is one of the most important factors influencing educational outcomes. And the bad news is that Australian classrooms, compared to other OECD education systems, have some of the highest rates of disruption and badly behaved students. Australian students are also not as resilient as students in places like Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong. Unlike Australian classrooms, where the focus is on self-esteem and nobody fails, stronger performing systems celebrate competition and meritocracy. Stronger performing education systems, as measured by international literacy and numeracy tests, also rely more on traditional approaches to teaching and learning. There is a greater emphasis on rote learning and memorisation and teacher-directed lessons.
This is unlike Australia, where teachers, instead of being teachers, are described as ‘facilitators’ and ‘guides by the side’. While Australian classrooms have one of the highest rates of using computers and the internet, it’s also true that stronger performing education systems rely less on technology.
Clearly, a far more cost-effective way to raise standards and improve results is to ensure that our curriculum and what happens in the classroom are based on what is proven to work and what the research suggests is best practice. It’s also the case that while state and territory education ministers complain that the Commonwealth is under-funding education, the reality is that while the Commonwealth has increased funding a number of states and territories have cut back. For example, the Victorian education minister, James Merlino, argues that because the Commonwealth is not fully funding the Gillard-inspired Gonski model, Victorian schools will lose $1.1 billion. Quite apart from the fact that Gonski was never fully funded and has never been fully implemented, what Merlino ignores is that under the Australian Constitution it is the states and t5erritories that are responsible for funding and managing schools.
This explains why, in 2013-14, state and territory governments funded 87.3% of the cost of running government schools, with the Commonwealth government making up the rest. Merlino also ignores that while the Commonwealth, over the years 2009-10 to 2013-14, significantly increased its investment the Victorian government’s contribution to schools went backwards by 7.1%.
And Victoria is not alone. Across Australia, the reality is that while the Commonwealth Government increased its expenditure on schooling by over $1.8 billion from 2009-10 to 2013-14 (after adjusting for CPI and student growth), over that period the states and territories overall reduced their funding by over $200 million. And the states and territories that did the most ‘cost shifting’ from 2009-10 to 2013-14 all delivered the biggest budget surpluses.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he co-chaired the Review of the Australian National Curriculum