A Simple Education in Funding

teacher meEducation 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

  • Jody

    I know all about it from my days as a high-school English teacher. The teaching unions were then and still are today ideologues who are only interested in promulgating their own lefty views on the world. I would literally arch my back at some of the risible stuff I was forced to teach but, fortunately, I put my own spin on it and always drew up a chart on the board and asked the kids to “offer an alternative” to the values and ideas set up by this issue/subject/poem/film/history.

    • whitelaughter

      Good for you!

  • ian.macdougall

    I had a friend who was a ‘lefty unionist’ in a teachers’ union. (No names, no pack drill. We’ll just call him ‘Lefty’.)
    Some years ago, to offer his own children a novel and educative experience, Lefty applied for and was given a teaching job in New Guinea. As I recall, it was back in the days when NG was Australia’s Colonial Fantasy, and was largely run by Australian ex-pat planters.
    When Lefty arrived at the village, he was met by the headman, who took him out and showed him the site for the new school. “Your first job will be to build us a school, right here” he said. “We will supply all the labour you need from the village.”
    Fortunately, Lefty had a background in the building industry, and in collaboration with the villagers, soon had plans drawn up for the new school buildings. He supervised construction, teaching the villagers and their student offspring enrolled at the school all the skills required: carpentry, plumbing etc.
    According to Lefty’s account, he eventually had to leave the village because his own kids’ senior educational needs could not be met there. But by that stage the school had a main administration building, a science building, a main class room and a copra store. The students went out to surrounding villages and negotiated with native growers to buy their copra. Then, when they had enough in the store, the senior students took it by boat down the river to Lae and once there, haggled with the local Chinese copra buyers for the best price. Then they took school’s boat and all the cash back up the river to their home village, and paid the growers a good enough price to persuade them into coming back with more copra. (They could have called that ‘work experience’.)
    But when Lefty got back to Australia and got a position as a teacher in a school, he only lasted in the job a short time.
    He said to me: “I had Australian students the same age as my young New Guinean copra traders putting up their hands in the class and asking me if they could please go to the toilet. I just lost heart. So I quit.”
    It strikes me that young Australians could do with a bit less classroom training and a bit more reality experience in their formative years, plus a bit more genuine incentive: such as being offered the option of leaving school to join the workforce and start earning when they can satisfy a fair set of knowledge and skill criteria.
    I think they would become better learners and have to spend less time in school, enabling the country to reduce its education budgets while if anything, improving educational outcomes.

    • exuberan

      I can recall being taught Maths in High School in 1962 (year 8). We were made to stand at the blackboard and without a break in dialogue sound off randomly arranged ‘times’ tables. We did this all year with constant practice and testing. In first term year 9 exams, I got 100% for Arithmetic and subsequently never failed a Maths exam the rest of my education.

  • Steve Spencer

    Whilst I believe that the education system is busted, politically corrupt and inefficient, therefore in sore need of a overhaul, the 37% increase in funding over ten years amounts to annual increases of around 3.5%, or around the average official inflation rate, isn’t it?

  • nfw

    When I read of the ever more funding brigade I am always reminded of that wonderful Yes Prime Minster episode “The National Education Service” http://www.veoh.com/watch/v22901234xA9xT6WY?h1=Yes+Prime+Minister+2.7+-+The+National+Education+Service.

    Sir Humphrey quite rightly sums it up when he says funding has nothing to do with children and their education, but everything to do with teachers and their unions. I highly recommend watching it to remind ourselves just how nothing changes, especially his comment about how more funding gives public/civil (sic) service (another sic) a happy relationship with the teacher’s union and they (the politico-legal élite) educate their children privately.

  • Solo

    Having been a high school teacher, I am glad to be out of the education system. Much of the issue is that the state becomes increasingly responsible for raising kids, and this is very obvious in state schools. You could tell which kids had engaged parents, they would have uniforms washed and ironed, they did their homework, they were polite and diligent and never caused any hassles. Not always well off, some of the clothing was a bit threadbare and their shoes were worn but they were neat. The kids that had little parental attention were obvious. They couldn’t read, they didn’t value education and often were absent. Often they got a bit better behaved when I provided fruit for them to eat before or during class. Some had had no breakfast or dinner the night previously. No doubt these poor buggers have had the same lack of attention since their first breath and are caught in a perpetual cycle of borderline neglect. I found them to be really frustrating as the were very disruptive and total pains in the bum, but once you understood what they were dealing with at home, you gave them more of a chance. No government money is going to fix those home problems, and despite working in education for 5 years, I couldn’t figure out what a effective solution would be.

    • mags of Queensland

      Many schools recognize the problem of lack of parental care, especially when it comes to feeding their children, and have been providing breakfast for these children for years. Those schools which have taken on a quasi parental role have found that the rewards in attendance and application are worth it.

    • Jody

      This echoes much of my own experience. But I didn’t provide fruit, just hard and consistent discipline and a “stick with me kid and you’ll do alright” or “it’s my way or the highway” ethic. One boy, in the lowest year 9, was king hit and killed eight years ago at the age of 21. I told him at 14, “if you live by your fists you’ll die that way”. Such a shame as he was never disrespectful to me, despite his domestic dysfunction at home. Talkative, yes; semi-literate, yes; argumentative, yes; but disrespectful to me, no way. I remember him because he died. Just 2km from where I now live, as it happens.

      No amount of extra funding for education could save that boy’s life or improve his outcomes.

  • Keith Kennelly

    Special schools for the neglected

  • Keith Kennelly

    The victim industry would applaud and embrace yet another class of disadvantaged. Fund those schools in accord with the philosophies of neglect and victim hood

    • Jody

      There are genuinely wonderful teachers out there who provide not only goodwill and care but often their own material resources to improve the outcomes for kids. And then there are the careerists who use ‘welfare’ and other ‘add-ons’ so that these look good on the CV for advancement. I fell foul of such a Head Teacher, after a very promising start when she gave me many top classes. One day she abused me in front of a Year 12 because I hadn’t attended to the debating team’s next meeting. I was busy with Advanced and Extension English and put debating on the backburner. She swore at me saying “you’ve made a fool of me” (it was all about her!) and swore at me, with the student lurking in the background because I was providing after school extra tutoring of my own volition. The next day I submitted my resignation from teaching.

  • Calligraphy10@hotmail.com

    I’ve been teaching in QLD high schools for 6 years and have to admit that it doesn’t really seem to be a question of funding. The idealogical and cultural mindset that is inculcated in our future generation is the worry- students want to be children (as opposed to working towards being future adults) and they want to be treated like children! It is disconcerting to hear a huge unshaven Y12 say he is a kid and doesn’t want to be an adult. The usual trope of wanting all the rights but no responsibilities is unfortunately true. The pervasive political atmosphere of PC on steroids is also unhelpful. Go on – go into any classroom and mention the word ‘Trump’ and the howl of outrage is quite astonishing (I’ve tried this with Y7s and Y10s). Our future citizens are woefully under-equipped intellectually – any attempt at rigour in the curriculum is frowned upon. They are not allowed to have diverse opinions. They are not allowed to have consequences. It is a bloody mess.
    All increased funding will do will be to make the situation worse. As a society we the citizens need to establish what we want out of education – economically productive citizens or useless snowflakes? Frustrated rant over…

  • Lawrie Ayres

    I went to a Catholic boarding school from 1957 to 1962 (repeated 5th year to get a commonwealth scholarship). The brothers had very little and our classrooms were spartan. The labs had basics and no more. OTOH we had a choice of subjects. The A class did English, M1 and M2, Physics, Chemistry and French or Latin. The B class did General maths, ancient and modern History, Geography and Economics plus English of course. Not every kid was a genius in fact few were yet in the Leaving all would pass and some extremely well. Sport was mandatory as was membership of the cadets. It is possible to achieve very high outcomes with minimal inputs if the teachers are dedicated, as they were, the curriculum is limited to the basics and there is discipline and plenty of healthy outdoor activity. Such a system would be anathema to the teachers union and the left; no room for safe schools and extraneous studies.

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