Submission to the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australia's schools

Here's executive summary of the official Mitchell Institute submission to the "Gonski 2.0" Review.  You can read the full submission here.

Achieving excellence for all students in Australia’s education system is a complex challenge in which schools play a key but not exclusive role. Mitchell Institute has focussed this submission on priority actions to transform Australia’s education system to secure educational success for all students. These priority actions are:

1. Improve the quality of early education and care services, and expand access to preschool so that all children can participate in quality preschool programs for two years before starting school. All children benefit from high quality early education, but it is particularly beneficial for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and for the one in four children who are developmentally vulnerable.

2. Build the evidence base, teaching support, and understanding around capabilities, engagement and learning growth. This includes tools for teachers and families to better identify the progress children are making and where additional support is needed.

3. Support the creation of a national education evidence and data institute to generate, evaluate and disseminate research on established and emerging education programs and practices with transformative potential. This includes developing a unique student identifier (USI) to track students as they progress through early education, schooling and further study or training, and link this with other data sets to ensure we can understand the impacts interventions have on a variety of student cohorts.

Policy coherence across the education continuum in Australia: understanding and improving service delivery

New book chapter published this week by Federation Press and launched by Professor Ken Smith, Dean on ANZSOG and Dr Lee-Anne Perry (Head on Catholic School system in Queensland and on panel for the Turnbull Government's Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools (aka "Gonski 2.0")!

My chapter argues that evolving state and Commonwealth roles, responsibilities and policy objectives have contributed to an education system characterised by fragmentation, complexity, sub optimal resource allocation, blurred responsibility, and an incoherent policy mix. As a result, this system does not meet the needs of young Australians as well as it could, or should. Despite this, the intersection of federalism and education policy show promising examples of effective intergovernmental collaboration, policy innovation and inter-jurisdictional learning.

Given that significant federal reform is unlikely, my chapter engages an intergovernmental and systems approach, identifying alternative pathways to improvement that work with, rather than against the federal system, enhancing coherence and better meeting student needs.

The other chapters cover topics including:

  • Public officials’ views on allocating policy responsibilities in the Australian Federation
  • The changing role of local government and why it still matters
  • Intergovernmental negotiations in Australia and the United States
  • Mental health policy and bridging sovereign spheres through professional networks
  • Federal financial relations
  • The failure of the federalism reform process and ideas for moving forward

The book can be purchased from Federation Press, among others, and should also be available in most university libraries.

Response to the Senate Inquiry on the Australian Education Amendment Act

The Gillard government's Australian Education Act, responding to the Gonski Review of School Funding, was a major advance on previous school funding arrangements that sought to improve equity and promote excellence in Australia’s schools.  However, it had a number of weaknesses and shortcomings, which this amendment bill put forward by the Turnbull government has the potential to remedy.

In this Mitchell Institute submission, I identify encouraging elements of this bill (such as a faster transition to the Schooling Resource Standard) that represent an advance on current legislation, as well as several elements of that could be further improved, with specific recommendations. This includes even stronger targeting of funding to schools facing greatest need, and  a call for the Commonwealth to support the development of an independent institute to grow and freely disseminate a national education evidence base on the policies, programs and practices in Australian schools and early childhood education and care services which work best, and the circumstances (where, when, for whom) they work best.

The two-page submission concludes:

"With these amendments so described, we feel this Bill could better match Commonwealth’s school funding investment to educational need and enhance educational impact and opportunity. We further note that schooling is one of several vital elements of Australia’s education system. To maximize the benefits of these reforms, complementary reforms are needed to early childhood education, tertiary education and vocational education, to match investment to opportunity, informed by evidence, as part of a cohesive education system."

"Gonski 2.0": an initial assessment of the info we have so far

For too long government spending on education hasn’t been matched to needs or to what the research says works best.

Previous attempts by both major parties to fix school funding arrangements have been deeply flawed, largely due to political compromises. (For example, the Howard government’s “needs based” funding reforms pledged no school would lose a dollar in real terms, not even schools found to be vastly over-funded using the Howard government’s new, more accurate model for estimating relative need. And Gillard's direction to the Gonski Review that “no school lose a dollar” meant its National Plan for School Improvement spread the additional much-needed funds too thinly – many schools continued to have too little while others continued to receive much more than they needed. The “top ups” or loadings for disadvantage had merit, but only an estimated 17% of the funding boost was allocated to these loadings and these were also spread too thin, with the low SES loading going to the lowest 50% of schools, not the lowest 25% as recommended).

We are still to see the details – at this stage we are only talking about an announcement of an agenda that still needs support of the party room, the federal parliament and states – but I am cautiously optimistic about several aspects of the Coalition’s revised agenda, including:

o   Plan to increase school funding from current projections and better-target this funding where needs are greatest, irrespective of state or sector, but maintaining the basic design recommended by the original Gonski Review, the Schooling Resource Standard, which consists of a base amount plus loadings for disadvantage.

o   Plan to move more quickly (over 10 years instead over 150 years) to fairer and more consistent funding allocations, meaning that Commonwealth fundingto the most over-resourced schools will reduce and be directed to much needier schools. This redistribution is long overdue, and the Coalition is better placed to make these funding reductions because they are less susceptible to the "class warfare" attacks than Labor. However, Labor was better placed to get the ball rolling.

o   Plan to provide greater funding certainty to schools and school systems, enhancing their capacity to make resource decisions over the medium to long term – especially hiring staff and renewing contracts. The short term deals we’ve had for many years now are not conducive to long-term planning.

o   Plan to allow states to retain flexibility in how they allocate funding (given their superior know-how and administrative capacity in schooling domain) and to determine their own levels of funding from current levels.

 

This revised and improved school funding agenda from the federal Coalition flows directly from the original Gonski Review’s recommendations, which made the case for changing to a consistent, needs-based school funding model.  Indeed Gonski 2.0 is a natural extension of this earlier review. 2.0 takes the next step and examines the evidence on how to spend this money, what policies and programs make greatest difference to learning and school outcomes. This makes sense. We all know that how money is spent is vitally important. Spending $100 billion on gold-plated chairs, for instance, won’t lift learning.

 

Important caveats:

o   Needs-based, sector-blind, nationally-consistent funding is the way forward. But it must consider the relative need of schools (based on the needs of students enrolled) and their capacity to meet these needs, which is influenced by state and sector. (I.e. private schools can charge fees which not only influences who enrolls in a given school, but also the school's ability to meet their needs. And the costs of delivering services vary between states due to geography and population characteristics, among other things.  Assessment of needs should also take into account the different starting points and learning growth of student populations in different schools. Once relative need is established, funding should flow in a consistent way to schools in line with their relative need.

o   It is important that in “ensuring states and schools are accountable” the Commonwealth doesn’t attach to many conditions and prescriptions on spending and reporting, because research in Australia and internationally shows this is counterproductive. (Time and money is spent on accountability processes instead of in the classroom and on building teacher and leader capacity and expertise etc. where it makes the biggest difference to student learning growth. It could also divert attention and resources away from schools’ pre-existing and carefully designed improvement strategies, which were tailored for their students and specific context, plans which may already be aligned with Commonwealth priorities and informed by research evidence).  Repeated studies here and overseas have found its very difficult or impossible for federal governments to make sure certain things happen at state and local levels, states and school leadership teams are much better placed to assess school needs and deliver and monitor funding and other programs, a point emphasised in the original Gonski Review. They need to maintain this flexibility.

 

This new agenda is a big improvement on previous agendas from Coalition and it could provide a path forward that benefits students around Australia. For this reason it has been received cautious support from the Australian Primary Principals Association (representing all sectors), the Australian Council for State School Organisations, the Independent Schools Council of Australia, the Business Council and the Grattan Institute and others.  It builds on Labor’s work in this space, and although it pledges far less money was pledged than under Labor’s plan, it is much better targeted, which I expect means more money, all things considered, for the schools and students that need it most. We’re waiting on the detail in these school funding plans, emerging, as it should, from negotiations with states and consultations with academics and sector. All the problems identified by the original Gonski Review have worsened over time. Evidence from Australia and internationally show that Improving equity must be part of coherent strategy for improving schooling outcomes nationally. It is an opportunity reduce inequalities to allocate government funding to where research suggests it can make the greatest difference. I hope this opportunity isn’t squandered.

 

Last but not least, schooling is just one – albeit very important – part of our education system. I'm deeply concerned about the lack of funding certainty for the equally important early childhood education, and for VET and university, which provide further pathways to opportunity. In particular:

o   High quality preschool is one of the best investments to maximise learning in and beyond school.  An essential foundation that enhances children’s ability to make the most of learning opportunities at school.

o   Preschools around Australia funded on short term – 2yr- agreements and in the dark on next year’s funding, how many hours of sessions to offer to students and staff.* 

o   We need secure, ongoing funding for 4yo preschool.

o   We need to build on achievements of universal access to 4yo preschool and provide an additional year of preschool for all children, with continued emphasis on quality as well as access.

 

Wanting more? Here’s the government's announcement and fact sheets with the details so far.  My analysis of the Coalition’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy doc is here. And there’s a ton more on Gonski, school funding and federalism in earlier blog posts and my publications and presentations page, including links to television and radio interviews.

* On 4 May, the day after this post was written, the Commonwealth government announced it would extend the National Partnership which provides preschool funding for 15 hours/week for children the year before they start school. But it only extended funding for a further 12 months. Preschools need ongoing funding security. We also need to move to two years of high quality preschool for all children.

 

Australia’s trends in PISA and TIMSS are neither new nor shocking

"The twin trends of declining scores and growing inequalities will continue until action is taken to direct resources to where they are most needed. In times of ‘budget emergencies’, this may mean away from where they are not needed as critically. Much more needs to go schools whose educational disadvantage is concentrated.

Australia also needs to invest more in the early years, ensuring every child has access to at least one, and ideally two years of high quality preschool, which we know benefits every child, and contributes to improved outcomes at school and beyond. Australia lags behind other developed nations and yet, funding for even one year of preschool is under threat".

This is an excerpt of my article published by Education Review. Free version available here

My favourite education podcasts

The Conversation recently asked me to share my top education podcasts for a piece they published. Here's my contribution:

 

I’m a big fan of podcasts, from a wide range of genres and subjects. Choosing just one was too hard, but I’ve narrowed down my top three for those interested in education policy.

In its own words, Teachers’ Education Review is:

… the Australian podcast for teachers that bridges the gap between research, policy and practice.

But it’s great for others interested in Australian schooling.

The episodes are long (around 90 minutes), but divided into segments, and the time each segment starts is provided so you can skip straight to the parts you’re keenest on. Presenters and listeners are on Twitter to continue discussions for those interested.

The Early Education Show is an engaging and informative podcast for everyone with an interest in early childhood education and care policies, news and practices in Australia and beyond. The presenters are passionate and knowledgeable, bringing diverse perspectives and just the right amount of disagreement, self-deprecation, irony and humour.

And, finally, Freakonomics Radio is an upbeat and engaging podcast from Chicago uncovering “the hidden side of everything” using actual research and fun interviews with the researchers, activists and others at the centre of each topic. This show covers a big variety of topics, but mostly from the fields of education policy, politics, psychology and economics.

 

Quick backgrounder to today's meeting of education ministers

Today the education ministers from all of Australia’s governments – state, territory and Commonwealth- meet in Adelaide and the contentious and complex issue of school funding reform is on the agenda.  Here's a quick backgrounder before I take my little kids to the zoo.

While technically (under the Constitution) school funding is a responsibility of the states - continuing the arrangements that existed prior to Federation in 1901 - the Commonwealth government has been increasing its policy and funding role since the 50s, and especially since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government began providing general recurrent funding to all public (= government/state) schools and private schools (= nongovernment schools, Catholic and independent) using tied grants. This policy was in large part an effort to decrease educational inequalities, but over the successive decades, due to a patchwork of mostly unilateral decisions made by Commonwealth governments with different agendas, it has had the opposite effect.  Since this time, and especially since a heavily politicized and compromised private school funding reform in the early 2000s, Commonwealth funding to private schools has increased much faster than that to public schools, and far in excess of their enrolment growth and relative need.  Fees at private schools have also increased disproportionately and far above inflation. While all school sectors have a mix of students of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, the overwhelming majority of socio-economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, indigenous students and rural and remote students attend public schools. And this stratification and resource inequality is increasing.

States still retain responsibility for schooling, and provide most of the funding that public schools receive (as well as a bit to private schools). But the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding to all schools and attaches an exhaustive list of conditions to that funding, which influences that schools and school systems (including states) can do. The impact of these conditional Commonwealth grants ranges from ineffective to mediocre to damaging.  This is because it is quite difficult for the Commonwealth to enforce things to happen in schools, and in school systems, when it doesn't run either of them. The Commonwealth grants also often divert attention from cohesive improvement plans schools or systems plans may have been pursuing, as they scramble to get extra (much needed) funding to make ends meet. And quite often, the Commonwealth’s “new” initiatives are recycled ideas from the states (e.g. Victoria has had a version of independent public schools since the early 1990s) or bad (i.e. not educationally sound), or impractical due to the split of responsibilities under the Constitution.  Making this intergovernmental policy settlement more complex, Australia also has a growing number of national authorities jointly “owned” by all the governments, such as the ACARA, which is responsible for the national literacy and numeracy tests and Australian Curriculum, among other things.

The Gonski Review, commissioned by Commonwealth Education Minister Julia Gillard was the broadest review of school funding – all sectors, all levels of government – since the early 70s and was charged with figuring out what was wrong and how to potentially fix it. It found that inequalities in Australian schooling were increasing; that student background had a large and unacceptable link to student educational outcomes; and that funding for needy schools was inadequate. It proposed cash injection, distributed using a sector-blind, needs-based funding model, composed of a base amount per student, plus top up funding for six different types of disadvantage. The neediest schools would, hypothetically, get the largest increases, reflecting the greater investment required to ensure those kids got an equal opportunity to children from more advantaged backgrounds in more advantaged schools. 

The Gonski Review also said that although the Commonwealth should use this model to determine how much funding it gave to the school systems, the school systems (state education departments, Catholic Education Authorities in each state etc) should continue to be the ones that allocate the funds to individual schools, and that they can use their own needs-based models (compatible to the Gonski model) to do this, on the proviso that these allocations be transparent. This would allow states to learn from each other about variations in their school funding formulas. (I.e. to explore which formulas get better outcomes - a higher base amount or higher supplement amounts, or more $ for one supplement (such as poverty) than another (such as rurality). 

Funding amounts would be set in bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and each differentstate and school system. (Not one single national agreement). This is why 27 different agreements is not a “perversion” of Gonski but reflection of Gonski. These bilateral agreements took into account the different starting points. It was to enable the transition from a hodge-podge of different recurrent (ongoing) and short term funding programs (such as National Partnerships), where similar schools in different places got different amounts, to a coherent, needs-based system.  But a needs-based system where the state-level systems allocated money, due to their superior expertise and administrative capacity in schooling.

The implementation had two major flaws. One was the promise that “no school would lose a dollar” (even the richest schools charging fees double or triple the base funding amount). This meant the funding was distributed far too thinly, with some extra funding going to schools that were over-resourced, which meant far less was available for the schools with the greatest educational challenges. The other was that the implementation (and transitional funding arrangements) would be phased in over six years, with about half of the funding increase not flowing to schools until the fifth and sixth year. Because the Commonwealth budget only goes for four years, opponents of the “Gonski” plan, including the current Commonwealth, Coalition government, could claim the final two years, and big cash boost, was “unfunded”.  This is why the current Commonwealth education minister is seeking to forge a new funding agreement to start in 2018 (which would have been the 5th year).

The Gonski Review also emphasized governments needed to cooperate with each other and to be transparent about funding with each other.

The “Gonski” plan is still only half-implemented.  It’s only been a few years, transition agreements are still in place, and most of the funding has not yet flown to schools. Schools needing the greatest boosts have not yet received it. Axing it would be premature and harmful. Announcing the intention to cut funding via national media, and releasing some select figures, but not sharing the full figures and analysis with the other education ministers to allow for informed discussion is neither transparent nor cooperative.

Whatever happens today, where there is "broad agreement" on reform directions or a "firey exchange" nothing will be finalized today.  This is an early discussion only, and any new agreement would not begin until 2018. 

Forging a new agreement is far easier said than done and may not even be possible. This is because the "Gonksi" funding amounts were enshrined in formal intergovernmetnal agreements between governments AND because these transition arrangements and final funding amounts are also enshrined in Commonwealth legislation - The Australian Education Act - which means the approval of the lower house and the Senate is required to pass it.

And at end of day each government minister will do what it thinks is best for their own government’s agenda(s) and priorities. This was a central finding of my PhD on school funding reform and Australian federalism.  Such agendas sometimes reflect party lines, but just as often do not.

While educational performance as measured by national and international standardized tests (a limited measure) has stagnated or fallen as government funding for schools has increased, this is largely explained by the fact that this government funding has not been allocated to the schools that most need it, and it has not always been allocated to the most effective programs – such as investing in teachers and investing in high quality early education (preschools) for all kids, so that they are better able to amplify their learning and development at school.

We need to match investment to where needs and opportunities are greatest. This is a responsibility Australia has not just to those students, but to the whole country.

For those interested, much more background info and analysis in earlier posts, in the publications and media page of my website, and in my PhD.

NAPLAN results don’t tell the full story

"The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results released on Wednesday show Australian students are making few gains in literacy and numeracy. National average performance scores in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 have barely shifted since the standardised tests began almost ten years ago.
But averages don’t tell the full story. Diving into the details is essential to understand what is going on in Australian education."

Read more in my piece in The Conversation. Extra background available in my previous blog posts and other articles.

A new direction in early childhood policy?

Federal Labor has released more details about its early years policy. My colleagues and I identified that:

'The most exciting and different thing about Labor’s policy was the positive shift in direction signalled by the policy’s name – “Investing in Early Education and Care” – and the focus on “making quality early education and care more affordable”.'

We are pleased by this development, but emphasise that more work remains to improve ECEC quality and participation rates. Read our article in The Conversation for more.

Education policy and the Leaders' Debate

Last night the federal political leaders - Prime Minister Malcolm Turbull from the Coalition, the Bill Shorten from the Labor Party, debated each other and responded to questions from political journalists, in what has become a hallmark of election campaigns.  Here's a rundown of the discussion around education policy. This run-down was originally published by the Conversation.

The debate clearly demonstrated the relative importance of education policy to the Coalition and to Labor, as well as their conceptualisation of what it encompasses.

Malcolm Turnbull didn’t mention it in his opening address, speaking instead on innovation, jobs and growth.

By contrast, Bill Shorten mentioned education within the first minute or so of his opening address, arguing that investment in high-quality education – specifically with well-funded public schools – was one of three key elements of Labor’s “Positive Plan for the Future” and a foundation of their plan for economic growth.

Shorten frequently returned to schools, and education and fairness more generally. He argued “you can trust Labor to stand up for education and training”; “we will properly fund all schools, government schools, according to their needs” and that they’ll make sure “all kids get a decent crack at getting to university”.

It is highly significant and encouraging that Shorten mentioned “childcare” as a key element of Labor’s “positive plan for education”. Reams of research show high-quality early childhood education (preschool and the early learning that precedes it) is increasingly recognised to be at least as important as schooling.

While Australia has made huge advances in both participation rates and service quality in early learning in recent years, we are still playing catch-up with other advanced nations. One-third of young children do no attend preschool for the hours needed to make a difference, and children in disadvantaged areas have fewer high-quality early education and care services available to them. Research shows greater investment in this space is one of the most significant investments in education and productivity that governments can make.

Turnbull proclaimed his belief in “the transformative effect of education”. He said that “of course we believe that government funding must be allocated on the basis of need” while quickly reminding viewers that educational outcomes have been worsening over time despite total school education expenditure by governments increasing.

This is true. And the reason it is true is because much of this increased expenditure hasn’t been targeted to where educational needs have been greatest.

Independent schools serving very affluent communities and charging tens of thousands of dollars each year in fees still reap thousands in government funding, while public schools serving the down-and-out struggle to make ends meet on half to one-third of that amount. Disadvantage is increasingly concentrated in government (public) schools, yet funding to non-government (Catholic and independent schools) has historically increased much faster, largely due to Commonwealth government largesse.

I was surprised that neither Shorten nor Turnbull said the word “Gonski”. Instead they spoke more about fair or needs-based schools funding. I was also surprised that neither went into the details of their policies, both of which were announced some time ago, and both of which encompass much more than funding quantums. 

Labor’s policies are mapped out in two key documents: Growing Together: Labor’s Agenda for Tackling Inequality and Your Child, Our Future: Innovation through Education, and discussed in this Conversation piece.  The Coalition’s discussed here by Education Minister Simon Birmingham, with additional – important- fine print on funding in this departmental document.

I encourage you to read them both, and also to read my analysis of them in earlier blog posts below. 

Early learning

The Early Learning Association of Australia is the peak body for parents and service providers working to delivery high quality early learning programs to all kids. They provide invaluable training, advice, lobbying and resources for their members - over 1200 early childhood education and care services, including independent, community-managed preschools, cluster managers, long day-care services, integrated services and more.   They've been an absolutely fount of wisdom and pillar of support for me in my role as Vice President of a public, independent, community-run preschool in relation to the myriad staffing, occupational health and safety, policy and regulatory issues that cross my desk as Vice President of an independent, community-managed, public preschools, and as an academic exploring education policy. 

So when ELAA asked me to write an article for them pulling out key points from the Quality Early Learning For All report I co-authored with colleagues from the Mitchell Institute, I was very happy to say yes. 

Here's a taster:

The research is clear. High quality early education is one of the best investments governments can make to maximize learning and life chances for all kids, especially those most vulnerable.

What's next for Australian federalism?

With the scrapping of the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation, and the long list of conditions accompanying the Coalition and Labor's education policy, it's worth asking how we got here, and what might happen next.

The Mandarin recently explored these issues in a recent article by journalist David Donaldson.

If you're a serious federalism nut (like me), then come along to the People's Federation for the 21st Century conference in Brisbane 16-17 June. The conference will bring together academics, public officials and community stakeholders to discuss the changing government roles and responsibilities, improving intergovernmental collaboration, public engagement, policy reform and service delivery.

I'll be speaking on policy coherence and service delivery across the education continuum in Australia and answering any questions you might have. 

Early Bird registrations have now opened and will continue until May 20, 2016.

The truth about the Coalition's school funding package

The Commonwealth government yesterday announced it would spend an additional $1.2 billion on schooling between 2018 and 2020 as part of a $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan.

This latter figure was bewildering at first. It is far lower than annual Commonwealth expenditure on schools ($14 billion) or combined state, territory and Commonwealth expenditure on schools ($52.42, figures from 2013-14, most recent year for which comparable data is available).

I went hunting and found the answer buried on page 14 of the Quality Schooling, Quality Outcomes report by the Commonwealth Education Department, which itself was quietly uploaded yesterday evening. 

In the Department's own words:

“Consequently, as a result of using this [new, higher] index, the Australian Government will provide an additional $1.2 billion over four years from 2017-2018 . This additional investment will bring the Australian Government’s total spending commitment for school education to a record $73.6 billion over the Budget and Forward Estimates Period.

In other words, the “new” money is just the result of ditching the paltry CPI index rate introduced by the Abbott government in favour of a slightly higher “education specific indexation rate of 3.56%” which is still below the higher indexation rates (up to 4.7%) that the Coalition removed in its 2014 budget.

This funding package is better described as a partial restoration of the funding cuts of 2014.

But wait, there’s more.  The Turnbull government is requiring the states and nongoverment school systems to undertake a number of specific reforms and measures as a condition of receiving this funding.  This is despite the Coalition's critique of Labor’s extensive policy conditions in their education grants in 2013 and earlier ( which I also criticized for their inappropriateness and unhelpfulness), and despite their rhetoric about making the states sovereign in their own spheres (which I favour, as long as they are transparent and collaborate when appropriate).

Finally, the kicker: the growth in school funding between 2015/16 and 2019-20 under this new indexation rate is estimated to be 26.5%. This is significantly lower than the 66.1% growth in Commonwealth funding for schools between 2004/05 and 2013/14. These figures are all on page 14 of the government’s own report.  The devil is truly in the detail.

What will schools and states get under the Student Achievement Plan? Smaller funding increases and more conditions and tests, which I doubt will improve learning or outcomes.  See my previous post for more information.

(NB This most contains fiddly correction made on May 3rd in relation to forward estimates.)

Initial thoughts on the early details of the federal Coalition's school funding package

This morning the federal Coalition government is announcing a big, needs-based school funding package as part of the upcoming budget and its election campaign. (I foreshadowed the possibility of such a package last week).   More details are expected from federal education minister Simon Birmingham later today, and more again from the Treasurer on Tuesday night when the federal budget is handed-down. Here are some initial thoughts on the early details of this Student Achievement Plan.

So far, we’ve been told that it contains a $1.2 billion increase in school funding, allocated using a needs-based formula, spread over 2018, 2019 and 2020, as part of a $73.6 billion school package. The paltry 2.5 indexation rate for school funding introduced by Abbott will be replaced by a 3.56% “real education costs” indexation rate.

This first figure is just a nudge shy of the $1.1 billion education spending pledged by the Victorian government on Wednesday as part of its 2016-2017 state budget.  Needless to say the Victorian government has much less revenue at its disposal than the federal government, which collects most of the tax in the country. So I find this increase underwhelming. (Read my thoughts on the Victorian budget here.)

The $73.6 billion is a different story, and I’m wondering what it contains. Figures released by the Productivity Commission in February put the combined total of state and federal spending on schools at $50.42 billion, and put the federal contribution at $14 billion. Even accounting for the fact that these PC figures are from 2013-2014 (most recent year from which comparable data was available), the discrepancy is still striking.  I’m definitely waiting for the details on this.  

Minister Birmingham has emphasized that this funding will be distributed on a needs-basis using tied grants, with conditions that prevent the states from lowering their own school funding or potentially even varying the allocations, as well as implementing a raft of other "reform" measures.

It is certainly true that Australia needs to better target resources to where needs are greatest – the current mismatch is a major contributor to the widening gaps in schooling outcomes and overall lackluster performance. But as I found in my PhD research, tied grants both in Australia and in other federations are notoriously ineffective, and adding lots of conditions often has perverse or damaging outcomes compared to untied funding for the same purpose.

Similar conclusions were reached by the Gonski Review,  which recommended that states retain responsibility for allocating funding to schools (dispersing the funding from the Commonwealth to their schools using their own needs-based formulas). This is because the states have superior expertise, experience and capacity when it comes to dispersing funding and developing programs. Gonski also stressed that transparency was needed to assess state allocations. Unfortunately, for most states this has not occurred, which greatly limits accountability and limits the ability of policy makers in different systems around the country to learn from each other.

Finally, this Student Achievement Package confirms that the federal Coalition would continue to fund – and develop programs and accountability provisions for - public (government) and private (nongovernment schools), rather than retreat from public schools, a proposal made by the prime minister to the state premiers at the Council of Australian Government meeting in March. 

I said at the time that such proposal was a terrible idea but highly unlikely. Last year, I also foreshadowed continuation of more-or-less current arrangements (where both levels of government continue to fund and develop policies for public and private schools) as the most likely (though not most desirable) of the four reform options outlined by Reform of the Federation White Paper Process, which has been quietly cancelled. The White Paper would have set out a plan and program to enhance the functioning of Australian federalism, especially in the most problematic areas such as education, and was originally due late last year.  

UPDATE 12:30PM

It has emerged that some of the federal government's requirements under the new funding arrangements are:

  • "standardised Year 1 school assessment of students’ reading, phonics and numeracy skills to ensure the earliest possible interventions occur for students who need additional help",
  • minimum standards for students to pass Year 12, including changes to subject requirements
  • changes to staff remuneration (competency and achievement against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers rather than length of service) and "Incentivise high-performing teachers to work in disadvantaged schools" (NB many state governments already do this)
  • "have minimum proportions of trainee teachers specialise in literacy and numeracy"
  • "Use explicit literacy and numeracy instruction in all schools"

The rationale behind some of these is sound. For example, evidence indicates the importance of a strong grasp of literacy and numeracy by age eight as a foundation for successful later learning, and learning interventions are better earlier than later. However, I haven't seen evidence on the standardised testing as an appropriate mechanism at this age for this purpose.  I'm not an expert in early years literacy and numeracy, so cannot speak to the appropriateness of explicit instruction as a pedagogical strategy, but as a federalism expert that has examined schooling policies in Australia and abroad, I am not confident the federal government has the capacity to implement or enforce these or other "requirements" given it neither runs schools nor employs teachers.  Indeed, such measures could further blur responsibilities in the already contested and opaque schooling sphere. 

While I am in favour of national standardised testing as one of many data sets or indicators to inform decision making by families, school leaders and policy makers (it is better than relying on Year 12 results, guess work, word-of-mouth and reputations), it is evident that a disproportionate emphasis on testing is harmful. I've repeatedly argued these test results need to be put in perspective and not conflated or over-emphasised. Australia's NAPLAN program is simply a snapshot in time of a few subject areas and skills, in a way that allows for national comparison and change over time comparisons.

Here's what Bob Randall, the Chief Executive of ACARA who administers and analyses NAPLAN, has said about it:

"We believe that the best way to develop literacy and numeracy is through the delivery of a broad rich curriculum. Literacy and numeracy are used and developed when students are taught science, English, the Arts, mathematics, and all the other learning areas that make up a rich, well-rounded curriculum. A narrowing of the curriculum to focus on test preparation will not improve NAPLAN results."

Connecting test results to school funding, and potentially to teacher remuneration, could provoke some schools and teachers to focus on test preparation (rather than the vital skills in literacy and numeracy they seek to measure) and could come the expense of other important subject areas that aren't tested, and vital skills and capabilities children need to succeed. This could be counter-productive and have perverse effects on student achievement, engagement and well-being. 

It is also unclear what would happen if a school serving a disproportionately disadvantaged community receives extra needs-based funding but student test scores fail to improve within the designated time period. Change can take time, improvements may be in other areas (such as wellbeing) and sometimes extra challenges or issues beyond a schools powers may impact on student performance. Do these schools - the neediest in Australia - have to repay the federal government?  How is that supposed to work or help the students most in need? 

The Victorian budget

This week the Victorian government handed down its budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The centrepieces were $1.1 billion in education spending, major new public transport infrastructure and a sizable surplus.  Here are some of the things that stood out for me from the school and early years portfolios.

Highlights:

  • More and better-targeted school funding. This sees the continued implementation of the Victorian government's Education State agenda and a welcome response to the findings of the Bracks Review. Although Victoria has had a needs-based funding model for two decades only 7% of this funding was for equity measures. From July this year, about 30% of students in Victorian public (government) schools will receive equity funding. The higher base amount of general recurrent funding for schools is slightly above indexation and population growth.
  • $924.1 million to build or upgrade school facilities, heralded as the "largest ever single investment in school infrastructure in Victoria". Much of this is to build or expand schools in areas with surging populations - mostly on Melbourne's outskirts - and the rest is to update facilities in the most dilapidated schools across the state, many of whom have been in urgent need for a long time.   I was in two-minds about calling this a major highlight. I consider it a core obligation of government to provide more schools and other essential services as the population increases, and to maintain essential pre-existing infrastructure and facilities. But given the chronic under-investment in this space, and lag between population growth and school building for many years in Victorian and other states, it is pleasing to see the Andrews government make this a major priority.
  • $50 million for a Shared Facilities Fund to build jointly-funded and jointly-managed community assets like sports facilities, performing arts centres and libraries. These are hoped to create "community hubs at major schools in growth corridors and elsewhere across the state" to "enable greater use of school facilities after school hours".
  • Much higher target numbers of principals and assistant principals participating in centrally-funded leadership development courses, to better equip them with the skills they need in their vital roles.  Public schools in Victoria have far greater autonomy than elsewhere in Australia.
  • Doctors in up to 100 of the most disadvantaged secondary schools across the state. This builds upon the highly successful initiative of Bendigo Senior Secondary, a public school regional Victoria.
  • Building more Children’s Hubs, which will be a “one-stop shop for families” offering a range of children and family services under the one roof to increase convenience and access.
  • Respectful relationship training for preschool teachers

The Victorian budget also had a few disappointments for me, including:

  • No funding commensurate with Victoria’s share of the “Gonski” funding.  This follows the federal Coalition government backing out of the six-year agreement forged between their predecessors (Labor prime minister Rudd and Coalition Premier Napthine) in August 2013, under which the Commonwealth would have contributed $6.8 billion and the Victorian government contributed $5.4 billion. However, the higher and better-targeted funding for public schools is still significant and worthy of praise.
  • No sizable increase in Victorian funding for 4 year old preschool (kindergarten), nor any public funding for 3 year old preschool programs (apart from a handful of pre-existing highly-targeted programs for children from vulnerable backgrounds). Research undertaken by my colleagues and I at the Mitchell Institute confirms that investment in high-quality early education programs, such as preschool, in the years before school are one of the highest-impact investments governments can make, benefit to all children, and with especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are also least likely to participate currently. We also know that cost and attitudes to the importance of preschool are major barriers to participation. I would have liked to have seen subsidies increase for 4 year old preschool making it free for all families, and subsidies introduced for 3 year old programs. This would have elevated the status of preschool as a vital part of the education system, while simultaneously making it more affordable and accessible. At present, there is a large gap between program costs and government subsidies, which is met by fees and fundraising.

Overall I give the Victorian budget’s education spending a B+  “Great work, more than adequate, but with potential for significant improvement.”

A missmatch between investment and opportunity: early childhood education in Australia

Yesterday my workplace The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University launched our first big report on early childhood education in Australia, which I coauthored with three remarkable colleagues.

Our report pulls together all the research and latest figures about what's working, what's not working, and what Australia needs to do differently in this space to ensure all kids can reach their full potential.

We found that 60,000 children are arriving at school developmentally vulnerable and already behind, that one thousands of children do not attend preschool in the year before school, or do not attend for enough hours that research indicates is required for lasting, positive impact. Worryingly, the kids missing out on high-quality early education are the ones who will benefit most.

While Australia has made significant strides forward on both access and quality measures since the introduction of the National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care in 2012, much more needs to be done to ramp up quality and access, especially in disadvantaged communities. This means greater supported directed to where there are greater needs.

Investment in high quality early education offers the greatest "bang for buck" of all stages of education and must be elevated as a priority for governments and families.  Among our five recommendations for the next five years, we call for 15 hours preschool in the year before full-time school to become a legislated entitlement of every child. Access should not be based on whether or not a child's parents is working, but be a child's right, just like school.

The report, media release, opinion article and two-page fact sheet are all available on the Mitchell Institute's website. I've delighted to say our report is making waves, with articles in The Age, The Australian, the Guardian among others, plus over a dozen separate radio interviews broadcast across the country, including feature in ABC's PM news radio bulletin.

F for fail: analysis of Turnbull's proposal to end Commonwealth support for public schools but continue supporting private schools

On the first of April, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed that the Commonwealth cease supporting public (government) schools but continue supporting private (nongovernment) schools. It wasn't an April Fools joke, but something he wanted to discuss at the Council of Australian Government's meeting that same day, along with fiscal reforms and hospital funding reforms.

This schooling proposal was one of four ideas for schooling federalism reform floated in the Discussion Paper that was part of the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation.

I analysed these four options in a report for the Melbourne School of Government, and concluded that this option be avoided, because it would worsen all existing problems (dwindling equity and excellence, accountability concerns, unproductive overlap and subsidiarity.) It is also of questionable constitutionality.

Here's an excerpt from my report:

Rather than providing clarity and enhancing accountability, it muddies responsibilities, as the states would still be responsible for the regulatory frameworks and other programs for all schools in their jurisdiction, which would include some programmatic funding, such as student welfare initiatives. It also is likely to exacerbate the inequities and inefficiencies (and worsening learning outcomes) created by the two levels of government making policy decisions and funding allocations independently of each other, and pursuing different, competing policy agendas.  This dilutes program effectiveness and efficiency, resulting in wasted resources (time, money and goodwill towards reform). The growing gap in resources between school sectors impacts negatively on the overall performance of Australia’s school system.
The split of funding responsibilities from policy and regulatory responsibilities under Option 2 creates additional problems, as noted by the Taskforce, who cautioned that Option 2 was likely to “introduce perverse incentives for governments to shift costs within the system” and could also “reduce State and Territory governments’ ability to effectively regulate and assist the non-government sector improve its student performance, or ensure a baseline of consistency that allows easy movement for students between school sectors”.

I encourage you to check out the full report, which contains extra analysis on this and other options, as well as important background information on who does what in Australian schooling, reform prospects and why this all matters.

PS I'm currently in Spain, where I'm speaking about Australian federalism and education policies, and learning from other international workshops, at a series of workshops and seminars organised by the Forum of Federations.

The importance of the early years - and the kids we leave behind

Australia's most important information on early childhood development, the 2015 AEDC National Report was released on Tuesday. It reveals that around 60,000 children are developmentally vulnerable in their first year of school.  Evidence shows this early disadvantage affects children's performance throughout their schooling, and beyond.

The Australian Early Development Census measures kids' development in their first year of school across five domains: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills (school-based), and communication skills and general knowledge

In this article published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, my Mitchell Institute colleague Megan O'Connell and I unpack the data - what's improving, what's worsening, what's puzzling - and the centrality of high quality, early childhood education and care in unlocking every child's potential.