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?