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.

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

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.

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.

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.