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. 

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? 

Are independent public schools are good idea? Marking the federal Coalition's education policy.

A quick expert comment piece I wrote for the Election Watch website, putting the Coalition's long-anticipated education policy - including the controversial Independent Public School proposal - under the microscope.

If you'd like to know more about Independent Public Schools you can listen to my interview on the topic on Radio National's Life Matters program where I'm joined by the author of a report into Western Australia's initiative.  I also strongly recommend the latest book by Brian Caldwell, an academic guru on the subject and former Dean of the University of Melbourne's Education Faculty. (Disclaimer: I just discovered that he devoted two pages to discussing and endorsing my research on Victoria's 'self managing school' reforms and the influence of federalism.) A lovely compliment. Mine is the only study of these reforms from an intergovernmental perspective and you can read it here

Is the Education Revolution finally here?

Here’s a piece of mine on the University of Melbourne’s 2010 Federal election blog, which gathers commentary and analysis from academics and postgraduate students.

This week Prime Minister Gillard announced a suite of radical policies that will do far more to improve student learning than any school hall or national curriculum ever could.  Performance bonuses for teachers and schools; Teach Next, which moves passionate professionals into teaching careers; and an Australian Baccalaureate to complement state high school certificates. Combined with earlier initiatives such as the MySchool website which compares school performance and profiles across the country; and last week’s promise to hand more power back to principals and parents, we have a real revolution.  Not just of schooling policy, but Labor policy….

Read the rest of this piece here, or my commentary in earlier education policies here.