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

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.

This was just the executive summary of Mitchell Institute's submission to the "Gonski 2.0" Review. Read the full submission here.

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.

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 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.