"Overcoming the Odds: A study of Australia’s top-performing disadvantaged schools"

The Centre for Independent Studies released a new education report this week - Overcoming the Odds: A study of Australia’s top-performing disadvantaged schools - to a flurry of commentary. This was mostly in response to the CIS’ conclusion that because nine disadvantaged schools achieved great results WITHOUT extra funding, other schools could also “potentially improve significantly, without necessarily requiring more taxpayer funding” and focusing instead on how they spend their time and money. This is obviously important. But this argument risks reducing support for a fair and effective needs-based funding system which is desperately needed here in Australia but only partially implemented. I was one of those asked by the media for my commentary, so here it is.

One thing I liked about this report was the identification of six common themes that contribute to school success - such as teacher collaboration and professional learning, leadership expertise, orderly learning environments (a better description than “discipline” if you ask me), and data-driven teaching practice.  In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find serious education researchers disputing these as vital elements.

And it is true that how money is spent in schools and in systems is absolutely critical - indeed that was the whole point of “Gonski 2.0” - what can be done within schools to enhance and sustain learning growth for all students, so that all students make at least a year’s progress each school year.

It's great to see the tremendous work of these nine schools being celebrated and shared. Their teachers, school leaders and students should be applauded,.

But these features can take time to implement and to fine-tune in each school and classroom. And, dare-I-say it, it takes money too.

Money for professional learning for teachers (especially if introducing a new school-wide literacy instruction system), paid time for data analysis and for collaboration, including collaboration with parents, education support staff and allied health professionals that might be working with students and schools to help them achieve. Money to bring in extra specialists, like a numeracy coach or speech pathologist, where that additional need exists. And we know educational needs are more heavily concentrated in socio-economically disadvantaged schools, which in turn are a larger proportion of the public systems.  This is why so many academic studies and government reviews have recommended greater funding for schools with greater need.

The CIS is right that yes, any school can do well, any student can be a high achiever, and we should have high expectations for all. But those expectations should be matched with the resources and tailored supports needed to achieve them.

You can't generalise from just nine schools  - however exemplary - when Australia has almost 10,000 schools.

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.”

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

School autonomy - sorting myth from fact

More autonomy for schools is an education policy being championed by both Labor and the Coalition in the lead-up to the federal election. But does it result in a better education system?

In an extended election piece for The Age, education editor Jewel Topsfield takes a look at increased school autonomy. In doing so, she draws on an analytical piece I wrote on independent public schools published on Election Watch, in which I reassured folks on twitter that the Coalition is not planning to privatise public schools but rather grant them extra autonomy. I also explain that increased school autonomy, while controversial, has been on reform agenda since the Whitlam government days and all states have introduced elements of it to varying degrees. Topsfield's piece also refers to the Grattan Institute's recent and excellent report The myth of markets in school education. Interestingly, a fact she cites from this report - that the Kennett government devolved 93 per cent of Victoria's school education budget to individual public schools (on page 25 if you're interested) contains a footnote linking to my earlier research on these 'Schools of the Future' reforms and their ongoing relevance! (NB Once you click this link on Election Watch you'll need to scroll down a page or so to read my material education policies.)

Unleashed opinion on Labor’s school empowerment policy

My contribution to the election policy debate was published on the ABC’s Drum Unleashed website.

I show that the Prime Minister’s proposal is a good one, giving schools around the country a taste of Victorian schools have had for almost a decade – the power to govern themselves.  I argue that the ability to innovate and transfer successful policies such as this is a virtue of federalism that we should enhance.