Budget underwhelms by not settling school funding wars

by Peter Goss

Published by Education Review, Wednesday 4 May

The new Coalition schools policy, Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes, was announced without fanfare two days before the Budget. It is easy to see why. The main political goal is to negate the impact of Labor’s attack on “fairness”, given that the Coalition government is offering far less money for schools than Labor.

The Coalition addresses the funding disparity in three ways. But all are underwhelming.

First, the Coalition argues, with some justification, that how money is allocated across the system matters more than the amount of money that is spent. Yet, with no changes to the funding formula, this policy does not appear to allocate more funds to those who need it most. Nor does it address the deep structural challenges in Australian school education.

Second, the additional $1.2 billion in funding over 2018-2020 will not deliver big increases for disadvantaged, most often government, schools. In response, states may well rethink their funding models. This risks rekindling the school funding wars that Gonski was supposed to end.

Third, the policy requires states to at least maintain the real level of their per student funding, rather than cost-shifting to the federal government. But this is just a (partial) reversal of Christopher Pyne’s approach of handing funding to states with no strings attached.

Overall, this policy will not solve the fact that education funding is a mess.

Beyond funding, the policy shows some steps in the right direction. It acknowledges some of the challenges, including that achievement gaps widen as disadvantaged students move through school. It outlines sensible principles for where to focus, including using evidence to inform policy. But the federal government has limited levers to put this into practice.

For low SES students, the main policy response is to encourage incentives to attract high performing teachers and principals to disadvantaged schools. This is sensible but no game changer.

Assessing reading, phonics and numeracy during Year 1 will help to identify students who are behind. Some states already do this, but all schools should know whether their Year 1 students are on track in these foundational skills.

The big surprise in this policy is a new interventionist mindset.

Gone are the comments like “the Commonwealth runs no schools and employs no teachers”. This policy is a world away from Christopher Pyne’s approach of lifting the “burden” of red tape.

There are new initiatives, such as a National Career Education Strategy. There are new aspirations, such as recruitment targets for STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) and indigenous teachers. Above all, there is a raft of proposed new requirements, covering all aspects of school education. They include:

  • Attendance targets for indigenous students.
  • Mandated subject requirements to graduate from Year 12.
  • Annual progress reporting to parents on literacy and numeracy.
  • Use of explicit teaching in classrooms.
  • New conditions on teacher training and career progression.
  • New conditions on principal certification.

These new aspirations and requirements (I counted over 15 of them) must be implemented by states, and must therefore be negotiated with them. Some will be hard to implement, and will take up large amounts of time and resources, especially national principal certification, and the proposed changes to state industrial agreements to link teacher pay progression to national standards.

Lastly, it is concerning that the Coalition’s continued focus is on autonomy and accountability for outcomes. Autonomy can be helpful, but schools needs more support, not less, to make autonomy work. And the continued focus on standards and requirements risks a focus on the lowest common denominator, which will not move the dial.

So, the federal government is back in the game in school education, and trying to set most of the rules. It will be interesting to see how states respond.