FactCheck: has education spending gone up while student achievement has stalled or declined?

by Peter Goss

Published at The Conversation, Wednesday 7 September

In a draft report, the Productivity Commission says that education spending has substantially increased over the past decade but student achievement has shown little improvement, and in some areas has declined.

Is that true?

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support the statement, a spokesperson for the Productivity Commission told The Conversation that real government spending on education had increased from $40.7 billion in 2004-05 to $50.4 billion in 2013-14.

Real government spending per student increased from $12,148 in 2004-05 to $13,783 in 2013-14.

Those figures combine federal and state government spending across government and non-government schools.

When asked for sources to support the assertion that national and international assessments of student achievement in Australia show little or no improvement, the spokesperson referred The Conversation to a 2015 report on the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), and 2012 data produced by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

You can read the Productivity Commission’s full response here.

Has school funding substantially increased over the last decade?

It has definitely increased – but whether or not the increase is “substantial” is in the eye of the beholder. The Productivity Commission’s report says that:

There has been a 24% real increase in overall government recurrent expenditure on schools between 2004-05 and 2013-14.

That sounds substantial at first. However, it is worth noting that student numbers grew by 9% over the same time period, from 3.35 million in 2004-05 to 3.66 million in 2013-14 (as outlined in Table 4A.6 in the 2016 Report on Government Services).

The Productivity Commission acknowledges the impact of increasing student numbers when it says that real funding has grown:

almost 14% per student across government and non-government schools.

However, teachers’ wages have also grown each year about 1% above inflation. This is very much in line with typical wage growth. Australian Bureau of Statistics Wage Price Index data shows that wages in the education and training sector increased (in nominal terms) by 40.3% from June 2005 to June 2014, effectively the same as the 40.0% increase across all industries.

Overall, it is true that education spending has increased over the last decade in real terms. However, that is unsurprising given that there are now more students than in the past, and wages typically grow faster than inflation.

After accounting for the increase in student numbers and teacher wages, the effective increase is closer to half the Productivity Commission’s figure of 14% per student across government and non-government schools. Readers can judge for themselves whether this is a “substantial increase”.

The bigger question is whether we have got increased productivity (or better student outcomes) from the increase in wages, as we would expect in other parts of the economy.

– Pete Goss

Has there been little improvement in student achievement?

Yes, that’s true. Most recent data from NAPLAN shows that nationally there has been little change in student achievement over the period 2008 – 2016. The only significant increase in scores since the introduction of NAPLAN testing in 2008 has been in Year 3, for both literacy and numeracy, and in numeracy at Year 5.

Internationally, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows that achievement in both mathematics and science at Year 4 and Year 8 has been stable over the past 16 years, with the only significant improvement being in Year 4 maths between 1995 and 2011.

– Sue Thomson

Has Australia gone backwards in some areas?

Yes. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment shows a gradual decline in the ability of Australian students to apply what they learn in school to real world situations and problems.

In mathematical literacy and reading literacy, the average scores of Australian students in 2012 was significantly lower than in the past. In scientific literacy there has been a small decline in scores.

– Sue Thomson


It is true that national and international assessments of student achievement in Australia show little improvement. It’s true that in some areas, standards of achievement have dropped.

It is true that education spending has increased over the last decade in real terms. The Productivity Commission is correct that dollars spent per student increased by 14% in real terms over the last decade. However, up to half of this increase is due to teacher wage rises (which rose in line with general wages), so the effective new investment per student is much less.

– Pete Goss

The Conversation