Public vs private school funding a distraction from what matters

by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann

Published by The Australian, Friday 1 April

It’s not surprising a Prime Minister focused on innovation has school education at the top of his agenda. What students learn at school today affects the skills of the workforce down the track, as well as individual life opportunities. Effective schooling is essential for a productive economy.

However, Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement the federal government will stop funding government schools while continuing to support independent schools is a distraction from what matters most.

While streamlining accountability for government schools may have benefits, the proposal creates other problems. There are big risks in different levels of government supporting different school systems. Bizarre incentives are created. State governments would save money if students moved from government to independent schools. The federal government could cut costs if more students went into the government system. And divided funding could lead to a world in which the states left the commonwealth to regulate independent schools. Given the commonwealth’s track record in regulating service delivery (think pink batts), the outcomes might be mixed.

This is not the way to deliver a high-quality school system. Ideally, the system would be streamlined further so that one level of government funded, regulated and supported schools to ensure every child got the best opportunity, regardless of background and which school system their parents chose for them. But these changes will be difficult to make. In the meantime, all governments need to be focused on how to increase learning pro­gress.

That’s not what we’re getting. The Grattan Institute report Widening Gaps: What NAPLAN Tells Us about Student Progress shows alarming gaps between students from different educational backgrounds. The gaps grow wider as students move through school and are much bigger than previously thought. The OECD also weighed in last week, singling out Australia for its declining educational performance.

Perhaps our report’s most alarming finding was that equally capable students make much less progress if they come from families with limited education (see graph). Even when students have similar Year 3 scores, disadvantaged students fall between one and two years behind by Year 9. Bright students in disadvantaged schools miss out the most.

Australia has to do better than this. We know improving student progress is the key. By definition, it lifts achievement. Schools cannot change what their incoming students know but they can help them learn more each week, each month and each year.

They can do this by targeting teaching to the right level for each student. Tackling tasks that are neither too easy nor too hard supports struggling students and stretches bright ones. Teaching to each child’s level also builds confidence and resilience.

There are encouraging signs that our leaders are taking the underperformance of our school system seriously. In a media release, federal Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham reiterated the four pillars of federal policy that he said would help lift student outcomes. But will the approach be enough?

Sadly, we believe not. Commonwealth initiatives don’t deal with the scale of the problem our report identifies.

Pillar one is teacher quality. The focus has been initial teacher education. But it works too slowly. It is like planting trees that will bear fruit in years to come but will not feed you through the winter. The current workforce also must become more effective.

Pillar two is school autonomy. This will be effective only when combined with adequate support for schools.

Pillar three is parental engagement. This complements efforts in schools but it is not the game changer needed.

Pillar four is a stronger curriculum. The curriculum review is now complete. Let’s move on.

So, what would really make a difference? Here are five pointers where policy leadership can help.

First, the leaders of our governments should make bipartisan commitments to lift the progress of all students, especially disadvantaged students, along with a realistic plan of how we will get there.

Second, there should be better reporting on student progress and closer monitoring of the learning gaps between students from different backgrounds. Our report shows how this can be done using existing National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy data.

Third, federal policymakers should encourage state and territory governments to increase the focus on student progress in practice. All levels of government should then review their priorities and policies in light of new findings on student progress. Crucially, are resources allocated to the areas where they will make the most difference?

Fourth, all states and territories should invest to help schools target their teaching, starting from the first week of primary school. While states have the lead responsibility, there may be scale advantages in building the tools, such as on-demand assessments and learning progressions, that help teachers track student progress. Good tools also allow more time for teaching, which is the most precious resource in the system.

Finally, the federal government should take the lead in building a stronger evidence base on what works best to address educational disadvantage. A broad review is needed.

Unfortunately, instead of talking about improvement, Turnbull has guaranteed this will be another Council of Australian Governments meeting that talks about funding. Funding does matter; it needs to be adequate to support every child’s learning, taking into account their needs. But we can lift the productivity of school education only if resources are used better than they are today.

Current policies are not enough, even before yesterday’s distraction. We need a significant effort from our leaders to improve outcomes. These efforts need to recognise the seriousness of the challenges and the scale of the opportunities in education reform.