Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Funding isn’t everything when it comes to improving school results

Jennifer Buckingham

06 November 2015 | SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

School 640x360The Mitchell Institute report published last week showing wide disparities in educational outcomes and attainment among Australian students could not have come at a better time for the ‘I Give a Gonski’ campaign.

The report provides new data confirming what is already well-known – students from low socioeconomic backgrounds on average start school developmentally behind their more advantaged peers, have lower literacy achievement, are less likely to complete school or participate in further education, and are more likely to be unemployed.

The report has been widely interpreted as providing undeniable proof that the huge increases in government funding promised by full implementation of the ‘Gonski’ funding model are necessary. Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull is now apparently open to the idea that our children need this massive funding boost for education. Unfortunately, given government debt levels, it will be our children’s children who pay for it.

The ‘Gonski’ funding model is held up as the great hope for Australian education. It is viewed as the result of rigorous research and expert analysis and believed to objectively represent the ideal funding levels that will finally deliver the ultimate educational prize of equity.

If only that were true. The funding model commonly known as ‘Gonski funding’ is really the Better Schools model devised by the last federal Labor government. It is inspired by the model proposed in a funding review by a committee led by David Gonski in 2012 but there are some important differences. The Better Schools model, now rebadged as Students First, is as much a product of political negotiation as educational analysis. The high dollar figures attached to the model represent political decisions: that no school would lose even one dollar of funding in a new model; that the federal government would carry 65% of the extra funding burden rather than the 35% suggested in the Gonksi report; and that the funding would be phased in over 6 years, putting the crunch years outside of both the budget and electoral cycle.

For many people, the integrity and evidence-basis of the funding model is irrelevant. As long as it means more money for their school, they don’t much care. Governments, however, should care. They should be concerned about whether an extra $7 billion dollars a year is necessary to achieve improved educational outcomes or whether a lesser sum would do the job if spent in ways that are likely to have the greatest benefits.

The relationship between funding and achievement is not linear. Funding increases will produce better education only up to a point, beyond which further increases are marginal at best. There are also other factors in play, including the ability of schools to use funding effectively. Some schools have reported improvements in educational outcomes in just one year as a result of the extra money that began to flow into schools in 2014. This is great news for those schools and their students. But funding was not the only thing that changed – schools were also given significant flexibility in how they used the funding. Education unions have been quick to play up the impact of the funding increase but reticent to acknowledge how such results might also support moves to greater school autonomy.

The in-school factors most likely to improve educational outcomes do not require funding increases in the realm of $7 billion a year. Literacy is a perfect example of why large scale studies consistently fail to find a strong positive relationship between expenditure and student achievement. Billions of dollars have been spent on policies and programs to improve literacy in Australian schools over the last decade yet, as the Mitchell Institute report found, 28% or 73,000 Year 7 students still do not meet the minimum benchmark for literacy.

Literacy is the fundamental skill in education; reading ability is strongly associated with every other indicator or measure from school attendance through to employment. Making sure every child in every classroom has evidence-based reading instruction in the early years of school would do more to improve literacy levels than anything else and is less a function of funding than good policy by governments and strong leadership by principals.

The question is not whether school funding should increase in some schools and keep pace with educational demands in others. The question is whether a long-term commitment to the unprecedented funding levels prescribed by the so-called Gonski model can be justified.

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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