Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

More than money to move the educational needle

Glenn Fahey

12 December 2020 | CANBERRA TIMES

New CIS research shows that sustained, record increases to school funding are not improving Australia’s education outcomes. This rubbishes the default approach of policymakers, who lean on ramping up funding to do all the education policy heavy lifting.

For decades, funding hikes have chased ever-smaller classes, awarding some of the largest real increases to across-the-board teachers’ salaries in the world, and attempting to correct every societal inequity via the school system.

But despite persistent, record spending — now surpassing $60 billion a year in taxpayer funding — education outcomes have collapsed. Australian student achievement has declined faster than almost any other country in the world, as shown by the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment.

On top of Australia’s achievement gap with the rest of the world is the persistent one at home. Sixty per cent of country 15-year-olds don’t meet the proficient standard in reading and science — and it’s worse in maths; where two-thirds don’t meet the bar.

Sadly, the confidence of parents, employers, and taxpayers in the education system has been waning, just when we need it firing on all cylinders.

Ensuring a smarter investment of resources isn’t about penny-pitching — it’s about putting limited funds to the best possible uses. Failing to do so risks us becoming not only the ‘poor man of Asia’, but the dumb one too.

It’s true getting resourcing right — particularly for our regional and remote schools — can be complicated. One reason is that it’s proven difficult to marry the one-size-fits-all Gonski formula approach for both metro and rural schools, particularly given vastly different cost considerations to factor in — such as adjusting for smaller schools and challenges of transportation.

Extra funding certainly has been flowing. Under the Gonski plan, schools already attract around twice the funding, per student, than those in the city.

But throwing money at schools has done little to address the fundamental drivers of students’ under-achievement.

It’s well established that many city schools have the pick of the best teachers and it’s been an uphill battle to attract and keep great teachers outside the major cities. It’s this disparity — not necessarily one of resources — responsible for persistent gaps in achievement and attainment.

That’s because dispatching all the money in the world to schools — but without the flexibility to pay teachers based on their capabilities and performance — can’t possibly provide the signals needed to level the teaching playing field.

Unfortunately, policymakers’ efforts to boost the number of teachers to the regions has brought with it unintended consequences. Frankly, more funding has allowed for hiring more teachers, but it hasn’t been matched with more highly effective and experienced ones at the chalkface. International surveys show Australia’s rural teachers are considerably less experienced, less prepared for teaching, and less able to provide remedial support to students than their city peers.

The good news is smarter use of money can help bring much-needed education improvement.

Research shows that smaller class sizes make little or no difference to student outcomes — meaning having slightly larger classes wouldn’t hurt their education success. But it would deliver major cost savings into the billions.

That money could be used to properly reward, recognise, and incentivise the highest-performing teachers. And research shows that this kind of approach is a much more cost-effective way of lifting achievement than constantly lifting pay to all teachers, regardless of their performance.

Another way to see funding put to better use is to give principals a firmer hand on how they run their schools. Too many decisions are made by bureaucracies, far removed from schools’ day-to-day operations and circumstances.

Schools in our regions have far more diverse and wide-ranging needs than many in the major cities, yet principals must follow the same rigid, bureaucratic processes and are buried in red tape. To truly meet the aims of needs-based funding, these principals need to be free to make decisions to meet their students’ and teachers’ needs.

Well-intentioned, but single-minded policymakers have substituted addressing educational quality with simply shelling out more cash. But to genuinely confront the education malaise we must embark on smart reform of school funding.

If we get things right, funding really can make a difference — and all who have a stake in education will be better for it.

We owe this to Australia’s long-suffering educators, taxpayers, and students.

Glenn Fahey is education research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of ‘Dollars and Sense: Time for smart reform of Australian school funding.’


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