When federal education minister Simon Birmingham confirmed last week he will not ‘give a Gonski’ and commit to the ultra-expensive final two years of the former Labor government’s schools funding policy, he drew a line under one aspect of the debate but left open the more important question of what it will do instead.
Only one thing is certain. A new federal funding model will not be as generous. The federal government budget deficit is a problem and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Large increases in federal spending on education are not on the cards, especially given the chequered relationship between funding and school performance.
There is ample research showing that not all education spending can be considered an investment in the sense that it leads to measurable benefits. This is not to say that school funding should not increase at all but that any funding increases must be carefully targeted and used in ways that are most likely to be effective.
The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) in NSW, recently published an evaluation of the impact of the former federal Labor government’s multi-billion dollar Smarter Schools National Partnerships over four years from 2009 to 2012.
The analyses of the results are highly detailed and compare NAPLAN scores, School Certificate and Higher School Certificate results, and attendance and retention rates of schools that received Low SES NP funding with similar schools that did not.
Although the impact on NAPLAN scores was reported to be statistically significant, this is partly a function of the very large sample size. In real educational terms, the effects of the funding were small. Over the four years of Low SES NP funding, NAPLAN scores in participating schools increased by a total of 5.04 points on average compared to non-participating schools, after controlling for student characteristics and school location. To put this in context, Year 3 NAPLAN reading scores are out of 700 scaled score points. It is difficult to see this as a strong result given the amount of the funding involved.
Any new federal funding agreement is likely to have an impact factor, with proven effective practices and programs, or accountability for results as conditions. Wanting to see the benefits of increased funding is understandable but getting the right balance of autonomy and accountability, both for individual schools and for states, will be a challenge.
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