Education policy must mature from being dominated by demands for more funding and instead focus on delivering better outcomes and greater accountability.
This week saw the first of the new funding deals between Canberra and the states: the renegotiation of so-called ‘national school reform agreements’. In announcing the $774m deal with Western Australia, Education Minister Jason Clare confirmed Canberra will add $3b a year to its current annual tab of around $23b (around 2.5 times what it was in 2009).
This comes off the back of a pivotal December meeting of education ministers, where Clare presented an ambitious roadmap to the states that would not only bring more money, but also more accountability and shared commitment to better outcomes. But it’s clear the states had successfully scaled back the targets proposed by Clare so that what remained were fewer in number and more modest in scope.
Unfortunately, states are now competing to out-lobby each other in extracting more funding from Canberra (with little mention of their own funding contributions, or lack thereof). As this week’s negotiation shows, states may be able to secure this additional funding with little mention of obligations to meet Canberra’s targets.
Unsatisfied with Clare’s latest round of investment, education unions have already accused the government of “underfunding”, despite Australian school resourcing being already among the highest and fastest-increasing in the developed world.
This will be a real test of the government’s resolve: is it genuinely committed to resetting relations with the states and simply using funding increases as a bargaining sweetener? Or are we witnessing more of the same, where education politics trumps policy?
There are two specific issues at play: first that the role of targets will be watered down, with more funding to end up coming with few or no strings, and second that additional funding will go to the wrong places.
These issues echo mistakes from the Gillard era funding reforms that Clare mustn’t repeat.
Gonski’s 2011 review provided a seemingly robust and consistent new school funding formula. But in the end, it arguably became little more than cover for the pre-determined political goal of pumping more money into schools.
Since the last round of major funding reform, states and unions successfully campaigned for more funding — but the Gonski approach to funding has since proven to have been misguided.
The current needs-based funding logic is simple: if a school has more disadvantaged students, it gets more public money. That extra funding is used, often, to hire more teachers to allow for smaller class sizes — in theory giving students more and better access to learn.
However, the problem is that this logic is flawed. Decades of evidence show that it’s not more teachers that produces better results, but the quality of the teaching inside classrooms.
For this reason, needs-based funding can only work if it is used not to redistribute the number of teachers in the system, but the quality of teaching available to students.
Rather than more funding being pumped in across-the-board, it should make the most effective teachers available to the very neediest of students.
This is an important example of the fact that, to be successful, additional Commonwealth funding must come with commitment to meaningful targets.
A lot of good work has been done in recent years to offer a genuine pathway for identifying and using performance targets. If taken seriously, this would reset the role of education’s federal-state relations from being simply another funding handout and instead towards more concretely promoting shared goals of lifting education outcomes.
The Productivity Commission concluded that previous funding rounds had done little to improve outcomes — warning policy had become vague, bureaucratic and lost sight of the end goal.
And, in its December report, the ‘Better and Fairer’ review recommended a suite of reform actions and expected outcome measures to improve accountability and shift performance in schools and systems.
Put simply, the greatest outcomes that matter in education systems are how well those systems help students to keep up, catch up, and move up in their literacy and numeracy proficiencies. Targets must unapologetically align with this.
It is not enough to simply tie funding to the latest educational fad: this risks creating more educational white elephants.
The former Labor government’s Building the Education Revolution (countless empty school halls) and the Digital Education Revolution (buying up more laptops per student than anywhere in the world at the time) proved to be costly and ineffective.
To this end, although it’s welcome that Clare has promised to only spend new money on evidence-backed projects, caution should still be taken with some proposed projects. Massively ramping up small-group tutoring in schools is a worthy objective, but is not yet supported with what’s needed to be delivered with maximum effect.
And while admirable in intent, the effort to promote students’ wellbeing on par with their academics is likely to backfire and risks pumping up a new industry of providers spruiking evidence-free approaches across Australia’s schools.
To date, the Albanese government has proven capable of promoting genuine education policy reform.
Clare has a privileged opportunity to shape education policy for the next decade, but the decisions in steering the new school reform agreements this year will be decisive.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Emily Ranquist.