Education funding: more dollars than sense

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised an education revolution, but where are the results? AAP

All is not well in the Australian school system.

Australian schools are struggling to meet the achievement levels of OECD leader Finland.

With the release of the commissioned research reports for the Gonski Review of school funding it is crucial that Australian education and the people responsible for its delivery take into consideration what policies work and do not work in equivalent educational systems in the OECD.

For 50 years education reforms adopted in Australia have been copied from (failed) projects in the USA or England.

These countries are well below Australia on OECD rankings.

Our schools and teachers suffer from “reform fatigue”. The on and off again national curriculum; Teach for Australia; performance based pay for teachers; NAPLAN testing; the MySchool website (that names and shames those schools who have been left to teach students no one else wants); student vouchers; streaming of students into gifted programs, high achieving or other specialised schools; the division of school courses into academic and practical; only serve to distract teachers from what they are employed to do: teach our children.

Significantly, the overfunding of private schools through the massive transfer of public money is at the very core of our problems.

In Victoria the successful and essential Literacy and Numeracy coaching program has been cut. The funding of the Certificate of Applied Learning is under threat. This will only impact the most underprivileged state schools and their students.

Why do Australian education ministers want to adopt practices that are shown by extensive research to only produce poor outcomes?

The failed policies of No Child Left Behind have been recanted even by their most ardent proponents. These policies are still being touted by Australian advocates.

Each new government attempts to makes its own political mark. It reverses the decisions of the previous one, changing curriculum and teaching. This only serves to only unsettle the system.

The Finns have used research to lead education policy over fifty years. Their governments have changed a system designed to support a small rural economy to become world leaders.

Is it about money?

While Finland today spends a similar amount per student as Australia, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product spent on all education per head in Australia has dropped from almost 5.5% in 1974 to 5.2% in 2010.

Over the same period Australian governments have transferred large amounts of public money to private schools. In the OECD 85% on average of the education budget goes to public education. In Australia it is less than 75% and falling.

More importantly the gap between Finland’s lowest and top-performing students continues to narrow as Australia’s widens. In Finland the variation between school performances is among the lowest in the world. In Australia these variations can be traced directly to the socio-economic status of the parents.

Aim high

Recent research by the US based National Centre on Education and the Economy, analyses the strategies driving the education policy of Finland.

It found that these are in bleak contrast to the Australia’s current agenda for education reform.

What we need are high expectations for all students. The resources to support students and teachers should be related to the school’s needs. This can ensure that all students meet required standards.

Finland delivers the most funds and resources to students who are the most difficult to teach. These schools get the best teachers, and students get more time to enable them to catch up. This is exactly the opposite of what happens in Australia where education is based on the sorting and selecting of students.

In Australia we are still debating what teacher quality means. In Finland they focus on producing the highest quality teachers possible. Quality teachers are able to connect with students, engage, inspire, and communicate easily with them, and get inside their heads and figure out what they don’t understand and find a way to help them understand it.

Teacher quality requires three things

A high level of general intelligence. The understanding of subject knowledge. And a demonstrated high ability for engaging students.

Three things also affect the quality of teachers. The status of teaching relative to the status of other occupations. The pay relative to other possible choices. And their conditions of work.

The Finns recruit only the highest achievers into teaching. We recruit very few teachers who are themselves educated to high levels.

Here in Australia entry requirements for the various faculties of education range from a high school year 12 rank ATAR of 65 to 85.

At the lower end these teachers could be only functionally literate and numerate!

The Finns require all teachers to have a master’s degree, which Australia is slowly moving to implement. Candidates who already have a master’s degree must get another master’s degree in teaching. There are no alternative routes to entering the teaching force in Finland, no quick fix Teach for Australia equivalent.

Finnish teachers also receive extensive post graduate training. Here in Australia the available time for professional development of teachers has only diminished. It now often occurs during holiday breaks! All in the name of productivity offsets.

Finland rejects the belief that education is only for society’s elites. Here in Australia we continue to promote a segregated sorting and selecting of children. Only some students (the select few) expect intellectually demanding curricula.

Paradoxically our system funnels public money toward the easiest students to teach (those in private schools who are already achieving well above average results). This only removes the resources from those hardest to educate who need it most.

National testing does not exist in Finland. While schools and their teachers assess students regularly, this is not used for accountability purposes. Nor is it used as the basis of teachers’ compensation or streaming students as is we do in Australia.

In Finland public money is for public schools. Over the past 40 years Australia has moved responsibility for education from the public to the private sector.

This only further advantages society’s elites. The result in Australia is that families with economic power use education to advantage their children.

Must we wait for our politicians to understand what is necessary and required? Our children are being failed by an education that drives those parents who can afford it from the public system.

High quality staff, equitable funding and coherent systems are the key to a highly successful public education system.