Gillard’s ‘truths’ obscure the facts on schools funding

The PM’s response today was lacking the real boost needed for schools funding now. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The government has finally delivered its policy response to the Gonski report, including sweeping changes to how schools are funded and new benchmarks that aim to see Australian schools ranked in the world’s top five by 2025.

In a speech to the National Press Club, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there would be extra funding for schools (without nominating a dollar figure). But she said this extra money would not be available until somewhere between 2014 and 2020.

Previously she promised funding increases across the sector, even for independent schools.

In her speech, she spoke of three “truths” – that Australia needed to look to our neighbours and aim higher for every child in every school; that Australia must improve the education of our poorer children; and the key to all of this is to lift teacher quality.

But underlying these truths is a more complicated reality that should have been part of the government’s message.

First truth

First the prime minister stated that Australia has been left out of the top five world ranked schooling systems, but “four of the top five … are in our region.” But here Gillard is not giving us the full picture which would show why catching up with East Asia is a questionable goal.

What she didn’t say is that in the four schooling systems in Asia, as well as the Finnish school system, the vast majority of children attend well-funded and well-resourced public schools where their teachers are highly esteemed.

She also omits to tell us that in the four systems in our region that seem to be doing so well, not everything is as it seems. Their lauded results rely on parents paying for extra tutoring, with over 80% of 15 year-old students in Korea and Japan and about 70% of students in Shanghai and Singapore attending private tutoring lessons in mathematics. In Japan, families spent $12 billion in 2010 on private tutoring.

Children in these countries are also made to cram for exams through rote learning while others are removed from school if they are not performing to standard.

Attributing high performance of East Asian school systems solely to better teacher training, mentoring and remuneration is simplistic and misunderstands what teachers do.

OECD analysis of the PISA results show that students who attend after school classes in Hong Kong, Korea and Taipei achieve higher results with the improvement being equivalent to six to 12 months of learning. These benefits largely accrue to socio-economically advantaged students who participate more frequently in these classes.

Giving additional funding to the already privileged private schools, as has been suggested by the government, will not alter this.

Second truth

Gillard states that “by year three, 89% of children from the poorest quarter of Australian homes are reading below average.”

The parents of these children expect that they’re “being taught to read and write while they’re at school. And they’re not.”

If teachers are not teaching children to read and write then what does the Prime Minister think that they are doing out there? The issue is that the children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not learning as well or as fast as their more advantaged peers of the middle class.

This is not the fault of their teachers but as so much research shows is a direct result of socio-economic disadvantage compounded over time to create educational inequity of outcomes and performance.

With 80% of disadvantaged children attending government schools around the country, it is therefore no surprise that these teachers are struggling to overcome generational poverty and disadvantage.

When these children enter school at prep level they are already behind. And they will never catch up unless extra funding is given to support them.

Third truth

In Australia, the first to be blamed is the classroom teacher. Ms Gillard has done this again today.

The PM stated today that she wants “teachers … to be of the highest calibre”. She promised higher standards for teachers, with at least a term’s classroom experience for student teachers before graduation from university.

Preparing teachers takes at least four years. Current qualification requirements already see student teachers in schools for more than 15 weeks, this is more than the one term she calls for.

But how does the PM expect to raise teacher education entrance requirements and school-based time in professional experience to happen by 2020, especially without additional funding to the faculties of education who are doing that preparation?

Teachers in our public schools are educated in the same faculties of education as their private school counterparts, and research shows high performing graduates from these institutions equally take up positions in private and public schools.

As the PM acknowledges “the average child from the same battling family is three years behind classmates from the most well-off quarter of Australian homes”. Giving more funds to private schools is certainly not going to help these kids in any way.

Another wasted opportunity

The PM today has painted an inaccurate picture of what is needed in Australian education. She has delayed the recommendation most likely to make a difference: extra funding for the schools that need it most.

The government missed an opportunity here to get in and support schools with the funding they need in the immediate term. Instead, despite the lofty talk from the PM today, opposition leader Tony Abbott and opposition education spokesperson Christopher Pyne will likely get into government before we see any of this promised funding come to the students that need it most.