With very limited media attention, the Australian public could be excused for not even knowing about the Senate Select Committee that handed down its report on equity and excellence in Australian schools last month.
The committee took evidence over four months from around Australia. Almost 100 individuals and groups representing various school systems, teacher unions and subject associations, teachers and academics and, in some cases, state and territory governments appeared. It received 445 written submissions. Over 2500 submissions came from individual principals, teachers, parents, students and community members through a campaign run by the Australian Education Union.
The report found:
Over the past decade, the performance of Australian students had declined at all levels of achievement compared to international benchmarks. Furthermore, a concerning proportion of Australia’s lowest-performing students were found not to be meeting minimum standards of achievement.
Australia has a significant gap between its highest and lowest-performing students; far greater than in many OECD countries. [and] identified an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds.
The committee’s majority (Labor and Green) members recommended the federal government honour the commitments made under the National Education Reform Agreement and agreements with participating states and territories and reintroduce the fifth and sixth years of the Gonski school funding reforms.
Among its eight recommendations was the introduction of an appropriate indexation rate for school funding. It also calls for an annual “report card” from the Department of Education. This would detail the breakdown of school funding including funding provided to states and territories.
The committee found that the Abbott government’s changes to school funding arrangements will be detrimental to Australian schools, students and to the broader Australian community. In particular, the changes will put at risk adequate funding for those students most at need - for example, students with disability.
The best-performing education systems are those that combine equity with quality. They give all children opportunities for a good quality education. The report concluded that:
Educational failure also imposes high costs on society. Poorly educated people limit economies’ capacity to produce, grow and innovate. School failure damages social cohesion and mobility, and imposes additional costs on public budgets to deal with the consequences – higher spending on public health and social support and greater criminality, among others. For all these reasons, improving equity in education and reducing school failure should be a high priority in all OECD education policy agendas.
A very interesting dissenting report from government senators rejected the findings of the majority. While agreeing that adequate funding is essential for any education system to operate effectively, they said it is only a means to an end and that end must be to improve education quality.
Nationals committee member Bridget McKenzie said:
We believe in targeting funding, not just throwing buckets of money at it.
Unfortunately, the Gonski review failed as a public inquiry on multiple fronts: in terms of process; improving public debate; promoting agreement and in providing clear evidence for its recommendations.
The LNP senators concluded:
The Gonski report was hijacked, by vested interests, by well-meaning but not always well-informed commentators and others.
The LNP senators challenged the Gonski review conclusion that increased spending leads to improved education outcomes in relation to socio-economic disadvantage. They relied on evidence presented by economists (and columnists for The Australian) Judith Sloan and Henry Ergas. Professor Ergas and Kevin Donnelly, co-chair of the National Curriculum review, are on the record denying any causal link between socioeconomic status and student academic outcomes.
Stating that “there is no evidence that spending is a predictor of education performance”, the government senators rely on flawed research by Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies. They declared that Australia is a high-equity country with socio-economic background being less important in affecting student performance than the OECD average.
The report School Funding on a Budget is full of statistical and ideological obfuscations. Buckingham fails to mention that while government funding for school education has increased, 27% of all government funds now flow to private schools. Government spending on private schools increased faster in the past decade than for public schools. Private schools on average get $1.2 million a year more funding from all sources than public schools.
What then for the future?
After the most comprehensive review of school education funding for over 40 years - the Gonski review - here we are back at the very beginning with nothing to show. An exhaustive senate inquiry again supports the complete implementation of the Gonski recommendations.
The future of public education in Australia is at stake here. Under the current Coalition government policy, clearly expressed in the minority report, we will continue to see the residualisation of public education and an increasingly privatised education system. This will only serve to further advantage the privileged sections of our community.
So much for the end of the age of entitlement.
The sentence “This declared that Australia is a high-equity country with socio-economic background being less important in affecting student performance than the OECD average” was meant to start with “They” and has been corrected.
This article was further amended on August 8 to remove a reference to statistical “errors” in a report referenced in the article.