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Securing Australia’s future: education

Education is well financed in Australia but a number of inefficiencies need to be addressed. AAP Image/Julian Smith

SECURING AUSTRALIA’S FUTURE: As the Commission of Audit reviews government activity and spending, The Conversation’s experts take a closer look at key policy areas tied to this funding – what’s working, what’s not and where current funds are best spent.

Broadly speaking, education in Australia has been well-financed over the past decade.

Sure, there are issues about particular programs and the efficiency with which funds have been used. But the injection of billions of dollars into school facilities through the “building revolution” and the steady increase in annual per-student recurrent funding has ensured all students have the opportunity to achieve minimum numeracy and literacy targets or graduation standards.

The HECS program has also given countless students the opportunity to access and pursue higher education.

But there are a number of inefficiencies that need to be addressed.

Waste and inefficiency

Recent trends to centralise the management of schooling at the Commonwealth level are likely to lead to inefficiencies and duplication. Being remote from the actual situation may also increase the risk of poor decisions being made at the central level.

The Commonwealth only needs to co-ordinate funding allocations to the states, based on their performance evidence submissions. Adhering to this principle would reduce duplication of costs. The government has already indicated that central command will not occur, but it still needs to annually monitor performance at the state and sector levels.

It’s also important not to forget that the priority role of government in education is to assist the least advantaged. This means ensuring funds are available to purchase adequate resources for attaining minimum measurable performance outcomes.

How do we know when a child has reached her potential? AAP/Dan Peled

But recently, the objective of equal opportunity to reach one’s potential has been promoted – but what is “potential”? And how do we know when it has been achieved? Adequate resourcing to achieve clear performance standards should be the objective of government funding.

The Commission of Audit must examine the funding of senior secondary programs, which provide the bridge between standard compulsory schooling and further study or employment.

This is a crucial time for teenagers. But in some states, these senior years are not very well coordinated with schools, TAFEs, and registered training authorities (RTOs) providing similar programs and students moving across institutions without any tracking or support. The Gonski review ignored senior secondary schooling.

The programs available need to be coordinated and their overall places need to match forecasts of skill need. With the prospect of rising teenage unemployment, together with falling labour productivity, a major rationalisation of senior secondary programs is urgently needed.

Finally, the fact that many schools offering senior secondary programs operate below capacity – with enrolments spread thinly over programs and schools – warrants investigation.

Sizable economies of scale may be obtained by allowing senior secondary components of schools to grow with increases in student numbers. Other options are to amalgamate existing providers or incorporating vocational education and training (VET) Certificate programs at senior schools.

Strategic cuts

The role of the government, on behalf of society, is to provide services that markets cannot and to assist the least advantaged. In carrying out this role, the principle of subsidiarity should apply, whereby management and operational decisions are made by those nearest to the action.

All teenagers should have an equal opportunity to attain a senior secondary school certificate or equivalent, and thereby acquire the minimum basic competencies necessary for effective lifelong participation in society. And all school-leavers should have an equal opportunity to access, participate and graduate from a higher education program.

Without surrendering these principles, cuts to government spending on education could come from the following actions.

First, scale back services to coordination and planning essentially. Adopt the principle of subsidiarity and avoid trying to micro-manage education institutions, which is best left to the local people involved (state governments, regional and sector authorities and schools).

Secondary school is a crucial time for students and must be coordinated effectively. AAP/Julian Smith

Secondly, the government needs to consider a new model of longer-term school funding that’s based on short-term performance gains.

More money has hardly changed performance over the last decade. School funding has risen by at least 14% over the past ten years. But in that time our international performance has declined. One-third of 15-year olds aren’t meeting national literacy standards and in less than a decade, Australian school students’ performance in maths has declined by the equivalent of half a year of schooling.

Simply handing out billions more for the purchase of unknown resources and based on a suspect method and political negotiation cannot be expected to provide performance improvements in the future.

The focus is now on the current government to come up with a fair school funding model, based on real resources such as the student-teacher ratio and not on school spending, which can include many different types and levels of spending. Such a focus may find that each sector has sufficient funding to purchase adequate resources for all its schools, but that the distribution of funding within each sector is not appropriate.

In future, additional funds should cover the expected enrolment growth and improved management practices at poor performing schools.

Areas of priority

The Commission of Audit should recommend placing VET Certificates I, II and III under the watch of state bodies regulating schools. In this way, all senior secondary programs or equivalent will be coordinated by one state body which can consolidate and rationalise senior secondary programs wherever they are provided.

This will facilitate a more equitable distribution of funds across all teenage students as well as ensuring support services are still available for students if they transfer to non-school providers.

The Commission of Audit should consider how to get the sectors to redistribute recurrent funding among schools within each jurisdiction. Currently, schools with similar enrolments, similar student socioeconomic backgrounds and similar resourcing perform vastly different. There is sufficient funding for all schools to achieve minimum standards, but the funds are not equitably distributed within sectors.

State departments should be scaled back to be coordinators of autonomous regional groups of schools and planners of development. Along the same reasoning as for the Commonwealth, state departments should focus on coordination and leave the micro-management of schools to the local participants.

Regions should submit performance reports in order to acquire funding from the state which in turn collates the evidence and submits the state funding application to the Commonwealth.

Finally, the Commission of Audit should recommend allocating more research funding to projects related to forecasting future employment skill needs and the planning of how these skills are to be obtained. Use this information to inform planning at state level.

This is part five of The Conversation’s Securing Australia’s future series.

Part one: Energy and climate change

Part two: Governance and state-federal relations

Part three: Science and research

Part four: Health care

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