How we can do better on education. (Jean Blackburn Oration)

Feb 28, 2017

When you do so little to require the winners from economic change to compensate the losers, and then, whether by accident or design, you have an influx of immigrants, you end up with Trump, Brexit and the resurrection of One Nation.  

I’m honoured to deliver the Jean Blackburn oration, especially to follow the inaugural oration by someone whose name will long be synonymous with education policy, David Gonski. But let’s focus on Jean Blackburn, whose contribution we are here to acknowledge. I never had the pleasure of meeting Jean and, no doubt, hearing her frank assessment of the weaknesses in whatever argument I’d been mounting. But from all her many friends and colleagues have said about her, including my friend Lyndsay Connors, it’s clear she was both formidable and likeable. Jean was a high school teacher who became a leader in the development of school education policy from the time of the Whitlam government. Her potential was uncovered and encouraged by a friend from her uni days, Peter Karmel. As a member of the Australian Schools Commission she worked with him on the hugely influential Karmel report, staying on after he left the commission. According to Dean Ashenden, she was “among Australia’s most influential shapers of policy and thinking about schooling and about the condition and education of women and girls. Jean Blackburn trained as an economist. This fact is a comfort to me as I, an economic journalist, speak to you about education.

Why education matters more than ever

Economists are right to think of education as an important means to the end of economic growth and greater material prosperity. But they – and our business people and politicians – keep forgetting education is also an end in itself. People working in education should be shameless advocates of knowledge for its own sake.

But economists are also inclined to forget that education is a means to ends other than just our material prosperity. There’s little reason to doubt that education allows us to live emotionally richer, more fulfilling lives.

I said in my teaser for tonight that “the reasons education is central to Australia’s social and economic future keep increasing and becoming more urgent”. Here I’m referring to the effects of globalisation and technological advance – and the adverse reactions to these developments we’ve become more conscious of since just last year.

Globalisation – and improvements in transportation, and information and telecommunications – has moved many of the developed world’s manufacturing jobs to China and other developing countries. There was a time in Australia when young people could leave school with an inadequate education and still easily find unskilled jobs in manufacturing, construction and elsewhere. Not today.

Notwithstanding the flurry of the resources boom, we’ve already moved a long way towards an economy that doesn’t make things so much as perform services – for each other, and for foreigners. Many of the jobs in primary industry and manufacturing are now done by machines. So far, the growth in service-sector jobs has been sufficient to keep employment high and unemployment low. Many jobs in the services sector are low skilled – in hospitality and retailing, for instance – but the fastest growth has been in jobs requiring tertiary qualifications. This, of course, underlines the growing importance of education – and of doing it as well as we possibly can. Two of the biggest and fastest growing industries in the modern economy are education and healthcare. Both of those things are what economists call “superior goods” – the more our real incomes grow over time, the more of them we wish to devote to improving our health and improving our education.

All this is another way of saying we’re moving into to the “information economy” where the plentiful provision of high-quality education and training to increase the “human capital” of individuals and the workforce is of paramount importance. We’re often told that robots are about to take huge numbers of jobs in the services sector, leading to the mass unemployment. Maybe it will happen, but I remain doubtful.

But let’s say there is a lot of disruption in the job market and people being required to change jobs and even occupations many times throughout their working lives. That says two things of relevance to educationists. First, we need to do more to ensure people leave school and university with strong foundational, generalisable and transferable skills. And, second, we need to have a VET system capable of providing the retraining so many people are likely to need.

Now let’s say it’s much worse than that and we end up with far less work needing to be done than we have workers to do it. One possible consequence is mass unemployment, but another is most people being employed, but for much shorter hours per week. The surprising fact is that many workers find the prospect of large amounts of extra free time a bit frightening. What on earth would they do with it? Two take-aways for educators. First, many people would end up doing courses and degrees for essentially recreational purposes. Second, you’d expect that the better a person’s education, the less trouble they’d have finding activities more worthwhile than watching telly or hanging around the pub.

One of the consequences of globalisation and technological advance – the move to the knowledge economy – has been to widen the gap between the wages of high-skilled and low-skilled workers. This is probably the main cause of the marked increase in the inequality of household income observed in all the English-speaking economies since the early 1980s.

The French economist Thomas Piketty has drawn much attention to his thesis that inequality is being driven by inherited wealth, but The Economist magazine has advanced an alternative spectre I find more plausible. It combines the knowledge economy and high returns to high-skilled labour with a social phenomenon the better education of women has made more prevalent, “assortative mating” – the tendency for men and women to marry people of the same socio-economic status and level of education. When two highly educated, highly paid people marry and form a two-income household, they have the values, behaviours and wherewithal to ensure their offspring go to the best schools and end up with the qualifications most likely to ensure they, too, get the best-paying jobs. Thus do we end up with a new education aristocracy. If we want to diminish such a likelihood, the obvious first step is to fund schools – public and private – on the basis of need, so that schooling plays the greatest part in our pursuit of that unattainable but worthy goal: equality of opportunity.

Another consequence of globalisation is high levels of immigration, mainly from poor countries to rich countries. You can see that in the Mexicans pouring into the United States, the Poles and other eastern Europeans moving to Britain and, in Australia, the many Asian immigrants, including a fair share of Muslims. You see where this is leading. When you do so little to require the winners from economic change to compensate the losers, and then, whether by accident or design, you have an influx of immigrants, you end up with Trump, Brexit and the resurrection of One Nation.

Trevor Cobbold, that great warrior for public schooling, has said that “greater social equity in education would help reduce social alienation and division, and strengthen the social fabric of Australian society”. He’s right.

So far we’ve had a highly successful multicultural society, but instances of intolerance are growing. Distrust of foreigners and people with unfamiliar religious practices is increasing, and being fanned by radio shock jocks and the tabloid press. Our cities are becoming more stratified geographically, so that anglos live in well-placed suburbs and immigrants live in outer suburbs. Schools are becoming part of this stratification, with higher SES (socio-economic status) parents increasingly sending their children to higher SEA (socio-education advantaged) schools – no matter how much daily driving this involves – leaving lower SES students going to increasingly lower SEA schools. Almost all non-government schools have a religious affiliation, so that, increasingly, Jewish kids go to Jewish schools, Islamic kids are able to go to Islamic schools, and Baptist and Pentecostalist kids go to “Christian” schools. This trend is being assisted by our three-sector funding system, which has continued under the Gillard government’s version of Gonski. It’s becoming increasingly possible to go through schooling without meeting people very different to yourself. And then we wonder why social cohesion is fraying.

I rest my case. The reasons education is central to Australia’s social and economic future keep increasing and becoming more urgent.

Have we been spending a lot more on education?

So, let’s get down to cases. Ever since its election, the Abbott-Turnbull government has repeated the line that “for so many years we spent more and more on school education and the results did not improve: in fact they got worse”. The federal minister, Simon Birmingham, has claimed repeatedly that federal funding has increased by 50 per cent since 2003. But is it true?

After more than 40 years as an economic journalist, I have some experience in fact-checking the statistical claims politicians make. They’re always claiming that spending on X has greatly increased and never been higher. You run such claims through a check list: have they allowed for inflation? Have they allowed for growth in the population? Are they talking about total government spending or just the spending by their own level of government?

According to Cobbold’s fact checking, when you allow for all those factors, the real increase in total government spending per student over the nine years to 2013-14 was just 4.5 per cent, or 0.5 per cent per year. But it’s worse than that. Although the non-government sector enrols less than 20 per cent of all disadvantaged students, the nine-year increase for non-government schools was 9.8 per cent, whereas the increase for government schools was only 3.3 per cent. It turns out that, while the federal government was increasing its funding to government schools, the state governments took the opportunity to limit their funding to their own schools, while increasing their grants to non-government schools.

But what about the other side of the argument: what’s been happen to the measured performance of our schools?

What’s happening to our schools’ measured performance?

The performance of our schools on literacy, numeracy and science is now measured regularly by PISA and NAPLAN. Of course, there’s a lot more to what schools impart to students than literacy and numeracy.

A good summary of what PISA tells us about our performance, using the 2015 figures released late last year, has been provided by Cobbold. Wisely, I think, he focuses not on the media’s favourite of our ranking on the league table of countries, but on how our own performance has changed over time. He finds that our results have fallen significantly over the past 15 years. We remain one of the high-performing countries in reading and science, but our maths results have slipped to about average. The results show continuing declines in the proportion of students at the most advanced levels and also significant increases in the proportion of students below the international standard. This includes high proportions of low SES, Indigenous, provincial and remote-area students. He finds continuing very large gaps between the achievements of the highest and lowest performing students after 10 or more years of learning.

A good review of the latest NAPLAN results comes from Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd, two retired high school principals who’ve done a fabulous job in “data mining” the MySchool website. They say NAPLAN results have mostly drifted up over the years, whereas the latest results for literacy and numeracy show a plateauing.

Peter Goss and colleagues, of Grattan, have pioneered the technique of converting NAPLAN data into “years of progress”, using the results of Victorian students to reveal some worrying trends. They note first that the NAPLAN “national minimum standards” are set very low. A Year 9 student can meet this standard even if they are performing below the typical Year 5 student – that is, four years behind their peers. They find that the spread of student achievement from highest to lowest more than doubles as students move through school. Low achieving students fall ever further back. They are two years and eight months behind in Year 3, but three years and eight months behind by Year 9. Students in disadvantaged schools make about two years less progress between Year 3 and Year 9 than similarly capable students in high-advantaged schools. And get this: bright students in disadvantaged schools show the biggest learning gap. High achievers in Year 3 make about 2½ years less progress by Year 9 than if they had attended a high-advantage school.

Does spending more money buy better school performance?

So, does spending more money buy better school performance? Short answer: not if you spend it on more of the wrong things. But first, it’s surprising to have the claim that “money doesn’t matter” coming from the conservative side of politics, and even from, of all people, some economists. It’s surprising to have people who fight tooth and nail to protect and increase their personal income assuring us that spending more money on any category of spending yields no benefit. Do they follow this precept in their own spending on education? Does it mean they’re happy to send their children to the local public school, or are they sending them to expensive private schools, similar to those most of the cabinet ministers attended?

The truth is that we haven’t been spending a lot more in recent times but, in any case, much of what we have been spending hasn’t been spent effectively. Between the federal and state governments, we’ve given more to advantaged schools that don’t need it, at the expense of disadvantaged schools that do need it. When you study the standardised test results, the answer to how the money could be spent more effectively – that is, in a way that increases the probability it will produce better school performance – leaps out at you: we need to spend more per student on disadvantaged schools and less per student on advantaged schools, where parents have demonstrated their willingness to supplement the school’s finances by paying fees, sometimes very high fees. In other words, the obvious way to make government spending on schools more cost-effective is to put it on a needs basis.

But on one matter I do sympathise with Birmingham: the version of “Gonski” he has inherited from Labor is far too expensive a way to move to needs-based funding. As David Gonski gently reminded us in the first of these orations, and his colleague Ken Boston more forcefully reminded us in a speech just last week, what the Gonski panel wanted was a redistribution of schools spending to make it needs-based. Its recommendation of greatly increased spending arose from Julia Gillard’s stipulation that “no school should be a dollar worse off”. One matter on which I don’t sympathise with Birmingham’s government is its quite unreasonable cost-shifting and politically unsustainable plan, announced in the 2014 budget, to reduce the indexation of federal schools grants to the consumer price index. Nothing less than indexation to the expected rate of growth in teachers’ wages is politically sustainable.

The ideal would be for Gonski’s original proposals to be implemented but, since these were quite unacceptable even to Gillard, we’re likely to be waiting some time to see that happen. But Labor’s line that Gillard’s bastardised version of “Gonski” must be honoured to the letter, in veneration of the great reformer, is dishonest and manipulative. Peter Goss of Grattan has proposed a compromise arrangement which, without requiring any more spending than the temporary extra the government has agreed to, would get a lot more schools closer to the “schooling resource standard” a lot earlier even than envisaged under Gillard’s Gonski. It seems clear that Birmingham is working on his own compromise plan, which would involve better-resourced schools’ grants increasing by less than provided for by Gillard’s Gonski – which is still law. Birmingham has hinted that he may be interested in introducing the national schools resources body that Gonski recommended, but Gillard wouldn’t touch. This could be a big step forward. But the Labor opposition is unlikely to accept any compromise, virtuously holding out for “the full Gonski” as it poses as the one true believer in needs-based funding.

Beyond the eternal fight over money: what works and what doesn’t

We’re unlikely to get far in improving school performance until we get closer to the ideal of needs-based funding – that is, until we direct more of total funding to those disadvantaged students and schools that most need additional resources. But it’s important to realise that better-targeted funding is a means rather than an end in itself. If all we did was give disadvantaged schools a big bucket of money to spend, there would be no certainty that all of it was spent in ways that actually benefited disadvantaged students.

It’s a great pity that the crazy way we fund our schools – two levels of government funding differently three different school sectors – keeps us so preoccupied that we rarely turn our mind to the more important question of how we can improve our schools’ ever less-impressive measured performance. The truth is that we have tried a lot of things that didn’t work. Dean Ashenden reminds us there was a time when we really did increase spending on schools. Over the 40 years to 2004, real spending per student grew by more than 80 per cent. What was that extra money spent on? Mainly on reduced class sizes. Smaller classes seem an obvious improvement to teachers and parents, but any amount of research has shown this does little to improve outcomes.

Next comes the Howard government’s experiment with “choice and competition”. Howard increased federal grants to non-government schools using several funding formulas biased in their favour and encouraged the establishment of many more, low-income independent schools. The justification was that greater choice – particularly choice between public and private – was one of the Liberals’ great values. It would encouraged greater competition between the sectors, obliging public schools to lift their game. It didn’t work. But it did subsidise the drift of higher SES parents who could afford private school fees away from low SEA schools, leaving them with a much harder climb to improved performance.

Paradoxically, the more “economism” approach came from Julia Gillard throughout the Labor government’s six years in office. Along with good measures such as a national curriculum, a universally accessible year of pre-school and maybe professional standards for teachers and principals, came economist-inspired measures such as standardised national assessments through NAPLAN, national reporting on schools through the MySchool website, and dabbling in performance pay for teachers. There is no evidence that this more information-based attempt to use increased competition between and within sectors to raise performance has worked. Geoff Masters, of ACER, has concluded the belief that “improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve” – including rewards, sanctions and the need to compete for students – is mistaken. I think that, to the extent that standardised testing encourages teaching-to-the-test and other gaming of the system – as with all KPIs – this is regrettable and to be discouraged. But you’d never convince a journalist that, because statistics can be misinterpreted and misused, we’re better off suppressing them or leaving things unmeasured. And though MySchool seems to have done little to encourage better test results, it has provided people such as Bonnor and Shepherd with a rich data set for drawing highly enlightening, evidence-based conclusions about what’s happening to our schools over time.

What then is more likely to work? If you look at what Ken Boston has said about what Gonski wanted the extra funding to disadvantaged schools to be spent on, at what Adrian Piccoli has said about how NSW has been using its extra Gonski funding, at what Gill Callister, Victoria’s Education department secretary, has said about what the international evidence says is most effective, they all have one thing in common: what’s most likely to work is investing in teaching quality, capability and development.

Geoff Masters says we should built the “capacity” of teachers and school leaders and ensure “high quality practice across the system”. Part of what Masters is advocating is “targeted teaching”. The greatest exponent of targeted teaching and the “growth” approach is Peter Goss of Grattan. Teachers should be provided with the time, tools and training they need to collect robust evidence of student learning, discuss it with other teachers, and use it to target their teaching to the wide range of student learning needs in their classroom. Higher achieving students should be stretched, lower achieving students should be supported to catch up, and no student who stalls should go unnoticed. The school fosters a culture of progress, in which teachers, students and parents see learning success as being about effort and improvement, not ability and attainment, and assessment as a way to improve, not to expose student failures. The best schools in Australia are not necessarily those with the best ATAR or NAPLAN scores, but those that enable their students to make the greatest progress in learning. The goal is for each student to have made at least a year’s worth of progress every year.

According to the Mitchell Institute, 26 per cent of students fail to finish school or a vocational equivalent. I’m sure some of these people catch up in later life, while others lead rewarding lives without benefit of further education. But I fear most of the 26 per cent lead lives of economic insecurity and limited personal fulfilment. They are the shockingly high proportion of students our school system has failed. I don’t believe in KPIs, but if I were to set one for schools, it would be to get that appalling indicator of our society’s failure very much lower.

Ross Gittins is Economics Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald.  His address was the Jean Blackburn Oration for the Australian College of Educators, Melbourne, February 22, 2017

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