Three school education policies for Labor

Feb 25, 2021

It seems just months since the last one, but the next election is already highlighting interest in policy development. What school education policies might a progressive sort of party like the ALP develop? They would have to pass three simple tests: they must address something that urgently needs fixing, they mustn’t scare the punters and they should be readily understood and agreed, including by those responsible for their promotion and, with luck, implementation.

There are three policies that might meet these criteria. The first is suggested by the very recent Gallop Report into the NSW public school workforce. The second is relatively simple: identify what is still needing to be done, 10 years after the Gonski review. The third is to seriously tackle the money side of six big ‘E’ word targets, still largely missing in our framework of schools: excellence, equity, efficiency, effectiveness/efficacy and endurance.

The first is a no-brainer. Everyone believes that the quality of teachers and schools lies at the heart of student achievement. What matters is that we all believe it, even though it comes with qualifications. Family background is actually more important, as illustrated previously in Pearls and Irritations. But the belief in teachers should still be enough to want to increase the status of that profession. It would certainly be a useful political priority, given that the pandemic literally brought home an enhanced respect for the work of teachers and what they achieve, often against the odds.

The timing is right for another reason. Former WA Premier Geoff Gallop has just spent 12 months examining evidence on the changing nature of teachers’ jobs – the first such review since 2004. As Gallop explains, the report revealed the dramatic increases in the volume, intensity and complexity of teachers work generated by government decisions and heavily impacted by the social, economic and technological environment. It points to the shortfall in public school funding and the relative decline in teacher salaries.

It was commissioned by a teacher union and some critics will instead prefer the focus to be on control and accountability of teachers and schools through curriculum and testing, teacher and school ranking, competition between classrooms and schools, blaming, shaming and just about anything else that hasn’t worked both here and overseas. This time around, Labor can break this useless mould and help other states to conduct similar reviews. Solutions would cost, but Labor has already committed to increasing the funding of public schools. Some of this funding should target implementing the recommendations arising out of such reviews.

As additional support for teachers in all schools, Labor could broaden, without any political risk, the operation of the recently launched Australian Education Research Organisation. AERO has been established following recommendations made by David Gonski in the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, the second Gonski review. AERO could, and should, also assess what works and what doesn’t, not just in the classroom, but in policies impacting on schools. The reality is that policy solutions for schools should address what goes on inside them and what the rest of us, especially governments, do to them.

Such an expanded role for AERO would be welcomed. As a newly released paper reveals, we have now suffered three decades of repeated but failed goals created by Australia’s education ministers, in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration and its predecessors. Yet there is no institutionalised way to assess the goals and claims by Australian governments about its schools. It would be both popular and productive to insist that policy makers, just like schools, seriously evaluate what they do. And if a three-word campaign slogan is needed, boost teacher success might work.

A second priority could build off the enormous support and goodwill which resonated after the first Gonski review, an event which, at the very least, seared the twin holy grails of excellence and equity into our consciousness. The Turnbull government in 2017 certainly realised this when it revisited the early and unfinished policy response to Gonski’s recommendations. But the Turnbull/Birmingham ‘Gonski 2.0’ didn’t solve the funding problem at all. Based on current formulas, private schools will continue to be overfunded and public schools underfunded into the ‘planned’ future.

Solutions are within reach. The establishment of the National Schools Resourcing Board has been widely supported, and this body monitors and reports on how the States and the Commonwealth implement funding under the Australian Education Act 2013. But the Act needs revision, the implementation timeline reduced and avoidance strategies employed by the States addressed. The record of money going into schools and projections for the future reveal that little has changed. This is partly because the States are dragging their heels on their required 80% funding of their own schools. Why? Because it improves their own budget bottom line. The Commonwealth should increase its portion going to government schools and there has to be a mechanism, with penalties, if and when any State falls short. Action in these areas is politically possible and would also create a better framework around Labor’s commitment to increase funding for public education. It could be wrapped up in three words: get Gonski done!

The third priority, addressing the big ‘E’ words, is wide ranging but again meets the criteria of needed policy which could achieve widespread support, including from conservative critics of the increasing cost of school education. There is no shortage of evidence that we are falling short on achieving excellence and equity, another reason to get Gonski done. But there are other ‘E’ words which relate to our investment in schools. A good starting point is efficiency. Is our investment in schools delivering the best possible outcomes for a reasonable cost? Not at all. In the interests of providing choice Australia duplicates its provision of schools. Using NSW as an example, 93% of students live in a postcode where there is a choice of two or more schools. Authentic choice is still limited by family income, but the additional public and private cost of duplicating schools is substantial and can be seen sometimes in the thousands of small communities across Australia. In almost all places, this duplication has also created a socio-educational hierarchy which is partly responsible for Australia’s relatively poor overall performance.

But let’s stay with the money argument. Structural Failure provides a simple example. If the 37 students at St Joseph’s School in Adelong NSW merged with the 68 at Adelong Public School the annual (recurrent cost) saving would be almost $300,000. A nice little sum to invest in the local strugglers. If all the Catholic students at Goulburn enrolled at the local public schools (as was threatened half a century ago) the annual saving to the taxpayer would be well over a million dollars. It is not hard to imagine the savings and reinvestment which would be possible on a national scale. None of this amounts to an argument to integrate public and private schools, but it demonstrates how choice of schools comes at an obvious cost, while not delivering on its promise to improve overall achievement.

There is another perspective on funding efficiency. We’ve known for years that when different schools enrol students from similar backgrounds they achieve much the same results. The problem is they achieve these similar results despite often big differences in the amounts they spend on their students. There is an annual overspend, which in 2017 amounted to $5 billion. The money comes from both parents and governments. Parents have the right to spend what they like, but should governments be part of this when it doesn’t deliver? Governments don’t do this in most similar countries, it isn’t an efficient use of public funding.

Our spending on schools clearly lacks effectiveness. Too much goes to schools where it makes little difference, when the priority should be the schools where it has a better chance of lifting student outcomes. If our priority is to lift overall achievement we’ve failed. Our funding system has little efficacy, it doesn’t deliver what it is planned and claimed to do. And last, but by no means least, our school funding system is not enduring. We’ve had seven or eight changes of government and three major funding review periods since the 1960s, each reversing much of what went before. Small wonder we seem to make little progress.

Fixing all this is a big ask of any political party, and it is easier to kick these cans down the road. After all, we’ve been doing it for decades. Leadership in this area would resonate with the voting public, especially if additional revenue created was reinvested in teachers and schools. And school reform that looks beyond what schools actually do is essential to complement the huge effort inside the school gate. Labor could call it 360 degree school reform. Boosting teacher success, getting Gonski done, and developing smart policies about funding and the big ‘E’ words are initiatives which would support each other. They would certainly address urgent needs, secure widespread support and be readily understood.

But would they survive the biggest test of all: overcoming the policy timidity which, despite the pandemic, still characterises Australian political culture?

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