Failing our kids
A decade of debate about school funding, and we’re going backwards
Today’s interim report of an independent expert panel reviewing NAPLAN on behalf of the Victorian, New South Wales, Queensland and ACT governments caps a run of bad news showing that our increasingly inequitable school system is failing. “The status quo is not an option for NAPLAN,” Victorian Education Minister James Merlino told Nine Media. Potential changes in the report include halving the number of tests students sit and restricting comparisons on the My School website. That comes after the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) delivered the gloomy finding that the performance of Australian students was declining in the areas of reading, maths and science. “We need to turn this around and turn it around quickly,” said the Coalition’s still-newish education minister, Dan Tehan. After almost a decade of debate about implementing a sector-blind, needs-based funding model through the initial Gonski review, commissioned under Julia Gillard, and Gonski 2.0, delivered under then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, it is an indictment on the political system that instead of making progress we’ve gone backwards.
The Coalition’s mantra is that it has delivered record school funding, but after stripping out wage inflation and growth in student numbers, the claim is ill founded, according to Sue Thomson, deputy chief executive for research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, who joined an insightful panel conversation on RN Breakfast this morning. Citing research by the Grattan Institute, Thomson got straight to the nub of the problem: “There actually hasn’t been a huge increase in funding to schools, and actually 80 per cent of that funding has gone to advantaged schools rather than disadvantaged schools, so the funding is certainly something that needs to be looked at.” Steven Kolber, a teacher at Brunswick Secondary College, a state school in Melbourne, said much the same thing: the PISA findings were not a surprise, there was a growing gap between high achievers and disadvantaged students, and “it’s the distribution of funding that needs to be addressed”.
Unfortunately the wrong lessons are being learnt from the debate. The government argues that more funding is not the solution to declining standards, while continuing to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to elite private schools engaged in an arms race to build ever-more lavish facilities, in an ongoing insult to the hundreds of disadvantaged school communities around the country. Education ministers meet next week in Alice Springs, and Tehan this week used the PISA results to push his National School Reform Agreement – which has met resistance from state and territory ministers concerned by inadequate funding for public schools – and to include phonics as part of teacher training. That will at least make Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine happy, as she has been pushing for it for more than a decade. “My message to the state and territory education ministers is this: leave the teachers’ union talking points at home and be ambitious,” Tehan said. “Our school systems also need to de-clutter their curriculums and get back to basics.”
This week, shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek lambasted the worst results in reading, maths, and science since international testing began, and called on the government to say how it would fix the problem. The sad reality, according to the ALP campaign review, is that the $14 billion extra in school funding, which Plibersek promised ahead of the last election, was one of a series of promises that “played directly into the Coalition’s narrative of big, risky spending that would have to be paid for with big economy-wrecking taxes”.
The currency of the Gonski school funding model has been debased, and the point has gotten lost in years of partisan tit-for-tat about ancient spending commitments long forgotten. Sure, more school funding alone is not the entire answer – nobody argues that it is – but that doesn’t mean we should persist with an unfair model that leaves disadvantaged kids falling further and further behind.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Today’s interim report of an independent expert panel reviewing NAPLAN on behalf of the Victorian, New South Wales, Queensland and ACT governments caps a run of bad news showing that our increasingly inequitable school system is failing. “The status quo is not an option for NAPLAN,” Victorian Education Minister James Merlino told Nine Media. Potential changes in the report include halving the number of tests students sit and restricting comparisons on the My School website. That comes after the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) delivered the gloomy finding that the performance of...