Don’t rush into school reforms, experts warn

Don’t rush into school reforms, experts warn

A new report by the Grattan Institute has urged whoever wins the federal election to “stare down special interests” and pursue a targeted policy agenda to improve the lives of Australians.

The ‘Commonwealth Orange Book 2019: a policy manifesto for a better Australia’ consolidates Grattan’s work over the last decade, setting out priorities across education, housing, hospitals and infrastructure for the next Federal Government and rating Australia’s performance against similar countries.

On school education, the authors suggest that the Federal Government avoid embarking on any school funding or improvement reforms unless they are explicitly backed by evidence that shows they will work.

To ensure this, the Institute recommends the creation of a national evidence institute, while strengthening incentives for universities to improve initial teacher education.

The manifesto’s ‘International Scorecard’ found that Australian 15-year-olds perform about four months below the average of comparator countries in PISA maths in 2015 and that Australia’s equity gap is slightly wider than the average of similar countries, and the OECD average.

However, Peter Goss, the Grattan Institute's school education program director, said that while the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students may be comparatively larger than other OECD countries, Australia is not an outlier.

“The comparisons of how much Australia spends on school education often refers to the whole of the OECD, including countries like Turkey, Mexico and Chile, which spend a lot less, do dramatically worse and are not useful comparisons,” Goss told The Educator.

“The other element was choosing the spending metric very carefully to take account of not only GDP per capita but also demographics.”

Goss said it is important for policymakers to measure both GDP per capita and demographics because they matter greatly in terms of context with per-student funding.

“Some of the previous analyses have looked at what percentage Australia’s overall GDP is spent on education, and that can provide us with the wrong results,” he said.

“For example, Australia spends a bit more of its GDP on education than Canada does, but we have many more young people. Canada has a bigger population than us, but out of every 1,000 Australians, 166 are school-aged. However, in Canada, only 133 are school-aged.”

Goss said once this is considered on a per-student basis, Canada spends about 10% more per-student than Australia does.

“This analysis also reaffirms that Australia is not yet distributing its funding in line with need. The funding formula does that, but there is a gap between funding theory and funding practice,” he said.

‘Federal election presents a big opportunity’

Goss said the upcoming federal election offers a big opportunity to take a step back and ask where Australia at strategically.

“If our school system was in a situation whereby the government was not distributing funding according to need but was spending more on education than other similar countries, the answer would be to redistribute our funding by taking money from the most advantaged schools and giving it to the least advantaged schools,” he said.

“However, this is not what is happening. We’re not distributing our funding to the schools that need it most, and we are spending less than comparative countries. The right strategic direction is to increase funding somewhat and tilt it heavily to the most disadvantaged schools.”

Goss said this strategic perspective at the time of a federal election helps people interpret the policies of each major parties.

“Both parties are putting more money into education in real terms and are notionally tilting it towards the most disadvantaged schools. Under the Coalition, more government schools will be left behind than under Labor,” he said.

“That leads to the first of the overall funding recommendations. We need to get funding right and move on. This is important because it matters in its own right and because we can’t move on while the government is saying it has a formula for every school but only some schools are going to get there, that’s not fair.”