The Director was clearly thrown by the Education Minister’s question. He wasn’t willing to admit that he did not have an answer.
After all, he was representing every State school in Australia and should have had no hesitation answering the Minister’s question.
He knew the new Minister was a mover and shaker but was totally unprepared for the question.
Minister: Come on, Director, this is not rocket science. I am sick of education funding being a political football and the subject of tedious debate every Federal Budget. My government wants to ascertain exactly how much it would cost to provide a quality education for every Australian child. I will ask the question again, how much do you want this and every government in the future to allocate per capita to our schools?
Director: Minister, currently, State schools are underfunded and our students are falling behind on any number of international indicators. Our schools need a significant injection of funds and we hope you will fully implement the Gonski recommendations.
Minister: Forget Gonski. Forget previous Budgetary allocations. How much do you want us to spend on education in the coming financial year?
Director: I am not sure, but it will be more than your government is willing to pay.
Minister: I sense that we are performing a late John Clarke skit! For the last time, how much will it cost to give our children a quality education. Currently governments in Australia spend over $80bn on education annually, an increase of 25% in the past ten years. How much more do you advocate we spend?
Director: I am sorry I can’t answer your question, Minister. My brief in submissions like this is to push for more funding. We have never really considered what would be the ideal amount per student.
Minister: What if we doubled the funding? Would that guarantee every Australian student would receive a quality education? Would reducing class sizes to ten students per teacher do the trick? What if we double teacher salaries or, like in Finland, demand that every teacher have an M.Ed.? Will that significantly improve learning outcomes? What if every student was given a Notebook and connection to the cloud? What if we ensured that every school had a swimming pool and manicured ovals? Would our students rapidly climb the international league tables?
Director: With respect, Minister, I do not know what would be the effect of doubling the education budget. But surely your government could not afford to double the kitty? You would have to no longer fund Private schools which would be electoral suicide. Where would you find the money?
Minister: It would seem to be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we destroy the Private school system. The results from these schools favourably match overseas outcomes. Surely the challenge is to lift outcomes in our State schools? I ask you again: how much money do we have to find to help State schools deliver similar outcomes? How do you explain that some Private schools achieve better outcomes with funding less than their State School counterparts? If education is society’s ultimate priority wouldn’t the voters support cutting Defence, Foreign Aid, Security, Health and Welfare spending to adequately fund our schools? Incidentally, where would all this increased funding be spent and to what extent can you guarantee it would significantly improve learning outcomes in schools?
Director: Minister, I cannot categorically state that your massive injection of funds will produce the results you are hoping for, but surely it would improve learning outcomes and be universally applauded by the electorate?
Minister: As a percentage of GDP, Australia spends about the same at the UK, France, Holland and Austria (5.5%), but not as much as Finland (7.2%). We are committed to spending more on education but not until you can justify what is the optimum amount we should be spending and whether such an increase will result in substantially better outcomes. I suggest you go and do your homework. While you’re at it, try to substantiate your argument that the only reason Private schools get better results is because they have more to spend. My premonition is that what happens in classrooms is far more important than how much money we spend on schools. Why are Private schools more disciplined learning environments? Is money the only thing stopping State Schools from matching Private schools? In Finland, for example, there is no school ‘shopping’ or Private/Public schooling divide. All schools offer the same quality learning. Can we achieve the same scenario in Australia? I need some answers, Director, before I have any hope of convincing Cabinet of the need for massive increases in education spending.
Greg Cudmore is a retired teacher with 45 years of experience of teaching in Victoria and Queensland.