Opinion: Dip in PISA results a sign of things to come

Following last week's PISA results, Maurie Mulheron, President, NSW Teachers Federation, outlines what's at stake if Australia does not address significant geographic and social inequalities in school funding.

Last week’s release of PISA results confirms the warnings sounded in the Gonski Review: if, as a nation, we fail to redress deep inequalities in our education system, and change the way we fund through a new needs-based model, Australia will continue to drop in global rankings.

Put simply, a nation cannot have high achievement with low equity.

But the response from the Federal Government has been to push ahead with its plan to end needs-based funding despite evidence from schools that Gonski resources are beginning to make a difference. It is quick to blame teachers.

Australia’s PISA results show we are still above the OECD average, which is a testament to the expertise and professionalism of our teachers. And so many of them are doing it tough and in desperate need of additional resources.

As former Gonski panel member, Dr Ken Boston, explained: “We should talk not about teacher quality, but about teaching quality or the quality of education. The teachers in our most disadvantaged schools are at least as good as those in our most advantaged schools: the issue is not their competence, skill or commitment. The issue is that their number, resources and support are unequal to the task.”

We cannot ignore the drop in our results across all school systems, public and private, but if we look more closely at the data we find that the most significant issues are the persistent gaps in results based on geographic location and social background.

Students from the most disadvantaged quartile are three years behind those from the most advantaged by the age of 15.

This is higher than the OECD average and what the Gonski Review warned us about in December 2011 when it noted our slipping PISA scores and stated that: “International evidence confirms that targeted investment in disadvantaged students is the most cost-efficient way to improve.”

Letting student achievement be dictated by postcode and family income means we entrench disadvantage and squander the potential of students who cannot get access to support when they need it.

Our slide in the PISA rankings dates back over a decade and coincides with a pre-Gonski time when school funding was skewed towards schools that did not need more money, predominantly in the private sector.

From 2009 to 2014 combined government funding per student for private schools increased by 30% per student, compared to a 14% increase to public schools.

This was the result of government policies which were driven by theories of competition and choice rather than the reality of need and equity. Under this scheme, the public schools where the disadvantaged were enrolled were ignored, wilfully.

Gonski funding is a long-overdue attempt to address this disparity which has damaged our school systems. It began in 2014 and less than 10 per cent of the total amount of extra funding had been delivered to schools when the PISA did its 2015 testing.

Gonski is not the problem, it is the solution, the only serious model that is designed to address the issues exposed in the PISA 2015 results.

Gonski funding is already seeing students receive help through speech pathology, one-to-one support in class and extra literacy and numeracy programs. Teachers are being supported by classroom aides and better training and professional development.

Yet the Turnbull Government wants to scrap Gonski after 2017 and withhold an extra $3.8 billion in needs-based funding from our schools. Their alternative, based on what little detail they have made public, would see 62 per cent of additional federal funding go to private schools. It is a return by stealth to the bad old days of sector-based funding that strips resources from the students in schools with the greatest need.

If Education Minister Simon Birmingham has a plan for how schools will be able to maintain and extend the results they are achieving through Gonski without these extra resources, he has not shared it. Talking endlessly about ‘teacher quality’ is a deliberate and cheap shot at the profession and pretty hypocritical, particularly when he refuses to make necessary reforms to teacher training, including lifting standards for entry into teaching degrees.

His lack of understanding of teaching is evident when he ignores the link between resourcing and the quality of education.

Support in classrooms lifts the effectiveness of teachers and helps students. Schools are also using Gonski for professional development, to fund mentoring, collaboration and other initiatives which lift the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

The key recommendation from the Gonski Review was that all schools be lifted to a minimum Student Resourcing Standard by 2019. That is why the Gonski agreements were designed to run for six years, and why the last two years are so crucial. The public school systems of every state are currently below the Schooling Resource Standard.

Without Gonski, another cohort of students will miss out and the next set of PISA results will tell the same story.

As Gonski said, “Australia will only slip further behind unless, as a nation, we act and act now.” The “now” was 2011. Five years on, the federal government still ignores the evidence and still refuses to act.