In a major review, an independent expert panel has urged Australia’s education ministers to fully fund public schools at the earliest opportunity.
The release of the review followed the Education Ministers Meeting in Canberra on Monday and is a key component of the upcoming National School Reform Agreement (NSRA), expected to be finalised by 2025.
Chaired by Dr Lisa O’Brien, the expert panel highlighted urgent action to address glaring funding gaps in Australia’s schools, noting that 98% of public schools remain underfunded.
“The panel was clear in the report that full funding to 100 per cent of the SRS is a critical prerequisite for successful education reform and student learning and wellbeing improvement across the country,” the report stated.
“All jurisdictions should fully fund schools within a comparable timeframe” and the issue is all the more urgent “because of the full funding arrangements that already exist in the non-government sector”.
The report identified seven “reform directions” it wants Federal, State and Territory Governments to consider in the NSRA. The aim of these are to lift student outcomes, improve equity and student wellbeing and attract and retain teachers.
Other key objectives of the reforms include improving transparency around the way schools are funded, reducing gaps in education data and supporting innovation across the three school sectors. There are also 24 recommendations across the reform directions, including universal screening for literacy and numeracy in Year 1 and targeted help for students to transition to life beyond school.
A decade on, Gonski’s work not yet complete
In an interview with Patricia Karvelas on ABC Radio National Australia this morning, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said.
“The work that David Gonski started over a decade ago still hasn’t been completed,” Minister Clare said. “This report shows that we’ve got a good education system, but it can be a lot better and a lot fairer.”
Minister Clare said the Federal Government is continuing to work with the States and Territories to ensure all schools are funded to their full SRS.
“We committed to that before the election. I’ve committed to it since,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that funding gap, level the playing field so that all schools and all kids are properly and fairly funded in our schools.”
Minister Clare noted that while “full and fair funding” is a priority, Federal, State and Territory Governments must also work towards closing glaring gaps in student achievement.
“The fact is that if you’re a child from a poor family, you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. What this report showed us is that we have one of the most segregated school systems in the OECD – not by the colour of your skin, but by the size of your parents’ pay packet,” he said.
“It shows not only that children from poor families are more likely to fall behind at school, but if they’re in a school, as many of them are, about half of children from poor families are at schools where they’re surrounded by a lot of other children with disadvantage, then it’s even harder for them to catch up. This report is full of recommendations about how to turn that around.”
Ball now in PM’s court
Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe said it is now up to the Prime Minister to work with State and Territory Governments to ensure the report’s recommendations come to fruition.
“New school funding agreements were delayed 12 months so that the panel could conduct a review. Now it has made unequivocal recommendations about the critical need for full funding of public schools so there can be no excuse for further inaction and delay by governments,” Haythorpe said.
“This report shows that Australia’s education system needs to be better and fairer and that starts with funding.”
However, Haythorpe said the report’s recommendations on reducing teacher workload do not go far enough.
“[Teacher workload] is the number one reason teachers are leaving the classroom in record numbers,” she said. “Teachers made clear to the review that the priority is not off the shelf lesson plans, it is more staffing support inside and outside the classroom and cuts to red tape, paperwork and data entry.”
Haythorpe said the report places too much emphasis on a single instructional practice, explicit instruction, particularly given the Australian Education Research Organisation has found the vast majority of teachers are already using explicit instructional strategies in most lessons.
“Australia’s teachers are highly effective in using a range of teaching strategies to engage and challenge students, meet their learning needs and assess and monitor their progress and they must be supported to continue to do so.”
‘There’s not a moment to lose’
The Smith Family CEO, Doug Taylor said closing gaps in school funding should happen immediately, given the impact that this issue has been having on communities across Australia.
“We would urge that this starts as soon as possible, and with the schools who have the greatest need, and that any additional measures are informed by evidence,” Taylor said.
“We know that improved use of data helps schools achieve better educational outcomes. It enables our nation to meet our equity goals and ensure public accountability for the significant investment in education.”
He said the next five-year agreement has the power to bring long-lasting, positive change to hundreds of thousands of children and young people.
“With the right policies and the right implementation, we can build a school system that works for all. One that matches the dedication and commitment of our teachers, educators and families and gives all students the best possible opportunity to make the most of their future lives,” Taylor said.
“We urge our nation’s education ministers to action their commitments made today, swiftly, so we can provide a better and fairer education system for all young people as soon as possible. There is not a moment to lose.”
Delays in full funding ‘unconscionable’
Save Our Schools national convenor, Trevor Cobbold said he was disappointed that another Education Ministers’ meeting had gone by without a clear commitment on when public schools will be fully funded.
“At present public schools are only funded, on average, at 87.5% of their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) and there is still no date when they will be fully funded. Public schools are losing nearly $7 billion a year,” Cobbold said.
“The delay in committing to public schools is unconscionable. Ministers have already delayed implementation of the National Schools Reform Agreement by a year.”
Cobbold said this has allowed the states to postpone any further increase in their funding share of SRS of public schools and remain at the 2023 in 2024.
“Public schools will be stuck at their average level of funding of only 87.5% for another year,” he noted.
“The delay also allows the states to continue their skullduggery of claiming expenditures specifically excluded from the measure of the SRS as part of their share of funding public schools. This alone defrauds public schools about $2 billion a year.”
‘One size fits all approach must be avoided’
In its submission to the expert panel, Independent Schools Australia (ISA) recommended that the primary focus should be on what supports schools put in place to support students, more than targets.
ISA Chief Executive Officer, Graham Catt said the sector remains concerned that “a detrimental ‘one size fits all’ approach will be adopted to the measurement of learning and outcomes.”
“The report recommends several new data collections that would be challenging to implement and have a significant impact on the workload of teachers as well concerns as to how data may be used,” Cat said.
“We continue to support the Commonwealth Government’s objective of full implementation of the current funding model to ensure that all schools – regardless of sector – are funded to 100 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard.”
Cat said that as negotiations commence on the next National School Reform Agreement, the ISA urges all education ministers “to remember that national educational reform of this scale will only succeed if it engages, involves, and provides resources to all school sectors.”
The National Catholic Education Commission’s (NCEC) submission to the Productivity Commission’s review of the NSRA, highlights a number of key reforms it would like to see, including evidence-based policy, enhanced consultations, improved teacher training, and national standards for child protection and education quality.
“We look forward to ongoing cooperation and participation in the NSRA process, and thank the expert panel who engaged the Catholic education sector in their consultation for this important review,” NCEC executive director, Jacinta Collins said.
Fully funding public schools will help Aussie economy
In November, research commissioned by the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) found that a failure to invest will see widening achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds, a worsening teacher crisis, and a decline in teacher and student wellbeing.
The research – undertaken by Pasi Sahlberg (University of Melbourne), Trevor Cobbold (National Convenor of Save our Schools) and Caitlin Senior (University of Melbourne) – was also the first to measure the economic impact that Australia’s government primary schools have on the Australian economy.
“The time is now. We cannot afford to wait,” AGPPA president, Pat Murphy told The Educator.
“This research shows that public primary schools are the foundation of Australia’s economy, and that the economic impact these schools have is greater than multinational companies.”
Murphy said this makes the current generation of students in Australia’s public primary schools “the nation’s most valuable asset.”
“It is therefore critical that public school children be given every opportunity to realise their potential and shine into the future.”