Australia’s education debate is shifting at last, from how much money governments should spend on schools to how best to spend the money for the benefit of students.
After winning parliamentary approval for the Gonski 2.0 schools funding deal (the “how much”), the Turnbull Government has commissioned the “Gonski 2.0 Review” to advise on how to spend the money wisely (the “how best”).AAP/Joel Carrett
But the extra Commonwealth money going to schools (A$23 billion over the next 10 years compared to previous Coalition policy) is only 3% of all government spending on schools over the decade. It should not be used as an excuse for the Commonwealth to intervene more heavily in school education policy.
The Grattan Institute’s new report, The Commonwealth’s role in improving schools, examines what the Commonwealth should do if it really wants to boost student outcomes.
And the answer is: not very much.
States are better placed to drive reforms
The states run schools, as well as providing most of the funding. Heavy-handed Commonwealth intervention is likely to be counterproductive, costly and confusing.
Most of the big reforms needed are within the responsibilities of state governments. For example, all the evidence shows effective teaching has the largest impact on student achievement. The biggest advances will be made when teachers know what works in the classroom, and how they can adapt their methods to better target their teaching to the particular needs of their students.
For this to happen, teachers need better support from the “system”: for example, better teacher development and greater standardisation of classroom materials so individual teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
In school education, the states and territories are the “system” managers. Driving reforms such as these from Canberra would be difficult.
Federal funding conditions aren’t the way to go
Australia must learn from its history. Our report shows imposing prescriptive funding conditions on states and territories has been tried before, with little benefit.
Commonwealth interference can destroy policy coherence and simply increase red tape. The Commonwealth has few ways to independently verify if change is actually happening in the classroom, so adding an extra layer of government policies that chop and change only disrupts schools and teachers.
For example, the 2008-2013 National Partnership agreements for school education included a number of prescriptive and input-based conditions. These increased the administrative and compliance burden of states, and created instability in schools when the funding and initiatives stopped abruptly five years later.
Before looking to new reforms, the Commonwealth government should first deliver its existing responsibilities more effectively. These include initial teacher training, the national curriculum and national student testing. All require constant attention, and some require urgent reform.
Prioritise a few national reforms only
If determined to act, we suggest the Commonwealth focus strategically on a small number of national reforms only. It is far better to focus on a few actions with a high chance of success.
We suggest the Commonwealth only pursue reforms that meet all of three criteria: the evidence shows it’s a good idea, the government can make it happen, and Commonwealth intervention will help. While many Commonwealth ideas are good in theory, many fall down on whether they can be readily implemented by state governments and actually lead to change in practice.
For example, in 2016 the Commonwealth signalled an intention to require all schools to use explicit teaching. While backed by evidence, this type of Commonwealth policy requirement is unlikely to lead to change without a raft of complementary state government policies. These include the right training and school support for teachers to switch to explicit teaching. It would be difficult for the Commonwealth to independently verify, and it also creates confusion by coming in over the top of state policies on effective teaching methods.
Commonwealth intervention must satisfy three criteria