"Overcoming the Odds: A study of Australia’s top-performing disadvantaged schools"

The Centre for Independent Studies released a new education report this week - Overcoming the Odds: A study of Australia’s top-performing disadvantaged schools - to a flurry of commentary. This was mostly in response to the CIS’ conclusion that because nine disadvantaged schools achieved great results WITHOUT extra funding, other schools could also “potentially improve significantly, without necessarily requiring more taxpayer funding” and focusing instead on how they spend their time and money. This is obviously important. But this argument risks reducing support for a fair and effective needs-based funding system which is desperately needed here in Australia but only partially implemented. I was one of those asked by the media for my commentary, so here it is.

One thing I liked about this report was the identification of six common themes that contribute to school success - such as teacher collaboration and professional learning, leadership expertise, orderly learning environments (a better description than “discipline” if you ask me), and data-driven teaching practice.  In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find serious education researchers disputing these as vital elements.

And it is true that how money is spent in schools and in systems is absolutely critical - indeed that was the whole point of “Gonski 2.0” - what can be done within schools to enhance and sustain learning growth for all students, so that all students make at least a year’s progress each school year.

It's great to see the tremendous work of these nine schools being celebrated and shared. Their teachers, school leaders and students should be applauded,.

But these features can take time to implement and to fine-tune in each school and classroom. And, dare-I-say it, it takes money too.

Money for professional learning for teachers (especially if introducing a new school-wide literacy instruction system), paid time for data analysis and for collaboration, including collaboration with parents, education support staff and allied health professionals that might be working with students and schools to help them achieve. Money to bring in extra specialists, like a numeracy coach or speech pathologist, where that additional need exists. And we know educational needs are more heavily concentrated in socio-economically disadvantaged schools, which in turn are a larger proportion of the public systems.  This is why so many academic studies and government reviews have recommended greater funding for schools with greater need.

The CIS is right that yes, any school can do well, any student can be a high achiever, and we should have high expectations for all. But those expectations should be matched with the resources and tailored supports needed to achieve them.

You can't generalise from just nine schools  - however exemplary - when Australia has almost 10,000 schools.

Reflecting on the school policy in Australia in 2018

The year 2018 was a mixed bag for schooling policy in Australia.

We had new ministers, new organisations and some auspicious anniversaries. As Christmas approaches, it’s worth reflecting on the year that’s been, not only only at the federal level, but also across our states and territories.

Read more of my ‘year in review piece’ on The Conversation, here.

Opinion article on initial teacher education

It’s the biggest shake-up of teacher-training ever, but too many new teachers are still flying blind and set up to fail.

Education boffins, policy makers and teacher-trainers from around Australia met today in Sydney at Implementing the Teacher Education Reforms event to discuss the progress of major reforms to improve the quality of teacher candidates, teacher-training courses and new teacher induction.

I’d say that the reforms are long overdue, but this is a battle-weary and reformed-out sector. What else do you expect when you have 102 back-to-back reviews of teacher education, apart from further demoralisation and exhaustion of teachers and teacher-trainers?

The reasons for the reforms and reviews are familiar. Too many students graduate from teaching courses only to find they are not properly prepared for the challenges and complexities of the job. So brutal is the situation that up to 50 per cent of them quit within five years.

And that’s if they even get a teaching job in the first place, with only about half of graduates securing full-time teaching work.
What a waste of time and money.

We all know about Australia’s lacklustre schooling results. Performance in most assessed areas have been stagnant or falling for over 15 years. We have more stragglers and fewer high-achievers in our schools than ever before.

This dire situation won’t turn around without well-trained, well-supported, highly valued teachers in every classroom.
That’s why it’s worth talking about these newest and biggest reforms, described as both a game-changer and a paradigm shift.
For the first time in Australia, teacher-training courses are required to have common evidence requirements.

And for the first time, both graduates and courses will have to demonstrate their impact through teaching performance ­assessments.

There will also be a workforce planning and matching component, to get the subject expertise to where the biggest shortages exist.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

But as good as this all sounds, there’s a gaping hole. It’s up to each institution to develop its own impact assessments. This means wide variation in interpretation, rigour and standards.

A big missing piece of information is feedback from actual students on each teacher’s practice.

Timely, fine-grain and comparable data, linked to the national standards for teaching, can help identify each teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. This gives teachers things to celebrate and motivate, and concrete information on what needs most attention and support.

Pivot’s survey and resources are now being used in 50,000 classrooms around Australia, from Sydney suburbs to the remote Northern Territory.

It also tells their trainers the things they need to be focusing on, so all of our new teachers are classroom-ready when they graduate.

An edu-tech start-up set up by Aussie teachers, policy experts and researchers fed up with these gaps has developed such a survey using the best international evidence, and adapted it for Australian schools.

Pivot’s survey and resources are now being used in 50,000 classrooms around Australia, from Sydney suburbs to the remote Northern Territory.

Teachers love the insights it provides. They help them play to their strengths, and share the practices ­behind these strengths with other teachers.

Their results are confidential to them, so they know the results can only be used constructively and not punitively. It also helps pinpoint what isn’t working and ways to fix it. In one teacher’s words, “it’s helpful, because what you think you are best at, or doing, is not necessarily the students’ experience”.

Principals love it because they have clearer view of the biggest strengths and professional developments needs of their school — by teaching area and year level.

And students like it because they are being heard, and can see their feedback is transforming teaching for the better.
Bringing effective, evidence-based tools such as this from schools into teacher-training courses could make a big difference in understanding and enhancing teacher impact, allowing teachers and teacher-trainers around Australia to understand what is and isn’t working well.

Without it, teachers are flying blind on some of most important aspects of their job. And the job is too important to let them and their students down.

Gonski 2.0 urged governments and schools to put students at the centre and support teachers with the time and tools needed to do the job.

Let’s get it done, now.

This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 15 May

The truth about the Coalition's school funding package

The Commonwealth government yesterday announced it would spend an additional $1.2 billion on schooling between 2018 and 2020 as part of a $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan.

This latter figure was bewildering at first. It is far lower than annual Commonwealth expenditure on schools ($14 billion) or combined state, territory and Commonwealth expenditure on schools ($52.42, figures from 2013-14, most recent year for which comparable data is available).

I went hunting and found the answer buried on page 14 of the Quality Schooling, Quality Outcomes report by the Commonwealth Education Department, which itself was quietly uploaded yesterday evening. 

In the Department's own words:

“Consequently, as a result of using this [new, higher] index, the Australian Government will provide an additional $1.2 billion over four years from 2017-2018 . This additional investment will bring the Australian Government’s total spending commitment for school education to a record $73.6 billion over the Budget and Forward Estimates Period.

In other words, the “new” money is just the result of ditching the paltry CPI index rate introduced by the Abbott government in favour of a slightly higher “education specific indexation rate of 3.56%” which is still below the higher indexation rates (up to 4.7%) that the Coalition removed in its 2014 budget.

This funding package is better described as a partial restoration of the funding cuts of 2014.

But wait, there’s more.  The Turnbull government is requiring the states and nongoverment school systems to undertake a number of specific reforms and measures as a condition of receiving this funding.  This is despite the Coalition's critique of Labor’s extensive policy conditions in their education grants in 2013 and earlier ( which I also criticized for their inappropriateness and unhelpfulness), and despite their rhetoric about making the states sovereign in their own spheres (which I favour, as long as they are transparent and collaborate when appropriate).

Finally, the kicker: the growth in school funding between 2015/16 and 2019-20 under this new indexation rate is estimated to be 26.5%. This is significantly lower than the 66.1% growth in Commonwealth funding for schools between 2004/05 and 2013/14. These figures are all on page 14 of the government’s own report.  The devil is truly in the detail.

What will schools and states get under the Student Achievement Plan? Smaller funding increases and more conditions and tests, which I doubt will improve learning or outcomes.  See my previous post for more information.

(NB This most contains fiddly correction made on May 3rd in relation to forward estimates.)

A missmatch between investment and opportunity: early childhood education in Australia

Yesterday my workplace The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University launched our first big report on early childhood education in Australia, which I coauthored with three remarkable colleagues.

Our report pulls together all the research and latest figures about what's working, what's not working, and what Australia needs to do differently in this space to ensure all kids can reach their full potential.

We found that 60,000 children are arriving at school developmentally vulnerable and already behind, that one thousands of children do not attend preschool in the year before school, or do not attend for enough hours that research indicates is required for lasting, positive impact. Worryingly, the kids missing out on high-quality early education are the ones who will benefit most.

While Australia has made significant strides forward on both access and quality measures since the introduction of the National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care in 2012, much more needs to be done to ramp up quality and access, especially in disadvantaged communities. This means greater supported directed to where there are greater needs.

Investment in high quality early education offers the greatest "bang for buck" of all stages of education and must be elevated as a priority for governments and families.  Among our five recommendations for the next five years, we call for 15 hours preschool in the year before full-time school to become a legislated entitlement of every child. Access should not be based on whether or not a child's parents is working, but be a child's right, just like school.

The report, media release, opinion article and two-page fact sheet are all available on the Mitchell Institute's website. I've delighted to say our report is making waves, with articles in The Age, The Australian, the Guardian among others, plus over a dozen separate radio interviews broadcast across the country, including feature in ABC's PM news radio bulletin.

Leaked school funding proposals. Should we be worried?

The leak of four reform proposals for Australian schooling from a confidential draft of the Green Paper on the Reform of the Federation has triggered panic and confusion across the country. But while the proposals may seem worrying at first glance, they need to be put in context.

In this new piece for The Conversation, I run through each of these draft proposals and explaining that they are not policy announcements but merely the next step in the long, exhaustive White Paper process (which I wrote about here.)  I also detail a worrying fact that seem to have escaped the media, the politicians’ and commentariat’s attention, that  “free” public education hasn’t been free for a long time.

In February this year, the Victorian Auditor General’s Office found “parent payments have become essential to the provision of free instruction in government schools”; “schools are charging parents for items that should be free”; and the Victorian Department of Education, worryingly “has no oversight on what items and how much schools charge parents.”

We need to do away with the myth that public education is free and talk about how government and communities can work together to better support schools and students. Schools have been operating without necessary support for too long. Greater coordination, collaboration and support is urgently required.

UPDATE: Life Matters program on ABC’s Radio National ran a story on these issues two days after the leak (and my article) were published, with myself as one of the guests. Listen here.

The future of school funding in Victoria

What is the future of school funding in Victoria under the new state and Commonwealth governments? Is Gonski dead?

I’m delighted to join the Victorian minister for education James Merlino, Gonski Panelist Ken Boston, school principals and other key stakeholders in speaking at the most significant forum on school funding in years.

It’s organised by the Need to Succeed (NTS) coalition, a broad-based group of fairer-funding supporters that promotes transparent, sector-blind and needs-based school funding models. They believe these models better support students experiencing disadvantage and they work with key education stakeholders to advocate for their implementation.

For more information and to purchase tickets, click .

Update on the symposium here.


New approaches to persistent problems in Australia's schools. (And a new position!)

I’m excited to formally announce that I’ve joined the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy as a Policy Fellow.

The Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy is an independent think tank that works with researchers, governments, analysts and communities to improve the connection between evidence-based social research and public policy reform.

The Institute will put emergent policy issues at the heart of its research agenda and promote sustainable policy change that addresses some of Australia’s most challenging health and education issues.

Our first publication ‘New approaches to persistent problems in Australia’s schools’ outlines four bold propositions policymakers could pursue to enable and accelerate system-wide improvements to learning and equity.

Is it goodbye to the "Gonski" reforms?

UPDATE: As I predicted a week ago, "Gonski" is not gone. The Abbott government announced today (2 December) that  it would maintain the Gonski reforms - including the new needs-based funding model - and would honour the funding agreements Rudd and Gillard had made (well, for the first four years at least, with Victoria among others vowing it would continue to fight and negotiate to see the full six years - and full funding amount - covered). It also announced "in principle" agreements with the governments of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, stating that they would also be funded according to the Gonski model, although with fewer conditions attached. Depending on the details - which are yet to emerge - this could be a closer reflection of the Review's recommendations that the Commonwealth pay greater respect to the states' responsibility and expertise in schooling policy.


Australia's new federal education minister Christopher Pyne has caused a storm with his announcement that he would seek to undo the Gillard-Rudd government's National Plan for School Improvement (aka "Gonski" reforms). This would include rewriting the funding agreements his predecessors forged with the governments of NSW, South Australia, the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania, and the Catholic and independent school sectors. This is much easier said than done, and thus a most unlikely outcome. For more information on the legal and political barriers facing Pyne, you can read my analysis piece in Crikey, listen to my national radio interviews with the ABC's PM program and the Wire, or catch me on the ABC's current affairs television program The Drum

I'll be discussing the future of the "Gonski" reforms on Radio National's Sunday Extra on December 1 and on Life Matters on Tuesday December 3. Podcasts will soon be available on program websites and my media page.

PS. The Final Report of the Gonski Review of School Funding been removed from the federal education department's websites due to Machinery of Government changes (departmental restructuring), but you can access a copy right here. Enjoy!

Are independent public schools are good idea? Marking the federal Coalition's education policy.

A quick expert comment piece I wrote for the Election Watch website, putting the Coalition's long-anticipated education policy - including the controversial Independent Public School proposal - under the microscope.

If you'd like to know more about Independent Public Schools you can listen to my interview on the topic on Radio National's Life Matters program where I'm joined by the author of a report into Western Australia's initiative.  I also strongly recommend the latest book by Brian Caldwell, an academic guru on the subject and former Dean of the University of Melbourne's Education Faculty. (Disclaimer: I just discovered that he devoted two pages to discussing and endorsing my research on Victoria's 'self managing school' reforms and the influence of federalism.) A lovely compliment. Mine is the only study of these reforms from an intergovernmental perspective and you can read it here

School chaplaincy program returns to the High Court. This is good and unsurprising

This week we learnt that Ron Williams, the parent from Queensland who objected to federal government funding for school chaplaincy programs at his kids' school and other public schools, is returning to the High Court. He is challenging the Financial Framework Legislative Amendment that the federal government brazenly rushed through (in just a hours with support of all political parties) in response to the High Court's judgment on this matter last year. In a victory for federalism, the High Court had vehemently rebuked the federal government for exceeding its executive powers under the Constitution and for its unwarranted intrusion into state domains. This verdict put into question not only the chaplaincy program, but hundreds of other federal spending programs as well and was a major driver of the recently dumped "local government" referendum to extend Commonwealth spending powers.

As I argued last year in a paper (pp. 4-5) to the Australian Political Studies Association Conference, it was only a matter of time before this legislation was taken to the High Court, and if the Pape verdict and previous Williams verdict are anything to go by, it will most likely be struck down as unconstitutional. If this occurs, the federal government will be chastised and forced to reformulate the Chaplaincy program, among others, as tied grants with the states.

What is the future of Gillard's school reforms now that Rudd has returned as Prime Minister?

On the evening of June 26, just four days before the arbitrary end date of negotiations with state governments on the National Education Reform Agreement on which the Commonwealth Labor government's school reforms depend, Australians got a new (well, re-instated) prime minister when Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard after a vote by caucus. In this analysis piece for The Conversation, I analyse what the change of prime minster might mean for the reform process.

Why I'm optimistic about school funding reform after COAG's 'no deal'

School funding reform was the big ticket item at the most recent Council of Australian Government's (COAG) meeting, held 19 April. The state and territory leaders failed to reach an agreement with Prime Minister Gillard on her National Plan for School Improvement, itself a response to the landmark Gonski Review of School Funding. As I argue in this piece for The Conversation, far from constituting failure, but opens up the opportunity for deeper, bilateral negotiations and flexible agreements with each state, with additional time for getting the details right. You can also read my piece for The Drum, published the morning of the COAG meeting, on why agreement on this was unlikely (Hint: the offer from the Commonwealth contained big question marks). Finally, if you missed me on ABC News24 discussing the COAG meeting as it was underway, you can catch it here. Ditto joining Radio National's 'Outsiders' Segment on Sunday Extra. It has been a real privilege to join the national conversation on such critical reforms and share my research on the institutions and processes underpinning them.

UPDATE: On 23 April NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell announced it had reached 'an historic agreement' with the Gillard Commonwealth government on reforms to school funding, which would occur in partnership. Some of my early thoughts can be read in this Conversation article, alongside eminent education policymakers Carmen Lawrence and Jim McMorrow. I also spoke at length with ABC 774 Melbourne and SYN FM radio about the prospects of agreements with the remaining states and territories.  Additional analysis found in podcast links on my publications page.


Can the "Gonski" reforms survive the federal-state squabble?

It's the question on everyone's lips and one that Maralyn Parker and myself were discussing on Radio National's Life Matters program. We were both optimistic about the reforms we agreed were vitally important, but differed in our perspectives of the best-case scenario. Here's the podcast. If you'd like to read more on the Gonski Review of School Funding and proposed education reforms from an intergovernmental and public policy perspective, you're most welcome to click here for some things I prepared earlier.

Joining The Conversation on politics, policymaking and education

The Conversation, a newish national online publication combining 'academic rigour with journalistic flair' has recently published two opinion articles of mine. The first, 'Hard-headed politics', discusses the role of experts in the policy making process using the controversial expert panel on asylum seekers as an example. The second piece, 'State stoush', is my latest on the landmark Gonski Review, outlining the challenges that lie ahead for any Australian government wishing to reform education arrangements. Of course, you can find these articles, and many more, by clicking the 'publications and media' link.

A ‘fair go’ in education? Insight on SBS

How fair is Australia’s education system? Are all children getting a fair go? These are the questions that Insight – Australia’s leading current affairs discussion program – will explore. I’m honoured to be joining educators, students, parents, Schools Minister Peter Garrett and other experts as a guest on the program. It will be broadcast on SBS on April second at 8:30pm. Click here to join the debate or here for more information on other guests and alternative viewing times.

UPDATE: Transcript now available.

Ignoring the Gonski Review's recommendations

My response to the Australian government’s much anticipated, two-year review into school funding. I highlight the fact that the government and all commentators have regretfully ignored the review’s central conclusions. Read it here on the ABC’s Drum Unleashed website.

Update: Misha Shubert, federal political editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers discussed and quoted my article in her opinion piece. I also had the privilege of chatting on ABC radio about the Gonski review and other educational policies.

Mapping education ‘policyscapes’ in Australia, 1990-2010

I’m excited to be presenting in the above symposium as part of the Australian Association for Research in Education’s international conference. The symposium presents emerging findings from myself, Paul Gilby and Sean Butler on the multifaceted challenges of educational reform and governance at the federal, state, regional and school levels.  In a separate presentation, I’ll be sharing some of my comparative research on American and Australian school funding arrangements, undertaken during my time as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. The conference is being held 28 November – 2 December in Melbourne, and you can register or view the draft program by clicking here.