Does Australia have a policy laboratory? Insights from education policy.

Today, at the World Congress of Political Science, I'll be sharing findings from my five-year study examining how federalism directly and indirectly influences policy making in the schooling portfolio.

I’ll be focusing in particular the extent to which governments could innovate in this policy area, which in Australia is characterised by extensive, complex and growing overlap in state and federal roles.

I’ll show that, yes, evidence from this study does suggest the presence of a policy laboratory.

I’ll also point out how this has changed over time, and identify some of the enabling and constraining factors. I’ll conclude with insights on how we can enhance policy experimentation, learning, and “smart” practice to improve policy outcomes.

Here are the slides, and here is my speech.

Some thoughts on the Gonski "2.0" report

The second Gonski Review was publicly released this week to a storm of controversy and diversity of opinions among educators, policy wonks and researchers. 

The panel had a hard task. It was asked to focus on the school and classroom factors that can make the biggest, sustained difference to educational achievement, while ignoring the many, meaty structural issues such as funding allocations, residualisation, federalism and system coherence, which influence schooling outcomes. These had been explored in the earlier review chaired by David Gonski (and in my own work).   Despite these limitations, the panel did a pretty good job, outlining a vision of where Australian schooling should be heading (spoiler: a student-centred school system which values and supports educators) and some of the tools and changes needed to get there.

I was pleased to read the priority reforms put forward in the Mitchell Institute submission were endorsed as recommendations in Gonski2.0. And I was particularly enthused to see learning growth over time, personalised learning, and student agency plus additional time and evidence-based tools to support teachers and principals in their vital work as educators and instructional leaders at the centre of the report.

Of course, many of the key recommendations put forward are already happening in schools around Australia, including schools I've had the pleasure of working with over the years. (Check out Templestowe College, Rooty Hill High School and Marlborough Primary). But such approaches are not systematically supported or encouraged by current policy, accountability and regulatory frameworks, nor are they made easy for already over-stretched schools or teachers.

One of the biggest obstacles - recognised in this report - is the absence of timely, fine-grain and useable data at classroom level on teaching impact, and of tools to put such insights into practice in a way that is tailored to individuals and their different contexts.  Such data is in many ways the missing link, connecting teaching with learning in real time.  

Pivot, the organisation I've just joined, works with schools and systems to gain these vital insights into teaching effectiveness using student perception data and peer feedback, and uses this to provide confidential reports and curated resource packs to teachers, and aggregated reports to school leaders, on their greatest strengths and development areas.  These insights and tools are keys to unlock greater effectiveness and learning growth.

Student and peer feedback data can rightly take emphasis away from NAPLAN, which has been misused and conflated in both purpose and importance, with perverse effects at the individual, school and system levels. NAPLAN should be put back into perspective - a nationally-comparable point-in-time assessment of a few essential learning areas, to be used alongside other data sets and most importantly, formative assessments, to guide decisions on programs and resource allocation.

Want more?

Policy coherence across the education continuum in Australia: understanding and improving service delivery

New book chapter published this week by Federation Press and launched by Professor Ken Smith, Dean on ANZSOG and Dr Lee-Anne Perry (Head on Catholic School system in Queensland and on panel for the Turnbull Government's Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools (aka "Gonski 2.0")!

My chapter argues that evolving state and Commonwealth roles, responsibilities and policy objectives have contributed to an education system characterised by fragmentation, complexity, sub optimal resource allocation, blurred responsibility, and an incoherent policy mix. As a result, this system does not meet the needs of young Australians as well as it could, or should. Despite this, the intersection of federalism and education policy show promising examples of effective intergovernmental collaboration, policy innovation and inter-jurisdictional learning.

Given that significant federal reform is unlikely, my chapter engages an intergovernmental and systems approach, identifying alternative pathways to improvement that work with, rather than against the federal system, enhancing coherence and better meeting student needs.

The other chapters cover topics including:

  • Public officials’ views on allocating policy responsibilities in the Australian Federation
  • The changing role of local government and why it still matters
  • Intergovernmental negotiations in Australia and the United States
  • Mental health policy and bridging sovereign spheres through professional networks
  • Federal financial relations
  • The failure of the federalism reform process and ideas for moving forward

The book can be purchased from Federation Press, among others, and should also be available in most university libraries.

"Gonski 2.0": an initial assessment of the info we have so far

For too long government spending on education hasn’t been matched to needs or to what the research says works best.

Previous attempts by both major parties to fix school funding arrangements have been deeply flawed, largely due to political compromises. (For example, the Howard government’s “needs based” funding reforms pledged no school would lose a dollar in real terms, not even schools found to be vastly over-funded using the Howard government’s new, more accurate model for estimating relative need. And Gillard's direction to the Gonski Review that “no school lose a dollar” meant its National Plan for School Improvement spread the additional much-needed funds too thinly – many schools continued to have too little while others continued to receive much more than they needed. The “top ups” or loadings for disadvantage had merit, but only an estimated 17% of the funding boost was allocated to these loadings and these were also spread too thin, with the low SES loading going to the lowest 50% of schools, not the lowest 25% as recommended).

We are still to see the details – at this stage we are only talking about an announcement of an agenda that still needs support of the party room, the federal parliament and states – but I am cautiously optimistic about several aspects of the Coalition’s revised agenda, including:

o   Plan to increase school funding from current projections and better-target this funding where needs are greatest, irrespective of state or sector, but maintaining the basic design recommended by the original Gonski Review, the Schooling Resource Standard, which consists of a base amount plus loadings for disadvantage.

o   Plan to move more quickly (over 10 years instead over 150 years) to fairer and more consistent funding allocations, meaning that Commonwealth fundingto the most over-resourced schools will reduce and be directed to much needier schools. This redistribution is long overdue, and the Coalition is better placed to make these funding reductions because they are less susceptible to the "class warfare" attacks than Labor. However, Labor was better placed to get the ball rolling.

o   Plan to provide greater funding certainty to schools and school systems, enhancing their capacity to make resource decisions over the medium to long term – especially hiring staff and renewing contracts. The short term deals we’ve had for many years now are not conducive to long-term planning.

o   Plan to allow states to retain flexibility in how they allocate funding (given their superior know-how and administrative capacity in schooling domain) and to determine their own levels of funding from current levels.

 

This revised and improved school funding agenda from the federal Coalition flows directly from the original Gonski Review’s recommendations, which made the case for changing to a consistent, needs-based school funding model.  Indeed Gonski 2.0 is a natural extension of this earlier review. 2.0 takes the next step and examines the evidence on how to spend this money, what policies and programs make greatest difference to learning and school outcomes. This makes sense. We all know that how money is spent is vitally important. Spending $100 billion on gold-plated chairs, for instance, won’t lift learning.

 

Important caveats:

o   Needs-based, sector-blind, nationally-consistent funding is the way forward. But it must consider the relative need of schools (based on the needs of students enrolled) and their capacity to meet these needs, which is influenced by state and sector. (I.e. private schools can charge fees which not only influences who enrolls in a given school, but also the school's ability to meet their needs. And the costs of delivering services vary between states due to geography and population characteristics, among other things.  Assessment of needs should also take into account the different starting points and learning growth of student populations in different schools. Once relative need is established, funding should flow in a consistent way to schools in line with their relative need.

o   It is important that in “ensuring states and schools are accountable” the Commonwealth doesn’t attach to many conditions and prescriptions on spending and reporting, because research in Australia and internationally shows this is counterproductive. (Time and money is spent on accountability processes instead of in the classroom and on building teacher and leader capacity and expertise etc. where it makes the biggest difference to student learning growth. It could also divert attention and resources away from schools’ pre-existing and carefully designed improvement strategies, which were tailored for their students and specific context, plans which may already be aligned with Commonwealth priorities and informed by research evidence).  Repeated studies here and overseas have found its very difficult or impossible for federal governments to make sure certain things happen at state and local levels, states and school leadership teams are much better placed to assess school needs and deliver and monitor funding and other programs, a point emphasised in the original Gonski Review. They need to maintain this flexibility.

 

This new agenda is a big improvement on previous agendas from Coalition and it could provide a path forward that benefits students around Australia. For this reason it has been received cautious support from the Australian Primary Principals Association (representing all sectors), the Australian Council for State School Organisations, the Independent Schools Council of Australia, the Business Council and the Grattan Institute and others.  It builds on Labor’s work in this space, and although it pledges far less money was pledged than under Labor’s plan, it is much better targeted, which I expect means more money, all things considered, for the schools and students that need it most. We’re waiting on the detail in these school funding plans, emerging, as it should, from negotiations with states and consultations with academics and sector. All the problems identified by the original Gonski Review have worsened over time. Evidence from Australia and internationally show that Improving equity must be part of coherent strategy for improving schooling outcomes nationally. It is an opportunity reduce inequalities to allocate government funding to where research suggests it can make the greatest difference. I hope this opportunity isn’t squandered.

 

Last but not least, schooling is just one – albeit very important – part of our education system. I'm deeply concerned about the lack of funding certainty for the equally important early childhood education, and for VET and university, which provide further pathways to opportunity. In particular:

o   High quality preschool is one of the best investments to maximise learning in and beyond school.  An essential foundation that enhances children’s ability to make the most of learning opportunities at school.

o   Preschools around Australia funded on short term – 2yr- agreements and in the dark on next year’s funding, how many hours of sessions to offer to students and staff.* 

o   We need secure, ongoing funding for 4yo preschool.

o   We need to build on achievements of universal access to 4yo preschool and provide an additional year of preschool for all children, with continued emphasis on quality as well as access.

 

Wanting more? Here’s the government's announcement and fact sheets with the details so far.  My analysis of the Coalition’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy doc is here. And there’s a ton more on Gonski, school funding and federalism in earlier blog posts and my publications and presentations page, including links to television and radio interviews.

* On 4 May, the day after this post was written, the Commonwealth government announced it would extend the National Partnership which provides preschool funding for 15 hours/week for children the year before they start school. But it only extended funding for a further 12 months. Preschools need ongoing funding security. We also need to move to two years of high quality preschool for all children.

 

Quick backgrounder to today's meeting of education ministers

Today the education ministers from all of Australia’s governments – state, territory and Commonwealth- meet in Adelaide and the contentious and complex issue of school funding reform is on the agenda.  Here's a quick backgrounder before I take my little kids to the zoo.

While technically (under the Constitution) school funding is a responsibility of the states - continuing the arrangements that existed prior to Federation in 1901 - the Commonwealth government has been increasing its policy and funding role since the 50s, and especially since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government began providing general recurrent funding to all public (= government/state) schools and private schools (= nongovernment schools, Catholic and independent) using tied grants. This policy was in large part an effort to decrease educational inequalities, but over the successive decades, due to a patchwork of mostly unilateral decisions made by Commonwealth governments with different agendas, it has had the opposite effect.  Since this time, and especially since a heavily politicized and compromised private school funding reform in the early 2000s, Commonwealth funding to private schools has increased much faster than that to public schools, and far in excess of their enrolment growth and relative need.  Fees at private schools have also increased disproportionately and far above inflation. While all school sectors have a mix of students of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, the overwhelming majority of socio-economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, indigenous students and rural and remote students attend public schools. And this stratification and resource inequality is increasing.

States still retain responsibility for schooling, and provide most of the funding that public schools receive (as well as a bit to private schools). But the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding to all schools and attaches an exhaustive list of conditions to that funding, which influences that schools and school systems (including states) can do. The impact of these conditional Commonwealth grants ranges from ineffective to mediocre to damaging.  This is because it is quite difficult for the Commonwealth to enforce things to happen in schools, and in school systems, when it doesn't run either of them. The Commonwealth grants also often divert attention from cohesive improvement plans schools or systems plans may have been pursuing, as they scramble to get extra (much needed) funding to make ends meet. And quite often, the Commonwealth’s “new” initiatives are recycled ideas from the states (e.g. Victoria has had a version of independent public schools since the early 1990s) or bad (i.e. not educationally sound), or impractical due to the split of responsibilities under the Constitution.  Making this intergovernmental policy settlement more complex, Australia also has a growing number of national authorities jointly “owned” by all the governments, such as the ACARA, which is responsible for the national literacy and numeracy tests and Australian Curriculum, among other things.

The Gonski Review, commissioned by Commonwealth Education Minister Julia Gillard was the broadest review of school funding – all sectors, all levels of government – since the early 70s and was charged with figuring out what was wrong and how to potentially fix it. It found that inequalities in Australian schooling were increasing; that student background had a large and unacceptable link to student educational outcomes; and that funding for needy schools was inadequate. It proposed cash injection, distributed using a sector-blind, needs-based funding model, composed of a base amount per student, plus top up funding for six different types of disadvantage. The neediest schools would, hypothetically, get the largest increases, reflecting the greater investment required to ensure those kids got an equal opportunity to children from more advantaged backgrounds in more advantaged schools. 

The Gonski Review also said that although the Commonwealth should use this model to determine how much funding it gave to the school systems, the school systems (state education departments, Catholic Education Authorities in each state etc) should continue to be the ones that allocate the funds to individual schools, and that they can use their own needs-based models (compatible to the Gonski model) to do this, on the proviso that these allocations be transparent. This would allow states to learn from each other about variations in their school funding formulas. (I.e. to explore which formulas get better outcomes - a higher base amount or higher supplement amounts, or more $ for one supplement (such as poverty) than another (such as rurality). 

Funding amounts would be set in bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and each differentstate and school system. (Not one single national agreement). This is why 27 different agreements is not a “perversion” of Gonski but reflection of Gonski. These bilateral agreements took into account the different starting points. It was to enable the transition from a hodge-podge of different recurrent (ongoing) and short term funding programs (such as National Partnerships), where similar schools in different places got different amounts, to a coherent, needs-based system.  But a needs-based system where the state-level systems allocated money, due to their superior expertise and administrative capacity in schooling.

The implementation had two major flaws. One was the promise that “no school would lose a dollar” (even the richest schools charging fees double or triple the base funding amount). This meant the funding was distributed far too thinly, with some extra funding going to schools that were over-resourced, which meant far less was available for the schools with the greatest educational challenges. The other was that the implementation (and transitional funding arrangements) would be phased in over six years, with about half of the funding increase not flowing to schools until the fifth and sixth year. Because the Commonwealth budget only goes for four years, opponents of the “Gonski” plan, including the current Commonwealth, Coalition government, could claim the final two years, and big cash boost, was “unfunded”.  This is why the current Commonwealth education minister is seeking to forge a new funding agreement to start in 2018 (which would have been the 5th year).

The Gonski Review also emphasized governments needed to cooperate with each other and to be transparent about funding with each other.

The “Gonski” plan is still only half-implemented.  It’s only been a few years, transition agreements are still in place, and most of the funding has not yet flown to schools. Schools needing the greatest boosts have not yet received it. Axing it would be premature and harmful. Announcing the intention to cut funding via national media, and releasing some select figures, but not sharing the full figures and analysis with the other education ministers to allow for informed discussion is neither transparent nor cooperative.

Whatever happens today, where there is "broad agreement" on reform directions or a "firey exchange" nothing will be finalized today.  This is an early discussion only, and any new agreement would not begin until 2018. 

Forging a new agreement is far easier said than done and may not even be possible. This is because the "Gonksi" funding amounts were enshrined in formal intergovernmetnal agreements between governments AND because these transition arrangements and final funding amounts are also enshrined in Commonwealth legislation - The Australian Education Act - which means the approval of the lower house and the Senate is required to pass it.

And at end of day each government minister will do what it thinks is best for their own government’s agenda(s) and priorities. This was a central finding of my PhD on school funding reform and Australian federalism.  Such agendas sometimes reflect party lines, but just as often do not.

While educational performance as measured by national and international standardized tests (a limited measure) has stagnated or fallen as government funding for schools has increased, this is largely explained by the fact that this government funding has not been allocated to the schools that most need it, and it has not always been allocated to the most effective programs – such as investing in teachers and investing in high quality early education (preschools) for all kids, so that they are better able to amplify their learning and development at school.

We need to match investment to where needs and opportunities are greatest. This is a responsibility Australia has not just to those students, but to the whole country.

For those interested, much more background info and analysis in earlier posts, in the publications and media page of my website, and in my PhD.

What's next for Australian federalism?

With the scrapping of the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation, and the long list of conditions accompanying the Coalition and Labor's education policy, it's worth asking how we got here, and what might happen next.

The Mandarin recently explored these issues in a recent article by journalist David Donaldson.

If you're a serious federalism nut (like me), then come along to the People's Federation for the 21st Century conference in Brisbane 16-17 June. The conference will bring together academics, public officials and community stakeholders to discuss the changing government roles and responsibilities, improving intergovernmental collaboration, public engagement, policy reform and service delivery.

I'll be speaking on policy coherence and service delivery across the education continuum in Australia and answering any questions you might have. 

Early Bird registrations have now opened and will continue until May 20, 2016.

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.)

Initial thoughts on the early details of the federal Coalition's school funding package

This morning the federal Coalition government is announcing a big, needs-based school funding package as part of the upcoming budget and its election campaign. (I foreshadowed the possibility of such a package last week).   More details are expected from federal education minister Simon Birmingham later today, and more again from the Treasurer on Tuesday night when the federal budget is handed-down. Here are some initial thoughts on the early details of this Student Achievement Plan.

So far, we’ve been told that it contains a $1.2 billion increase in school funding, allocated using a needs-based formula, spread over 2018, 2019 and 2020, as part of a $73.6 billion school package. The paltry 2.5 indexation rate for school funding introduced by Abbott will be replaced by a 3.56% “real education costs” indexation rate.

This first figure is just a nudge shy of the $1.1 billion education spending pledged by the Victorian government on Wednesday as part of its 2016-2017 state budget.  Needless to say the Victorian government has much less revenue at its disposal than the federal government, which collects most of the tax in the country. So I find this increase underwhelming. (Read my thoughts on the Victorian budget here.)

The $73.6 billion is a different story, and I’m wondering what it contains. Figures released by the Productivity Commission in February put the combined total of state and federal spending on schools at $50.42 billion, and put the federal contribution at $14 billion. Even accounting for the fact that these PC figures are from 2013-2014 (most recent year from which comparable data was available), the discrepancy is still striking.  I’m definitely waiting for the details on this.  

Minister Birmingham has emphasized that this funding will be distributed on a needs-basis using tied grants, with conditions that prevent the states from lowering their own school funding or potentially even varying the allocations, as well as implementing a raft of other "reform" measures.

It is certainly true that Australia needs to better target resources to where needs are greatest – the current mismatch is a major contributor to the widening gaps in schooling outcomes and overall lackluster performance. But as I found in my PhD research, tied grants both in Australia and in other federations are notoriously ineffective, and adding lots of conditions often has perverse or damaging outcomes compared to untied funding for the same purpose.

Similar conclusions were reached by the Gonski Review,  which recommended that states retain responsibility for allocating funding to schools (dispersing the funding from the Commonwealth to their schools using their own needs-based formulas). This is because the states have superior expertise, experience and capacity when it comes to dispersing funding and developing programs. Gonski also stressed that transparency was needed to assess state allocations. Unfortunately, for most states this has not occurred, which greatly limits accountability and limits the ability of policy makers in different systems around the country to learn from each other.

Finally, this Student Achievement Package confirms that the federal Coalition would continue to fund – and develop programs and accountability provisions for - public (government) and private (nongovernment schools), rather than retreat from public schools, a proposal made by the prime minister to the state premiers at the Council of Australian Government meeting in March. 

I said at the time that such proposal was a terrible idea but highly unlikely. Last year, I also foreshadowed continuation of more-or-less current arrangements (where both levels of government continue to fund and develop policies for public and private schools) as the most likely (though not most desirable) of the four reform options outlined by Reform of the Federation White Paper Process, which has been quietly cancelled. The White Paper would have set out a plan and program to enhance the functioning of Australian federalism, especially in the most problematic areas such as education, and was originally due late last year.  

UPDATE 12:30PM

It has emerged that some of the federal government's requirements under the new funding arrangements are:

  • "standardised Year 1 school assessment of students’ reading, phonics and numeracy skills to ensure the earliest possible interventions occur for students who need additional help",
  • minimum standards for students to pass Year 12, including changes to subject requirements
  • changes to staff remuneration (competency and achievement against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers rather than length of service) and "Incentivise high-performing teachers to work in disadvantaged schools" (NB many state governments already do this)
  • "have minimum proportions of trainee teachers specialise in literacy and numeracy"
  • "Use explicit literacy and numeracy instruction in all schools"

The rationale behind some of these is sound. For example, evidence indicates the importance of a strong grasp of literacy and numeracy by age eight as a foundation for successful later learning, and learning interventions are better earlier than later. However, I haven't seen evidence on the standardised testing as an appropriate mechanism at this age for this purpose.  I'm not an expert in early years literacy and numeracy, so cannot speak to the appropriateness of explicit instruction as a pedagogical strategy, but as a federalism expert that has examined schooling policies in Australia and abroad, I am not confident the federal government has the capacity to implement or enforce these or other "requirements" given it neither runs schools nor employs teachers.  Indeed, such measures could further blur responsibilities in the already contested and opaque schooling sphere. 

While I am in favour of national standardised testing as one of many data sets or indicators to inform decision making by families, school leaders and policy makers (it is better than relying on Year 12 results, guess work, word-of-mouth and reputations), it is evident that a disproportionate emphasis on testing is harmful. I've repeatedly argued these test results need to be put in perspective and not conflated or over-emphasised. Australia's NAPLAN program is simply a snapshot in time of a few subject areas and skills, in a way that allows for national comparison and change over time comparisons.

Here's what Bob Randall, the Chief Executive of ACARA who administers and analyses NAPLAN, has said about it:

"We believe that the best way to develop literacy and numeracy is through the delivery of a broad rich curriculum. Literacy and numeracy are used and developed when students are taught science, English, the Arts, mathematics, and all the other learning areas that make up a rich, well-rounded curriculum. A narrowing of the curriculum to focus on test preparation will not improve NAPLAN results."

Connecting test results to school funding, and potentially to teacher remuneration, could provoke some schools and teachers to focus on test preparation (rather than the vital skills in literacy and numeracy they seek to measure) and could come the expense of other important subject areas that aren't tested, and vital skills and capabilities children need to succeed. This could be counter-productive and have perverse effects on student achievement, engagement and well-being. 

It is also unclear what would happen if a school serving a disproportionately disadvantaged community receives extra needs-based funding but student test scores fail to improve within the designated time period. Change can take time, improvements may be in other areas (such as wellbeing) and sometimes extra challenges or issues beyond a schools powers may impact on student performance. Do these schools - the neediest in Australia - have to repay the federal government?  How is that supposed to work or help the students most in need? 

F for fail: analysis of Turnbull's proposal to end Commonwealth support for public schools but continue supporting private schools

On the first of April, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed that the Commonwealth cease supporting public (government) schools but continue supporting private (nongovernment) schools. It wasn't an April Fools joke, but something he wanted to discuss at the Council of Australian Government's meeting that same day, along with fiscal reforms and hospital funding reforms.

This schooling proposal was one of four ideas for schooling federalism reform floated in the Discussion Paper that was part of the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation.

I analysed these four options in a report for the Melbourne School of Government, and concluded that this option be avoided, because it would worsen all existing problems (dwindling equity and excellence, accountability concerns, unproductive overlap and subsidiarity.) It is also of questionable constitutionality.

Here's an excerpt from my report:

Rather than providing clarity and enhancing accountability, it muddies responsibilities, as the states would still be responsible for the regulatory frameworks and other programs for all schools in their jurisdiction, which would include some programmatic funding, such as student welfare initiatives. It also is likely to exacerbate the inequities and inefficiencies (and worsening learning outcomes) created by the two levels of government making policy decisions and funding allocations independently of each other, and pursuing different, competing policy agendas.  This dilutes program effectiveness and efficiency, resulting in wasted resources (time, money and goodwill towards reform). The growing gap in resources between school sectors impacts negatively on the overall performance of Australia’s school system.
The split of funding responsibilities from policy and regulatory responsibilities under Option 2 creates additional problems, as noted by the Taskforce, who cautioned that Option 2 was likely to “introduce perverse incentives for governments to shift costs within the system” and could also “reduce State and Territory governments’ ability to effectively regulate and assist the non-government sector improve its student performance, or ensure a baseline of consistency that allows easy movement for students between school sectors”.

I encourage you to check out the full report, which contains extra analysis on this and other options, as well as important background information on who does what in Australian schooling, reform prospects and why this all matters.

PS I'm currently in Spain, where I'm speaking about Australian federalism and education policies, and learning from other international workshops, at a series of workshops and seminars organised by the Forum of Federations.

"The most important discussion of the last 40 years for Australian schools"

Flat or falling results in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, persistent gaps in resources and school completion rates, and worryingly-high student disengagement indicate new approaches are needed in education policy.

Australia's federalism system of government may seem abstract or even irrelevant to efforts to improve student learning and outcomes.  But the messy arrangement of government responsibilities for school funding, policy, program delivery, regulation, evaluation and accountability directly affects every school in the country and limits their capacity to help students achieve their full potential. A smarter alignment of these responsibilities among governments would mean that precious funding and time would be better-targeted to where needs are greatest, reducing the growing gap in resources and outcomes. It would make it easier for schools and school systems to develop, implement and evaluate cohesive programs tailored to the needs of their students, and to collaborate with other schools, with families and with agencies working in health and welfare. Finally, it would make it easier for educators and policy makers around the country to understand their impact and to learn from each other in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Today the Melbourne School of Government launched a new report I prepared for them called Schooling Federalism: Evaluating the Options for Reform.  This report assesses the four reform options proposed by the Prime Minister's Department's federalism taskforce in their leaked Green Paper and Discussion Paper late June.

These four options received scant media attention and analysis. The bulk of the commentary focused on Option 4 and its footnote. Under this Option, the Commonwealth government would have provided all school funding (and potentially charged fees for public school education, which I discuss here) while the states would have done almost everything else including provision of public schools and regulation for all schools. This would have been disastrous for policy effectiveness, efficiency, fairness and accountability. It was also extremely unlikely to be pursued. 

The absence of scrutiny of the other three options was worrying. In this report I measure each of the reform proposals against the six criteria put forward by the federalism taskforce and also consider their political feasibility and desirability.

Option 1 (full state responsibility for education) was the clear winner, but its success is dependent upon the states receiving revenue increase commensurate with increased funding responsibilities. Option 3 (greatly reduced Commonwealth involvement) offers similar potential to improve learning outcomes and equity, although to a lesser degree. Under all four options, ACARA, the national curriculum, NAPLAN and MySchool would be retained, but with the Commonwealth taking a back seat and instead following the states' leadership and supporting their initiatives when in the national interest.

Complementing the online launch of the report was a national radio interview on RN Sunday Extra. Host Jonathan Green and I explored some of the complexities and historical background in what Dale Pearce, Principal of Bendigo Senior Secondary College and Board member of Victoria's Curriculum and Assessment Authority, described as "the most important discussion of the last 40 years for Australian schools."

Of course, what works in one policy domain is not necessarily appropriate for others. For those interested in vocational education and training and the best intergovernmental arrangements for this important area, check out the valuable work of Peter Noonan and other colleagues at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy.

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.

 

What does the education issue paper tell us about potential intergovernmental reforms?

"Released two days before Christmas, you could be forgiven for missing the issues paper on government roles and responsibilities in education that is part of the process in developing the federalism white paper. This is a pity. Because if you wanted insights into the Commonwealth government’s attitude to federalism in education and potential directions this could take, it’s a good place to start."

Click here to read the full article.

Frontiers and opportunities in Australian education

My latest publication, a chapter on schooling policy in the newest edition of Social Policy in Australia: Understanding for Action has just been released.

It looks at issues and opportunities in education policy.

As the chapter argues, education is the bedrock of a successful society. It benefits individuals, communities and the nation. Relative to other developed nations, Australia's education system is relatively high performing but with sub par equity. Decades of reforms and increased spending by state and Commonwealth have had minimal impact reducing this inequality or improving excellence.

Contributing to these challenges is the uneasy relationship between choice and equity - competing principles that have been ever present in education policy in Australia. The book can be bought on Oxford University Press' website and from university bookstores. To whet your appetite, you can read an edited extract discussing the choice and equity aspect on MI Brief, the Mitchell Institute's blog.

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.

Binning the local government referendum was a good idea

The announcement of a September 7 federal election means the referendum on local government financing cannot proceed on the same day. I argue (along with most federalism and constitutional scholars) that this is a good thing.

The proposed constitutional change was dressed up as a harmless update and feel-good recognition of local government. But it was completely unnecessary and posed a hornet’s nest of accountability problems with potentially deleterious affects on local governance, services and infrastructure.

Read more here, in my article published on The University of Melbourne's Election Watch website.

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.