‘Better schools’ – the Government responds to Gonski

The Australian Government through its National Plan for School Improvement, under the banner of Better Schools, has accepted the core recurrent funding recommendations of the Review of Funding for Schooling (the Gonski Review).

The National Plan outlines a new funding model that will have a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) for all school students supported by various loadings for disadvantage. This funding model will take place alongside an improvement framework for schools and teaching, with an overarching goal of ensuring that by 2025 Australia is ranked amongst the top five countries in the world for student performance in reading, science and mathematics. In total, the Government expects the National Plan when fully implemented (by 2020) will see an additional $6.5 billion spent on schools each year, in line with the estimates ($5 billion in 2009 prices) in the Gonski Report.
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The National Plan for School Improvement

Goal: by 2025, Australia will rank amongst the top five countries in the world for student performance in reading, mathematics and science and have a ‘high-quality and high-equity’ education system.

Improving teaching and schools will include:
  • raising teacher quality through higher entry standards—entrants will be those in the ‘top 30 per cent of literacy and numeracy results'; more classroom experience before graduation; and annual performance reviews
  • more autonomy for principals with responsibility for staff recruitment and control of school budgets
  • bullying prevention through teacher training to manage disruptive behaviour and bullying and a Safe School Plan for all schools
  • individual School Improvement Plans and
  • enhanced My School information to identify schools needing assistance and provide more information for parents.

School funding principles include: funding based on the needs of individual students and increased funding for all schools.

The funding model will include:
  • per student recurrent funding delivered through the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS)
  • the amount of the SRS will be based on the resources of best performing schools
  • government schools and all special schools will receive the full amount of the SRS
  • SRS funding for non-government schools will be needs-based
  • loadings for disadvantage and
  • a new indexation system.

The Australian Education Act: will ‘enshrine the core principles’ of the National Plan and the new approach to funding.

  • the National Plan will be implemented over six years from 2014 to 2020
  • negotiations with the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to be finalised by the first COAG meeting of 2013 and
  • the Bill for the Australian Education Act will be introduced into Parliament before the end of 2012.

The overall thrust of the National Plan has been welcomed but there is frustration about the lack of detail (see, for example, article by Justine Ferrari in The Australian). For non-government schools, there is also the added concern about funding certainty which is needed to plan beyond 2014.

Some of the questions that remain (as discussed in a previous FlagPost) relate to:
  • the amount of the SRC
  • assessing the need of non-government schools for SRC funding
  • the methodology for calculating the disadvantage loadings
  • the indexation formula
  • how the funding will be transitioned and
  • the relative funding roles of the Australian and state and territory governments.
The National Plan, as announced, does not formally respond to all the Gonski Review’s recommendations (a previous FlagPost summarises these recommendations). However, more of the Government’s response is being provided through the media:
  •  at a media conference, the Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, confirmed the Government will suggest the low SES loading apply to both the 25 per cent and 50 per cent quartiles of low SES communities, benefitting ‘1.7 million students around Australia’ 
  •  in an ABC radio interview, the Minister stated the Indigenous loading would apply to all Indigenous students, thereby delivering Indigenous specific funding to ‘about an extra 32,000 students in some 3,600 schools’
  •  as reported in The Australian, the Gonski recommendation to establish an independent body to oversee school funding has been rejected—the Minister stated ‘adding another level of administration and bureaucracy to set and review school funding is unnecessary’ and
  • in a Sky News interview, the Minister advised that the Bill for the Australian Education Act will include the ‘architecture of a national school improvement plan’.
The future of existing targeted programs for schools, such as those provided through National Partnerships and the Australian Government’s own programs, is not specifically mentioned in the National Plan. The Gonski Report recommended governments should ‘move away’ from funding targeted programs.

Capital funding is another key element of school funding not mentioned in the National Plan. The importance of quality school infrastructure for education outcomes is well supported by research and the Gonski Review made a number of recommendations about capital funding. However, the Gonski Review’s $5 billion additional funding estimate does not include capital funding and, therefore presumably, by default, neither does the Government’s funding projection for the National Plan.

In common with others, the Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, has criticised the Government for the lack of detail in the National Plan. The Opposition proposes to increase school funding by six per cent annually which equates to Commonwealth Budget projections over the forward estimates. The Shadow Minister has not committed to repealing the National Plan because of the lack of detail but is on the record as preferring the existing funding arrangements. (For information about current school funding arrangements, see the Parliamentary Library publication, Australian Government Funding for Schools Explained).

The proposals to improve teaching quality and schools are not new and similar processes are underway. In August, for instance, education ministers, through COAG’s Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood, agreed to commission a study into lifting training requirements for student teachers. The Australian Government also has programs such as the Empowering Local Schools initiative and the Smarter Schools National Partnership for Improving Teacher Quality.

There are some questions about the plans to improve teacher quality. The proposal for higher entry standards for teachers, defined as entrants to the teaching profession being in the ‘top 30 per cent of literacy and numeracy results’, raises the question about how this will be assessed—Year 12 students do not currently participate in national literacy and numeracy tests. Universities Australia has questioned the compatibility of this proposal with the move to uncap university places and others have raised implications for teacher supply. The National Plan does not specifically mention the challenges of teacher retention and remuneration, although the Government has moved to address these issues in some way through programs such as Rewards for Great Teachers.

The National Plan’s overarching goals relate to Australian students’ achievement in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which surveys the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels of 15-year-olds every three years (latest year 2009). What is significant about the 2009 PISA results is the gap between the achievement of the highest and lowest achieving Australian students which widened in all three domains from 2006. Moreover, these gaps were wider than the OECD averages. Many of the countries that outperformed Australia had a much narrower achievement gap and often these gaps were significantly below the OECD average.

The National Plan for School Improvement is an ambitious and formidable task. Nevertheless, there are promising signs with some state premiers sounding more conciliatory.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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