Marilyn Harrington, Social Policy Section
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has set the
national goal of a 90 per cent Year 12 or equivalent
completion rate by 2015. This is an underlying element of the
school reform agenda that will feature during the 43rd
Why invest in school reform?
Access Economics Director, Chris Richardson, views education as
‘an under-appreciated driver of our economic
prosperity’. Research from the Grattan Institute shows that
for each additional year of education, an individual’s annual
income will increase by 5 to 12 per cent.
Educational attainment is also positively associated with social
outcomes, notably health and public and civic engagement.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
research suggests that the cognitive and socio-emotional skills
acquired through education play an important part in raising social
School retention rates in Australia have improved only slightly
in the last ten years. In 2009, the year 10 to 12 retention rate
was 76.7 per cent, compared to 74.4 per cent in 2000. The
retention rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,
including Indigenous students and students from rural and regional
areas, are significantly lower.
Literacy and numeracy attainment is a key factor in school
retention. As students progress through school, the percentage
meeting national benchmarks in some areas declines, particularly
for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In some cases, the
difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous student attainment
varies by 20 percentage points or more.
The achievement gap between Australia’s high-performing
and low-performing students is also reflected in international
tests of student attainment. While overall Australian students
perform well, students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Australia
do not perform as well as similar students from the best-performing
countries, such as Finland.
There are many elements of a student’s school experience
that affect educational attainment, but, as a significant body of
research has shown, it is teaching quality that matters most. It is
not only the ‘quality’ of teachers that is important,
but also the environment in which teachers work. Hence, as the OECD
has observed, the overall status and labour market competitiveness
of the teaching profession, including fostering teacher development
and improving school work environments need to be redressed.
Reforms also need to focus on attracting and retaining particular
types of teachers, and attracting teachers to work in particular
The school reform agenda
The school reform agenda includes: the national curriculum,
national testing of student attainment, student and school
performance reporting, teaching quality, school and teacher
performance rewards and school autonomy.
KPMG Econtech has modelled the Government’s school
reforms. It predicts that if they achieve their targets, they could
generate, from 2010 to 2024, economy-wide gains of 0.4 per cent in
gross domestic product and 0.2 per cent in employment.
There has been a convergence of opinion on the broad direction
of the school reform agenda amongst the major political parties.
However, there is less agreement on how elements of the reforms
should be implemented. There is also debate about the value of some
reforms, given the findings of overseas research.
Although the national curriculum has been endorsed by COAG,
there are concerns about its structure and content. Typical of
these concerns are those from the NSW Board of Studies. The
Board’s recent evaluation asserts that the national
curriculum is inferior to the current NSW curriculum, lacks an
overarching framework and is overcrowded with content.
While the value of literacy and numeracy testing is
well-accepted, the presentation of that data through the My
School website has been controversial. There are concerns
about the publication of test data without value-added measures and
the potential for counter-productive ‘league
The use of performance rewards is also debated. Overseas
research is either inconclusive about the benefits of performance
rewards or has found that they do not improve student outcomes.
There are concerns that unless adequate safeguards are developed,
performance rewards may divide teachers and be detrimental to
schools that serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The review of school funding
The school reform agenda is underpinned by the intransigent
challenge of school funding. The Government’s Review of
Funding for Schooling has led all school sectors to demand
assurance and funding equity.
The Review is the first comprehensive appraisal of school
funding since the early 1970s. It is examining all school funding,
public and private, and is due to report in 2011.
With so many claims and counter-claims made about funding for
government and non-government schools, the future of school funding
will be a major challenge for the new government.
School funding in Australia:
some key facts
- Young people are required to participate in schooling (or
equivalent) to Year 10, and then undertake full-time education,
training or employment, or a combination of these activities, until
- Australian governments support schooling through public
funding. In 2007–08, 79 per cent of total public
funding (excluding capital funding) was provided to government
schools. Around two-thirds of full-time students attend government
- Constitutionally, state and territory governments have
responsibility for school education. In 2007–08, they
provided 91.4 per cent of total public funds for
government schools. The Commonwealth provided 8.6 per cent.
- The Commonwealth Government is the major provider of public
funds for non-government schools. In 2007–08, it provided
72.1 per cent of total public funding for non-government schools.
State and territory governments provided 27.9 per cent.
- Commonwealth funding for schools will increase in real terms
from $6.9 billion in 1999–00 to an estimated $11.5 billion in
2011–12. An estimated 61.6 per cent of this funding
will be spent on non-government schools and 38.4 per cent on
Library publications and key documents
Department of Education, Employment and
Workplace Relations (DEEWR), ‘Review of Funding for
M Harrington, Commonwealth funding for
schools explained, Background note, Parliamentary Library,
Canberra, 2010. (Forthcoming.)
KPMG Econtech, Measuring the impact of the
productivity agenda: final report, KPMG, 2010,