School reform

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 Parliament.

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 outcomes.

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 schools

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 tables’.

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 age 17.
  • 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 schools.
  • 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 government schools.

Library publications and key documents

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), ‘Review of Funding for Schooling’,

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,