Dr Shannon Clark, Social Policy
COVID-19 has greatly disrupted school education, placing immense pressure on students, parents and carers, as well as highlighting disparities in education.
Reform initiatives and how to address the challenges of declining student performance in Australian schools will continue to be a source of debate in the coming years. Improving equity in schooling will be a critical area of focus.
Current issues facing schooling in Australia include recovery from COVID-19 and teacher workforce shortages.
Schooling in Australia
Although school education in Australia is primarily
the responsibility of the states and territories, the Australian
Government plays a role in funding schools and in national policy
initiatives and reforms. State and territory and Australian Government
education ministers make decisions and work collaboratively on education
matters through the Education
Ministers Meeting (previously the Education Council). In
December 2019, education ministers agreed to the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration
(Mparntwe Declaration), which sets out shared goals for education.
In 2021, there were more than 4
million students enrolled in Australia’s 9,581 schools. Of the total, 65.1%
were enrolled in government schools and 34.9% in non-government schools- comprising
19.5% in Catholic schools and 15.4% in independent schools. The proportion
of students enrolled in government schools in 2021 fell by 0.5 percentage
points from 2020, while the proportion of students in Catholic and independent
schools increased by 0.1 and 0.4 percentage points respectively.
Government funding for schools
The Australian Government provides the
majority of public funding for non-government schools and the minority of
public funding for government schools. These responsibilities are reversed
for state and territory governments.
In 2019–20, total government recurrent expenditure on schools
was $70.6 billion or $17,779 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student. Table
1 shows recurrent expenditure by state and territory and Australian governments
(totals and per FTE student) for government and non-government schools. Recurrent
expenditure refers to government funding granted to schools to meet their general recurrent costs of providing school education. It does not
include capital expenditure or special circumstances funding.
Table 1 Government recurrent
expenditure on school education, 2019–20
||($ per FTE)
||($ per FTE)
||($ per FTE)
|State and territory governments
Source: Australian Curriculum, Assessment
and Reporting Authority, ‘Government Recurrent Expenditure on Government and Non-Government
Schools,’ National Report on Schooling in Australia- Data Portal.
Over time, Australian Government expenditure on
schools has continued to increase (Figure 1). The rise then dip in expenditure between
2019–20 and 2020–21 for non-government schools was due to a COVID-19 response measure which brought forward
$1.0 billion of payments from July 2020 to May or June 2020 to encourage
non-government schools to return to classroom teaching (p. 118).
Figure 1 Australian Government
expenditure on schools sub-function- government and non-government schools ($m),
real 2021 dollars
Notes: Real funding has been calculated by
the Parliamentary Library by deflating the nominal expenditure figure by the June
quarter CPI. Figures are in 2020–21 dollars, the last available year of actual
Sources: Australian Government, Final
Budget Outcome, multiple years, Table A.1; Australian Government, Budget
Strategy and Outlook: Budget Paper No. 1: 2022–23, 150.
Educational goals and student performance in
Improving the quality of education and the
performance of students is a key driver of educational funding and reforms in
Australia. A chief concern for successive governments has been reversing
declines in student performance as measured by international assessments such as
the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developent) Programme for International Student Assessment
Programme for International Student Assessment
As shown in Figure 2, from PISA’s first cycle in 2000 to the most
recent in 2018, Australia’s mean scores (y-axis) have declined across all
domains. Each PISA cycle has a major domain, with reading first in 2000, maths
in 2003, and science in 2006.
Figure 2 Australian achievement
trends in PISA- mean scores in assessment domains
Source: Australian Council for Educational
Research (ACER), ‘Key Findings 2018’, ACER website.
In terms of years of schooling, Australia’s
performance in 2018 was the equivalent of about 1½ years lower than the
highest performers (the provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang,
China) in reading; 3½ years lower in mathematics; and more than 3 years lower
in science (pp. 3–5).
From when testing began to 2018, Australian students’
performance declined by the equivalent of more than a year in maths and
nearly a full school year in reading and science.
However, some experts have questioned using
a single standardised assessment as evidence of academic decline. Results for
Year 9 students from Australia’s National Assessment
Program- Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) show student achievement remaining
relatively steady since testing began in 2008. Another international test, Trends in International Mathematics and
Science Study, which tests students in Years 4 and 8 in maths and science,
shows that from 1995 to 2019 Australia’s mean student performance
improved in Year 4 maths and Years 4 and 8 science.
Recent reforms and developments
Reminiscent of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s 2012 goal
Australia to the top 5 countries in reading, mathematics and science by 2025,
Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge announced in March 2021 that
he would take to the next Education Ministers Meeting ‘a 2030 target to be
again amongst the top group of nations across the three major domains of
reading, maths and science’ (p. 5). Minister Tudge highlighted 3 areas of
focus: quality teaching, curriculum and assessment. Of these, he identified
quality teaching as the most important in-school factor determining student
performance and announced a review of initial teacher education (ITE).
Quality ITE Review
ITE Review was undertaken by an expert
panel chaired by former Department of Education and Training Secretary,
Lisa Paul. The final report of the review, released in February
2022, made 17 recommendations across 3 key areas:
- attracting high-quality,
diverse candidates into initial teacher education
- ensuring their preparation is evidence-based and
- supporting early years
In response, the Government announced a new Initial Teacher
Education Quality Assessment Expert Panel which would develop new standards for
ITE courses and advise the Government on linking standards to ITE funding. The 2022–23 Budget also included funding for the
review response (pp. 77–8). The Coalition outlined further initiatives in its
election policy ‘Our plan for raising school standards’.
Review of the Australian Curriculum
Curriculum sets out expectations for what Australian students should be
taught. State and territory and non-government school education authorities are
responsible for delivering the curriculum.
In 2015, education ministers agreed that the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting
Authority (ACARA) should review the Australian Curriculum every 6 years, commencing
in 2020–21. In December
2019, the Education Council asked ACARA to develop terms of reference for
a review of the Foundation to Year 10 Australian Curriculum. The Education
Council endorsed the terms
of reference and review timelines in June
As with the previous
review of the Australian Curriculum in 2014, the 2020–21 review reignited
the ‘history wars’- debates about which aspects of Australian history should
be taught to Australian students. In August 2021 the Australian reported
on a letter sent by Minister Tudge to ACARA in which he criticised the draft
curriculum for ‘supporting “ideology over evidence” and presenting “an overly
negative view” of the nation in the study of history and civics’ and warned
that he would not endorse the proposed curriculum if ACARA did not
substantially rewrite the draft.
considered the final draft of the revised curriculum at their meeting in
February 2022. Afterwards, Acting Minister for Education and Youth Stuart Robert stated
that the Australian and Western Australian governments had concerns regarding
mathematics and humanities and social science, and had asked ACARA to revise
the curriculum and return to education ministers in April. Following ACARA’s revisions to the 2 learning areas, education ministers endorsed the updated curriculum
on 1 April 2022.
Whether there will be an abatement in the
‘curriculum wars’ is unclear. On
31 May 2022 Opposition Leader Peter Dutton stated that the national
curriculum and the values argument would be one of the big debates of the next Parliament.
response, Minister for Education Jason Clare said he was ‘not interested in
picking fights’ over the curriculum.
National School Reform Agreement
When announcing the Quality ITE Review in 2021,
Minister Tudge stated:
‘I have watched or been involved in the funding debate for many years and I am
pleased that the school funding wars are now over’.
However, debates over school funding are likely to
have renewed relevance during the 47th Parliament as the Australian Government
and state and territory governments negotiate the next national reform
Under the Australian
Education Act 2013 (the Act), a condition of receiving Australian
Government funding for schools is that states and territories sign on to a
national agreement relating to school education reform and have an agreement
with the Australian Government relating to the implementation of reform.
The current agreement, the National
School Reform Agreement (NSRA), commenced on 1 January 2019 and
expires on 31 December 2023. It is supported by bilateral
agreements between the states and territories and the Australian
Government. As well as outlining state-specific actions to improve student
outcomes, bilateral agreements also set out minimum state and territory funding
contributions required to receive Australian Government school funding.
To inform the development of a new national reform
agreement, the NSRA requires an independent review to be completed by 31
December 2022 (section 29). In April 2022, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg requested
the Productivity Commission review the NSRA. The Productivity Commission
will assess the effectiveness and appropriateness of the national policy
initiatives set out in the NSRA, and the appropriateness of the Measurement
Framework for Schooling in Australia in measuring progress towards the NSRA’s
outcomes. The Productivity Commission will make recommendations to inform the
next school reform agreement and improve the Measurement Framework. In May
2022, the Productivity Commission released
a paper and called for submissions by 17 June 2022.
Equity in funding for government and non-government
schools will likely feature prominently in debates about a new school reform
In 2017, the Turnbull Government announced reforms to the needs-based funding
arrangement. The Australian Education Act 2013 was
amended to stipulate that the Australian Government would move
towards consistent funding for schools of 20% of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) for government
schools, and 80% for non-government schools. Schools funded
below the consistent Australian Government share of their SRS will transition
up to the target share by 2023, while schools funded above will transition down
to the target share by 2029.
The Act requires state and territory governments to
make minimum funding contributions. The aim is for state and territory
governments to transition to consistent shares of at least 75% of SRS for
government schools and 15% for non-government schools. The target
is for all schools to be funded to at least 95% of their SRS by 2023 (Australian
and state and territory government shares combined).
However, the Act allows for the prescribed
percentages to be negotiated- bilateral agreements between the
Commonwealth and individual states and territories identify the agreed minimum
state contribution shares as a percentage of the SRS. Table
2 summarises these agreed minimum funding shares and shows that not all
jurisdictions will meet the target share rate of 75% for government schools and
15% for non-government schools by 2023.
Table 2 State and territory
government minimum contribution shares in bilateral agreements (%)
Note: (a) NSW, Queensland and Tasmanian state
governments have committed to reach 75% of the SRS for the government school sector
Sources: Compiled from bilateral
agreements under the National
School Reform Agreement, available from Department of Education, Skills and
Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian
Greens have been critical of these funding arrangements that will see non-government
schools funded at or above their SRS, while government schools will not get to
more than 95% of the SRS funding. During the election, the ALP committed
to, with the states and territories, getting all schools to 100% of the SRS.
The Greens’ election
platform included policies to increase funding for government
schools, promising to ‘fully fund’ government schools by increasing the
Australian Government’s share of the SRS from 20% to 25% to ensure government
schools would receive 100% of the SRS by 2023. The Greens also pledged to
‘remove the 4% capital depreciation tax in school funding bilateral agreements
and work with states and territories to ensure they maintain their commitment
to funding at least 75% of the Schooling Resource Standard’ (pp. 2–3).
Looking forward- challenges for Australian
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major
disruptions to school education in Australia. Across 2020 and 2021, several
jurisdictions instituted periods of remote learning to minimise COVID-19
transmission. In January 2022, National
Cabinet agreed to the National Framework for Managing COVID-19 in Schools
and Early Childhood Education and Care (pp. 4; 13–14) which aimed to ensure
schools and early childhood education and care services would remain open, with
face-to-face learning prioritised. While widespread school closures are not
currently in place, schooling continues to be affected by the pandemic. High
COVID-19 case numbers are placing pressure on staffing with teacher
absences leading to localised returns to remote learning.
A major area of concern at the start of the pandemic with schools
moving to remote learning was the potential impact on students’ learning,
particularly for vulnerable and disadvantaged children. However, results from NAPLAN in 2021 showed that, in
comparison to 2019, ‘achievement in numeracy, reading and
writing remained largely stable at a national level for all students’. ACARA noted
that there were indications of widening gaps between high and low
socio-educational groups between 2019 and 2021, and was undertaking further
analysis to understand whether this could be attributed to the impact of the
pandemic or was part of a longer-term national trend.
There are also concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on student
wellbeing. A study from the Australian National University reported parents’ and carers’ perspectives on the mental health of children
and young people aged 18 years and under. Parents and carers believed
that COVID-19 had had a large impact on children and young people aged 5–18 years, with the mental health of those aged 15–18 of
particular concern. Comparing results with a 2020 survey, negative mental
health impacts appeared to have worsened, particularly for children in states with
States and territories have implemented various measures to support
students’ learning and wellbeing in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic,
including tutoring programs and funding for wellbeing and mental health services.
Ensuring schools and students are adequately supported in the
recovery from COVID-19 will be a priority for all governments in the coming
years. In particular, addressing disparities in education to ensure that disadvantaged students are supported will be
Election commitments from the Greens and the ALP included
measures to assist schools recover from the pandemic. The ALP promised
$440 million to improve air quality, upgrade buildings and support mental
health. As part of its capital funding commitment,
the Greens committed $224.1 million to install ventilation and air purifiers in
schools (p. 1).
Attracting and retaining teachers will be a central
challenge for schools. A recently
published study of 2,444 primary and secondary school teachers in Australia
found that only 41% of respondents intended to remain in the profession.
Reporting on data collected in 2019, the study indicated teachers’ reasons for
intending to leave the profession included heavy workloads, health and
wellbeing concerns, and the low status of the profession. The COVID-19 pandemic
burdens on teachers and is likely to increase
There are additional challenges with attracting
teachers to rural and remote locations. In 2019, the Australian Government introduced
incentives for teachers to teach in very remote locations through reduced
Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debts.
The significant challenges of attracting people to teaching were
noted in the Quality ITE Review’s final report. The expert
panel considered that its recommendations would significantly alleviate
teacher workforce challenges if implemented (p. iii).
The ALP’s election commitments included plans
for addressing teacher shortages and improving teaching quality through
initiatives to attract high-achieving students to teaching and to attract talented
teachers to rural, regional and remote areas. It also promised funding to
retain teachers through better career paths, and to respond to the Quality ITE
criticised Labor’s education platform for being silent on school standards.
It committed to strengthening teacher training and lifting student performance
through ITE initiatives, facilitating mid-career professionals to become
teachers, and supporting ‘positive learning environments’ in classrooms.
Considerations for the incoming Parliament
The Mpartnwe Agreement includes
the twin goals for the Australian education system to promote excellence and
equity. As discussed above, a major policy focus has been on excellence in
terms of returning Australia to the top of world-rankings. However, the OECD
states ‘the highest performing education systems are those that combine
equity with quality’ (p. 3). In terms of
inequality, Australia’s education system is in the bottom third of OECD
countries (pp. 8; 10). Making progress towards
improving equity and reducing inequality in Australian schooling will be an important
and complex issue for the incoming Parliament to consider.
Shannon Clark, COVID-19: Chronology of State and Territory Announcements on Schools and Early Childhood Education in 2020, Research paper series, 2021–22 (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 2022).
Shannon Clark and Hazel Ferguson, ‘Report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review- Implications for Higher Education’, FlagPost (blog), Parliamentary Library, 23 March 2022.
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