School education

Dr Shannon Clark, Social Policy

Key issue

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

Government schools Non-government schools Total
($b) ($ per FTE) ($b) ($ per FTE) ($b) ($ per FTE)
State and territory governments 44.2 16,936 4.1 2,978 48.2 12,139
Australian Government 8.5 3,246 13.9 10,211 22.4 5,640
Total government 52.6 20,182 18.0 13,189 70.6 17,779

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

graph showing 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 figures.

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 Australia

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 (PISA).

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

Graph showing 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 to return 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

The Quality 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 practical
  • supporting early years teachers.

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

The Australian 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 2020.

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.

Education ministers 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. However, in 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 agreement.

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 agreement.

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 (%)

State Sector 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
ACT Gov 80.00 80.00 80.00 80.00 80.00 80.00
Non-gov 20.00 20.00 20.00 20.00 20.00 20.00
NSW Gov 70.73 70.84 71.05 71.37 71.80 72.22(a)
Non-gov 25.29 24.70 24.23 23.76 23.29 22.82
NT Gov 55.20 56.00 57.00 58.00 58.50 59.00
Non-gov 15.09 15.09 15.09 15.09 15.09 15.09
Qld Gov 69.26 69.26 69.26 69.26 69.26 69.26(a)
Non-gov 23.18 22.70 22.45 21.84 21.23 20.61
SA Gov 75.00 75.00 75.00 75.00 75.00 75.00
Non-gov 19.72 19.72 19.72 19.72 19.72 19.72
Tas Gov 72.93 73.16 73.39 73.62 73.85 74.08(a)
Non-gov 21.50 21.20 20.90 20.60 20.30 20.00
Vic Gov 67.80 68.02 68.42 68.99 69.68 70.43
Non-gov 19.70 19.76 19.82 19.88 19.94 20.00
WA Gov 84.43 80.56 77.56 75.46 75.00 75.00
Non-gov 26.30 25.72 20.00 20.00 20.00 20.00

Note: (a) NSW, Queensland and Tasmanian state governments have committed to reach 75% of the SRS for the government school sector beyond 2023.

Sources: Compiled from bilateral agreements under the National School Reform Agreement, available from Department of Education, Skills and Employment website.

The 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 schooling

COVID-19 recovery

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 long lockdowns.

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 vital.

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).

Teacher shortages

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 has exacerbated burdens on teachers and is likely to increase teacher shortages.

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 Review. 

The Coalition 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.

Further reading

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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