Education in Australia: a background
This chapter provides a broad overview of education in Australian
schools. The respective role of the Commonwealth and the states is outlined,
along with school funding and recent policy announcements.
The role of the Commonwealth and the states and territories
The Constitution provides that school education is primarily the
responsibility of the states and territories. The Department of Education,
Employment and Workplace Relations described the division of responsibilities
in the following terms:
While the Australian Government plays a leadership role in
driving forward national educational reforms and provides funding for areas of
national educational importance, school education in Australia is principally
the constitutional responsibility of the states and territories who are responsible
for the delivery and management of schooling.
Because the responsibility for schooling rests with the states and the
territories, the success of initiatives by the Australian Government are
dependent upon the cooperation and participation of state and territory
governments, independent schools and Catholic schools.
In recent decades the Australian Government has become increasingly
involved in education policy development and has worked with states and
territories through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to introduce
reforms. The Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC)
was launched by the COAG in January 2012 and provides a forum for strategic
policy discussions on a national level.
In December 2008, Education Ministers from the states, territories and the
Commonwealth released the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young
Australians. The twenty page declaration sets the direction for Australian
schooling for the next ten years.
The two goals identified are:
Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence
All young Australians become:
- Successful learners
- Confident and creative individuals
- Active and informed citizens.
The Australian governments committed to 'working with all school sectors
and the broader community to achieve the educational goals',
noting that responsibility for achieving these goals does not rest solely on
Achieving these educational goals is the collective
responsibility of governments, school sectors and individual schools as well as
parents and carers, young Australians, families, other education and training
providers, business and the broader community.
The Ministers released a Four Year Plan as a companion to the Melbourne
Declaration. This plan sets out the strategies and initiatives that Australian
governments agreed to implement to achieve the goals. Recent reforms to improve
teaching and learning at a national level, with state and territory support,
The National Professional Standards for Teachers;
National system of accreditation of initial teacher education
Nationally consistent approach to teacher registration;
National approach to the Certification of Highly Accomplished and
Professional development needs for principals and school leaders;
National Professional Standards for Principals; and
The Australian Curriculum.
To promote the reforms listed above and in cooperation with COAG, the
Australian Government established the Australian Institute for Teaching and
School Leadership (AITSL). The key purpose of AITSL is to 'provide national
leadership for Commonwealth, state and territory governments in promoting
excellence in the profession of teaching and school leadership'.
The Australian Government has also created the Australian Assessment and
Reporting Authority (ACARA) to 'oversee the development of an Australian
schools' curriculum' and to develop and administer the National Assessment
Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), and to assess this data.
In September 2012 the Prime Minister announced the National Plan for
School Improvement. The Department describes this plan as focusing on 'those
things that make the most difference in improving student outcomes, including
ensuring that the best teachers are in every school'.
The Australian Government has discussed the plan with state and territory
governments, Catholic Schools, and independent schools with a view to settling
on an agreement on the terms of the plan by July 2013.
The Australian Government has also made a number of announcements recently
related to school funding, which are discussed below.
State and territory initiatives
Concurrently with federal initiatives state and territory governments
have conducted inquiries and announced policy changes to education policy. A
large number of announcements have been made in the past 12 months, as the
following examples illustrate.
On 21 June 2012 the Victorian Government launched its New Directions
for School Leadership and the Teaching Profession outlining a 10 year
vision for the teaching profession aimed at improving student performance.
The discussion paper includes suggestions that the worst 5 per cent of teachers
be sacked, higher pay for teachers in demand areas such as mathematics and
science and sourcing principals outside of the teaching profession.
The paper also calls for rigorous performance assessments and higher admission
standards for prospective teachers. Submissions on the discussion paper were
due by 1 September 2012.
The Victorian Government recently announced an in-principle agreement with
staff in Victorian Government schools in relation to their Enterprise
Bargaining Agreement, which included a number of reforms. These reforms included
annual salary increases, greater flexibility for principals in managing
resources and performance-based incentives and salary level progression. These
reforms are still going through formal approval processes, including agreement
In early March 2013 the New South Wales government announced a number of
initiatives to restrict the number of year 12 graduates who can access teaching
courses. Students would need to achieve more than 80 in three HSC subjects
(including English), the number of students who can access practical training
would be capped, and prospective teachers would need to undertake literacy,
numeracy and aptitude for teaching tests.
The Victorian government made a similar announcement. Both announcements were
quickly followed by announcements by the federal government to raise teacher
entry standards, improve practicum, review courses, and the establishment
mandatory literacy and numeracy tests for all teaching students prior to
The Queensland Government has undertaken a number of measures through
the Review of Teacher Education and School Induction Project.
In response to the Review of Teacher Education and School Induction, by
Professor Brian Caldwell and Mr David Sutton, the government established a
Teacher Education Implementation Taskforce. The taskforce was established to
report on 41 of the 65 recommendations made in the review (the other 24 were
implemented immediately) which it completed in January 2012. The taskforce's
report is still under consideration by the government.
The Queensland Government recently released Great teachers = Great results:
A direct action plan for Queensland schools. The policy commits an
additional $535 million to education over four years, commencing in 2015.
Released in the context of Gonski model funding negotiations, the extra funding
is dependent on the Commonwealth Government committing to 'ongoing funding for
Queensland schools at current rates (including funding currently provided under
relevant National Partnership Agreements) with appropriate indexation'.
'Great Teachers = Great results' aims to increasing the standard of
teachers and school leaders and provide schools with greater autonomy. Key
- Annual performance reviews for teachers
- An accredited mentoring program for beginning teachers
- The creation of 300 'Master Teacher' positions to support poor
performing schools, employed on three year contracts.
- 200 scholarships for 'high performing' teachers to undertake a
Increasing school autonomy by expanding the 'Independent Public Schools'
The policy does not detail what mechanisms or standards will be used to
evaluate teacher performance. The Master Teacher positions, while an innovative
way of supporting poor performing schools, are temporary (based on a three year
contract) rather than permanent.
The initiatives listed above are a brief snapshot of the recent policy
announcements rather than an exhaustive list.
Although state and territory governments are constitutionally
responsible for education, the Commonwealth is the major provider of public
funds for non-government schools while state and territory governments regulate
and primarily fund public schools. The Commonwealth government achieves its
educational policies by providing conditional funding to the states and
territories. Funding on both levels of government is currently coordinated
through the Council of Australian Governments.
The Commonwealth substantively engaged school funding in 1964 and
subsequently established recurrent per student grants with an overall objective
of supporting minimum acceptable standards in all schools. In 2009 the
Commonwealth changed its funding arrangements with the majority of funds now
being administered under the National Schools Specific Purpose Payment (NSSPPs).
NSSPPs exist in two streams for government and non-government schools
respectively. State and territory government authorities have discretion on how
monies from NSSPPs should be spent – but on the basis of agreed outcomes.
Government school payments
The NSSPP for government schools funds a base agreed amount of 10 per
cent of the Average Government School Recurrent Costs (AGSRC) per student in
This funding is indexed each year based on the growth in full-time equivalent
enrolments and increases in primary and secondary amounts of the Average
Government School Recurrent Costs standard.
Non-government school payments
While maintaining programs that existed prior to 2009, NSSPPs for
non-government schools also introduced additional recurrent funding measures
for Indigenous students and remote schools.
It encompasses funding for general recurrent grants which are based on a
calculated measure of need according to a socioeconomic score (SES).
Although funding is calculated on a needs basis, due to a commitment by
the Howard Government in 2001 that no school would be financially worse off,
schools that otherwise may have suffered a drop in funding after their SES
score was calculated did not. Funding levels were maintained and indexed in
subsequent years. (Recently, the Gillard government has made similar
undertakings to independent schools – although concerns remain about
Other schools that automatically receive the maximum available rate of funding
included schools catering for the disabled, special assistance schools and
majority Indigenous student schools.
In addition, due to some schools joining the SES system later with other
conditions attached, there are a range of schools with the same SES scores but
funded at different rates under various funding arrangements.
In addition to NSSPPs, National Partnerships
and Commonwealth Own-Purpose Expenses
also exist to fund a number of measures such as the Digital Education
Revolution, More Support for Students with Disabilities and the Australian
Gonski Review of Funding for
In 2010 the Australian Government commissioned a Review of Funding for
Schooling inquiry. The government asked the Review Panel to 'develop a funding
system for schooling which is transparent, fair, financially sustainable and
effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all Australian students'.
The review panel received over seven thousand submissions, visited 39 schools
and consulted widely with education groups. The panel was chaired by Mr David
Gonski, and delivered its final report to the government in December 2011.
The final report, commonly known as the 'Gonski Review', spans more than 300
pages and provides 41 recommendations.
The review panel identified a number of difficulties associated with
reviewing funding arrangements. These included:
- significant organisational differences across school sectors;
in demographics of student bodies;
challenges being faced by sectors and states;
in funding arrangements from the Australian and state and territory governments
across sectors and states; and
lack of consistency in data collection and reporting.
Overall the review panel found that existing funding arrangements for
schooling need to be more coherent and transparent, less complex and reduce
duplication of funding in some areas. The review panel concluded that lower
performing students should receive funding priority and recommended that
reforms be made to achieve this. Key measures to implement this vision include:
- Creation of a new schooling resource standard. The
standard would provide for general recurring funding across all sectors;
educational needs (e.g. socioeconomic background); equity of funding in terms of
student numbers across school sectors; and periodical reviews. The standard
would be modelled on resourcing trends from existing high-performance schools.
Under the schooling resource
standard all public schools would be fully funded on a per student basis.
Schools in the non-government sector would be funded on the anticipated level
of a school's private contribution.
- Better coordination of infrastructure. Expanded
Australian Government funding to better coordinate planning on new schools and
major expansions, and grants for other major works and infrastructure projects.
- National Schools Resourcing Body. The report recommends
that an independent National Schools Resourcing Body be formed for governance
of the new measures.
- Review of existing framework of intergovernmental agreements
on schooling. The report states that the existing framework of agreements
would need to be revised to meet the requirements of the new funding framework.
Relevantly for this inquiry, the review panel concluded that the challenges
faced by the Australian school system cannot be addressed simply in financial
The panel accepts that resources alone will not be sufficient
to fully address Australia’s schooling challenges and achieve a high-quality,
internationally respected schooling system. The new funding arrangements must
be accompanied by continued and renewed efforts to strengthen and reform Australia’s
In response to the Gonski Review the government introduced the Australian
Education Bill 2012 in Parliament on 28 November 2012. The bill, which was
informed by the Gonski Review, outlines a vision for national school reform and
the development of a National Plan for School Improvement. The government states
that if passed the bill would provide a legislative framework for school
funding that provides equitable access and high quality education to all
The Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation
Committee conducted an inquiry into the bill and reported on 13 March 2013.
The committee majority welcomed the broad in-principle support offered by
stakeholders for the measures that would be established through the bill.
Coalition Senators expressed concern at the lack of detail in the bill,
indexation, loadings, timing, and additional costs to schools.
April COAG Meeting
On the Sunday before the upcoming COAG meeting, the Prime Minister the
Hon. Julia Gillard MP released details of the government's School Funding. The
government proposed to increase school funding by $14.5 billion over 6 years,
with $12 billion to be reserved for public schools, $1.5 billion for Catholic
Schools and $1 billion for independent schools. The government undertook to
index its contribution at 4.7 per cent. The proposal is contingent upon the states
and territories agreeing to increase their spending by 3 per cent.
The Prime Minister submitted that as a consequence of this funding
boosts schools could afford to provide specialist teachers where needed and
improved technology aids.
Controversially, the government proposes to fund this expenditure by
introducing cuts to higher education, including an imposition of an efficiency
dividend on universities, which are estimated to be worth $2.3 billion.
While the Gonski funding announcement was supported by many, the decision to fund the program through cuts to higher education was subject to criticism from many quarters, including universities, the National Tertiary Education Union, Mr Gonski and the Federal Coalition.
The Commonwealth Government presented the proposed education reforms to
the state and territory governments at the COAG meeting on 19 April 2013.
Although agreement was not reached, a number of states have indicated a
willingness to work with the federal government with a view to reaching
agreement by the end of June 2013.
At the time of publishing this report, the NSW Government has signed on to the
The policy setting since this inquiry was referred in September last
year has changed remarkably. A number of Australian governments have announced
changes to admission standards for prospective teachers, higher exit and
registration standards, and higher remuneration. Against this backdrop, the
federal government has introduced a bill to respond to the Gonski Review of
School funding, and is working with the states and territory governments
through COAG to reach a new funding agreement for schools.
However, improving our schools and the outcomes for our students is not
simply about spending more money: the way that money is spent and what it is
spent on matters. Decisions must be made about how to allocate finite resources
and any increased funding must be expended strategically and directed to areas
of most need – while maintaining fairness. It is these issues that the
remainder of the report focuses on. The next chapter discusses the performance
of Australian students – in relation to each other and overseas peers.
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