National Equity Funding Programs are too ‘Hit and Miss’

A report published by the Australian Primary Principals Association provides some revealing insights into the targeting and funding of low income students under the Smarter Schools National Partnerships. The lead author of the study said that the programs are too ‘hit and miss’.

The findings suggest that the programs are unlikely to lead to any significant improvement in outcomes for low income and low achieving students. The amount of funding per school and student is small; it is not well targeted as many students and schools miss out and is not being used in the most effective ways.

The study found glaring anomalies in the allocation of funding to primary schools through the Low-SES and Literacy and Numeracy National Partnerships (NPs). Some schools with significant proportions of students below minimum standards did not get any funding while other schools with no students below the standards received funding. For example, one in three schools receiving funding had no students below the minimum standards in Year 3 reading and one in six had no students below the Year 5 reading standard.

Many students achieving below national literacy and numeracy standards do not receive additional funding support. Over half of all students below the minimum do not receive additional funding because they are enrolled in schools not selected for NP funding. Within schools participating in the programs, over half of those identified as below minimum standards in literacy and numeracy did not get any additional support.

Many teachers reported they are not getting the support they most need. In a prior survey of teachers in the participating schools, a majority indicated that their students needed additional adult support in the form of a teacher’s assistant or reduced class size.

However, the NPs have not provided support of this kind. The major focus has been to provide professional development for classroom teachers through advice from literacy and numeracy experts on how to improve their teaching. Only 10% of principals reported that partnership support provided smaller classes and 15% said they provided teacher assistants in the classroom. No principal reported that there had been improvement in the recruitment and retention of teachers.

The study noted that the additional funding received by schools under the programs is quite small. The level of federal funding under the Low-SES NP amounts to about $180,000 per primary school per year after central administration charges are deducted. This amounts to about an 8% increase in the average cost of educating a student in a government school. In the case of the Literacy and Numeracy NP it is $66,000 per year, which is less than the cost of employing an additional experienced teacher in a school.

The study also found that reward payments to state/territory governments under the Literacy and Numeracy NP for achieving performance targets distorted the selection of schools for funding. It concluded that schools were selected in order to maximise their eligibility for reward payments rather than on the basis of student need. Many students received highly targeted funding in the lead up to NAPLAN tests because they were close to the standards.

The study was done by academics from Edith Cowan University in Perth and funded by the Australian Government. It investigated the delivery and use of national partnership resourcing to primary school students in 2010. It collected data from 33 case study schools with high concentrations of students achieving below national standards. The national partnership programs reviewed were the low socio-economic status (SES) and literacy and numeracy partnerships.

Further details of the findings of the study follow.

Anomalies in the selection of schools and students for targeted funding
Many students miss out on additional funding support. More than half the students below minimum standards were not enrolled in a school selected in either of the NPs. They were spread among three-quarters of all primary schools not selected. These students miss out because the NP funding is targeted at schools with high concentrations of low income students and students who are below national minimum standards in literacy and numeracy.

Many students within schools participating in the programs also did not receive extra support. Teachers identified more than twice the number of students below national minimum literacy and numeracy standards than identified by NAPLAN results. For approximately half the target students in the schools selected for the NPs, their teachers reported that there was no change in the level of available support from 2009 to 2010. The study found it difficult to explain this lack of additional support.

A major anomaly identified by the report was that a quarter of the primary schools selected for a NP did not report any students below the minimum literacy and numeracy standards and there were schools not selected for either of the NPs with significant proportions of students below the minimum standards.

About 250 schools not selected for participation in the NPs had lower average results than the average for all schools which were selected. The means of the scaled scores of this group were considerably lower than the means of the scaled scores of the Literacy and Numeracy NP schools, but only just below those of the Low-SES NP schools.

On the other hand, a substantial number of schools in each of the NPs did not report students below national minimum standards in literacy or numeracy. Among the Low-SES NP schools, 30% had no student below minimum standards in Year 3 reading and 16% had no student below the minimum standard for Year 5. In the case of numeracy, 22% of participating schools had no student below the Year 3 minimum standard and 30% had no student below the Year 5 standard.

The study did an analysis of schools with no student below minimum standards on NAPLAN Reading or Numeracy in Year 3 or Year 5 in 2009. Among the Low-SES NP schools, 22 schools had no student below minimum standards in reading or numeracy in Year 3 or Year 5. Among the Literacy and Numeracy NP schools, 18 schools had no student below minimum standards. These 40 National Partnership schools represent 12% of the 328 schools that had no student below minimum standards in reading or numeracy in Year 3 or Year 5.

The study also concluded that performance targets set for reward payments to state governments influenced the selection of schools for the Literacy and Numeracy NP. It says that the evidence suggests schools were selected in order to maximise their eligibility for reward payments rather than on the basis of student need. This broadened the focus of the National Partnerships to include students at or above minimum standards and led to the omission of schools with relatively high proportions of students with substantial needs for support.

Some principals also reported that students most likely to make measurable improvement received more support than other students. Support was focused on students close to the cut points linked to the reward payments. Students with the best chance of crossing data cut points in NAPLAN received highly targeted support between February and May 2010 with adjustments to take account of the needs of students expected to progress more slowly after May.

The lead author of the study, Professor Max Angus, said that not all schools that most needed funding actually received it and improvements could be made in the targeting of funding:

It’s been hit and miss. Sometimes they have and sometimes they haven’t. But there is scope for a considerably sharper, higher level targeting than they’ve achieved based on our sample. [ Education Review, November 2011]

Nature of support provided
In a prior survey teachers of three-quarters of the target students reported that they need a teacher’s assistant in class if the students are to reach an acceptable standard. Teachers also reported that over 60% of target students would benefit from class-size reductions and 45% from an additional teacher to work with the students. Over 70% of teachers indicated they had too many target students to work with each one individually.

Teachers reported that approximately a quarter of target students need more services from psychologists or speech pathologists. Other health and medical services were needed by a smaller proportion of target students.

The most frequently requested out-of-class support was an ‘Academic program before- or after-school’ requested in regard to almost half the target students. Teachers also indicated that approximately a third of target students would benefit from more ‘Intensive home liaison’.

The NP programs have provided very little of this support. Their major focus has been professional development. This was provided through coaches, mentors and training
sessions on and off school sites. Classroom teachers were given access to literacy and numeracy experts in order to get advice and support designed to improve their instruction.

Limited funding
The report also demonstrates that despite the large funding pool allocated to the Low SES and Literacy and Numeracy NPs the amount available per year to each school is quite small.

The Low-SES NP agreement provides $1.5 billion Australian Government funding over seven years (2008-09 to 2014-15) to support education reform activities. Selected schools can participate for up to four years. Approximately 1,700 schools in Australia drawing students from low socio-economic status communities will take part over the seven years. The report estimates that this level of funding would amount on average to approximately $220,000 per school per year. However, with the deduction of an administration charge of 18% this amount would fall to approximately $180,000 per school. In a school with an enrolment of 260 students, this level of additional funding for a Low-SES NP school would amount to approximately an 8 per cent increase in the average cost of educating a student in a government primary school.

This funding is to be matched with co-contributions from state governments. However, governments can count existing programs as part of this contribution.

Approximately 930 schools in Australia were selected to participate in the Literacy and Numeracy NP. If the funding of $150 million were spread evenly across selected schools each school would nominally receive slightly more than $80,000 per year over two years. However, the deduction of the administration charge would reduce this to $66,000 per year. This would not fully meet the costs of employing an experienced teacher in each primary school.

Conclusion
The study concludes that staff and schools selected to participate in the NPs have welcomed the extra assistance. Programs have commenced that would not have been possible without the NP funding.

However, the study also suggests that greater effort needs to be given to involving a school’s leadership team in negotiations around its students’ needs and the delivery of the support to meet those needs. It notes that there are wide variations in the needs of students who are below minimum standards and there are limits to what can be achieved by school improvement blueprints developed by central agencies. It suggests that a review of the NPs should examine ways to make schools less reliant on central agencies for the design of programs and more capable of using the resources to best effect. This means involving school staff in the decision-making framework.

Trevor Cobbold

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