The ACT Education System Can Do Better

This is the text of a speech by Trevor Cobbold, National Convenor, to a seminar sponsored by the Institute of Governance in Canberra on the topic ‘What or How Much Value Does the ACT Education System Add to Your Child’s Learning’ and held on 22 September.

My short answer to the seminar topic is that the ACT education system adds quite lot of value to children’s learning, but it should be adding more. The ACT has generally high education outcomes by national and international standards, but despite several unique advantages its results are only similar to some other jurisdictions and have largely stagnated or declined since 2008. In addition, there is a high degree of inequity in education outcomes in the ACT.

It is important to acknowledge the consistently high quality outcomes in the ACT. Our school system has high proportions of students achieving national literacy and numeracy standards and high proportions of students achieving at the highest levels. Average outcomes are amongst the highest in Australia. Retention rates to Year 12 are the highest in Australia.

However, the ACT results are no better than some other states despite the fact that we have many advantages over other jurisdictions in factors that influence school results. Average income and parent education levels are higher than elsewhere. We have fewer disadvantaged students and less extreme poverty. The average socio-economic status of students and schools is much higher than in other states. All our schools are in the metropolitan area; we don’t have any remote area students. Average school income per student is higher than any other jurisdiction except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The ACT has statistically similar average results and percentage of students at or above national minimum standards to NSW and Victoria in most tests at each year level and to some other states in some tests at some year levels. Indeed, the ACT results are no better than the Australian average in several tests at several year levels.

For example, Chart 1 (see below) shows the results of the statistical analysis by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) of the comparative achievement of ACT Year 9 students in the 2015 NAPLAN tests against those of other jurisdictions and Australia. The achievement of ACT students was mostly statistically similar to that of students in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and the average for Australia.

So, there is a strong case to consider that the ACT education system should be producing better results, given its advantages over other jurisdictions.

A further concern is that reading, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy NAPLAN results across Years 3, 5, 7 & 9 have been mostly stagnant since 2008 when the national tests were introduced. There has been virtually no improvement in average scores for eight years. Writing results have mostly declined since 2011 when the current writing test was introduced. The only statistically significant increases were in Year 3 reading and grammar and punctuation.

Chart 2 shows average NAPLAN scores for Year 9 reading, writing and numeracy. There have been small fluctuations in reading and numeracy since 2008, but virtually no change in scores since 2008. The average writing result declined significantly.

A major concern is our poor equity performance. The social gradient in education in the ACT is higher than anywhere else in Australia except for the Northern Territory. Many disadvantaged students in primary and secondary schools are not achieving the national minimum standards in literacy and numeracy.

For example, Chart 3 shows that high percentages of Year 9 students from low educated parents did not meet the national standards in 2015. Over 25% did not achieve the writing standard, about 20% did not achieve the spelling and grammar and punctuation standards and 14-15% did not achieve the reading and numeracy standards.

Even more shameful is the fact that over 40% of Year 9 Indigenous students did not achieve the writing standard and about 20% did not achieve the spelling and grammar and punctuation standards. Fifteen per cent did not achieve the numeracy standard and 13% did not achieve the reading standard.

There is a huge difference in proportion of students from low educated and Indigenous parents not achieving the national standards compared to those from high educated parents. Only 2-4% of Year 9 students from high educated parents did not achieve the standards, apart from 9% that did not achieve the writing standard.

The NAPLAN results also reveal large achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students at all year levels tested. The gaps increase through the year levels. By Year 9, students from low educated parents are about 2-3 years behind students from high educated parents in all subjects, having been about 1-1⅟2 years behind in Year 3 [Chart 4]. At Year 9, one year of learning is equivalent to about 20 points on the NAPLAN scale. Indigenous students are about 3⅟2-4 years behind their peers from high educated parents in all subjects.

Public schools bear the large burden of this disadvantage in education. In 2014, 78% of students from low socio-economic status (SES) families, 77% of Indigenous students and 73% of students with disabilities (2013 figure) were enrolled in public schools [Chart 5]. In contrast, 14% of low SES students, 19% of Indigenous students and 20% of students with disabilities were enrolled in Catholic schools. Even less were enrolled in Independent schools – only 8% of low SES students, 5% of Indigenous students and 8% of students with disabilities.

The burden of disadvantaged students borne by each sector contrasts sharply with their respective shares of total enrolments. Public schools in the ACT account for 58% of total enrolments but enrol about three-quarters of all disadvantaged students. Catholic schools enrol 28% of all students but only 20% or less of disadvantaged students while Independent schools enrol 14% of all students but only 8% or less of disadvantaged students. Disadvantaged students comprise about 20% of public school enrolments compared to 7-8% in Catholic and Independent schools.

One factor, among others, that has contributed to continuing under-achievement amongst disadvantaged students is that funding increases in the ACT have been largely misdirected. They were not sufficiently well targeted to disadvantaged students.

Despite the greater concentration of disadvantaged students in public schools, government funding increases over four years since 2009 have favoured the most advantaged school sector in the ACT – Independent schools. High SES students comprise 65% of Independent school enrolments and nearly 90% of Independent school students are from the two highest SES quartiles. Yet, the increase in total Commonwealth & ACT government funding per student, adjusted for inflation, in Independent schools was over double that for public schools. Government funding per student in Independent schools increased by 9.4% compared to only 4.2% in public schools [Chart 6]. The increase for Catholic schools was 6.6%, nearly 60% more than for public schools.

Despite the fact that public schools in the ACT enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students, their dollar increase in funding, adjusted for inflation, was very small at $568 per student, or $142 per student per year. Given this very small increase, there can be little surprise that the ACT still has a large proportion of disadvantaged students not achieving national minimum standards. The increase amounts to $21 million in real terms over the four years. If it had been better targeted at disadvantaged students it may have had more of an impact.

Now, in an election campaign period, we are going to hear a lot about the funding levels for the different school sectors. But, comparisons of total income and government funding have little real meaning without regard to the relative levels of student need in the three school sectors. One way of assessing the relative resource burden of public and private schools is to compare the per student funding ratio of private schools to public schools with the ratios of disadvantaged students in private schools to public schools.

If Catholic and Independent schools faced the same burden as public schools, their disadvantaged student ratios would be similar to their government funding ratios. However, this is clearly not the case as shown in Chart 7. Catholic and Independent schools are not performing the same social obligation with taxpayer funding as public schools because the ratios of their enrolments of disadvantaged students to those in public schools is less than half their respective funding ratios.

In 2013, total government funding per student in Catholic schools was 57% of that of public schools, that is, a bit over half. However, the enrolment of various categories of disadvantaged students in Catholic schools was only about one-quarter of that of public schools. The disparity between the government funding ratio and the disadvantage burden is even more stark in relation to Independent schools. In 2013, total government funding per student in Independent schools was 51% of that of public schools, while enrolments of low SES and disability students was only 10% of those in public schools and only 5% in the case of Indigenous students.

Clearly, private schools have a very large resource advantage over public schools when the relative burden of disadvantage is taken into account. They have far lower proportions of disadvantaged students than public schools compared to their relative levels of government funding. This means that they have more resources to devote to their disadvantaged students and to other students. It suggests that Catholic and Independent schools in the ACT are already sufficiently well-funded to support their small number of disadvantaged students and detailed estimates back this up. The issue is how well they are targeting additional funding to these students.

Improving equity in education is the fundamental challenge facing the ACT. Education injustice stunts individual lives, social well-being, and political participation. It also stunts economic prosperity. The ACT is essentially a knowledge-based economy dependent on education improvement for its prosperity. An underperforming education system means an underperforming economy. For all these reasons, we have to do better.

A comprehensive education strategy is desperately needed. It should focus primarily on public schools because they enrol about three-quarters of all disadvantaged students in the ACT. Catholic and Independent schools are already sufficiently well-resourced to support their small proportion of disadvantaged students.

The extensive research literature on reducing disadvantage and achievement gaps in schooling highlights three key approaches.

The first is to improve teaching and learning opportunities for disadvantaged students. Successful policies here include very low class sizes for schools with a high proportion of these students, providing high quality teachers and support staff, and early intervention programs providing intensive individual and small group work.

The second key approach is the provision of a range of student welfare programs. These should involve multi-disciplinary teams of teachers, psychologists, social workers, and health professionals. Disadvantaged schools should have more adults to support students at risk.

Third, developing deep home/school partnerships is critical. Parent participation is fundamental to improving attendance at schools and outcomes. It requires systematic support programs. For example, home/school liaison officers are a practical way of supporting parent participation in children’s learning. Despite the rhetoric about the importance of parent participation in ACT public schools there are no funded programs.

A new funding system that better targets resources to disadvantaged students is a priority. The current funding framework is only marginally structured to address disadvantage. The total ‘needs’ component of public school funding is only about 10% or less of total recurrent funding. Research studies consistently show that a much higher “needs” component in school funding is needed to ensure that all disadvantaged students achieve expected outcomes.

SOS calls on all ACT political parties in this election campaign to commit to directing funding to address disadvantage in education. They should all commit to fully implementing a Gonski funding model that applies to both public and private schools and includes funding loadings that are adequate to improve education outcomes for low SES, Indigenous, English as a Second Language and disability students.

Trevor Cobbold

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