A report released last month by the Queensland Audit Office provides a revealing case study of how policy-related and governance factors can obstruct effective use of school funding. It shows that inadequate central oversight and support measures combined with heavy reliance on school autonomy has hampered effective use of funding in Queensland public schools.
The report examined the use of additional Commonwealth funding in Queensland public schools following the implementation of the Gonski funding model. While there is overwhelming support for the extra funding and there is evidence of improving results in some areas, the report identified a range of policy and administrative failures.
The Audit Office found that the Queensland Government has implemented a needs-based funding system in line with the Gonski model. However, the equity principles of the model have been undermined the Government’s “no school will lose a dollar” requirement. The report also found that the design and structure of the Government’s funding program has limited the ability of schools and the Department of Education to demonstrate a clear link between the funding increase and improved student outcomes or value for money. There was also insufficient oversight by the Department and reporting by schools on how the additional funds were used and not enough emphasis is placed on evidence-based decision-making at the system and school levels.
The report’s findings are highly significant in the context of the current Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools headed up by David Gonski whose report is imminent. The Gonski review was charged to report on how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes. Its focus is largely on identifying proven measures and programs such as how best to support good teaching and school leadership, parent engagement in learning and sharing good practice.
The Audit Office report did not examine what programs work best in schools, but it has highlighted that poor policies and inadequate administrative arrangements at the system and school level can also hamper effective use of funding. It recommended that the Department should refine its governance structures to better balance ongoing school autonomy with accountability and monitoring of how government funding is spent as well as improved central office support.
The Audit Office report said that the Queensland Department of Education will need to consider the implications of future federal funding requirements that tie school funding to reforms that will improve student outcomes and strengthen accountability mechanisms. These future changes provide an imperative for schools and the Department to more clearly demonstrate how needs-based funding for disadvantaged students is linked to measurable outcomes, and to address the lack of compliance with reporting progress and outcomes.
The Audit Office audited 17 state schools from across four regions in the state to assess whether the additional Commonwealth funding was used effectively in supporting students most in need to achieve better educational outcomes. It also assessed whether the Department of Education, and schools, have used the funding in an economical way.
Distribution of Commonwealth funding in Queensland
Under the Gonski funding model introduced in 2014, the participating states and territory were required to apply Commonwealth funding to their schools on a needs basis. Queensland was officially regarded as a non-participating state because it did not sign up the National Education Reform Agreement with the Commonwealth. However, it received an additional $794.4 million Commonwealth funding as a national, specific-purpose grant over four years. There were no conditions attached as to how the funding was to be allocated.
In 2014, the Newman Government approved the distribution of the additional funding to all the state’s public schools under a state-based initiative called ‘Great Results Guarantee’. The Department of Education designed a funding model using similar categories of disadvantage to those set out in the Gonski Review. Schools received a base amount per enrolled student and additional loadings that reflected specific student characteristics (for example, students with a disability or refugee status) and school characteristics (for example, remote locations).
Unlike in other jurisdictions, the additional funding was allocated separately from schools’ core funding to encourage schools to focus on student improvement. Schools were instructed schools to use the funding to improve literacy and numeracy across the early years of schooling. This was to help students reach national minimum standards.
A key feature of the Great Results Guarantee initiative was that it gave school leaders and teachers independence to make decisions and develop programs to best meet the needs of their students. In line with this, the Department of Education gave schools the autonomy to determine their own school improvement targets and evidence-based strategies. The Department’s aim was to use the funding to encourage greater school autonomy within state schools and move away from historical centralised control over how schools operate.
The Labor Government changed the name of the funding program in 2016 to ‘Investing for Success’ and the needs-based funding model was changed. It strengthened how it targeted student disadvantage. The requirement for schools to focus on meeting minimum standards in literacy and numeracy was removed and schools were given the flexibility to determine what school improvement strategies were required at their school. As before, the Department did not prescribe what type of school improvement initiatives to fund. Schools were given the autonomy to spend it according to the needs of their local community.
Because the Great Results Guarantee is no longer current, the Audit Office focused its analysis on how the last two years of Commonwealth funding has been administered under the Investing for Success initiative. It analysed the design and oversight of the program and how schools implemented the funding to improve student outcomes.
Design and oversight
The Investing for Success program provided schools with the flexibility to determine what school improvement strategies best suited the needs of their students and communities. The Audit report found that this flexibility has created a diversity of school improvement strategies that has limited the Department’s ability to evaluate results at a school level or system level in isolation from broader school improvement initiatives. While the schools audited have generally directed their Investing for Success funds towards improving school/student performance, and in some cases achieving improvement, they have not been able to demonstrate a clear link between the additional funding and improved results.
However, the report also noted that the Investing for Success funding represents only a very small proportion of total funding – it is less than 3% of the total funding of schools. The Department’s decision to structure Investing for Success as a separate independent initiative with flexible targets and a broad objective made it difficult to measure its impact on student outcomes in isolation from broader school improvement initiatives.
The Department did not require schools to report back to it on how the funds were spent or whether they achieved the school improvement outcomes planned. Schools were instead required to demonstrate to their school community how the extra funding was helping to maximise student learning. As a result, there is no consistent oversight about how schools are spending the additional funding, including whether schools are meeting their general accountability requirements to report progress and outcomes.
The report calls for strengthened monitoring and oversight of how schools use their funding. It found that schools did not always comply with community accountability or engagement requirements well. It said the community accountability models should only support, not replace, the Department’s responsibility to monitor how schools are spending Investing for Success funding and improving student outcomes. It recommended that the Department should refine its governance structures to better balance ongoing school autonomy with accountability and monitoring of how government funding is spent.
While the allocation model is needs-based, the Audit Office found that the requirement of the new Queensland Labor Government that no school would be worse off than in 2015 has eroded the fairness and equity of the model. As a result of the requirement, where a school’s allocation under the revised model resulted in a lesser amount, a top-up amount was added to reach the school’s previous funding levels.
In 2016, approximately $6.2 million in top-up funding was required across almost 250 schools to ensure no school received less in 2016 and 2017 than in 2015, even with the same or fewer students. Some schools received over $200 000 in top-up funding in 2016.
The report found that the ‘top-up’ payments have tied funding allocations to historical amounts that are not strongly correlated to the level of disadvantage at a school. It concluded:
Top-up payments have undermined the purpose and equity of the allocation model and meant that two schools with similar student populations and community contexts may have received different allocations. [p. 22]
It said that an alternative approach would be to review funding amounts to schools each year based on student enrolment information. This would enable the Department to redistribute funds to schools that need it the most based on their student population rather than providing additional funds to schools with lower levels of disadvantage.
The report also found that most schools have not necessarily prioritised school improvement investment decisions using the disadvantage loadings in their funding amounts. The Department has not made this a requirement. The report said that there is a need to build in more transparency about how schools link their needs-based funding to their student population to ensure funds are directed to students most in need of additional support.
The Audit Office was also critical of maintaining Investing for Success as a separate program from core funding. It said that making it part of the recurrent funding model would reflect schools’ current view of performance improvement as part of their core business, rather than a supplementary process.
How schools used additional funding
The choice of improvement strategies in schools varies significantly as a result of the reliance on school autonomy in decision-making. Strategies employed by schools ranged from paying for additional teaching staff and professional development through to air-conditioning classrooms and upgrading library facilities to improve student engagement.
Most initiatives aimed at improving student learning by improving the quality of teaching practices in classrooms. Over 90% of principals who responded to the Audit Office survey reported that investment in staffing is their most common expenditure to implement Investing for Success strategies. Examples of staffing-related expenditure included professional learning for teachers, teacher aides and specialist staff, encouraging coaching and mentoring, creating opportunities for collaborative planning and networked learning relationships with other schools, and using professional teams and committees to support improvement priorities.
The majority of principal survey respondents reported teacher aides as the most common people/staffing expenditure followed by staff to back fill teachers’ class time. This enables teachers to participate in professional development to improve teaching practices.
Schools have used the funding in a variety of different ways aimed at improving student outcomes within a broader framework of improving school performance. Over 90% of the survey respondents have used Investing for Success funding on activities/projects with the objective of improving English results in their schools.
To further understand how schools used their Investing for Success funds to implement school improvement strategies, the Audit Office examined documentation from the 17 schools it audited. It identified 105 separate school improvement initiatives. Although most schools had multiple areas of focus in their Investing for Success plans, they focused mainly on improving literacy/numeracy, student engagement and wellbeing, and teaching practices.
Many audit stakeholders, including principals from schools audited, peak representative bodies and Department of Education senior executives, expressed a view that there needs to be more accountability and scrutiny over how schools are spending Investing for Success funding.
The report found that despite schools generally directing their Investing for Success funds towards improving school/student performance, and in some cases achieving improvement, they have not been able to demonstrate a clear link between the increased funding and improved results and funding. Most schools audited reported on the actions or programs implemented rather than student outcomes schools and are not complying with the requirement to use evidence or research to inform investment decisions.
Schools can demonstrate that they have spent the funds on school and student-related items but not whether they have improved student outcomes….In addition, schools did not always base their use of the funding on evidence or set specific targets against which to measure success. [p.9]
The report said that schools are still developing their skills in implementing and evaluating improvement initiatives. Many need more support and guidance in building evidence-based improvement programs that can be linked to measurable targets.
Despite schools’ inability to measure impact, the initiative received overwhelming support from Queensland state school principals. They assessed the initiative as either very important (98%) or important (2%) to supporting their school improvement work.
The Audit Report recommended that the Department of Education:
1. Consider integrating future Investing for Success funding into broader school funding, improvement strategies and processes.
2. Review the Investing for Success allocation model to ensure ongoing transparency, equity and continuous improvement of the needs-based approach. This should include regular reviews of schools’ funding needs and categories of disadvantage and clear communication of future changes to funding categories and amounts.
3. Clarify Investing for Success governance structures.
4. Strengthen monitoring, reporting, and evaluation processes to better link investment decisions to school improvement outcomes.
5. Provide more targeted guidance to schools in need of additional support to further lift the quality of school improvement plans, targets, and measures.
6. Provide greater support and training to principals and assistant regional directors in the areas identified by surveyed principals during the audit, including strategic financial management, program evaluation, monitoring and reporting, and stakeholder engagement/community consultation.