Birmingham Misleads on School Funding and Outcomes

The Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham was quick to pounce on the PISA 2015 results published in December to put another knife in the Gonski funding plan. He took the opportunity to repeat his highly misleading claim that school funding increases don’t improve school outcomes. This oft-repeated claim serves one purpose only – to justify his Government’s refusal to fully fund Gonski.

Birmingham wrongly dismissed funding as a factor in school outcomes in claiming that Federal funding increased by 50% since 2003 while the PISA results have declined. He vastly exaggerated the actual increase in funding which was only very small and largely misdirected to schools least in need of additional funding.

The increase in total government funding (Federal and state/territory) per student, adjusted for inflation, for the nine years from 2004-05 to 2013-14 was only 4.5%, a fraction of the Minister’s claim. The increase was only 0.5% per year. In dollar terms, it was a mere $472 per student for the whole period, or a miniscule $52 a year. There can be no expectation that such a miserly increase could lift student results.

The large part of this small increase was misdirected to the more advantaged private school sector which enrols less than 20% of all disadvantaged students. Total government funding per student in private schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by three times more than for public schools – 9.8% compared to only 3.3%.

The Minister’s claim ignores a very disturbing trend at the state level. State and territory governments, which account for over 80% of public school funding, have cut funding of public schools while increasing funding of private schools. Funding per student in public schools fell by 3.4% but increased funding for private schools by 5.9%.

In the light of these trends, there is little wonder that Australia has failed dismally to increase achievement by disadvantaged students, the large majority of whom are enrolled in public schools.

Birmingham also ignored changes in the composition of enrolments that could well account for much of the small increase in total government funding for public schools. Indigenous, disability and senior secondary school students attract significantly higher funding per student than the average. They increased from 24 to 28% of all public school students between 2003 and 2014.

The declining PISA results are a major concern. However, there have been some improvements in school results that the Minister completely ignored in his haste to condemn. For example, there were marked improvements in Year 12 outcomes over the past 10-15 years.

The average retention rate from Year 7/8 to Year 12 increased from 72% in 2000 to 84% in 2015. The retention rate in public schools increased from 67% to 82% while the Indigenous rate increased from 36% to 59%. The Year 12 completion rate increased from 69 to 72% between 2003 and 2014. The proportion of Year 12 students achieving an ATAR score of 50 or more increased from 38% in 2007 to 42% in 2015.

As a result of these improvements, the proportion of young adults with Year 12 or equivalent vocational qualification has increased significantly. In 2016, 89% of 20-24 year-olds had attained Year 12 or Certificate III compared to 77% in 2001 and 90% had attained Year 12 or Certificate II compared to 79% in 2001.

OECD data show that only 68% of 24-34 year-olds in Australia had attained an upper secondary education in 2000, which was the 5th lowest in the OECD. By 2015, this had increased by 20 percentage points and was the largest increase in the OECD except for Portugal and Turkey.

These Year 12 improvements are in sharp contrast with the declining PISA results for 15 year-old students (largely Year 10 students). Why the trends in results for students only two year levels apart are so disparate is a puzzle that warrants further analysis. It may partly reflect a difference in student attitudes to the PISA tests, which have no personal consequences attached to them, and the Year 12 assessments which have a major influence on the future paths open to students.

The one thing in common between the PISA results and Year 12 outcomes is huge achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students. The PISA results show that disadvantaged 15 year-old students are three to four years of learning behind advantaged students. Year 12 retention and completion rates for disadvantaged students are well below those of advantaged students.

Improving the results of disadvantaged students is the major challenge facing Australian education. Yet, the Minister continues to wilfully ignore the extensive research evidence demonstrating that increasing funding for disadvantaged students is critical to improving outcomes. Five major academic studies published in the last year alone show that increased funding improves results, especially for disadvantaged students.

For example, a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics concluded that “improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children”. Another study published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research said: “Our results thus show that money can and does matter in education”.

Targeting funding increases to disadvantaged schools and students is fundamental to improving student achievement. The OECD report on PISA 2015 concluded: “In countries and economies where more resources are allocated to disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools, overall student performance in science is somewhat higher”.

Inadequate funding is a major factor behind the failure to improve the results of disadvantaged students in Australia and reduce the large achievement gaps. Past funding increases have been very small and not directed primarily to those most in need.

Federal and state education ministers are due to meet in coming months to decide future school funding arrangements. State education ministers should not be misled by Birmingham’s false claims about school funding and outcomes. All the evidence shows that increased funding for disadvantaged students is critical to improving school outcomes.

The national education ministers’ council should support the full implementation of the Gonski plan. It should resist the Federal Government’s proposal to cut education funding further by reducing funding indexation rates.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was originally published on John Menadue’s blog Pearls and Irritations on 25 January.

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