The PISA results published in December present a major conundrum for education policy makers. The decline in results across the board for Year 10 students are in sharp contrast with the general improvement in Year 12 results over the past 10-15 years. Why the trends in results for students only two year levels apart are so disparate is a puzzle that requires serious investigation.
Instead, we saw an opportunistic response from the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, who was quick to pounce on the PISA results to justify dismembering the Gonski funding plan. It was just another opportunity to repeat highly misleading claims that school funding increases don’t improve school results.
The Minister was deceptive in citing a 50 per cent increase in Federal funding since 2003. It is far from the full picture, because the Federal increase was largely offset by funding cuts to public schools by state/territory governments.
The increase in total government funding (Commonwealth and state/territory) per student, adjusted for inflation, for the nine years from 2004-05 to 2013-14 was only 4.5 per cent, eleven times less than 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.
The large part of this small increase was misdirected to private schools who enrol only a small proportion of disadvantaged students. Total government funding per student in private schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by three times more than for public schools – 9.8 per cent compared to only 3.3 per cent.
Changes in the composition of enrolments could well account for much of the small increase in funding for public schools. Indigenous, disability student and senior secondary school students attract significantly higher funding per student than the average. They increased from 24 to 28 per cent of all public school students between 2003 and 2014.
While the declining PISA results are a major concern, the Minister completely ignored school results that are in stark contrast to the PISA results. There were marked improvements in several Year 12 outcomes over the past 10-15 years.
The average retention rate from Year 7/8 to Year 12 increased from 72 per cent in 2000 to 84 per cent in 2015. Indigenous retention rates increased from 36 to 59 per cent. The Year 12 completion rate increased from 69 to 72 per cent between 2003 and 2014. The proportion of Year 12 students achieving an ATAR score of 50 or more increased from 38 per cent in 2007 to 42 per cent 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 per cent of 20-24 year-olds had attained Year 12 or Certificate III compared to 77 per cent in 2001 and 90 per cent had attained Year 12 or Certificate II compared to 79 per cent in 2001.
OECD data show that only 68 per cent 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.
The sharp contrast between the declining PISA results for Year 10 students and the improvement in Year 12 results is a puzzle that warrants further analysis. The contrast 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. 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. Many previous studies made the same conclusion.
OECD studies show that targeting funding increases to disadvantaged schools and students is fundamental to improving student achievement. Inadequate funding is a major factor behind the failure to improve the results of disadvantaged students in Australia and reduce the large achievement gaps.
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.
A slightly edited version of this article was published in The Guardian on 24 January