Are our schools really that bad? No, actually.
Jason Clare teams up with the Murdoch tabloids to smear the school system. He’s playing a dangerous game.
When you want to make a splash, create a crisis. Whether a crisis actually exists is quite another matter. The spinners’ current target is the nation’s schools system.
It suits the federal government, which wants political cover to change the funding model without spending any more money.
It suits state governments, which want more cash from Canberra.
It suits unions, which want higher pay for teachers.
And it suits tabloid newspapers.
It doesn’t, though, suit people who are being persuaded to unnecessarily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on private education because they believe the pervasive spin about the state system. And Mr Clare is taking serious political risks in promising sweeping levels of change he does not have the resources to deliver.
CRY HAVOC! AND LOOSE THE DOGS OF SPIN
The NewsCorp tabloids have run a copious and overwrought campaign to push the idea that the system is about to implode. "Last chance to save kids," cried the Hobart Mercury. “The nation’s education system is on the brink of collapse.”
In Sydney, the Daily Telegraph had some figures, comparing changes in funding and performance in government schools between 2009 and 2018.
Total funding: up $12.8 billion, said the DT. Science performance: down 22%. Maths performance: down 22%. Reading performance: no change.
The data came, indirectly, from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the journalists got it wrong.
“Australia’s entire education system is in need of massive reform,” the lead story said, “with the federal government warning of a ‘crisis’ and launching the biggest overhaul of the sector in a decade …
“The minister also said Australia’s messy education system – in which states and territories oversee schools and then feed kids into a national tertiary system – needed ‘serious reform’.”
There is a strong case for reform of the education system, as there is for other elements of public policy, particularly health. The issue is whether hyperventilated crisis-mongering is the wisest way to go about it. And there are political risks. The effects of any serious reform will take some years even to become visible. But in much less time than that, when Mr Clare can no longer blame the previous government, he might regret his dalliance with the tabloid agenda.
“FALLING BEHIND OECD” said another heading in the NewsCorp series. Again, they were wrong. The performance of Australian students is still well ahead of the OECD average.
The OECD runs the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the capacity of 15-year-olds to grasp complex concepts in reading, science and mathematics.
These are the actual figures from the OECD’s data collection.
In 2008, Australia’s PISA score for reading – it’s a score, not a percentage – was 515. In 2018 it was 503. That’s a reduction of 2.3%, not “no change” as the Telegraph reported. And the average score of OECD countries in 2008 was 487. That’s 3.2% less than Australia’s score.
It’s a similar story in maths performance.
Australia’s maths score in 2009 was 514. There was a fall, to 491, by 2018. But that’s a decline of 4.5%, not 22%. And Australia was still ahead of the OECD – not by much, but not behind either.
In science, Australia fell from 527 to 503 – 4.6%, not 22%. And by 2018 we were still 2.8% ahead of the OECD.
All these areas fell, according to the PISA system, but not by all that much. It’s nowhere near enough to suggest a crisis.
Even if we compare ourselves with much tougher competitors – the 20 richest countries by GDP per capita – Australia still doesn’t do too badly. In 2018, the most recent year for which these figures have been compiled, we came twelfth.
Australia’s own NAPLAN results show even less reason to believe school performance is catastrophic or anything like it. This table shows the 2008 and 2022 results for year 9, an age group close to the OECD’s 15-year-olds.
These differences are statistically meaningless.
Another important measure of whether the school system works is whether it prepares students for further education. On this too, Australia does remarkably well. We come eighth among the 20 richest countries and are far ahead of the OECD average.
As in all countries, socio-economic background matters. Children who grow up in a home with well-educated parents, with books on the shelves, being read to by parents in infancy, and with expectation of a successful career, have a head-start that many other children can never catch. And there are major differences between states: just look at Tasmania.
There is a very strong case for doing more than we are for schools in disadvantaged areas, but to say this means the whole system is in disarray is unreasonable.
WHERE DO THE STUDENTS GO?
In all sectors – primary, lower secondary and upper secondary – government schools account for a large majority of students. As students grow older, they become more likely to switch systems, from government to Catholic or independent.
Senior secondary – years 11 and 12 – is where we see the greatest influence of private schools. If there’s a substantial trend away from the government sector towards the private, it will show up here first.
The shares vary from state to state but overall, the public sector still comprises the dominant majority.
Predictably, government schools in the poorest jurisdictions, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, have a heavier load – though in the ACT, Australia’s richest jurisdiction, the independent share is the nation’s second-lowest, just behind Tasmania.
Despite the hype, there is no long-term evidence of a student flood from public to private. Over the past 15 years, enrolments in all sectors have increased. Independent schools have increased their percentage share, but that’s from a low base.
Nevertheless, it’s significant that the parents of one in five senior secondary students are paying very large amounts of money because they believe their children will get a better education that way. They probably won’t – and we’ll get to that later – but the costs to those families are huge.
The comparative costs to families of public, private and Catholic education have been put together by a company specialising in loans for private education. Government schools are supposed to be free, though few really are. But the average cost of putting a child through the independent system in Sydney is calculated at $358,000. For a family with three children? Almost $1.1 million.
Since those figures were compiled, costs have risen. Average fees announced for 2023 increased by another 4.49%. For years, affordability of the private school sector has been reduced, with fees rising faster than parents’ wages.
WHAT ARE GOVERNMENTS PAYING FOR?
The federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, and others have said that despite per-student school funding increasing over the decade by 21% in inflation-adjusted terms, performance has gone backwards.
We’ve dealt with performance scores already. Australia’s international PISA score has gone marginally backwards but is still reasonably high by international standards and still above the OECD average. And our own NAPLAN system shows no such decline.
But what about the money?
Costs in schools have gone up far faster than standard consumer price inflation. CPI overall increased by 28.8% between 2012 and 2022. But the education component went up by 43.1%.
This means that real funding – taking actual costs into account – increased not by 21% but by 7%.
The trend over the past 15 years shows that state governments continue to bear the major burden of funding public-sector schools.
As federal funding increased, the states’ share of funding fell, but not by much. There has been only one major increase in Commonwealth recurrent funding: in 2008, the Rudd government increased its share from 9% to 11%.
CUTTING INDEPENDENT SCHOOL FUNDING
Wealthy private schools with lavish facilities are an obvious target for reformers who advocate de-funding independent schools in favour of better funding for poorer government schools.
|Cranbrook's idea of a school oval|
A major redevelopment has provided a very well-equipped new sports ground, an aquatic and fitness centre, a drama theatre, a chapel, an assembly hall and a car park.
Why, then, should schools like this receive federal government money?
Maybe they shouldn’t. But there’s not much to save.
Federal recurrent funding for independent schools is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Money is allocated on the basis of parents’ ability to pay: it’s called Capacity to Contribute, or CTC. Currently, the richest schools get $2,492 a year for each primary student and $3,132 for a secondary student. But there aren’t a lot of them. Defunding all of them wouldn’t do much for the huge government system or for needy disadvantaged schools.
Two-thirds of Australia’s 1,150 independent schools have fees below $7,500 a year. Those with no fees are able to get the full amount of the base funding that’s allocated for the sector by the federal Department of Education. In 2022, that was $12,462 per primary student and $15,660 in secondary.
The richest private schools get 20% of the federal funding that’s given to the poorest. There’s a reasonable case that they should lose even that, but there aren’t many of them: only 4.6% of independent schools have average fees above $25,000.
It would be extraordinarily difficult to make huge cuts in the two-thirds of private schools that account for the bulk of federal money. Even if the sector could be cut by 25%, that would boost the recurrent funding of government schools by only 2.8%
And the Catholic system, which overwhelmingly consists of poorer, low-fee schools, would not yield much either.
If the federal Minister for Education wants to put substantially more money into disadvantaged schools – and they certainly need it – he will have to find new money, and a lot of it. The federal contribution to schools is too small to fix the problems by juggling existing money around.
Several claims have been made about the state of Australia’s teacher workforce. These include:
- There is a severe and worsening shortage of teachers.
- Large numbers are leaving the profession.
- Teachers generally are not paid enough.
- Teachers have to spend so much time in the classroom that there is not enough time to prepare lessons.
Is there a shortage?
According to the federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, there is.
“The minister told the Daily Telegraph the number of teachers deserting the job was ‘scary’ and has tasked education supremo Mark Scott with supercharging how teaching is taught to attract more to the profession,” said one NewsCorp story.
The newspapers also did their own survey of job ads and found 1,280 vacancies across government and non-government schools. But the latest ABS data show Australia has almost half a million full-time equivalent teachers: 283,590 in the public system and another 173,056 in Catholic and independent schools.
The tabloid’s figures would mean a national job vacancy rate of 0.27%.
By international standards, there is no overall teacher shortage in Australia. On the ratio of students to teachers, we compare favourably against the toughest competition – the world’s 20 richest countries. The primary school figures show Australia at ninth on the list.
In secondary schools, Australia is also in ninth place: this time, well ahead of the OECD.
In terms of raw numbers, there is no evidence that Australia has a current shortage of teachers. But there is evidence from the Australian Workforce Data Report that the mix of specialist qualifications can be a poor fit with what schools actually need. This can lead to some teachers taking classes in subjects to which they are not qualified. Around 28% are spending at least some of the time teaching subjects out of their field.
Out-of-field teaching is distributed relatively evenly across all major subject categories. As we don’t have an overall shortage of teacher numbers, it is likely that the problem is, at least in part, one of distribution rather than supply: state education authorities failing to post teachers to schools where their specialist skills are needed.
And there are legitimate complaints about working conditions, such as short-term contracts, excessive administration demands and onerous requirements for professional learning and practice.
The workforce data survey also shows that 14% of teachers say they want to leave the profession within the next ten years. As the report says, how much of this will result in actual attrition is unknown. And there is a problem with the number of teachers entering the profession being insufficient to replace those who will retire in the next decade.
Among the teachers who want to leave, the reasons for disenchantment include workload (71% of the 14%), insufficient pay (29%), community attitudes to teachers (68%) and student behaviour (26%).
These matters are significant and need to be addressed. They do not, though, indicate a major and systemic crisis in the school system.
Despite complaints, teacher salaries in Australia compare well with those in other rich nations. Teachers earn 99% as much, on average, as other tertiary educated workers. Teachers in most other countries have more grounds for complaint.
It is sometimes claimed that salary scales in Australia do not adequately recognise seniority and experience. Again, though, salaries for this group compare well with those in most other rich nations.
What about workload?
There is good evidence that teachers in Australian government schools are overworked. Respondents to the Workforce Data survey reported having to work for 140% to 150% of the hours they were paid for. In other words, a third of their work was unpaid and in what should have been their own time.
The time Australian secondary teachers spend in front of the classroom is high by international standards. This means they have less time to prepare for lessons and do other things – administrative paperwork, yard duty and so on.