I don’t write much about school funding. I think that it is an important issue but I also think that discussions that focus solely on funding miss a crucial point. Still, I thought it would be worth placing the Australian federal government’s new announcement in some context.
I lived through the Blair years in England when school funding increased dramatically. This correlated with a massive increase in the pass rate of GCSE exams sat by 16-year-olds. However, in his inaugural lecture after being appointed professor at Durham University in 2013, Rob Coe pointed out that performance on international tests was flat over the same period:
It seems that the improved performance at GCSE was a case of smoke and mirrors. Tactics such as schools being permitted to enter students for courses ‘equivalent’ to GCSE and a slackening of standards within GCSE subjects themselves led to chronic grade inflation. Like-for-like measures used by international tests showed no such improvement.
Why is it that you can throw money at an education system and not see it improve?
As I mentioned, I lived through the Blair years and I learnt that education systems are spectacularly good at spending money on initiatives that feel nice but lack any strong evidence. There is also a lack of willingness to critically review these initiatives when they are up and running. In the 2000s in England we saw educational progressivism take the lead. I had to attend training on the “Four Deeps”, we had to build “Personal Learning and Thinking Skills” (PLTS) into the curriculum – my school adopted the absurdly formulaic “Building Learning Power” approach – and the English schools inspectorate would visit schools, observe teachers and criticise them for talking too much or not utilising enough group work.
Funnily enough, we seem to be bolting along a similar path in Australia with the Mitchell Institute working with U.K. progressive educator Bill Lucas to push something very similar to England’s failed PLTS programme in Victoria. Increased funding for Australian schools is very likely to lead to more training in these thinkiness initiatives as well as marginal decreases in class sizes, more teaching assistants, project-based and interdisciplinary learning programmes, a greater use of digital devices and the implementation of more reading schemes such as New South Wales’s L3. None of these have much evidence of effectiveness and all are similar to the kinds of reforms pursued in England in the early 2000s.
In order to understand the current debate in Australia, it is important to note that Australian schools are funded differently to England. There are no government-run parochial schools in Australia and so all of our Catholic, Church of England, Islamic, Jewish and other faith schools are independent. This means that a greater proportion of students attend independent schools than in England. Provided that independent schools comply with certain regulations, they are given a proportion of their funding as a grant from federal government.
The academic left in Australia would like to completely cut federal funding to independent schools and redirect that money to government schools. However, this has political and practical difficulties. A large number of families would be affected by such cuts and this is probably why the last Labor government increased overall funding without reducing funding to independent schools; changing the balance without making politically difficult cuts. Yesterday’s funding proposal by the conservative coalition government actually does cut funding to some independent schools. It’s not a huge cut overall but it is interesting that it is the right that feels politically able to do this.
A wholesale funding cut for independent schools would also likely see a flow of students into the government sector as parents can no longer afford the fees. This would swallow some, if not all, of the redirected funding and may require some capital investment. There may be a positive argument for this move in terms of changing the social mix but it would be a very hard sell.
It would be good if we could end the funding wars but funding is likely to continue to dominate the discussion. Funding is important. Capital expenditure, in particular, makes a difference. No child should be educated in a dilapidated building. But we need to talk about more than that. As a profession, we must be able to present an evidence-based case for how we are going to use funding to make a real difference. It is notable that those who shout most loudly about funding have little or nothing to say about how it should be spent.