The Furphies Behind Pyne's Class War


If the Commission of Audit was serious about attempting to save money from the education budget, it would have been well advised to suggest the government stop funding private schools (as Chile has just done). Instead, it has handed down an education report that totally ignores the most extensive and significant review of school funding for 40 years — the Gonski Review — and the evidence showing a link between class size and student performance.

The first problem with the report is that it has again reiterated the furphy, repeated ad nauseaum by Education Minister Christopher Pyne, that while education funding has increased 44 per cent in the last decade, education standards have declined.

In fact, World Bank figures show that Australia’s spending on education as a proportion of GDP has declined from 4.9 per cent in 1999 to 4.4 per cent in 2011 (leaving aside the bump in 2008-9, which was one-off stimulus spending).

On top of this, just 71 per cent of Australian government spending goes to public schools. Government spending per public school student increased by about 2.4 per cent a year between 2007/08 and 2011/12 while private school student spending increased by about 3.4 per cent a year. In 2012, nearly 85 per cent of all Indigenous students and almost three-quarters of all students with a disability attended public schools. The wealthiest schools and families in Australia are now being subsidised to the tune of $3000 to $5000 per secondary student.

These statistics reveal an education system that has low levels of investment by OECD standards, with a large chunk of that money going to private schools, still inaccessible to many families. In response, the Gonski review suggested funding schools based on students’ needs.

But the CoA asserts that:

The per-student rate of funding that drives the [Gonski] model is not based on a detailed analysis of the cost of delivering education and may not represent its efficient price.

In one short sentence it dismissed a review led by an expert education panel and leading businessman, which took two years to complete and assessed thousands of submissions from all around Australia. The Commission recommended that the funding tied to the Gonski model be discontinued after 2018.

The second problem with the report is that it gives too much weight to studies suggesting that lower class sizes — which are more expensive, as they require greater numbers of teachers to sustain — do not help improve education outcomes.

The Commission states:

In terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of school funding, what matters most is how schools and classrooms are run. These factors are likely to have a greater impact on student outcomes than spending alone.

What goes on in classrooms, and how they are configured, are both critical. However, the current policy advice on the relationship between class size and students’ academic performance is based on the work of Ben Jensen, at the Grattan Institute, and Jennifer Buckingham, of the Centre for Independent Studies. Their work in turn relies on flawed US research which purports to show smaller classes produce little or no improvement to student performance, and which are used to justify greater reliance on cut-price and deregulated charter schools, which take public money while pushing market choice as a driver of better outcomes. They blame poor marks on bad teachers and failed administration — anything except funding levels.

But new research, which I authored, challenges these findings, on the basis of the review of 112 papers on the educational impact of class size published between 1979 and 2014. These papers cover education in a range of countries including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England and other parts of Europe. The review identified a number of studies which found that smaller class sizes significantly improve students’ academic performance in the first four years of school, particularly with regard to students disadvantaged by their SES, ethnicity or language background.

Additional funds, as planned for and agreed to as part of Labor’s Better Schools Plan, are critical to help bridge the enormous gap between the lowest and highest achievers in education in our country. Unless this problem is addressed our international academic outcomes will continue to slip. As Finland found, if you focus on equity of provision then quality outcomes are produced.

There is no justification for providing millions in government funding to schools that are the preserve of wealthy. It means less funding is available for schools serving low-income families, Indigenous students and students with disabilities.

The biggest danger to public education will be a rejection of the new funding formula based on student need, as agreed to by the states and territories, and a return to the discredited SES funding model used during the Howard years. This is the model the Coalition have always supported and, if reinstated, it will continue to privilege the wealthiest and most elite private schools at the expense of the working class and the poor.

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