2019 REPORT CARD for Australia’s national efforts in education

By David Zyngier

It’s the end of the school year and school reports are being sent home. Let’s imagine every Australian household received a report on Australia’s national efforts in education. This is what it might look like based on the latest  OECD Education at a Glance 2019  (which covers data between 2010 and 2016 and compares statistics across 42 countries).

(For those not familiar with the Australian A to E school reporting scale: A means Very High Achievement, B means High Achievement, C means Sound Achievement, D means Limited Achievement, E means Very Limited Achievement and there is no ‘Fail’.)

Early Childhood Education     

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

There has been a surge of policy attention to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in OECD countries in recent decades, with a focus on children under the age of 3. Enrolment of 3 year-olds in early childhood education and care is still low in OECD countries despite increasing awareness of its importance.

In  Australia the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, was developed in 2008. It aims to maintain universal access to quality early childhood education programmes for all Australian children in the year before full-time school, that is all Australian 4-year-olds. However enrolment in Early Childhood Education and Care among Australian 4-year-olds is still below the OECD average, although the gap has narrowed.

In 2017, 85% of 4-year-olds in Australia were enrolled in Early Childhood Education and Care, slightly below the OECD average of 87%. Enrolment among 3-year-olds is even worse: only 67% of Australian 3-year-olds are enrolled, well below the OECD average of 79%. 

Teacher remuneration      

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

It is often claimed that Australian teachers are well paid in comparison to other countries. This on the surface may be true. But Australian teachers work more hours than teachers in other OECD countries and, the distribution of salaries is comparatively flat in Australia, both over the course of teachers’ careers and across educational levels. For example, it takes only seven years for a secondary teacher to progress from the statutory starting salary to the top of the scale, compared to 25 years on average across OECD countries. However, it is at the top of the scale, that Australian teachers lose out as their pay is only 48% more than starting salaries at all levels of education taught, compared to 61-67% on average across OECD countries. Money isn’t necessary viewed as the reason why people go into teaching, as respect and esteem is often seen as equally important.

Class sizes     

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

Successive ministers have often pointed out the considerable cost of reducing class sizes in Australia, as have conservative education commentators. One minister even wanted class sizes to be increased so as to employ fewer teachers. This isn’t borne out by the evidence from the OECD and elsewhere. Across all schools from 2005, the number of teaching staff per student (an approximate proxy for class size) dropped only marginally, from 14.2 to 13.9, a negligible 2.2 per cent change. According to the 2019 report since 2005 average class size in Australia has fallen from 24 to 23 students only. At the primary level, the average class in OECD countries has 21 pupils.

Spending on school education    Result: Fail

Australia’s Federal education ministers claim that Australia’s spending on education has never been higher and that expenditure has increased 25% or $10 billion since 2010. This ignores the fact that our student population has dramatically increased requiring spending on new schools, school infrastructures and of course more teachers. $8 billion of the extra funding (or 80 per cent) went to a mix of “everyday” items: rising student numbers, wage increases, and the ongoing costs of increased investments in government school buildings. Student numbers grew by 9 per cent, so the real increase per student was 14 per cent. Educating these extra students cost just under $4 billion, or two-fifths of the overall increase.

While Australia spends just above the OECD average per student on school education, it spends far less than countries like Luxembourg, Norway, Austria and Belgium. Australia ranks 8th in spending on school education as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product in the OECD behind New Zealand, Norway, Israel, UK, Iceland Belgium and Columbia. Australia increased the share of GDP invested in tertiary educational institutions by over 10% but reduced the share invested in school education by at least 5% during this period. Australia’s total school expenditure as a proportion of GDP is just at the OECD average but as a percentage of total government spending on school education Australia spends less than the OECD average of 4.4%.

Equity     Result: Fail

In Australia, 36% of total investment on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is privately funded compared to only 18% on average across OECD countries.

Australia spends only 40% public money on public tertiary education which is less than any other country in OECD except for England. Only Chile spends less public money on public tertiary education. Australia also “transfers”, that is subsidises, over 21% of public money to private tertiary institutions tertiary education, again only second to England.

However real funding for public schools over that period was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic and Government supported private schools increased by $1,420 per student (18.4%) and for private independent schools by $1318 (20.9%) per student.

Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland, Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education.  Australia has the 4th highest “most privatised” school education spending after Mexico, Columbia, Turkey.

Principal’s Comment

The data is clear. Australia seems to be coasting. If she invests more effort and resources she could improve her outcomes immeasurably. Compared to many of her cohort she is not paying enough attention to the things that would make a difference – a good public school in every suburb, resources based on real need, and equity among all schools.

Next year Australia needs to try a lot harder to base her policies on evidence that promotes equity. She needs to do this with some urgency or she will keep slipping behind. Australia is very capable of achieving much more, but only if she puts her mind to it and makes equity a priority.

David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier

3 thoughts on “2019 REPORT CARD for Australia’s national efforts in education

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for a compelling use of satire to make some important observations about the state of Australian education. Your piece raises the issue of whether our policy makers are capable of understanding satire.

  2. Associate Professor Joanne O'Mara says:

    This is an extremely well-written report card. The links provide a range of substantiating pieces of evidence and the assessment grades stand up to surveillance and marking by other teachers and assessment panels. The principal’s comment is an accurate summary of the evidence provided by the class teacher and lists some strategies to enable Australia to move forward. Congratulations on an excellent piece of work!

  3. Some of these problems can be corrected by teachers themselves, with the help of better teacher training. As an example, teachers can be trained to manage the hours they work. Rather than encouraging a martyr complex, where working long hours is seen as a good thing, teachers can be trained to get the important work done in the time allocated. This can use techniques to reduce workload on less productive tasks, the use of new pedagogy, and technology.

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