Chris Bonnor

Lean over PISA. Make way for a better future for schools

As the year grinds to a close, we celebrate the end-of school results of our Year 12 students. It’s an annual ritual, the festive season is always accompanied by school league tables and predictable stories about school and student success – somewhat in contrast to the seeming failure of other schools and students. 

But something extra happened this year. The results festival was preceded by the release of the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores and analysis . . . hotly followed by the quite separate release of proposals for Australia’s next National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA). When seen alongside our end-of-school results, these two events point to a sorry past and present, but one gives us a glimpse of a better future.  

Let’s start with PISA

Each PISA report usually sparks a moral panic about our schools – not so much this year because there seems a bit of good news: Australia’s student achievement picked up a tad. We have actually climbed the international rankings … alas, only because others have slipped backwards. 

But a different story lies behind the headlines. PISA shows that the achievement gaps between high socio-economic status (SES) and disadvantaged students have continued to widen in reading, mathematics and science since 2006. For those at the bottom, this now amounts to years of lost learning time and opportunity. 

Even where progress seems evident, variations within Australia reveal problems. NSW students have improved most in maths and reading . . . but NSW has the widest range of scores between the top and bottom students, results usually found in the Northern Territory. It’s a bit unsettling: in terms of the school achievement gaps, NSW ranks alongside the poorest parts of Australia.

End of year results

Of course, not everyone wants to dig into PISA scores to get a handle on such gaps. So why not see how it plays out in those end-of-school results that get us excited every December? We know that the HSC and Victoria’s VCE, as two examples, tell something about student achievement, school by school. But the changing distribution of high-level scores reveals much more.

There has always been a gap between the highest and lowest SES schools; those near the top creep up, those at the bottom just keep struggling. So what has happened to those just above and below the middle – the schools which enrol most students? Back in 2006 the schools above the middle increased their share of the most valued students and, in the case of NSW, their equally valued distinguished achiever awards. But the schools below the middle saw their share of such students cut in half. The pattern in Victoria is similar, with fewer extremes. 

Put bluntly, large swathes of rural and low SES schools, even if they can attract teachers, struggle hard enough to offer a rounded senior school curriculum, let alone boast many, if any, high-level achievers. The latter have gone, and they took their high scores with them.     

It’s almost as if the lower half decided not to try harder. Certainly, that’s often implied by the commentariat, and by legislators who should know better. And of course there is no shortage of reasons offered up for such poor performance. Take your pick from some recent ones: too many devices, an inadequate science syllabus, impact of COVID, misbehaving kids, not enough phonics, the list goes on.

Reasons for optimism

But there is reason for optimism, and this is where we get to the third big event, alas the one with the smallest headlines: the panel set up to inform the upcoming National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) has now reported. As expected, and as it should, it wants full Schools Resourcing Funding for all schools, closing the funding gaps sooner.

There is much more. By any standards, the report Improving outcomes for all developed by this remarkable panel and its supporting team has potentially broken new ground. 

It clearly states that “the current system entrenches educational disadvantage and makes it less likely that other reforms will realise Australia’s longstanding ambition of equity and excellence.” They won’t and shouldn’t walk away from authentic and proven reform, but they are effectively saying: let’s stop fluffing around here with peripheral (and appealing) reform and reduce the segregation of student enrolments which is increasingly widening achievement gaps and contributing to poor overall performance. 

Markedly different obligations

It effectively confirms a fundamental and sadly unique feature of Australia’s public/private framework of schools, its hierarchical nature. Schools operate on a very unlevel playing field, with often similar funding . . . but markedly different obligations. In the inevitable competition between schools, those with choice – and that includes both families and schools – do well, those without risk falling behind. 

Who they enrol and where they come from

The hierarchy is everywhere. Anyone can compare, for schools in their local area, this year’s HSC or VCE results alongside My School’s measure of school socio-educational advantage. It is the work of schools which should contribute most to ‘school’ results; instead, the school-by-school differences are more determined by who they enrol and where they come from.

Given that this crazy framework of schools is rusted into our psyche and functioning as families and schools, it was arguably brave of Education Minister Jason Clare to set up any review, especially one entitled a Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System. Then, it was a very forward looking panel to deliver recommendations which, if implemented, will begin to change our system for the better.

The panel has directly addressed the need to increase socio-economic diversity in school enrolments and to do it soon, by “reviewing existing policy settings by the end of 2027 and implementing new policy levers to increase socio‑economic diversity in schools and lift student outcomes” and, even earlier, to set in place the reporting of the SES diversity of schools and systems. To serve this and other purposes it recommends substantial improvement in data collection and use at all levels.

Those on the panel and in the supporting reference group could see the problem. The Productivity Commission has stated that peer effects and less experienced teachers in schools with high concentrations of disadvantage were drivers of poorer student outcomes – and that students from priority equity cohorts demonstrate, on average, less learning growth if they attend a school with a high concentration of disadvantage. Parents know this and arguably have for decades, it substantially drives their search for schools up the SES ladder. It matters to them who their kids sit with – and the evidence, even going back to the Gonski Review, backs up their concerns. It has left Australia with a profoundly wicked problem.  

What next?

Where to from here? The recommendations have gone to Australia’s education ministers and will be worked into Commonwealth legislation for the next School Reform Agreement.    Our leaders and legislators need to be firmly convinced that what are relatively mild recommendations should remain and be even strengthened and implemented in full. And that’s just the easy part. It then has to navigate a perilous path among politicians who will need to fully understand all the issues and possible solutions – and cast their lot in with those who really do want a better and fairer education system.

Chris Bonnor AM is a former teacher and secondary school principal and was a previous head of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council. He has co-authored a number of books, most recently Choice and Fairness: a common framework for all Australian schools and is co-author with Tom Greenwell of Waiting for Gonski, how Australia failed its schools. NSW Press, 2022. He regularly contributes to a range of publications and media.

Everything you never knew you wanted to know about school funding

Book review: Waiting For Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor

With the 2022 federal election now in the rear-view mirror and a new Labor government taking office, discussions about the Education portfolio have already begun. As journalists and media commentators noted, education did not figure largely in the election campaign, notwithstanding the understandable public interest in this area. One of the enduring topics of education debates –  and the key theme of Waiting For Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor – is school funding.

It is easy, and common, to view the school funding debate as a partisan issue. Inequities in school funding are often presumed to be an extension of conservative government policies going back to the Howard government. Waiting for Gonski shows how inaccurate this perception is, and how far governments of any political persuasion have to go before true reform is achieved. 

The first part of the book is an analysis of the context that gave rise to the Review of Funding for Schooling in 2011, commonly known as the Gonski Report. Greenwell and Bonnor devote their first chapter to an overview of the policy arguments and reforms that consumed much of the 20th century, leading to the Gillard government establishing the review. This history is written in a compelling, detailed and interesting way, and contains many eye-opening revelations. For example, the parallels between the 1973 Karmel report and the 2011 Gonski version are somewhat demoralizing for those who feel that school funding reform should be attainable in our lifetimes. Secondly, the integral role that Catholic church authorities have played in the structure of funding distributions that continue to the present day is, I think, a piece of 20th century history that is very little known. Julia Gillard’s establishment of the first Gonski review is thus situated as part of a longer narrative that is as much a part of Australia’s cultural legacy as are questions around national holidays, or whether or not Australia should become a republic.

Several subsequent chapters detail the findings of the 2011 Gonski review, its reception by governments, lobby groups, and the public, and the immediate rush to build in exceptions when interest groups (particularly independent and catholic school bodies) saw they would “lose money”. The extent to which federal Labor governments are equally responsible for the inequitable state of school funding is made more and more apparent in the first half of the book. Greenwell and Bonnor sought far and wide for comments and recollections from many of the major players in this process, including politicians of both colours, commentators, lobbyists, and members of the review panel itself. This certainly shows in the rich detail and description of this section.

Rather than representing a true champion of equity and fairness, the Gonski report is painted as one built on flawed assumptions, burdened with legacies that were not properly unpacked, and marred by a multitude of compromises, designed to appease the loudest proponents of public funding for private and catholic schools. The second Gonski review, officially titled, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, is given less emphasis perhaps because this second review was less about equity and funding and more about teacher quality and instructional reform – a book-length subject in itself.

Waiting for Gonski is most certainly an intriguing and entertaining read (a considerable achievement, given its fairly dry subject matter), and is highly relevant for those of us working towards educational improvements of any description in Australia. My main criticism of the book is that it tends to drag a little in the middle third. While the details of machinations between political leaders and catholic and independent school lobbyists are certainly interesting, the arguments in these middle chapters are generally repetitions from earlier chapters, with reiterated examples of specific funding inequities between schools. 

A second concern I have is the uncritical focus on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data to support claims of widespread student academic failure. While it’s true that PISA shows long-term average declines in achievement amongst Australian school students, these assessments are not the only standardized tests of student achievement in this country. The National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is briefly touched upon in Chapter 8, but not emphasized. The reality is that while average student achievement on NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests have not increased – after their initial boost between 2008 and 2009 – nor have students’ results suffered large scale declines. Figure 1 demonstrates this graphically, showing the mean scores for all cohorts who have completed four NAPLAN assessments (up until 2019).

Figure 1. Mean NAPLAN reading achievement for six cohorts in all Australian states and territories. Calendar years indicate Year 3. (Data sourced from the National Assessment Program: Results website) 

It seems somewhat disingenuous to focus so wholeheartedly on one standardized assessment regime at the expense of another to support claims that schools and students are ‘failing’. For example, in Chapter 3 the authors argue that,

 “…the second unlevel playing field [i.e. the uneven power of Australian schools to attract high performing students] is a major cause of negative peer effects and, therefore, the decline in the educational outcomes of young Australians witnessed over the course of the 21st century” (p.93) 

In my view, claims such as these are over-reach, not least because arguments of a decline in educational outcomes rely solely on PISA results. Furthermore, the notion that the scale and influence of peer effects are established facts is also not necessarily supported by the research literature. Other claims made about student achievement growth are similarly unsupported by longitudinal research. In this latter case, not because claims overinterpret existing research, rather because there is very little truly longitudinal research in Australia on patterns of basic skills development – despite the fact that NAPLAN is a tool capable of tracking achievement over time. 

Using hyperbole to reinforce a point is not a crime, of course, however the endless repetition of similar claims in the public sphere in Australia tends to reify ideas that are not always supported by empirical evidence. While these may simply be stylistic criticisms, they also throw into sharp relief the research gaps in the Australian context that could do with addressing from several angles (not just reports produced by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], which are liberally cited throughout).

I hope that the overabundance of detail, and the somewhat repetitive nature of the examples in this middle section of the book, don’t deter readers from the final chapter: Leveling the playing field. To the credit of Greenwell and Bonnor, rather than outline all the problems leaving readers with a sense of despair, the final chapter spells out several compelling policy options for future reform. While structures of education funding in Australia may seem intractable, the suggestions give concrete and seemingly-achievable options which would work presuming all players are equally interested in educational equity. The authors also tackle the issue of religious schools with sensitivity and candour. It is true that some parents want their children to attend religious schools. How policy can ensure that these schools don’t move further and further along the path of excluding the poorest and most disadvantaged – arguably those whom churches have the greatest mission to help – should be fully considered, without commentators tying themselves in knots over the fact that a proportion of Australia’s citizens have religious convictions.

Questions around school funding, school choice and educational outcomes are perennial topics in public debate in Australia. However, claims about funding reform should be underpinned by a good understanding of how the system actually works, and why it is like this in the first place. This is the great achievement of Greenwell and Bonnor in Waiting for Gonski. The way schools obtain government funding are obscure, to say the least, and there is a perception that private schools are not funded to the same extent as public schools. Waiting for Gonski clearly shows how wrong this idea is. As the book so powerfully argues, what Australia’s school funding system essentially does is allow children from already economically advantaged families to have access to additional educational resources via the school fee contributions these families are able to make. The book is a call to action to all of us to advocate for a rethink of the system.

Education is at the heart of public policy in many nations, not least in Australia. Waiting for Gonski is as much a cautionary tale for other nations as it is a comprehensive and insightful evaluation of what’s gone wrong in Australia, and how we might go about fixing it. 

Waiting for Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools by Tom Greenwell & Chris Bonnor. 367pp. UNSW Press. RRP $39.99

Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27