Minister for Education

Timid thinking no longer cuts it. Change is needed now

Their buildings are substandard— cheap and poorly ventilated.  Their classrooms are under resourced and uninviting. Their gardens are sparce and bleak.  Their play and sports grounds are inadequate— frequently small and ill equipped. Their students often struggle at school and their families often struggle at home. Money is scarce, employment and housing are insecure and good health care is usually unaffordable. 

Their teachers work harder than most because their students need more help than most. But these teachers don’t receive anywhere near the support and recognition they deserve. Many such schools are government schools. Yet they are left to make do with minimal resources and minimal care from state and federal governments. They have been pretty much abandoned— left to deteriorate, not properly helped prosper. 

Instead, these governments have allowed the private sector of schooling to grow without limit— depleting struggling government schools of the material and human resources they need for their students to flourish rather than flounder. 

These schools and these kids are part of the’ long tail’ of under-achievement that characterises the Australian schooling system. But the tail’s problems can’t be addressed in isolation. They are the tragic effect of much bigger problems. Australia’s schooling system is amongst the most privatised and least equitable in the world. And it underperforms on many indicators. 

New opportunities for equitable, achievement-oriented, change in Australian schooling have arisen in 2023. We now have a progressive national government, an equity-sensitive federal Minister for Education, and the National School Reform Agreement is being renegotiated. 

The time is thus ripe to reconsider and reconfigure the fateful intersections between school funding, equity, and achievement. This requires a critical examination of the vexed relationships between the public and private sector and federal and state governments. On Monday, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education hosted a policy symposium and public forum, called Funding, Equity and Achievement, which interrogated these intersections and vexed relationships.

The symposium room was packed with 75 experienced education policy analysts, members of key stake-holder groups and people from state and federal governments. Ten eminent thinkers, including speakers Professor Barry McGaw, The Hon Dr Carmen Lawrence AO and The Hon Verity Firth AM, shared their views and the public forum attracted over 250 participants off and online. And Melbourne University’s Twitter feed had over 3000 views. 

The Gonski Report of 2011 was a touchstone for discussion at this event. All agreed that its funding solutions to the problems of equity and achievement have since been seriously watered down.  

Some argued that the political timidity of the national Labor government, the power of the private school lobby and the sectional interests of the states were ultimately responsible.  

‘Gonski lite’ was the result. Yes, ‘needs-based’ recurrent funding arrangements were a result and the focus on needs was welcome. But ultimately, as many policy experts at the Symposium showed, greed replaced need. Gonski was always in the lite side, others insisted.   It was constrained from the outset by an invented funding architecture involving state, Catholic and Independent school systems.  This architecture, they argued, is a policy construction and convenience. Yet is treated as immovable and untouchable. The implicit message to the Gonski review team was don’t mess with the private schools. 

Historians in the room shared examples of the formidable power of private schools’ backlash-politics – and of their serious electoral consequences.  

State schools abandoned by governments 

So began an unjustifiable pattern of school funding. This is known as the 80/20 split. The wealthier federal government provides 80 per cent funding to private schools and 20 per cent of funding to state schools. The poorer states and territories do the reverse.  And here is the kicker. The Federal government meets its funding obligations to private schools and constantly provides them with lavish top ups. In contrast, the states and territories seldom meet their funding obligations to state schools. 

Speakers at the Sympisoum provided an avalanche of carefully researched numbers which left no doubt about the serious funding inequities. Slide after power-point slide showed how private schools have been consistently over-funded and how state schools have been consistently underfunded.  

A vicious funding circle was identified. The more resources the private sector gets, the more it grows. The more it grows, the greater its market dominance and share of allocated resources. Along with this is a sense of entitlement to automatic funding. In turn, this has led to the private school sector opening new schools and upgrading and expanding existing ones at will. 

This sector has thus enjoyed unfettered growth – becoming ever bigger, more middle class and more segregated from wider Australia. Few people in the room agreed with the funding split that has allowed this to happen. Many firmly believed the Commonwealth should more equally share its funding benevolence with state schools.  

And for this to happen they thought, a National Schools Resourcing Body as proposed by Gonski should be established. This would over-see funding for both public and private schools— together. The relationships between the sectors would be in plain sight. 

Public funding to private schools is untied. They are not required by law to provide any wider public benefit. They do as they please despite the copious amounts of public money they receive. The Symposium audience was shown how the wealthiest private schools draw on their funding excesses to fund their infrastructure excesses. We wondered if such overabundance could be justified in educational terms.  We agreed it was more about market signalling than student learning. So why fund it? 

Other questions arose. Should public money be conditional on private schools democratising their fee structures, entry policies and governance practices? Yes. 

What can stop them from draining the state school sector of money, reputation and the ‘best’ teachers, students and parents? Cap their growth for a start. Properly fund all state schools so that they can be the best they can be. 

The policy symposium provided unequivocal evidence that increases in private school funding have been at the expense of funding for public schools especially for struggling schools in struggling locations. 

Such underfunding, we agreed, leads to under achievement. Indigenous kids, country kids, kids with disabilities and kids from low-income families under-achieve because they are under-supported. They are under supported because they are under-funded. 

Struggling schools in struggling locations have less money to spend on the bare necessities. Additional resources are necessary to allow them to meet their complex needs in the best ways possible. Distinct and distinctive interventions are required.  

Ken Boston, a member of the Gonski Committee and former Director-General of the NSW Education Department, said as much, back in 2017: “They need smaller class sizes, specialist personnel to deliver the appropriate tiered interventions, speech therapists, counsellors, school/family liaison officers including interpreters, and a range of other support. And that support requires money. You can’t deliver education as a genuine public good without strategically differentiated public funding directed at areas of need. That’s what Gonski sought to achieve.”

Such under-support is sometimes driven by a naive policy mindset. It goes like this, ‘It’s not the money that matters but what you do with it’. Money AND what-you-do-with-it matter. It is not an either/or situation

Serious concerns were expressed that the current federal Labor government might not live up to its policy rhetoric.  People feared it might adopt a target and tinker approach.  Safe, simple and unlikely to make much difference. Time and again people called for systemic change. 

Presenters shared international studies that convincingly show how achieving equity at the systemic level leads to systemic improvements in achievement. Put equity first and achievement follows. 

Further, segregated education systems concentrate disadvantage. This, it was shown, has all sorts of deleterious effects and not just on the schooling of disadvantaged kids. Social cohesion depends on social mixing and where better to learn to mix than at school? The shared case study of Poland’s dramatic rise in school results is attributed to its introduction of comprehensive schools. 

 Many agreed that, despite its limitations, the Gonski review made hope possible. State school supporters united behind the slogan ‘I give a Gonski’.  

Now such supporters must unite again to save state schools from the residualisation caused by private school expansion. And the federal government must be prepared to stand up to the private school lobby which has neither the public interest nor the national interest at heart. 

Timid, standard arrangements and conventional thinking no longer cut it. Change is urgently required. 

Professor Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  

Why the federal government must ditch Jobs Ready Graduates now

New figures challenge the assumptions behind the Job-Ready Graduates package, introduced by the former Coalition government and unchanged by Labor. That package has underestimated the value and employability of arts, social science and humanities graduates.

The employment outcomes of students enrolled in arts, social sciences and humanities degrees have risen to 89.6 per cent – an increase of 25 percentage points according to the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) 2022 Longitudinal Graduate Outcomes Survey released this month.

The Package, introduced under former Education Minister Dan Tehan in 2020 and implemented this year, has seen the cost for students of many arts, social science and humanities degrees more than double.

QILT’s longitudinal study shows that the graduates in a wide range of disciplines, including arts, social sciences and humanities are highly employable and that attempts to drive students into some fields at the expense of others are misplaced.

The report measures the medium-term outcomes of higher education graduates based on a cohort analysis of graduates who responded to the 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey. 

It noted the figures around generalist degrees “continue to demonstrate an important point – that while undergraduates from some fields of education, in particular those with generalist degrees, have weaker employment outcomes soon after completing their course, the gap in employment outcomes across fields of education tends to narrow over time.”

The Federal Government must commit to abandoning the policy which is putting our students at a significant financial disadvantage.

Nick Bisley

It also states that while vocational degrees tend to have higher employment outcomes than generalist degrees in the short term “the gap in employment rates between those with vocational and generalist degrees diminishes over time”.

80 per cent of students following their passions

This research follows earlier findings from the Universities Admission Centre Student Lifestyle Report. It found 81 per cent of the nearly 14,000 Year 12 students interviewed said passion would guide their choices for further study.

Four in five of last year’s high school graduates have said passion is their leading influence when choosing a degree, showing that the previous government’s attempts to drive enrolment numbers using fee increases was always likely to fail.

These statistics further disprove claims fee increases would guide student preferences under the JRG.

DASSH is calling for university fee reform under the upcoming Accord to be undertaken by the Federal Government given the lack of evidence linking fee levels to job outcomes and career success more broadly.

Productivity Commission observations

In addition to results from the above reports, the Productivity Commission has recently made several key points about student fees being used as incentives in its 5-year Productivity Inquiry: From learning to growth. In this report the Commission finds that students are best placed to judge for themselves what education suits their interests and their aspirations.

The report rightly points out: “Government subsidies for tertiary education could be allocated more efficiently and equitably, without necessarily increasing the total amount of public funding.”

“Currently, governments set differential subsidies based on targeting public benefits and skill needs, but these have little impact on student choice because income-contingent loans eliminate upfront fees and make price differences less salient.”

Our members believe attempting to manipulate student preferences through price signalling is counterproductive to the aims of having an efficient and high-quality tertiary system.

DASSH strongly supports the evidence in the report that shows human capital will be more in demand in the future than ever before.

“As our reliance on the services sector expands, people’s capabilities (‘human capital’) will play a more important role than physical capital in improving productivity,” the report states.

“General and foundational skills will continue to underpin the workforce’s contribution to productivity, and as routine tasks are automated, newly created jobs will increasingly rely on areas such as interpersonal skills, critical thinking, working with more complex equipment, and accomplished literacy and numeracy.”

The skills described in the report are derived through the education of students in the arts, social sciences and humanities. It is impossible to know in advance what the value of these disciplines or specific courses offered within our degrees will be in part because of the rapidly changing nature of the labour market and the innovative ways in which knowledge is put to use in society.

The current price settings for arts, humanities and social sciences degrees were set without any evidence that they would work nor any consideration about the impact on current or future students. 

Those degrees are valued by employers and provide a strong intellectual foundation for long term career success. The JRG punishes students who want to pursue studies that are beneficial to them and society more broadly and a new and more equitable pricing level should be developed.

The Federal Government must commit to abandoning the policy which is putting our students at a significant financial disadvantage.

Nick Bisley is President of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. He is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University. His research focuses primarily on Asia’s international relations, great power politics and Australian foreign and defence policy. Nick is a member of the advisory board of China Matters and a member of the Council for Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. Nick is the author of many works on international relations, including Issues in 21st Century World Politics, 3rd Edition (Palgrave, 2017), Great Powers in the Changing International Order (Lynne Rienner, 2012), and Building Asia’s Security (IISS/Routledge, 2009, Adelphi No. 408). He regularly contributes to and is quoted in national and international media including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and Time Magazine

What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Part one of a two-part series in response to Stuart Robert’s comments last week. Tomorrow: Anna Sullivan on how the minister’s comments affects teacher retention.

Minister Robert’s comments last week at an Association of an Independent Schools event which claimed public schools are held back by “dud teachers” do more to expose his own bias and failings than it does to reflect on the teaching profession.

The minister has the wrong target. Teachers are not to blame for the sorry state of Australian education. The problem lies with system failings that Minister Robert has responsibility for.

I feel sorely tempted to analyse the bias, political motivations, and the unfounded and illogical reasoning demonstrated by the minister, and apparently his advisors and speechwriters. However, I will stick to my strengths and instead look at evidence and some killer facts

There is no data to support the assertion that government schools have weaker teachers. Repeated, and recent, research suggests that government schools performance is  similar to non-government schools in terms of lifting student learning outcomes. Furthermore, there is no data on teacher ability that supports the Ministers’ assertion. The national and embryonic and incomplete Australian Teacher Workforce Data does not include measures of literacy and numeracy, there are no published analyses of LANITE tests. There is just one recent report on adult literacy and numeracy levels among Australian teachers – it doesn’t compare sectors, but I shall explain its significant findings later in point 3.  Sectoral (gov/non-gov) comparisons on teacher workforce have not been done and would be an unhelpful, and potentially inflammatory, distraction from the central problem of inequality in Australian schooling.  There is, however, plenty of evidence, and some killer facts, that show the real system-level challenges in Australian education, and the solutions they require.  

These are the system problems to which Mr Robert needs to attend rather than sling mud at teachers and inflame sectoral infighting :

1. Australia has a problem with educational equity in funding, resourcing and curriculum which, alongside school choice policies, has led to increasing school segregation. Both the OECD and UNICEF have identified this as a key weakness in Australian schooling. School segregation has left many government schools carrying increasing concentrations of disadvantaged students. Within the current context of teacher shortages, iniquitous school funding, increasing workloads and difficult work conditions, many schools find it difficult to staff their classrooms. 

In a survey of 38 wealthy nations Australia ranked 30th on educational inequity and was in the bottom third of nations on each of the schooling stages – preschool, primary and secondary. 

Figure 1: Rankings of equality across three stages of education. From 2018 UNICEF report An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries

Solutions:  Lift early childhood participation and duration to ameliorate inequity.  Enact the Gonski school funding reforms, fund all schools to their required School Resource Standard. Address structural problems in schooling, e.g. develop sector blind school obligations, operations and accountabilities for all schools receiving government funding. Provide reforms for curriculum equity, including through online/remote provisions. Monitor and report all educational data for social equity groups. 

2. Australia’s national educational goals have been grossly neglected. There is little, or no, alignment between the goals education ministers put their signatures to in the Mparntwe statement and what is measured in schools and reported in our National Reporting on Schooling

This is a gaping hole in educational policy and accountability, matching goals with monitoring and strategy development is foundational to System Accountability 101.  While governments have been busy over the last decade developing frameworks for teacher and school accountability, much needed system and ministerial accountability have been ignored. It is a simple fact that there is currently no monitoring of national goals in students’ confidence, creativity, orientation to lifelong learning, or preparation to be ‘active and informed’ citizens (with the exception of a small amount of sample data available on citizenship education, showing  disappointing results).

What is even more surprising is that equity has not been adequately monitored. Although excellence and equity are generic aspirations, and can be assessed against any data indicator, there is very little analysis and reporting against the equity goal in national reporting documents.

The Measurement Framework for Australian Schooling (MFAS) identifies equity as a key goal and challenge, and suggests that all educational data will be disaggregated and examined in relation to a series of identified equity groups:  “…with a focus on: Indigenous status, sex, language background, geographic location, socioeconomic background, disability.”

However MFAS qualifies this, saying:

“With the exception of retention to Year 12 by Indigenous students, which relates to COAG targets for Closing the Gap, equity measures are not separately listed in the Schedule of Key Performance Measures but are derived, for reporting purposes, by disaggregating the measures for participation, achievement and attainment where it is possible and appropriate to do so. Measures are disaggregated as outlined in the SCSEEC Data Standards Manual.”

Which is to say, there is no follow through on accountability systems for these goals. 

If we examine the pursuit of the educational equity goals in the annual National Report on Schooling, produced by ACARA, we see glaring omissions. The report does acknowledge some equity groupings and, like the MFAS, suggests there will be analysis but, again, only  “where it is possible and appropriate to do so”: 

In the most recent 2019 annual report measures, analysis and reporting are not linked to national goals. Equity is mentioned just six times in the 138 page document, mostly just in preamble. There is no comprehensive analysis against excellence, equity or any other national goal. There is no reporting against disability, LBOTE, SES; and extremely limited reporting on Indigenous students and geolocation. There is more frequent reporting by gender. Further reference to equity for social equity groups directs interested readers to the ACARA data portal to conduct their own analyses of equity! Is that reasonable, diligent attention for our foremost national goal for education? 

Solutions: Include comprehensive analysis of social equity groups within the annual report on schooling. Strategise to address trends, through funding, resourcing and teacher workforce strategy. Develop measures/indicators for all Australian education goals. Commission research to explore key practices in progressing toward educational goals. 

3. Australian teacher workforce management makes us an International outlier

The 2018 OECD report  Effective Teacher Policies makes it clear that current teacher workforce management (methinks a lack of management) is directly impacting upon schooling outcomes – excellence and equity. This study used OECD, PIACC adult literacy and numeracy data to explore the strategic placement of teachers. Among wealthy nations, Australia sits apart as we send our most experienced, literate and numerate teachers to our most advantaged schools. Other country systems deliberately strategised to send their best and brightest teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This has been an imperative for educational equity, effectiveness and economic efficiency, understood and implemented for many decades, but sadly neglected in Australia.

Teacher reports from the same survey also make it clear that disadvantaged schools have worse resources compared to advantaged schools when it comes to:

  • Experience and seniority levels of teachers
  • Proportions of teachers who are trained or certified in all subjects they teach 
  • Proportion of science teachers with temporary teaching contracts

As the majority of disadvantaged schools are within the government sector, this data  suggests that suitable allocation of teachers to disadvantaged government schools is lacking. It does not provide any basis for comparison of government and non-government school teachers. What is more, this represents a structural policy issue, and a ministerial responsibility requiring urgent attention, not 

Solution: Australia needs a national teacher recruitment, retention and allocation policy to address this problem, not to mention teacher shortages and workload issues.  Without one, we are the international outlier here too. Unfortunately, the recent Commonwealth review, failed to present a cohesive strategic framework oriented around key values and principals. A national strategy needs to highlight these (e.g. due respect and recognition of teachers, pursuit of educational goals, equity etc) and lay out aims for how teachers are recruited, trained and distributed to schools. The strategy would also need more effective monitoring, data, research and reporting on  the teacher workforce (building on the ATWD). 

How to break the cycle of neglect?

With better data, reporting, transparency and system-level accountability frameworks, future education Ministers can be less ignorant and more informed, as they comment on issues relating to teachers and how we can all work together to strengthen school education.

The current failings in our education system are now clear, and reflect many years of neglect, particularly in relation to teachers and equity. We urgently need national, politically neutral and collective attention to address the system generated problems currently being faced by schools, teachers, students and parents. With ignorance and misinformation at the helm, I wonder if, as with aged care and disability services, we will need a Royal Commission into education in order to make that happen. It certainly looks like we are heading there. 

Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

One provocative question: what on earth does evidence-based really mean?

This post was written before Alan Tudge took leave from his position as the Minister for Education. But he’s not the only one to bang on about ‘evidence’ without really being clear what he means.

There can be little argument in wanting university Schools of Education to impart to their students, knowledge premised on systematically-acquired evidence. It is irrefutable that teacher educators want their students to leave university and enter the classroom confident in the delivery of best practices. However, the requirement for ‘evidence based-practice’ is in danger of becoming a political polemic in which knowledge may be obfuscated by ideology, rather than being the outcome of systematic investigation.  

Writing in The Australian,Paul Kelly ‘reflects’ on the then Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge’s ‘drive’ to ensure universities impart, ‘…evidence-based practices such as phonics and explicit teaching instruction methodologies.’ The former Minister issues a warning that he will use, ‘the full leverage’ of the Federal Government’s $760m budget to insist, ‘…evidence-based practices are taught…’ in universities. Yet, the threat is based more on assumption that evidence-based practices are not being taught in our universities, than any substantial evidence that they are not. 

It is ironic the former Minister should argue for something on the basis of a lack of evidence. Aside from this point, questions arise around the nature of evidence the former Minister considers to be bona fide in relation to practice. This is an issue around which there is a distinct lack of clarity. The former Minister clearly states what he does not want, which includes: sociology and socio-cultural theory. His wish to see the demise of branches of thinking are questionable, given that it is usually dictatorial regimes that close down thought in their nation’s academies. He wants a tightly prescriptive curriculum for teacher education. In this respect, he appears to be following the Conservative administration of Boris Johnson in Britain, where a similar proposal has been tabled for English universities, resulting in some of the world’s top universities describing the plan as deeply flawed and having damaging consequences If Boris Johnson wants something and Oxford and Cambridge consider it fool-hardy, the weight of opinion surely tilts in favour the academies. 

The point remains as to the kind of ‘evidence’ upon which evidence-based practice is premised. What may pass as ‘evidence’ is not necessarily bona fide ‘knowledge’. All research, including educational research, involves knowledge that is acquired by means of rigorous, systematic investigation within clearly defined parameters. Even so, the outcomes of an investigation may be influenced by a number of factors, including: ontological perspective; the framing of the research questions; methodological approaches; analytical methods; researcher interpretation and the degree to which any funding body remains impartial. Ultimately, before it can take its place in the pantheon of evidence, research must be interrogated by means of independent peer-review and subsequently published in a highly respected discipline relevant journal. Even then, sometimes what may appear to be good evidence can prove to be disastrous in its outcomes. We do not know if the ‘evidence’ to which the former Minister refers, satisfies these requirements. What is certain is that the ‘evidence’ used by Paul Kelly to suggest universities are ‘failing’ their students and the nation’s schools, does not meet most of these standards of respected research. 

It was an Australian doctor, William McBride, who in 1961, published a letter in The Lancet, suggesting that thalidomide had negative consequences and drew attention to the possible fallacy of evidence. Randomised control trials (RCTs) of the drug in rats had proven effective for controlling for morning sickness, but it took observation of multiple cases to prove the drug was not fit for purpose. 

So, what kind of ‘evidence’ is being referred to by the former Minister when he rightly insists we need to ensure that pedagogy is evidence-based’. Is he referring to evidence derived from primary research, such as randomized control trials (RCTs) and observational studies; or secondary research, including systematic reviews of the research literature? The fact is there is no single type of evidence. It is generally recognised that different evidence types have different methodological strengths. At the pinnacle of the ‘hierarchy of evidence’, are systematic reviews, followed by RCTs, cohort studies and then case-controlled studies, case reports and finally expert opinion. Without identifying the type of evidence to which he refers, the former Minister, appears to resort to lay-opinion disguised as evidence. 

Without a clarity of thought, political policy, based on vague supposition, could lead to prescriptive measures that result in ‘damaging consequences’. As the thalidomide example cited above demonstrates, a single type of evidence is not always sufficient proof, and multiple types of evidence may be necessary to triangulate knowledge. Rather than denouncing certain disciplines of thought and prescribing others, perhaps the way forward is to systematically interrogate different types of evidence in order to evaluate their efficacy, as bona fide knowledge. The best way to do this is by means of teacher-academics and teacher-practitioners working collaboratively, across multiple settings, engaging in systematic research, and cross-referencing results. For this to happen, there needs to be a commitment by government to fund, not cut, educational research. Australia has some of the finest Schools of Education in the world; they are staffed by dedicated academics who want the best for their students and the best for the nation’s school children. What universities need is a knowledge-rich government, not political polemic that does not even reach the baseline of the ‘hierarchy of evidence’. 


Paul Gardner is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin University. He is also the United Kingdom Literacy Association’s Country Ambassador to Australia. Paul specialises in research around writer identity; compositional processes and pedagogy. He has written about process drama, EAL/D, multicultural education and collaborative learning. His work is premised upon inclusion and social justice.  Twitter @Paugardner