Time to do the maths on what's best spent where in education

29 Nov 2013 Article

Op-Ed originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 29 November 2013.

Countries that spend a high proportion of their GDP on education do not automatically produce highperforming education systems.
Christopher Pyne

The key driver of all education policy across the Commonwealth, states and territories, government and nongovernment sectors should be improving student outcomes. That means real improvements in student performance in key areas such as literacy, maths and science. It also means ensuring our students can work and thrive in the 21st century, skilled in critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, creativity and effective communication.

Unfortunately, quality has been missing in action in the recent debate about education policy. Indeed, this has not been a debate, but an argument about money.

That is not to say money isn't important. As education minister, it is something I take very seriously.

That's why it was so disappointing to discover the shambles of a funding model left behind by the previous government. In May, $2.8 billion in new school funding was allocated over the forward estimates in the Commonwealth budget.

But in August, in the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the then education minister Bill Shorten removed $1.2 billion over the forward estimates earmarked for Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, leaving them with nothing.

This left the new government with a significant problem. Combined with the fact that two states and one territory had not signed up at all, and another two states and the systemic Catholic schools had not fully signed up, it was increasingly a shambolic situation.

It is also now clear all federal funding allocated by the Commonwealth is distributed by the signatory states under their own existing funding models. Each state is different, with varying levels of state indexation. A national funding model simply doesn't exist.

The Coalition government will keep our promises and retain the same funding Labor offered over the forward estimates. In fact we will put in more an extra $230 million for Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory that were ripped off by Shorten. We will also devise a new, fairer model to replace Shorten's shambles.

We want to get Australia back on track in international quality comparisons and assist the disadvantaged in an effective way. We have to, because we are falling behind in education on so many levels.

According to PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), in 2000 only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and two outperformed us in mathematical literacy. By 2009 six countries outperformed us in reading and science literacy and 12 did so in maths. In other tests, such as TIMSS and PIRLS, we ranked 27 in Year 4 reading, just after Lithuania; in Year 4 mathematics, we ranked 18, just before Serbia; and in Year 4 science we were 25th, just after Croatia.

This decline occurred as education spending increased in real terms by 44 per cent between 2000 and 2009.

Class sizes have been reduced by about the same number.

One wonders where Australia will be ranked in the next PISA update to be released on Tuesday.

We must look to the evidence to show us where we should spend taxpayers' money. The evidence shows countries that spend a high proportion of their GDP on education do not automatically produce high-performing education systems. The US has the highest per-student expenditure in the OECD, but only average or below-average performance in PISA reading, maths and science tests.

While a reasonable level of funding is the bedrock for good educational performance, more money does not equal better performance.

Nor do smaller classrooms, more teachers or even higher salaries provide the magic answer.

Research shows higher school achievement depends on teacher quality, good leadership, choice, school autonomy, accountability and education strategies targeted at the disadvantaged.

Surprisingly the Gonski review had little to say about these matters.

The Commonwealth's job is not just to pump out the cash, try to run state education systems, or appease vested interest groups such as teacher unions. Our role is to ensure resources are directed to those areas that promote a quality education system.

That's what I'm about. That is what this government is about. Our education plan will focus on improving teacher training, ensuring we have a robust curriculum and working with the states and territories to increase principal autonomy and parental engagement.

It is what all those genuinely interested in the future of our children and our country should be about.

Christopher Pyne is Education Minister.