Recommended Sponsor - Buy Original Artwork Directly from the Artist

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Glenn C Savage, Associate Professor of Education Policy and the Future of Schooling, The University of Melbourne

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare released a major report on schools on Monday.

This will inform the next round of federal funding for schools, as part of the National School Reform Agreement. This is due to start in January 2025.

The report was commissioned off the back of a scathing review by the Productivity Commission in January this year. This found initiatives in the current agreement “have done little, so far, to improve student outcomes”.

Who wrote the report?

In response to the Productivity Commission’s findings, Clare extended the current agreement by 12 months until December 2024 to allow an expert panel to conduct this review.

In March, it was tasked with advising education ministers on “the key targets and specific reforms that should be tied to funding in the next National School Reform Agreement”.

The panel was led by the chair of the Australian Education Research Organisation and former head of the Smith Family, Lisa O’Brien. Along with a survey of students, parents and teachers (with almost 25,000 responses), the panel held 130 meetings with stakeholders and made 92 school visits.

What is the National School Reform Agreement?

The National School Reform Agreement is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories designed to improve outcomes in Australian schools. It sets out national reform directions and targets that governments agree to pursue over a set period of time.

The current agreement was five years, extended to six.

While the agreement is not widely known beyond education policy circles, it is crucial for shaping the future of education in Australia.

It is also intimately linked with school funding. The reforms outlined in the agreement inform the conditions of federal funding for state and territory systems.

So, while the agreement does not directly determine the model used to determine federal funding for schools, known as the Schooling Resource Standard, it shapes what states and territories do with money by linking funding to the targets.

Read more:
What is the National School Reform Agreement and what does it have to do with school funding?

What does the report say?

The report identifies seven “reform directions” it wants governments to consider in the next agreement.

These are designed to lift student outcomes, improve equity and student wellbeing and attract and retain teachers. They are also geared at enhancing funding transparency, reducing education data gaps and supporting innovation.

There are also 24 recommendations across the reform directions. For example, universal screening for literacy and numeracy in Year 1 and more specific help for students to transition to life after school.

Three big issues

The report outlines three big issues that pose barriers to reform efforts.

First, state and territory governments ultimately retain the power in how money is spent in their schools. This means it can be difficult to maintain a cohesive approach to implementing national reforms across the federation.

Second, there are increasing numbers of students with disabilities and complex needs. This means a “higher workload and mental load” for teachers and can make it harder for schools to teach effectively.

Third, nearly all public schools are not fully funded in line with the recommended Gonski funding model (the Schooling Resource Standard).

What does the report get right?

There is little doubt the seven reform directions speak to crucial issues in Australian schools. The report also makes strong statements about the need to ensure all schools are fully and consistently funded. For example, it notes it is:

critical all schools have access to 100 per cent of Schooling Resource Standard funding as soon as possible.

It’s welcome to see the report endorse collaboration and co-design with First Nations stakeholders, to develop policies to make schools more culturally aware and responsive.

There is also great potential in a recommendation that governments implement “full-service school models” that better connect schools with health, family and disability services. As the panel notes:

such models must be more widely implemented to better meet the needs of students experiencing disadvantage.

What are the report’s limitations?

A major problem with the report is many of its ideas and recommendations are not translated into tangible targets.

The targets that do feature tend to focus on what can be easily measured. This means we will be tracking the symptoms rather than tackling the root causes of educational challenges.

For example, the report repeatedly draws attention to alarming and widening learning gaps in literacy and numeracy between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. But there is no recommended target to address these gaps.

Instead, the report offers weaker targets to increase the proportion of disadvantaged students who meet minimum proficiency standards for reading and numeracy in NAPLAN. This will do very little to close achievement gaps.

Another target – “equity” – is primarily about creating a way of measuring the differences in outcomes between cohorts by 2029, not outlining measures to address the gap itself.

Targets are the primary mechanism for shaping government efforts, as the targets are what funding is linked to. So a major risk is the strongest ideas of the report will fade into obscurity.

Read more:
Are Australian students really falling behind? It depends which test you look at

Now it’s time to talk about funding

Moving forward, the challenge for federal and state education ministers will be to translate the directions outlined in this report into specific targets and reform initiatives for the upcoming new agreement.

Responding to the report on Monday afternoon, education ministers released a statement suggesting three main themes will inform the next agreement:

  • equity and excellence

  • wellbeing for learning and engagement

  • a strong and sustainable workforce.

While these themes overlap somewhat with the report, ministers were clear to describe the independent report as only “one of a number of inputs to the next agreement”.

The panel was forbidden by its terms of reference from examining the Schooling Resource Standard. For the most part the report is silent on the funding implications of its recommended targets.

In this next round of deliberations it will be impossible to avoid the funding debate. There is no doubt the “funding wars” will be reignited.

A central issue will be whether states and territories have the resourcing capacities to implement the reforms, especially considering how far some jurisdictions are from being fully funded under the so-called Gonski model.

If schooling systems are not fairly placed to achieve targets, then the setting of targets becomes a fool’s game. It’s akin to making elaborate plans for a family reunion in Disneyland, but refusing to discuss how everyone will get there.

Ultimately, how much funding schools get and how they use it are equally important and both will need to be central to the debates that follow.

The Conversation

Glenn C Savage receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Jacob Broom receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

ref. A new report wants more funding and better support for Australian schools. But we need a proper plan for how to get there –