Address to the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation Breakfast

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Check against delivery

I was going to start by apologising to anyone who worked at a school when I was there; so I don’t think you were there, Geoff, while I was at St Kevin’s.

I’ve always thought that those who applaud at the start of a speech are by definition optimists. After all you haven’t heard a word I’ve got to say yet, nor how long I’ll speak; and I used to be a speechwriter so I’ve always kept that in mind.

Thank you for the kind introduction and welcome.

It’s a pleasure to participate in this special occasion, and to represent my boss the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, Minister for Education.

Christopher sends his best wishes to everyone here.

Thank you to Westpac for looking after us all so well and putting on this fabulous event this morning.

A diverse group of people is gathered here this morning, but we all share a common interest in seeing Australia’s children and communities benefit from high-quality education that offers both choices and opportunities for students and parents.

Given the audience here I want to talk this morning about four issues.

First, an overview of Australia’s unique school education system.

Secondly, an appreciation of our school funding system.

Third, the challenges facing our education system and the Federal Government’s responses to those challenges.

Fourth, the role of the Commonwealth in the future in schools education.

Given the Abbott Government has now been in office almost a year, this breakfast is a timely opportunity to discuss those issues.

Australia has a very different schooling system than most other countries.

Firstly, we have a very high proportion of students attending non-government schools relative to other countries.

In Australia 31% of primary school students attend non-government schools compared to the OECD average of just 11%.

In the secondary sector 36% Australian students attend non-government schools compared to the OECD average of approximately 17%.

There are also substantial differences across the states and territories. The Northern Territory has the lowest proportion of students in the non-government sector and, interestingly, the ACT has the highest – with 40% of primary school students in the ACT in non-government schools compared to the national average of 31%.

The other key difference about the Australian school system is that the non-government sector receives partial government funding, supplemented by large parental contributions.

Complicating this picture is our federal system.

There is considerable diversity across Australia’s eight jurisdictions in school systems and priorities, teacher registration processes, reporting arrangements and, and as NAPLAN results indicate, student performance.

Yet despite this diversity, there has been a growing trend in agreements to bring states and the different sectors into closer alignment with each other.

Let me now turn to funding, where we see even greater manifestations of this complexity because both national and state governments fund schools and there is considerable transfer of funds from the Commonwealth to the states and the non-government sector for a wide variety of school programs.

Because of this complexity who is responsible for what and who gets what can be very confusing.

I will add that sometimes in public debates these issues are deliberately misrepresented with selective use and simplistic analysis of the information.

For instance, given the recent debates about school funding and the ongoing campaign for the Commonwealth to spend even more, it may be easy to assume that the Commonwealth is the prime funder of schools – both in public and non-government sectors.

This is wrong.

The Commonwealth is NOT the prime source of funds for schools.

It never has been and never will be.

A simple outline of current funding illustrates this.

In 2014-15, the current financial year, $42.4 billion is being spent by Commonwealth and State and Territory governments on primary and secondary education.

Of this $42 billion the Commonwealth spends $14.4 billion – just 34% or one third of total government spending on schools in Australia.

The other two thirds, some $28 billion, comes from the States and Territories.

The issue is made further complex by considering allocation of school dollars to the government and non-government sectors.

Of the $14.4 billion spent by the Commonwealth, $9.3 billion, 64%, goes to non-government schools. The remaining $5.1 billion, 36%, goes to public schools; approximately a two thirds-one third split.

Australia-wide the public school system is run by the states and receives only 16% of its public funding from the Commonwealth – the rest comes from the respective state and territory governments.

This is occasionally misrepresented by some as the Commonwealth not adequately funding public schools or that public schools are somehow missing out.
But what is not explained is that the states are not only the larger spenders on schools, but that almost all of their $28 billion, 89%, goes to public schools.

Only 11% of state and territory funding goes to the non-government sector.

Another myth is that because the Commonwealth primarily funds the non-government sector, that students in this sector are receiving more government support than students in public schools.

This is also demonstrably wrong.

On average, in 2011-12 total government funding per student (Commonwealth and states) in the public school sector is $15,770. This compares to $9,000 in the Catholic sector and $7,200 in the Independent sector.

Of course, the non-government sector is supplemented by considerable parental contributions accounting for 43% of their recurrent spending needs.

In addition, parents pay for most of the capital works in the non-government sector.

So in summary, in 2014-15, government schools with 64% of the students receive 71% of total government funding, while non-government students with 36% of the students receive 29% of total government funding.

Now some criticise this Australian model of education. They rail against funding independent or faith-based schools, arguing that support for the non-government sector has somehow reduced resources to public schools, that non-government schools are selective in student choice and this undermines social cohesion.

Only this week it was argued by one commentator, based on an August 2014 PISA report, that choice and competition, one of the features of Australian model, undermined student performance.

This, like the other constant complaints in this manner, do not stand up to scrutiny.

In fact the PISA report highlighted that of the 24 high performing countries, 17 were characterised by choice and competition.

A study undertaken for the OECD in 2007 provides clear evidence that choice and competition drive up standards and that various forms of school accountability, autonomy and choice policies combine to lift student achievement to higher performance levels.

As the study concluded:

“Students perform better in countries with more choice and competition as measured by the share of privately managed schools, the share of total school funding from government sources, and the equality of government funding between public and private schools.”

The benefits of choice and competition are stronger where non-government schools face external accountability measures, are autonomous, and receive a share of government funding.

In summary, the Australian mixed mode school system has saved taxpayers substantial money and reduced budgetary pressures and stresses on the public school sector. It has encouraged private investment, and been more equitable because it promotes choice and ensures ALL children receive support.

As a consequence, Australia’s education performance has been above the OECD average with funding just on or marginally below the OECD average.

The non-government sector is an important contributor to this because its particular characteristics of school autonomy, leadership, flexibility in catering for student needs, high levels of parental engagement, teacher selection are now regarded as the key drivers of a quality education system as I will soon discuss.

So now we have an outline of the nature of the Australian schools education, let’s turn to the challenges and issues facing our school sector and the Government’s responses to these.

I believe the key challenges and issues facing the schools sector are threefold:

  • The performance of our students and schools and the actions to develop a quality education system
  • Getting the spending arrangements right both in terms of quantity and priorities
  • The role of the Commonwealth government in schools policy.

These issues are closely interrelated.

And let me preface all this and stress that Australian school education is not, contrary to some scaremongers or vested interests, in a state of crisis either in terms of performance or spending levels.

Results from PISA show that while Australian students are generally performing well, their results are slipping by comparison with students in other countries and economies.

Since 2009, Australia has dropped from 15th to 19th in mathematical literacy, 10th to 16th in scientific literacy and 9th to 14th in reading literacy.

Results from NAPLAN testing also show that while there have been small movements (both up and down) in some areas, overall the performance of Australia’s students has remained largely stable since 2008.

Moreover, our top students’ performances are declining and the lower socio-economic group has made limited improvement over a long period of time despite extra funding and numerous programmes.

But in a globalised, competitive market, performing above the OECD average in PISA or at or above the national minimum standard in NAPLAN is not enough.

So our first challenge is improving the quality of our education system. As Minister Pyne said recently, “quality should be the prime goal of education policy.”

And like Minister Pyne I believe that “the problem is that the debate about ‘quality’ has been more concerned about what has been called the surrogates for quality, like, spending levels, class sizes and teacher-student ratios” rather than tackling the underlying issues which the evidence informs us does affect quality.

Let’s take spending.

If you listen to the debates one could come to the conclusion that Australia is a low spending country in this area.

This would be wrong, for we are not.

In fact, we measure up in the international spending stakes across a range of indicators – share of GDP, per student funding and needs-based funding.

Reports by the OECD, Productivity Commission and independent researchers confirm this.

Between 1987-88 and 2011-12 total Australian government, at all levels, spending on schools doubled in real terms – yes, a 100% increase. During the same period, student numbers rose considerably less - by only 18 per cent. In other words we are spending considerably more per student.

And to clarify, the Abbott Government over the next four years is providing $64.5 billion in recurrent funding to ALL schools and sectors.

Total Commonwealth spending to all schools over the forward estimates will grow by 37% with the government sector increase being 53% and the non-government sector increase 29%.

Spending will continue to grow after 2018 on a CPI and enrolment basis. Growth will not contract. There are no cuts.

Commentary and assertions suggesting cuts are wilfully misleading.

The 2012 PISA survey as reported by ACER highlighted that “schools across Australia’s jurisdictions in general had access to a high quality of resources compared to the OECD average”.

So not only has the debate been factually wrong, but also it has been wrongly focussed.

Although there must be an adequate funding levels for any good education system, and clearly Australia has that level, it is where we spend the money that makes the most difference.

That is why, despite our vast increases in spending, our performance in PISA has been declining. We have not been investing our funds properly.

The overwhelming evidence repeatedly highlights that funding levels are not a predictor of education performance.  Some high-spending countries perform poorly and some lower-spending countries perform better. The OECD’s PISA in Focus of 2012 concluded:

"PISA findings show that the success of a country’s education system depends more on how an educational resources are invested than on the volume of investment".

Another OECD study in 2010 suggested that only 6% of the differences in average student performance across OECD countries can be explained by GDP per capita spending influences.

The remaining 94% “reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference.”

Australia has also invested heavily in more teachers, improved teacher-student ratios and smaller classroom sizes – another indicator often used to highlight quality, but with limited impact on student performance.

Across Australia student-teacher ratios have fallen by 15% between 1993-2013 and more in some jurisdictions such as the ACT by 29%.

According to Professor Gary Banks of ANZSOG, formerly Chair of the Productivity Commission, this was a very expensive way to try to improve education outcomes.

The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission’s very recent report has also confirmed this.

The Commonwealth also spent, through the states, $540 million on literacy and numeracy programs between 2008-2012, yet evaluation by the ANAO and subsequent reviews have shown no improvements to those targeted.

So, the point is that we have been spending a lot but its impact in improving education outcomes has been limited because our priorities have been wrong, the public debate has been hijacked with an over focus on spending levels, and there has been an institutional resistance to reforms that make a difference.

So what are those reforms and what is the evidence?

Teacher quality makes a difference. In Australia teacher quality has been in decline. And related to this is the need to enhance teacher professionalism.

Choice and competition, as discussed earlier, make a difference.

School autonomy, as the recent Victorian Commission for Competition and Efficiency has again reminded us this week, makes a difference.

Having a sound and balanced curriculum makes a difference.

Having a culture in schools and across school systems of high expectations and high standards that are enforced and reinforced by teacher, school community and systems behaviours also make a difference.

Having clear and transparent methods of accountability and performance, so that we know where we are and so teachers and school leaders can respond appropriately.

Increased parental engagement has an impact.

The policy challenge is to ensure policy coherence, to get all these components into a coordinated whole. It is no use having robust curriculum unless it is able to be taught by a quality teacher workforce.

School autonomy will make no difference if principals and teachers have not been trained to take advantage of those opportunities.

Increased parental engagement will only work if systems have allowed increased participation and greater clarity of student performance.

Let me conclude with a brief discussion about what might be the role of the Commonwealth in relation to schools and the Commonwealth Government’s initiatives.

It is important to remember that despite the Commonwealth’s limited powers in schools policy, it has been long involved in schools as it  directly administered the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, and overseas territories such as New Guinea.

However, beginning in the 1960s, and expanding rapidly during the 1970s, a range of factors conspired to propel the Commonwealth into a greater role in the funding government and non-government school education systems and in setting policy frameworks.

We can’t forget it was under the leadership of Robert Menzies in the 1960s, that the Commonwealth first provided direct ‘aid’ to non-government schools, broke through the sectarian divide  and introduced the principle of choice in Australian school education as a reality for all Australian families.

By the 1970s this funding approach became bipartisan policy and Commonwealth funding for schools was mainstreamed, along with targeted measures for disadvantaged students, special education and teacher training.

It was clear that the Commonwealth, with its vastly superior sources of revenue, had a role assisting the states in school education, as it does in other areas of public policy.

Robert Menzies foresaw this in 1945 when he outlined the need for substantial investment in education for Australia’s future and, although a federalist, noted that:

“ Effective reform may involve substantial Commonwealth financial aid and if this should prove necessary such aid should be granted.”

Cooperation with the states and territories on schooling increased in fits and starts through the following decades.

It was the Howard Government in the second half of the nineties that clarified that while schools were a state and territory responsibility, education outcomes were of national significance and this justified Commonwealth involvement.

In addition, there was an emergent view that the Commonwealth contributed large amounts of money to school education, and was therefore entitled to some influence over how that money was spent.

This led to an increasing amount of the Commonwealth’s money on education being provided in the form of conditional grants – funds for specific programmes.

Some of these trends culminated in the overly ambitious agenda of the Rudd – Gillard - Rudd governments. The ALP sought to not only increase the compliance burden, but also to challenge the policy autonomy of the states, to intrude into the non-government sector and to focus discussion about schools almost entirely on spending.

The final manifestation of this was the Australian Education Act that was rushed through Parliament in 2013.

It was too intrusive, gave too much power to the hands of the federal Minister and was marred by absurd reporting requirements such as asking all schools to develop a schools management plan just to be sent to Canberra central.

The processes of negotiation with both the states and non-government sector following the review of school funding was characterised by threats and secrecy, with enforced confidentiality agreements on participants.

The result was a mess. We actually ended up with a more complex funding system – with three states and territories not signing up to agreements, 27 different funding models across three sectors, and different states on very different funding trajectories. It was not a national system by any measure.

Moreover, the previous government made all its big-spending promises far into the future – so called years 5 and 6, 2018 and 2019. This was two and three elections away! It was never budgeted for and raised unrealistic expectations in the public arena.

It has also led to a backlash from states and the non-government sector.

The Abbott Government has responded to this mess in three ways.

First, to ensure there is stability and certainty in Commonwealth school funding we have kept our promise to maintain spending over the forward estimates to 2017-18 by supporting the previous government’s spending commitments.

Second under our Students First policy we have identified four key areas which the evidence says makes a difference:

  • Improving the quality of teaching
  • Expanding school autonomy
  • Ensuring a robust national curriculum
  • Increasing parental engagement in education.

Let me provide an outline of each of these.

At the heart of our Students First approach is lifting the quality, professionalism and status of the teaching profession.

We are focussed on this because research strongly suggests that the most significant in-school factor influencing students’ achievement is the quality of teaching.

Yet it is an area where improvement and real reform has made limited progress, despite numerous Commonwealth and State reviews and considerable funding.

Minister Pyne has appointed the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group to provide advice on how teacher education programmes could be improved to better prepare new teachers with the practical skills needed for modern classrooms.

Minister Pyne is anticipating they will report later this year.

The Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) under its new chair, Professor Hattie, is also being refocused to develop improved accreditation arrangements for teacher courses, to improve school leadership and I expect will be very involved in the TEMAG process.

The second pillar of our Students First framework is encouraging school autonomy.

Giving school principals freedom to make local decisions is vital in establishing the foundations of effective school leadership and ensuring schools can respond to the challenges, needs and aspirations of their school populations.

Increasing school autonomy is occurring internationally and across most Australian jurisdictions.

So the Government is supporting measures to enhance the professional development for our school leaders, and rolling out our Independent Public Schools initiative to support schools across Australia as they move towards greater autonomy and local-decision-making.

To date Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, ACT, South Australia, Northern Territory have signed up to this programme.

The third pillar in our approach to school education is strengthening the curriculum.

As promised during the election campaign, we have established a Review of the Curriculum and its report has been delivered to the Minister.

This is not about reigniting the so-called ‘culture wars’, but about ensuring that the Australian curriculum delivers what students need for their own future, what parents want and expect, and what the nation requires in our increasingly competitive and globalised world and region.

The Commonwealth is also supporting faster NAPLAN responses and is seeking to move NAPLAN online in the future.

Next is parental engagement.

Research shows that the earlier parents show an interest in a child’s education, the more positive the effect on student performance, school attendance and student wellbeing.

When parents are engaged in their children’s education, their children are more likely to attend school and perform better.

And when parents set high expectations, talk regularly about school and the value of learning, and encourage positive attitudes and respect for school and teachers, their children perform better.

I will be addressing a symposium on parent engagement next Tuesday, and will give you a sneak preview today by mentioning that the programme includes presentations by Associate Professor Joseph Flessa from the University of Toronto and renowned parent engagement experts, Dr Karen Mapp from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Anne Henderson from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

It will be exciting to hear from these experts in the field who will no doubt provide further evidence as to why an ongoing focus on parent engagement is imperative in supporting children’s learning.

As demonstrated through research undertaken by Dr Mapp and her associates:

“The evidence is consistent, positive, and convincing: families have a major influence on their children’s achievement in school and through life.

When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and more importantly like school more.

Supporting more involvement from all parents may be an important strategy for addressing the achievement gap.”

It is expert analysis like that, that is the reason why the Commonwealth Government is committed to advocating for strengthened parent engagement in education to improve student learning outcomes.

These four pillars of the Students First approach offer exciting potential for improving school education and I encourage everyone here to keep up to date with our progress on these through the dedicated Students First website.

The Government is also working with all jurisdictions and key stakeholders to identify areas where there can be amendments to the Australian Education Act to reduce red tape and its intrusive command and control features.

The Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently launched the Federation White Paper process to consider the Commonwealth’s roles across a range of key policy areas, including schools education .

An Issues Paper on Education will be released towards the end of this year.

The crux of the issue is that in a small, prosperous and largely united nation like Australia, with its particular federal form of federal government, what is the distinctive role of a national government in schools education in the 21st Century?

Should federal government school funds just be handed to the states in form of general revenue grants?

And should there be conditional funding to meet identified national objectives?

Should, as the National Commission of Audit suggested, funding to the non-government sector be handed over to the states?

Or should the Commonwealth just fund the non-government sector as it once did?

How do we prevent duplication and encourage diversity and choice while ensuring national policy coherence?

Some suggested roles for the Commonwealth might include:

  • Collecting and analysing national data, and a responsibility to identify and share quality practices
  • Providing independent assessment of school systems performance
  • Providing coordination across jurisdictions
  • Identifying gaps in education and providing support to fill those gaps
  • Distributing Commonwealth funding in ways that maximise education outcomes
  • Or providing funding supporting choice in education.

Australia has managed extensive reform in so many key areas during the last two decades that has seen us prosper, improve living standards, balance budgets, save for the future and weather substantial international financial shocks.

We must now ensure our school education system can meet the challenges ahead, just as our higher education package is seeking to achieve for our important university sector.

The Abbott Coalition Government is aware of these challenges and through appropriate dialogue with the entire school community, like you here today, is seeking to address these in a considered and appropriate manner.

For more information

Media Contact:
Non-media queries: 1300 566 046