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Australian Education Policy 2019

At the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, primatologist Jane Goodall, asked how it was that major issues confronting the world, including the issue of tax and its payment by the richest people in the world, seemed incapable of being confronted responded, “The link between intelligence and wisdom has been broken… We are stealing our children’s future.”


Developments in fake news and fake reality, facilitated by social media, artificial intelligence and complex algorithms, together with conditional ethics have made the pursuit of rational decisions based on agreed evidence very difficult. The proposition that whilst people are entitled to their own views but not to their own facts is not everywhere accepted. We are possibly moving to the margin of the enlightenment, overturning some 800 years of the development of knowledge and understanding.


Two major reports on school education policy and practice in Australia have been produced in the last 10 years. They followed major changes which significantly benefited non-government schools introduced by the Howard Government. Those changes were the opposite of policies advocated by the Whitlam Government and the Schools Commission chaired by Professor Peter Karmel.

The two reports could be the basis for the most far-reaching reforms in Australian school education in some 50 years. The first, on funding, published February 2012, has gradually been undermined, its intent corrupted. The second, on effective teaching and effective schooling, published April 2018, has been largely ignored. Some elements of it, however, have been incorporated in the National School Reform Agreement of December 2018 between the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and individual State and Territory Governments.

The principal reasons for the eventual outcomes of the two reports are to be found in preconceived ideologies based significantly on neoclassical or market economics in respect of attitudes to the role of government and human behavior – the role of choice, competition and personal motivation and reward – and privilege the already advantaged. The major gains in educational achievement during the school years most likely concern the nature of interactions between students and teachers; other factors include the organisation of schools, teacher development and cooperation and school leadership. Teacher qualifications and curriculum development are certainly not unimportant.

What has occupied most attention of governments, however, has been funding and the distribution of government funding to different school sectors. And attention, often beyond what is merited, has been given to teacher qualifications and curriculum. In Australia, teachers have been frequently blamed for “poor” outcomes in educational achievement.

In many countries with successful education systems, teachers are trusted and how they work together are considered important. Funding is distributed among schools more equitably: government funding supports public schools. The US and UK are stand-out exceptions and neither have high performing systems!

In Australia, the nature and value of education and learning has been frequently subsumed by arguments characterized by misinterpretation and ignorance of evidence.

The disparities in funding between public schools which must accept as students all who wish to enroll and other schools, including denominational ones, are indeed critical because funding heavily influences teacher quality and other resources: a poor school is unlikely to attract superior teachers. A school facing resource constraints will not be able to have its teachers spend quality time exploring important new developments or ways of improving cooperation, effectiveness of learning assessment or the gains of students with disadvantages, not to mention broadening the experience to include non-core subjects like music and other creative arts, languages and even philosophy; participation in sport and similar activities will be limited.

Much time and effort has been spent by some in arguing that the magnitude of funding is not critical in influencing educational achievement. In fact, it does, as a recent study in the US has shown (see below). Little if any concern has been shown about the increasing homogeneity of classes consequent upon the drift of students from advantaged backgrounds to independent or selective schools leaving public schools with more uniform less advantaged students. Yet research on the gain achieved by less advantaged students in classes that include a proportion of advantaged students shows significant positive differences from schools where students from disadvantaged backgrounds dominate, or even where most students are from advantaged backgrounds.

The strong link between socioeconomic background and achievement, related mainly to the home environment and the experiences of early childhood are still argued about in some quarters. Why there should be a link in respect of health – as demonstrated by noted epidemiologists[1] – but not education is a puzzle that deniers should be required to explain.

Billions of dollars have been spent in Australia to achieve not just nothing, but a decline in achievement. Most, but by no means all, of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the Coalition parties at Federal level, as well as the Labor Party in its special deals with Catholic schools. But a significant proportion can be assigned to state governments and their concern, to an extent understandably, with fiscal restraint. In any event, the consequences are dire and longer term.

Like many other policies and practices in government and business in Australia the focus has been on the short-term and overly with financial issues. Significant high-quality research has been mostly ignored and so have opportunities to learn from other countries’ experiences. Many of those with most influence on policy are the least informed, a situation not confined to education.

This collection of essays reviews developments over the last 20 years in Australia, especially the reforms advocated by the two panels chaired by businessman David Gonski, on funding and on teaching.

The report of the second Gonski panel on effective teaching, “Through Growth to Achievement”, completed March 2018 and made public a month later, said:

“Australia needs to review and change its model for school education. Like many countries, Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children. This model is focused on trying to ensure that millions of students attain specified learning outcomes for their grade and age before moving them in lock-step to the next year of schooling. It is not designed to differentiate learning or stretch all students to ensure they achieve maximum learning growth every year, nor does it incentivize schools to innovate and continuously improve.

“Although this problem is widely recognised by teachers and educators, schools’ attempts to address the issue are hampered by curriculum delivery, assessment, work practices and the structural environments in which they operate.

“The constraints include inflexibility in curriculum delivery, reporting and assessment regimes, and tools focussed on periodic judgements of performance, rather than continuous diagnosis of a student’s learning needs and progress. This is compounded by a lack of research-based evidence on what works best in education, the absence of classroom applications readily available for use by teachers, multiple calls on the time of teachers and school leaders, and a lack of support for school principals to develop their professional autonomy and prioritise instructional leadership.”

The first Gonski Report: Funding Equity

The first Gonski Report was commissioned in April 2010 by Education Minister Julia Gillard to advise on the funding of schools. The Report, delivered in December 2011, recommended that government funding be provided based on need, that is have regard to socioeconomic and other features of disadvantage which are now acknowledged by all but the most ideological to be significant in influencing learning attainment.

The Report therefore was expected to lead to independent schools not being supported beyond the extent necessary for students to achieve to a generally acceptable standard. The response of the Commonwealth Government over the succeeding seven years particularly has been precisely the opposite. That the need to reduce funding inequity was a major issue addressed by the Whitlam Government and its Australian Schools Commission almost 40 years earlier, should magnify the concern. Australia cannot claim to be progressive!

The gains flowing from the Whitlam Government’s adoption of the Schools Commission report were largely overturned by the Howard Government. Howard’s policies were confronted by the first of the inquiries chaired by David Gonski: its conclusions have been lost in what one expert on school funding described as a fraud (see below).

That private schools do not achieve for their students any gain beyond that of public (government) schools when differences in socioeconomic background of the students is considered has been recognised internationally for over a decade! It is the conclusion of a recent World Bank report – Learning to Realize Education’s Promise 2017 – and the OECD in numerous reports, including commentaries on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  Arguments such as sending children to non-government schools saves money are incorrect.

Very likely there are serious consequences. Not least is continued domination of the financial, judicial and political sectors of society by the more privileged who are by no means the most intelligent. The nature of their schooling experience means little understanding of society’s diversity. That can lead to very divisive attitudes and beliefs which have serious consequences socially, economically and politically.

When the OECD, in its reports on the results of PISA were published rationalisations were advanced: assertions were raised about the influence of ‘tiger mothers’ on children in Asian societies, some in America asserted the questions in PISA were politically biased, that some countries had those students likely to not do well in tests not allowed to sit them. And some of the ‘countries’ were in fact only cities and so on. The reports, however, detailed the systems of Asian countries, Canada and some European countries which were successful and analysed the reasons why. PISA data was analysed further by some to bring out the features which led to success. There were several other international tests which did not reveal patterns in agreement with PISA.

A full report addressed the failings of the US system: funding of local communities, including schools, is driven by local economics and reflects the individual socioeconomic backgrounds of families in those communities; little input comes from state or national governments to compensate. In other words, the distribution map of schools whose students performed poorly is in effect a map of the distribution of socioeconomic disadvantage.

In May 2017, Lyndsay Connors wrote of the latest iteration of the Coalition government’s plans for school funding (a further response to the first Gonski report). She said, “with the advent of the 2017 Budget and the subsequent tabling of the Government’s Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017, it has now become clear that the Turnbull Government intends to entrench a structural problem that lies at the heart of national schools funding arrangements in this country; and that the special deals which have bedevilled them for years are well and truly back with us.”

And, “With the dismissive statement that it would be up to states whether they wish to reach the full standard for their own schools, the Coalition confirmed its ongoing indifference, at the Commonwealth level, to the future of public schooling itself and to the majority of the students in this country which it serves.  Minister Birmingham has made clear that states can take their pick of whether they want to spend more money on police, roads, hospitals.”

Trevor Cobbold, convenor of Save Our Schools, has been a relentless critic of the government’s policy response. In early February 2019 he produced yet another forensic analysis. The principal conclusions of his examination of the funding agreements between the Commonwealth and state governments are that latest version is heavily biased against public schools in three ways:

He further noted:

Public schools will be defrauded of some $60 billion over the period 2018 to 2027, an average of $6 billion a year. The funding loss is due to two features of the agreements:

Many non-government schools are now more generously funded by the Commonwealth government than before the first Gonski inquiry was launched. Most schools serving large numbers of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are getting less money than they would were funding consistent with need. Special deals were done with Catholic schools where funding is not distributed according to need.

So, after almost half a century of “reform” to the [school] education system in Australia, privilege is more entrenched than ever. It was asserted that greater “accountability” would be achieved through standardised testing which would assist in the exercise of choice. It was presumed that parents, in exercising choice, would focus primarily on educational attainment: they don’t but instead often preference the character of the school and the kinds of children that attend and so on. In any event the exercise of choice is an extremely problematic behaviour.

Standardised tests are annual, in other words a form of summative evaluation and are managed externally. That contrasts with the frequent formative feedback managed by the class teacher which is more effective in advancing learning achievement, a major point made by the second Gonski report (see below).

The interpretation of the results of tests by the popular media, and often by government, has been frequently simplistic and influenced substantially by preconceived attitudes. Some commentators have used the test results to rank entire schools and even nations, a fruitless task, which was stated at the time of its introduction to be entirely inappropriate. Such analyses are seriously flawed statistically. Many of those who claim the importance of students learning the basics of numeracy are themselves anumerate.

The publication of the results of tests was supposed to improve education gains as more students attended “better” schools whose students achieved higher test results. That belief was grounded in the notion of competition, a belief which has bedevilled almost every sector of the economy and which has been shown by the analyses of PISA results to be ineffective. Competition was shown in a New Zealand study to have negative impact by increasing social stratification and increasing competition and diminishing cooperation between schools[2].

Some have claimed that education will reduce poverty: certainly, educational qualifications have a significant impact on the likelihood of and individual gaining employment and indeed the nature of the job. But poverty is not eradicated simply by supporting school education. It is achieved by government intervention, especially through special support programs from early childhood on directed to children from disadvantaged situations (as demonstrated by Helen Ladd, in “Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence”) and others.

Since the election of the Howard government, with six years of Labor government in between, just over 20 years has seen independent schools gain greater funding than ever before, so continuing the inequity which has plagued the school system for decades under arrangements which have been compared with the muddle of state train lines.

This essay surveys the situation as it is at the beginning of 2019.


The Gains from Education

Arguments have been advanced that Australia should strive to achieve the highest scores so as to advance the nation’s economy: the assertion was that there is a link between educational achievement of school students and economic growth. The major advocacy for that view is the 2010 report for the OECD by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann: The High Cost of Low Educational Performance The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes.

Economic gain was a principal element of the Rudd/Gillard policy on education reform. Where was the opportunity to achieve a lived life, for every person to reach their maximum potential? That is a major issue in the argument about equity! At the same time, the very strong evidence linking economic gains with early childhood intervention – especially in respect of the less advantaged members of society – through both savings and taxes on employment is paid little attention (see below). Every OECD report on school education has raised the problem in inequity, not least in Australia!

We should ask if raising the learning gain of school students is the only way, or even a significant way to improve our economic performance. Or is it just one of many strategies which would make a difference?[3]

A major conclusion of the UN Development Report for 2009 (published in 2010), titled “The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development”, was that improvements in prosperity owed more to cross-border transfer of ideas than to wages growth. The development of education policy in Australia, if anything, as already pointed out, owes much to ignoring what is happening in countries with successful education systems. As one leading academic has said, many of the ideas have been imported from those countries, such as the US, whose systems are failing!

It has also been argued, frequently by the Coalition, that money is not really the issue: the aim has become restriction of further funding. In selective cases. But recent research – a comprehensive review of academic studies in the United States by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (reported by Trevor Cobbold in Save Our Schools) found “overwhelming evidence of a strong causal relationship between increased school spending and student outcomes” and that “….any claim that there is little evidence of a statistical link between school spending and student outcomes is demonstrably false”

Rhetoric is heard frequently about the alleged lack of interest by young people in STEM subjects, especially science and math but understanding of why that is so seems to be absent from general discourse. Recommendations to remedy the low level of uptake of mathematics, for instance by having a math specialist in every school, are made by visiting experts but ignored[4]; there is a huge response to teaching of math by enthusiasts such as young Eddy Woo, math teacher at a Sydney public school who loves learning and sharing what he has learned. His website has attracted huge numbers of followers. Why? People are frequently said to be put off by math. Why?

The regard that the political class has for science and the low level of government financial support for STEM is seldom brought to the fore as a significant reason for the low level of STEM uptake by school students: there aren’t many jobs! Could that be a reason? Many areas where science’s findings are critical are ones where other explanations are favoured by government, where science is factored out. Research in CSIRO and universities is poorly supported, funds cut, managers and so-called business leaders are put in charge and the enterprise corporatized, “non-core” functions outsourced or privatized. Ministers go so far as to disallow research grants for projects which they assert do not meet community expectations for relevance. Such as whether Pied Butcher Birds sing music.

Many of the important issues in education have been addressed in essays over the last several years on this website under the general heading of “Life’s Choices” The lack of equity in schooling in Australia is evident especially in the regions and remote areas, and particularly amongst Indigenous students though there are some important gains not least through Indigenous-led initiatives such as Stronger Smarter.

Teachers are no more trusted. Arguments about curriculum focus on traditional views of instruction – transmission rather than active engagement and acknowledgement of the constructivist nature of learning. Concerns about equity are overrun by arguments for retaining the present arrangements.

Some Critical Issues

The critical importance of the early years – promoted especially by Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman though the Heckman Equation – and elaborated by numerous research studies is barely recognised at the political level. The contribution that play makes through experience, including gaining understanding through mistakes, are certainly not at the top of the policy agenda despite evidence from Finland and some other countries and cultures. That the importance of support by parents in the early years is clearer now than ever before and that investment in the early years produces a greater economic return than at any other time in life is put aside as the privileged continue with distorted arguments about school and character enhancement and multinational companies hoover up money for test practice and curriculum elaboration.

There is still a substantial focus in Australia on so-called core subjects or basics: languages and music struggle to gain time and space as well as suitably qualified teachers. Indeed, the proportion of students studying a second language has now a tenth of what it was in the mid-90s. One high-point: a recently initiated scheme to mentor teachers in how to teach music has been supported for several years. Unsurprising when compared with Australia’s foreign policy focus on anywhere but near neighbors in Asia.

Finland’s system is extremely well known around the world as educators flock there to learn its lessons. Pasi Sahlberg, one of its most notable leaders, is now at the University of New South Wales’ Gonski Centre headed by former NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli. In a recent address (at the Science & Engineering Breakfast, Parliament House, Sydney 28 November 2018) Sahlberg emphasised three features critical to an effective school education system: equity across the system, trust in teachers and encouragement of children to play.

Financial resources, teacher qualifications, union resistance to change, bureaucratic control by government and deficiencies in the curriculum are all often blamed.

This present collection of essays addresses the principal features of policy over the last decade, the Report of the second panel established by the Commonwealth government to inquire into best practice in teaching and several recent studies and reports concern many other important issues.

Policy Failures: Wrong Assumptions and Resistance to Change

The failures in education in Australia are due to policies based significantly on the wrong assumptions and to resistance to change by those already advantaged and influential politically. Just as in many other areas of public policy. Policy has been driven by preconceived notions developed from the experiences and conversations of those making the policies. Not that experience and conversations are unhelpful: it’s just that they are not based on any reasonable consideration of the experience of those we seek to educate.

A recent commentary by Jennifer Doggett (Chair of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance) on a proposal to establish a Health Reform Commission are pertinent. She said, “Progress … is so slow not because of a lack of mechanisms but because of fundamental differences in the interests of the two levels of government. They have different constituencies, political roles and constitutional responsibilities, and a new federally funded and [the proposed commission] won’t change that.

“The real problem is not a lack of independent … policy advice. Governments and oppositions have access to numerous sources, both within the public sector (not only from relevant departments but also through processes such as Productivity Commission inquiries) and outside it … The problem is that this advice is routinely ignored.”

The failures of policy include the following; they are mostly seen in political and public debate.

Early years, the home, informal environments and play

1, The focus has been on the school years when brain development is greatest in the first three to four years, especially the first. The home environment and parent’s role is critical. The essential link with parental leave and employment has not been made and the unpriced economic contribution of the mother is ignored.

2, Though most learning occurs in play and informal activities including with peers, learning during school years has preferenced arrangements which seek uniform behavior that make it easy to evaluate learning progress using metrics rather than more nuanced qualitative assessments.

The School Years

3, The focus is on what happens in school instead of what happens in the entire life of the student, on the teachers in the year of the test instead of all the teachers who have contributed.

4, Teacher qualifications are assumed to be the principal determinant of instruction effectiveness whilst pedagogical competence and cooperation are more effective. Teachers are frequently insufficiently trusted. The features of effective instruction have been substantially researched but are frequently ignored in public discussion which often claims that sufficient knowledge is lacking.

5, School organisation emphasises efficiency and accountability: instrumental and administrative matters tend to overwhelm the time of school principals reducing their attention to learning outcomes and the contribution of teachers to that. Knowledge of organisational effectiveness and leadership gained from other domains is seldom referenced.

Choice, School type and Purpose

6, Assumptions are made that government schools produced inferior learning outcomes so increased funding is devoted to independent schools which have not in fact led to higher average learning gains. At the same time the increasing uniformity at both the top and bottom, socioeconomically have exacerbated class distinctions and formed a basis for later intolerance. Socioeconomically uniform classes stifle gains, especially for those already having trouble.

7, A uniform curriculum has overridden the interests of the individual student to determine the subjects studied. Encouragement of a desire to learn, to question and to analyse has been subservient to rote learning of the “right” answer and its testing.

Evaluation and Funding

8, Standardised testing, summative evaluation, administered externally, is applied in the name of accountability and the curriculum and focus on core subjects of literacy and numeracy are driven by ease of test marking. This contrasts with formative evaluation by the teacher throughout the year which would more readily link results with contributing factors. The curriculum and focus on core subjects of literacy and numeracy are driven by ease of test marking.

9, Lessons from the successful systems in other countries are inadequately analysed and reasons for success often rationalized or simplistic and erroneous explanations are adopted whilst policy failures are denied. Education does not eliminate poverty, government intervention does. There is a causal link between funding and educational achievement, especially in the case of less advantaged students.

10, Last, much of the analysis outside academic research is superficial and public policy and popular commentary ignores even minimum requirements for rigour. Some academic debate supports orthodoxy beyond what is justified.

In addition, funding of universities has been severely reduced and corporatization has overtaken them as they depend more and more on fee-paying students. The vocational education sector was opened up to private providers, an astonishingly wasteful exercise which led to near destruction of the government funded technical and further education institutions.

Much of the blame for the various failures can be laid at the door of neoclassical economics and its emphasis on the alleged value of the private sector over anything funded by government, the obsession with metrics and quantitative evaluation of everything, so ignoring what is important whilst privileging that which is unimportant. Arguments as to where value is created, as opposed to captured, are pervasive as distinguished economist Mariana Mazzucato has made abundantly clear.[5] The ongoing failure to recognise that expenditure on education is an investment is astonishing.

The Second Gonski Report: Effective Schools

Into this milieu emerged the second Gonski Report in March 2018. A panel of experts led by distinguished businessman David Gonski was asked “to provide advice on how to improve student achievement and school performance”, in other words to identify the features of effective teaching and effective schools.

It should be kept in mind, though it is seldom mentioned, that there is good evidence as to what contributes to effective teaching and learning. The characteristics of effective teachers have been elaborated by many, notably by leading education researcher David Berliner of Arizona State University in a spirited “personal response to those who bash teacher education” (in the Journal of Teacher Education for November-December 2000). Amongst the principles of effective teaching Berliner listed a supportive classroom environment, emphasis on maintaining engagement, thoughtful discourse, practice in applying of what has been learned, opportunities for student cooperation and a variety of assessments of learning gains.

More recently Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University has elaborated issues relating to standards, accountability and school reform (in Teachers College Record for June 2004). Others have dealt with the issues notably by considering what actually goes on in the classroom which is important considering that some studies have drawn conclusions based on reputational analysis which can be unreliable. Engagement is critical, interactions characterized as “accountable talk”. There is substantial high-quality Australian research!

Some effort has been put into recruiting quality graduates, putting them through some training in teaching and deploying them to schools. The scheme, “Teach for America”, translated to Australia as “Teach for Australia” is based on the proposition that the main reason for the alleged failing of teaching is that the problem is inadequate content expertise. As Darling-Hammond found, such teachers deliver no greater improvement in student learning gain than do certificated teachers.

The following three essays deal with the reports of the Gonski panels and the response to them. An introduction to the two reports introduces separate essays on the first Gonski report and the second Gonski report.

As I have said already, many of the issues mentioned above have been extensively treated by essays on this website. The related essay, an introduction to the Gonski reports, elaborates some of them.


[1] For example, see various books and lectures by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, including the 2017 Boyer lectures

[2] Lauder, H., & Hughes, D. (1999). Trading in futures: Why markets in education don’t work: Philadelphia: Open University Press.

[3] Strategies to advance economic performance and prosperity generally could include better application of what we understand to be quality leadership and of how innovation and creativity are encouraged, improvement in the balance in distribution of rewards flowing from productivity gains including reducing exorbitant executive salaries and increasing average employee wages and salaries, increased constructive argument between unions and management as is the case in a number of leading economies in Europe (and recommended by a number of recent economic think tanks), and departure from the destructive privileging of shareholder wealth as the main role for business to be replaced by firms focusing again on needed goods and services. Ceasing the overwhelming concern for fiscal restraint and the destructive notion that governments are value takers and business value creators, often leading to policies of austerity which has destroyed communities through increased unemployment and pressurised social policies are important. So are tax regimes. Investment in scientific research plays a very important role.

[4] UK expert and Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics in London Celia Hoyles at a major conference on curricula held at the National Curriculum Symposium, University of Melbourne in February 2010

[5] The Entrepreneurial State (Demos, 2011); The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (Public Affairs, 2018)