Shortcuts / 26 February 2020

Education in Australia

How Australian kids perform at school is always a hot topic with parents, teachers and taxpayers. We take a look at how the Australian education system works, where Australia ranks relative to the rest of the world, and the debate about how to lift our game.
How does Australia’s primary and secondary education work?
In our country, formal schooling starts with a foundation year of kindergarten or pre-school, followed by 12 years of primary and secondary school, until at least the age of 16. In the senior secondary years, students go for a Senior Certificate, which is required for entry to most Australian universities and vocational education and training institutions. In Australia there are three parts in the education sector, and that’s public schools, Catholic schools and other independent schools, and all receive funding from taxpayers.
The education and training sector is a shared responsibility of the Australian Federal Government and the individual State and Territory Governments. How’s that cooperative federalism working out?
That’s the nub of a lot of the issues that come up time and again about the education system – this friction between the states and territories and the Commonwealth. How it works is the states and territories oversee course accreditation and student assessments – also in the regulation, educational quality, performance and reporting on educational outcomes. And they’re all things that the Commonwealth has a strong interest in.
How does the school curriculum work?
The curriculum has been a talking point for decades. These days Australia has a national curriculum – the idea is that there’s a clear understanding of what students should learn, regardless of where they live or what school system they are in.
What about funding?
While the state and territory governments have overarching responsibility for schools, the Commonwealth also provides funding. And that funding role gives the Commonwealth a say in Australia’s national education policy. That’s a discussion that’s hosted by the Council of Australian Governments. Government schools account for 65.6 per cent of students in 2020. The states and territories are the majority funder of the government sector, which is in line with their constitutional responsibility to run the public education system. When it comes to non-government schools, which account for 34.4 per cent of students, the Commonwealth is the majority funder. That reflects successive government’s commitment to supporting parental choice and diversity in the schooling system. So private schools receive taxpayer funds where the federal government makes an assessment taking into account the capacity of school communities to contribute to school’s operating costs, for example the ability of parents to pay school fees. When you round it all up, around three quarters of funding for Catholic schools and less than one half of funding for independent schools is from the government.
What’s the Gonski Review and Gonski 2.0 all about?
David Gonski is an Australian business man who headed a review of schools Funding under PMs Julia Gillard and again under Malcolm Turnbull. The main issue was to recommend a fair, equitable and efficient school funding system across all levels of government – with the commonwealth chipping in extra funds. It’s a complicated thing but the short of it is allocating funding to schools on the basis of a formula called a ‘real needs’ assessment.
How do Australia’s education standards compare to the rest of the world?
A recent report from the Productivity Commission said that despite government spending on all schools going up 58 per cent in the last decade, students’ scores in maths, reading and science have fallen. The PISA report – that’s the Programme for International Student Assessment – is conducted every three years and assesses the maths, reading and science skills of 600,000 15-year-olds from 79 countries, including Australia. Our averaged performance in Australia has been steadily declining in reading between 2000 and 2018, and
in mathematics between 2003 and 2018, from initially high levels of performance. It has been declining in science too, at least since 2012. On reading there were 15th countries ahead of us in reading (we ranked 12th in 2015). In science there were 16 countries above us (there were 9 countries ahead of us in 2015). And in maths there were 28 countries ahead of us (there were 19 countries ahead of us in 2015). We are behind countries like China, Singapore, Estonia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, South Korea and Poland, but we’re still on par with the likes of Sweden, New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.
What do the NAPLAN results show?
NAPLAN is an assessment program that was introduced in 2008 to measure basic skills in literacy and numeracy in years 3,5,7 and 9. They’re standardised tests, and it was designed to provide parents and teachers with an assessment of a child’s development. In general, the average performance of students is not much better or worse than it was a decade ago, but of particular concern in the latest round of tests is the writing skills of year 7 and 9 students have gone backwards.
What are policy makers proposing to address this issue?
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan really honed in on curriculum being a large part of the problem of our sliding international standings in education. He says the curriculum is too convoluted, and called for a shift to a ‘back to basics’ approach that would “put literacy and numeracy back to the heart”.
And while some say school funding needs to be increased, the federal government has pushed back on that saying “Money is not the issue because Estonia was the top-performing country in reading and science and they spend half as much money per student as Australia.” Over the decade to 17, the combined state and federal government funding for public schools grew by 22 per cent, while public funding for non-government schools grew by 46 per cent. The disparity is due to a significant increase in Commonwealth money. As the federal government mainly funds private schools and contributes just one fifth of public school funding, more of that money went to the Catholic and independent sectors. The states, which are supposed to cover 80 per cent of the cost of their public schools, have been slower to lift their contributions. And for international context, research by the Grattan Institute found Australia spends less taxpayer dollars per capita on education than comparable OECD countries, including the US, the UK, New Zealand and Canada.
Another issue being brought up is teaching standards. NSW is trying to tackle that by holding a review into the workload and conditions of public school teachers and principals. They say that needs to be done “in a context of ever-changing government priorities and prescriptions, social expectations and conflicting demands on school operations and teachers’ and principals’ time.”
In December, after these PISA results the state education ministers met at COAG, the Council of Australian Governments meeting. The need for improvement was obviously a big topic. What came out of the meeting?
That produced a number of commitments, including a national review of the educational curriculum from foundation to Year 10, establishing a number of reform proposals put forward under Gonski 2.0, including learning progressions, reviewing NAPLAN testing, the establishment of a National Evidence Institute to create new education research to provide advice on best-practice for teachers to improve education outcomes, as well as reducing red tape for teachers.
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