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Maths for the future: Keep Australia competitive
February 7, 2012, Canberra
Hon Christopher Pyne MP
Federal Member for Sturt
Shadow Minister for Education, Apprenticeships and Training
Manager of Opposition Business in the House
“Ten Principles that Underpin the Coalition's Approach to Student Funding”
What can Australian governments do to secure future mathematical and statistical skills for Australia and what measures can we take to ensure the supply of graduates in the mathematical sciences and quantitative disciplines?
Without a strong mathematics and science education system in the early years, it will be impossible to maintain an internationally competitive workforce. We should accept that if we want to ensure our future supply of graduates in the mathematical science and quantitative disciplines, the logical place to focus is school reform.
If all children are provided the opportunity to acquire the basics of arithmetic early on in life, then they will be well placed to undertake more challenging courses later on. If they don’t acquire these skills, there is no chance to increase the number of students that select statistics, calculus or physics, in much larger numbers in secondary school or university.
In the international testing stakes, Australian school students are still performing well above the OECD average.
In saying this, as the Prime Minister pointed out last month, under the last four years of the Labor Government, our students have fallen behind compared to students from Korea, Singapore, Japan and the Chinese city of Shanghai[i].
We are currently the only high performing country to show a decline in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)[ii]. Sadly this means that we are failing students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, indigenous students and students living in regional and remote areas.
So how might we best take steps to improve Australia’s outcomes in schooling? Some recommendations are about to be made available to the Government through the release the Review of Funding into Schooling, chaired by David Gonski AO in the coming weeks.
The Gonski Review is not the first review of school funding in thirty years, as some claim[iii]. It is the first review that has looked at funding arrangements for both Government and non-Government schools.
The Coalition will certainly give consideration to the review’s findings. We won’t back away from our commitment to supporting the policies that will lift the quality of schooling for all students and particularly disadvantaged students.
Today I wanted to take the opportunity to outline the ten principles that will underpin the Coalition’s approach to student funding in the future.
We will only support the best possible funding arrangements for all students. Only if this objective is realised will we have a chance to reverse the decline in mathematics and science education in our schools and arrest the stagnation that our national testing shows is afflicting numeracy and literacy.
The First Principle
Families must have the right to choose a school that meets their needs, values and beliefs.
Any future approach to student funding must centre on choice. Reforms that focus on improving parents' choice with respect to their children's education, gives students improved choice by enhancing their skills and ensuring more pathways for further education and employment.
The Coalition does not favour non-government over government schools. We don’t buy into the narrow school funding arguments that focus on the idea that funding must be taken from Peter to pay Paul. We are absolutely committed to supporting the best school education for every student, regardless of where they are educated.
We believe that parents should be able to decide the best school for their child, whether this school is in the government or the non-government sector. Providing choice for parents and their children will strengthen both the government and non-government sectors.
The principle of choice stands behind the Coalition’s strong emphasis on mathematics and science in primary and secondary years of schooling.
It is unacceptable to us to have any student leaving school with poor literacy and numeracy skills. The cost of this deficiency to future employers and to society as a whole is enormous. Students without these basic skills risk unemployment or underemployment.
Students leaving school without adequate numeracy and mathematical skills will inevitably have much more limited choices when it comes to their future.
All of the Coalition’s policies for education are based on the principle of choice. Take, for example, our commitment to expand the education tax rebate. Rather than limiting the claimable items to expenses like stationary or school uniforms, our policies provide much more extensive choice for parents. From extra tuition for children with a learning difficulty, school excursions, sporting fees or special education costs - we will help families to have as much choice as possible about their child’s education.
If this choice-based policy was to be implemented what could it achieve for maths or science education? Take for example, the inclusion of extra tuition costs. It may well be the incentive that some parents need to prompt them to engage a mathematics or science tutor for their child who might be falling behind, or simply because they want to help their child advance.
The Second Principle
All children must have the opportunity to secure a quality education.
It would be difficult to find someone who would disagree with the notion that every student deserves a quality education.
But a quality education means something different to the Coalition than to the Labor Party. The Labor Party believes spending billions of dollars on school halls and a computer giveaway programme is an education revolution.
The Coalition has the humbler goal of improving the knowledge of students in our schools.
It will come as no surprise to you that in my consultations over the last four years as the Shadow Minister for Education, I’ve heard very different views on the definition of a quality education.
Some automatically think we should judge the ‘quality of our education system’ by student achievement on the national tests. That is, similar outcomes for all students in terms of achieving basic standards of literacy and numeracy.
While this is important, I believe education serves a much greater purpose.
I don’t see schooling as an opportunity to gain a set of skills. I believe education is about expanding knowledge and fostering all the elements that encourage the development of a whole person.
Gaining knowledge and gaining the ability to continue to learn is the pre-eminent purpose of education.
A solid understanding of mathematics is essential to a quality education. We should encourage as many students as possible to take higher-level mathematics in their school years. We must dispel the myth that algebra, trigonometry, and calculus are only for high achievers bound for university.
Study in mathematics results in a pathway to success in the 21st century. When a student can make the move from grasping concrete arithmetic to the understanding of the symbolic language of algebra, they will have acquired the abstract reasoning skills necessary to apply maths and science solutions to life’s challenges.
And these are the very same maths skills required to be successful when students join the workforce immediately after school.
The Third Principle
Student funding needs to be based on fair, objective, and transparent criteria distributed according to socio-economic need.
The Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett dissembles when he suggests that the former Coalition Government’s funding model for non-government schools is flawed and broken.
Many argue it has been the fairest funding model ever seen to date in this country. The socio-economic status (SES) funding model ensures schools serving the neediest communities receive the maximum funding while schools serving the wealthiest communities receive the minimum.
The Minister has obviously not been reading the same submissions to the Gonski review as I have. Don’t just take my word for it.
The Australian Council of Jewish Schools suggests in their submission to the review that they ‘support the retention of the SES model’[iv].
The Independent Schools Council of Australia suggest “The current socio-economic status (SES) funding model relies on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census collection data which has been collected under controlled and consistent conditions, thereby meeting the criterion of being robust”[v].
The Coalition will consider any funding model that is recommended by the Gonski Panel very carefully. I have welcomed this review but we must have confidence that the new funding model is in line with the principles I am outlining today.
The Fourth Principle
Students with similar needs must be treated comparably throughout the course of their schooling.
The issue of equity has long been a subject of intense debate by opponents of non-government school funding who argue that the drift of students over the years to the non-government sector has contributed to poorer educational outcomes for some students and a greater social divide[vi].
This is not consistent with the research which tells us that those same non-government schools provide a significant return for the government funding they receive[vii].
When I suggest that students with similar needs must be treated comparably throughout the course of their schooling, I don’t mean uniformity in the provision of education.
It would be inequitable and unfair if education fails to adapt to the needs of the child.
Every child is different, so we need a diverse education setting in order to meet the needs of each child.
An example of where the allocation of funding is clearly not distributed equitably currently occurs for children with special needs.
Sadly, students with a disability can expect vastly different treatment depending on which state they live in, what type of school they go to, and how their disability is classified by each state education authority[viii].
This is not right and these students and their families need consistency in the type of Government support they can expect.
At the last election, we proposed that additional Commonwealth funding for these students be made portable. This meant that support and assistance would follow the student regardless of where they attended school and would be based on nationally agreed definitions for disability.
There were critics who do not support this policy solely on the basis that non-government schools might receive extra assistance to support students with a disability.
This is disappointing, as I believe that Australians expect all schools to play a role in achieving a more equitable society, regardless of which sector or system they are in.
The Fifth Principle
As many decisions as possible should be made locally by parents, communities, principals, teachers, schools and school systems.
Over the last twelve months I have undertaken extensive consultation with principals, teachers and parents who send their children to government schools in every state across Australia.
At these forums I often get asked: ‘if I did become the Minister for Education in a Coalition Government, what do I see as the priority for school education in this country?’
I want to see an education system where distinctions between government and non-government sectors will become an argument for the salons of the ideological left following the introduction of genuine autonomy into the government school system.
Characteristics of the non-government sector – the flexibility to respond to the individual needs of their students, strong parental involvement in school life and greater flexibility in staffing appointments directly impact on better student outcomes. A better outcome for students in turn contributes to greater equity in our society.
In his 2007 report to government on principal autonomy, Professor Brian Caldwell, former Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne, found in his anayisis of OECD studies that autonomy and choice contribute to greater equity, higher achievement and reduce the link between student achievement and socioeconomic status[ix].
In fact, it’s also been found that whether a student takes higher level mathematics courses is a more key factor in determining if they participate at university[x] than is either a student’s family background or income[xi].
We need to build upon these factors in our approach to student funding if we want to achieve greater equity.
Overcoming social disadvantage through education will be more effective if governments focus on providing schools and principals with greater autonomy.
While there have been various pilot programmes to let school principals and school communities have greater control over their own destinies, we will initiate real reform to ensure that this occurs unambiguously and at a much faster pace.
The Sixth Principle
Schools, school sectors and school systems must be accountable to their community, families and students.
The Prime Minister is particularly fond of suggesting that we need ‘greater transparency’ in our school system.
I will be very carefully watching to make sure that in its response to the Gonski Review, any new ‘transparency measures’ are not actually a disguise for Labor’s natural addiction to introducing greater levels of government control and red-tape that restrict diversity and choice.
Schools are very accountable to the broader community. As the National Catholic Education Commission pointed out in their submission on school funding “State and Territory Governments have the major role in the regulation of schools and there is a myriad of legal and other accountability requirements and interventions at that level”[xii].
There are currently 19 pieces of commonwealth legislation to which the non-government sector are subject. There are then almost 50 legislative instruments at the state and territory level[xiii].
All of these have different reporting requirements! So it’s a bit rich for Greens Leader Bob Brown to suggest as he did recently when he launched the Greens school funding policy that non-government schools need more stringent controls[xiv].
Some education authorities could do much more to be responsible. In some states the way schools have been allowed to operate has remained virtually the same for decades. Government systems remain highly centralised and bureaucratic. This is preventing too many schools from responding effectively to their students needs.
All schools receive government funding, so all must be responsible to the taxpayers for this investment.
The Coalition is intent on improving educational outcomes for all students.
The Commonwealth Government currently provides approximately $3.8 billion dollars a year for government schools, through the form of specific purpose payments under its National Education Agreement with the States and Territories[xv].
If I become the Minister for Education I will be putting conditions on the States and Territories in return for this substantial investment. A Coalition Government will ensure that education authorities use these funds responsibly to support schools that meet our idea of school autonomy.
I believe a move to greater autonomy for government schools has the capacity to transform education in Australia. I await with great interest any suggestions the Gonski Panel may make on how a funding model might drive autonomy in the school system.
There has never been a better opportunity in history then there is now to make changes that will result in a more flexible, competitive, diverse and vibrant government education system.
The Seventh Principle
Every Australian student must be entitled to a basic grant from the Commonwealth government.
One of the great myths about the current school funding system is that ‘wealthy schools’ receive too much commonwealth funding.
Schools with a strong base of financial support receive substantially less government funding than those with little support. Under the SES funding model the most well off schools receive an amount per student that is equivalent to 13.7 percent of the average recurrent cost of educating a child in a government school. In 2011 this translates to just $1329 per primary school student per year[xvi].
Given we believe all children are entitled to a quality education there must be at least a basic degree of support from the Commonwealth to meet the cost of that education.
And given that parents of children who send their child to a non-government school pay taxes, it is fair that schools that educate these children should receive some government assistance.
The Eighth Principle
Schools and parents must have a high degree of certainty about school funding so they can effectively plan for the future.
Schools Minister Peter Garrett has been repeatedly asked if Labor will commit to the ongoing indexation of school funding but has so far failed to do so.
This creates uncertainty for parents. It means that in real terms non-government schools could face dramatic funding shortfalls in the future.
Coalition estimates show there could be a $4.2 billion shortfall over four years in funding for to non-government schools if they are not guaranteed indexation.
This will force schools to either charge higher school fees or make staff cuts, or a combination of the two.
Parents and schools need certainty in funding arrangements. They need to know that their school’s funding arrangements won’t be prone to sudden change. They need long lead times in order to be able to plan effectively for the future.
Parents are spending thousands of dollars each year to pay for excursions, computers, camping trips and other education costs while struggling to meet increasing household bills.
Now more than ever, families need certainty in what support they can expect in relation to school funding arrangements in the future.
I have seen first hand just how angry parents and communities get without certainty. I witnessed this happen when I was in Tasmania last year.
The Labor-Greens Government there had planned to close several schools but thankfully this decision was reversed after a significant public outcry.
What was particularly distressing about the Tasmanian Government’s decision is that it came like a thief in the night and shocked communities who had not had the opportunity to defend the need for their local school to remain local.
Governments must do everything they can to deliver certainty to families in relation to school funding.
The Ninth Principle
Parents who wish to make a private contribution toward the cost of their child’s education should not be penalised, nor should schools in their efforts to fundraise and encourage private investment.
Much of the debate in the media on school funding uses biased figures to draw attention to the level of resources enjoyed by a handful of high fee independent or Catholic schools. The rationale that ensues is that no school should have resources that exceed the funding available to government schools.
This argument fails to convince me – we know that the majority of the resources in the handful of ‘wealthy schools’ come from private contributions, not the taxpayer.
Some public school education advocates deliberately try and plant in the mind of parents that somehow the extensive facilities at a handful of schools are financed by the taxpayer, while small regional schools are being left to struggle.
In actual fact, most of the capital works undertaken in non-government schools are funded from parent contributions collected over many years. Many non-government schools receive no contribution at all from government to build facilities. They borrow the funds from financial institutions and repay those funds with interest – usually through the collection of school fees.
Withdrawing public funding from schools where parents have the capacity to pay would impose additional financial burdens on families at a time when they simply cannot afford it.
We will never support a funding model which penalises parents for wanting to make private contributions to their child’s education.
We will certainly never support a funding model based on the politics of envy.
The Tenth Principle
Funding arrangements must be simple so schools are able to direct funding toward education outcomes, minimise administration costs and increase productivity and quality.
If we are really to empower schools communities such empowerment needs to go hand and hand with providing training to support this new responsibility.
I recently met with representatives from the American Productivity and Quality Centre (APQC), who have overseen a programme in the United States called the North Star Initiative. The programme operates in public schools. School staff are trained on how to improve process and performance management in their school and use benchmarking and other best practices to empower school systems to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
The economic environment in the United States has seen a drastic reduction to school district education budgets, in some instances equating to a reduction of funding to some schools by 12%. But instead of having to lay off staff, some schools have been able to identify savings at the school level and then redirect these savings back toward education outcomes by making relatively straightforward changes to the way their school operates.
This initiative only started in 2009, but so far has led to some incredible results. Ten U.S. school systems were selected as trial participants to see if a change in process, driven at the school level could bring positive change to outcomes. In just one year, these ten districts saved $17.5 million dollars and released over 40,000 hours back into the classroom.
Last year the APQC piloted their programme in 13 schools in Victoria. Results from the pilots are so far promising. Let me give you an example: Addas Israel School decided after receiving training from the APQC that they would work to improve the cleanliness and order of the campus to provide a superior learning environment. Encouraging staff and students to spend a few extra minutes a day tidying up the school improved its appearance while lowering the cleaning costs, leaving more funding for education outcomes.
You might think this sounds like a very simple and straightforward concept. It is. But simple changes at the school level are much harder to realise than you may first think. Would you believe that NSW Government Schools have not even been able to manage their own maintenance budgets? It has been a key election commitment by the O’Farrell Government to reverse this restriction and support NSW schools to become more autonomous.
My point is we won’t be able to transform education unless we give schools both the empowerment and the skills needed to identify how they can make improvements at the local level.
For school autonomy to change education for the better, we need to equip school leaders and teachers with proven tools and sound decision making strategies to improve processes and break down functional silos to improve efficiency and bring individuals together as a team.
I believe this is the basis for a better school system in Australia.
We will soon see a robust debate emerge on the funding arrangements for both Government and non-government schools and how they might be improved to support the education of students beyond 2013.
The ten principles I have outlined today will be the basis for the Coalition’s approach to student funding to ensure we strive towards the best standards we can in school education.
[ii] Thomson, S., et al 2011, “Challenges for Australian education: results from PISA 2009: the PISA 2009 assessment of students’ reading, mathematical and scientific literacy”, Australian Council for Education Research accessed at http://www.acer.edu.au/documents/PISA-2009-Report.pdf
[iii] Garrett, P., 9 December 2011, Review of Funding for Schooling, Ministers Media Centre Education, Employment and Workplace Relations accessed at: http://ministers.deewr.gov.au/garrett/review-funding-schooling
[iv] Rothman, S., et al 2011, “Submission to the School Funding Review Panel”, Australian Council of Jewish Schools. Accessed at: http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/ReviewofFunding/SubEip/AtoF/Documents/Australian_Council_of_Jewish_Schools.pdf
[v] Independent Schools Council of Australia, 30 September 2011, Submission for Review of Funding for Schooling - Response to Commissioned Research accessed at: http://www.isca.edu.au/
[vi] Teese, Richard., September 2011, “From opportunity to outcomes. The changing role of public schooling in Australia and national funding arrangements” Centre for Research on Education Systems, the University of Melbourne accessed at: http://www.saveourschools.com.au/equity-in-education/school-funding-should-be-better-directed-at-reducing-disadvantage
[vii] National Catholic Education Commission, March 2011, “Submission to the Review of Funding for Schooling”, Chapter 2, Catholic Education and Equity, Pg 10 accessed at: http://www.ncec.catholic.edu.au/
[viii] Ferrier, Fran et al, June 2007. “Investigating the feasibility of portable funding for students with disabilities”, Faculty of Education, Monash University, accessed at: http://www.dest.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/517A32CD-1BCC-4A7E-81F9-7380B24B0221/25817/Investigating20the20Feasibility20of20Portable20Fun.pdf
[ix] Caldwell, B., 5 December 2007, “Principal Autonomy Research Project” Educational Transformations accessed at: http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/QualityTeaching/researchandpublications/Documents/PrincipalAutonomyFinalReport.pdf
[x] Cuttance, Peter., 2001 “School Innovation: pathway to the knowledge society”, Innovation and Best Practice Consortium, Chapter 3 Mathematics accessed at: http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/school_education/publications_resources/profiles/school_innovation.htm#authors
[xi] Marks, G., 1997 “Reading, Comprehension and mathematics among junior secondary school students in Australia” Australian Council for Education Research
[xiii] National Catholic Education Commission, March 2011, “Submission to the Review of Funding for Schooling”, Chapter 5, Transparancy, Accountability and Regulation, Pg 52 accessed at: at: http://www.ncec.catholic.edu.au/
[xiv] Brown, Bob., 18 January 2012 “School a Priority for 2012”, the Australian Greens accessed at: http://bob-brown.greensmps.org.au/content/media-release/schools-priority-2012-greens
[xv] Australian Government, 2011/-12 Budget Paper no.3, Australia’s Federal Relations, page 48 accessed at: http://www.aph.gov.au/budget/2011-12/content/download/bp3.pdf
[xvi] Australian Government, “SES per capita funding rates”, Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations accessed at: https://ssp.deewr.gov.au/ssp/help/html/ses/per_capita_rates.html