Ask anyone from Malcolm Turnbull down to the fedora-wearing Socialist leafleting on the corner of Flinders Street Station and odds on they’ll agree: Australia’s underperforming public schools are in desperate need of a shakeup. Yet despite near consensus that Australian education system is ripe for a rethink, public debate remains wedded to the woolly-minded clichés that have gone hand in glove with its decline.
It is high wisdom amongst politicians and progressive elites that ‘funding’ is the key to unlocking the dormant potential of Australia’s flailing education system. This is an attractive proposition for poseurs wanting to take credit for solving a problem almost everyone agrees exists. But when tested against facts, it gives way to some uncomfortable truths.
Contrary to popular myth-making, Australia’s schools are already well funded. We currently spend 4 per cent of GDP on schooling. That’s more than the average of our wealthy OECD counterparts and higher than any other time in our national history. The last 25 years has seen government spending on education double in real terms.
The return on investment has been poor at best. According to the authoritative Program for International Student Assessment, average student performance in maths and reading has been on a downward slope since 2000 – the same period that has enjoyed the steepest rise in funding. The number of students falling below minimum benchmark standards has increased above the board, reaching as high as 20 per cent in maths. After approximately 1,200 hours of reading instruction, it remains the case today that 11.5 per cent of Australian Year 3 students achieve below the minimum national standard in reading, rendering them functionally illiterate.
One recent study by Professor Ken Gannicott has actually found increased funding correlated with deteriorating test scores. The report not only found ‘no evidence that system-wide extra funding is necessary for good NAPLAN performance; schools performing at or below the national minimum standard were already receiving over 24 per cent more funds per student.
The insistence by self-styled experts that funding is the central issue facing public education smacks of the same logic as claims that a lack of Government bailouts is to blame for the death of Australian car manufacturing. If there is one take-out from the performance of Australian education over recent decades, it is that a school’s number of laptops or the size of its assembly hall is no reliable measure of the quality of its educational output. As the OECD acknowledges, beyond a basic funding threshold that virtually every developed country has exceeded, teacher quality is the single most important factor weighing on student success. None of this is any breakthrough on the frontiers of knowledge. In the United States, charter schools have consistently outperformed the public system.
If we’re serious about identifying the root problems in our education system, it may also be worthwhile considering other trends that have coincided with flat lining school performance. Consider, for instance, that in 2005 40 per cent of students with an ATAR above 90 enrolled in teaching. Nowadays that number is well below 30 per cent. Indeed, the required ATAR score for teaching in Victoria now sits at a mediocre 60, with one institution even admitting scores of 34.8 (out of 99.95) to teaching degrees.
Then there’s the National Curriculum which enshrines sustainability, Indigenous histories and Australia’s place in Asia as ‘cross curriculum priorities’ to be paid homage in every subject. Among sundry other ideological flirtations, the history curriculum aims to gift students an appreciation of the ‘overuse of natural resources’ and the ‘global energy crisis.’ No mention is made of the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution or American Revolution; all seminal events in the shaping of Western civilisation.
In the younger years, the teaching of phonics – the old-fangled idea that to learn how to read and write, you need a sound understanding of the sounds that individual letter combinations make – has become passé. Despite all the hard evidence suggesting that teaching letter-sound relationships is the best way to develop a fluent grasp of English, the new curriculum doesn’t prescribe its systematic teaching. One Victorian study found that only half of working of teachers could define the word ‘syllable’.
The barrier of a curriculum which prioritises social engineering over teaching logic and facts is nothing compared to the roadblock of a culture which doesn’t value education. It’s no secret that in many under-performing public schools, the role of the teacher is more akin to crowd control than education. Why else would moving within the catchment of a well-regarded public school be a top priority for countless aspirational families?
For the millions who look back fondly on their days in Primary School spent crouched over a weather-beaten desk in a demountable laden with absestos, this seems intuitively true. Funding is simply no substitute for a classroom ethic that fosters in students an appreciation of the intrinsic value in learning. Anyone lucky enough to have had a teacher with that rare knack of being able to imbue a love of learning within even their most incorrigible pupils knows just how transformative a passionate teacher can be.
There is no easy answer to ending the malaise that consigns too many of our schools to cultural mediocrity. But instead of at least asking the question, members of the activist class remain preoccupied with campaigning for sexual identity classes in pre-grade 7 classrooms. For the majority of people who aren’t sold on teaching pre-pubescent children their birth gender is a heteronormative social construct, the ‘Safe Schools’ program surely serves as a grim token of just how low things have sunk. Instead of congratulating themselves on their next big spending ‘National Plan’ for education, politicians should step back and let schools get on with the basics we can all agree on: reading, writing, maths and teaching how Australia came to be the place it is today. By the current state of things, that would keep them more than busy.
As for the activists like Safe Schools guru Roz Ward who want to use schools as a playground for their own social experiments, perhaps they could hold off until university. At least that way students will understand how to correctly use a possessive apostrophe when they pen their first essay explaining why same-sex marriage and climate change are the biggest challenges facing modern Australia.
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