13/09/2013 - 07:07

Classroom cuts don’t add up

13/09/2013 - 07:07

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COLIN Barnett made considerable political mileage in his first term as premier by paving the way for state schools to become more flexible and responsive to their students’ needs through attaining independent status.

Even some in Labor ranks were drawn into supporting their local school’s bid for independence. That is quite a policy.

During this year’s state election campaign, however, with education tucked away as a ‘safe’ area of competence, I recall little mention of a new wave of reform.

So it was a bit surprising that, in the middle of the recent federal election campaign, Mr Barnett and Education Minister Peter Collier, a former schoolteacher, unleashed major changes to way our state school system would be managed.

On August 20, 18 days before the federal election, Mr Collier revealed that there was to be an overhaul of school funding to deliver equity and reform. Two weeks earlier, he had released a document entitled ‘Development of a School Funding Model for Western Australian Public Schools: Report on Funding and Options’, which was prepared for the Department of Education by Melbourne University academics Stephen Lamb and Richard Teese.

The report is dated February 2012. Presumably the government has sat on it all that time.

Like many people, I have been in the dark about this. I wasn’t focused on these particular announcements at the time and tended to believe the government’s line that it isn’t making wholesale cuts to the education budget, but targeting the bureaucratic back office rather than front-line services.

That line was nearly inaudible during the heat of a federal election campaign and, as such, I wondered if it was truly the case. Mention of reform seemed non-existent, as the Liberal government bungled the message. I don’t often buy the argument that good governments trip up with bad communication, but with Mr Collier caught getting his facts wrong and Mr Barnett telling principals to “lighten up”, they failed miserably to highlight their intent.

Perhaps Mr Barnett and his team think that, with the WA conservative vote at its best in nearly a century and more than three years to run in their term, they can afford to take some flak while they wait for the results to speak for themselves.

So, instead, all we got was bad news.

A colleague of mine has supplied me with considerable information about the funding cuts to his child’s primary school, at administrative and classroom learning levels. On the face of it there is definitely a reduction in money paid to teachers and assistants, as well as admin staff.

On top of that, the line being whispered around is that these cuts are being made to resource new schools, so while the budget may not technically be reduced, it is being spread more thinly.

Obviously the State School Teachers Union and those that represent other, related disciplines had a field day with this during the federal election.

The perception of Barnett/Collier education cuts, along with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s sweeping reduction of his state’s civil service head count, became part of Kevin Rudd’s desperate pitch to the electorate.

It has, for the past few days at least, gone pretty quiet in WA’s education battle.

Perhaps now we can see a more enlightened contest of ideas because the Liberal state government appears to have a real plan to reverse the perverse correlation between rising funding for schools and declining student results.

How best to meet needs

There is a lot more taking place in WA’s state education system than initially appears the case.

While unions covering the education sector took advantage of the federal election campaign to loudly voice concerns about claimed cuts, they seemed to shy away from how much they agree with the state government’s proposed reforms.

In slamming funding changes being implemented under the Teese model (see above) by Premier Colin Barnett and Education Minister Peter Collier, State School Teachers Union president Anne Gisborne highlighted her preference for the reforms that the federal Labor government wanted to bring in on the basis of a review by David Gonski.

But, funding aside, aren’t they pursuing a similar agenda?

Yes they are, apparently.

“It (Teese) has the key driving principles of Gonski – but lacks the critical element of funding,” Ms Gisborne said in a public statement on the SSTU website.

So, given the union’s support of Gonski, the state government’s direction in education appears spot on, except that it has not changed how much it intends to spend.

Of course there was one other major difference from the Gonski package, which morphed into the Better Schools policy when Kevin Rudd removed Julia Gillard as prime minister but still required states from meet some of the massive – but not open-ended – additional funding being proposed.

That difference was that the federal government wanted a bigger say in how the states ran their schools.

Mr Barnett was wary of sharing responsibility for state schools. We all should be. If you are not fully responsible, how can you be fully accountable?

Instead, he has gone it alone.

One of the reasons he may have done so is that there is plenty of evidence that simply throwing money at problems doesn’t work. You only have to look at indigenous living standards to see that decades of well-meaning and costly welfare have had little impact on the ground.

I have been interested in this subject for years; and WA business is rightly concerned about education standards because the quality of future employees depends on it.

In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA even launched its own reform proposal. It highlighted how throwing money at the state’s education system had failed to improve outcomes.

One area it raised as an issue was that the number of teachers per student had doubled since the early 1970s. If that isn’t an explosion of resources, then I can’t think what is. That change was all around the mantra that smaller classroom sizes were better. Classroom sizes halved over those 35 years, yet school performance in that period had not improved – and many people think it has gone backwards.

The issue, of course, is one of supply and demand. Doubling the number of teachers doesn’t improve the quality. The opposite is most likely true.

And doubling the number of teachers doesn’t mean that is doubling the cost because budgets have limits, so even if more good teachers were available, the salaries are not attractive enough.

So we increase the resources but get more-lower quality teachers than previously. No wonder our system is not improving.

I talk to teachers a lot and not one of them thinks that bigger classes are better. I have even gone so far as to raise this issue in parent-teacher meetings. It is probably not politically correct at the primary school my children have attended to ask a teacher if he or she would be happy with bigger classrooms if they were paid more.

But some teachers I have spoken to do acknowledge big problems. One very experienced teacher recently told me about how much tougher the average classroom had become over the past decade because children with disabilities were introduced into regular schools. There is no doubt this is great for those individual students and their needs, and has social benefits for the whole community.

However, these students demand a great deal of the teacher’s time without any commensurate increase in resources.

Gonski and Teese both aim to deal with this kind of problem.

So let us skip the overall funding issue for now and come back to it. Instead let’s focus on the policy.

Below are two policy outlines. I have labelled them Policy A and Policy B. They are both lifted directly from government websites and, except for a couple of judicious edits to disguise them, I doubt most people could pick the difference.

Policy A

Under this policy, every school’s funding will be calculated according to the needs of every individual student enrolled.

This new way of funding schools was recommended by the independent Review of Funding for Schooling. There will be a benchmark amount per student. This amount is based on the efficient costs of educating a child at a set of high-performing schools, known as ‘reference schools’.

There will also be extra funding for students we know need more support, including students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, indigenous students, students with limited English skills and students with disability. This extra funding will help pay for things such as dedicated equipment, specialist teachers, expert teacher aides and to implement new programs designed to help these students.

There will also be extra funding for small schools and schools in regional, rural and remote areas, which face higher costs in delivering a high quality education.

Policy B

A student-centred formula is proposed where consideration is given to each student according to education needs. This provides a more equitable distribution of resources by correlating school funding with the specific needs of students at the school. Similar students therefore attract the same level of funding. The model recognises that students differ in their levels of need and provides additional resources to students with the greater educational needs.

1. Core funding is delivered through a uniform price per student.

2. A separate base allocation is made to schools to cover minimum running costs. The base is enrolment tapered.

3. Geographical isolation and small size constraints are addressed through separate and specific additional lines of funding.

4. Socio-economic disadvantage is tackled through an allocation based on density or relative concentration of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, derived from information relating to individual students, not area characteristics. Education and occupation of parents are the relevant characteristics, and a suitable scale is constructed from these characteristics. Composite and area based measures are not used.

5. Indigenous funding is consolidated into a single targeted line.

6. Disability, English as a second language and refugee funding is delivered through three separate lines, each involving clinically or pedagogically assessed need. For each group, individual assessments are required and support is scaled accordingly.

So Ms Gisborne is right. Policy A, which is Better Schools that emerged from Gonski, is the same as Policy B, the Barnett government’s Teese reforms.

What Professor Teese and his fellow academics found was that the current funding formula – not the amount available – was out-of-date.

The key takeaways are that:

• most schools were allocated staff, both teaching and administrative, centrally and lacked flexibility to direct resources where they were needed most;

• the data used to direct resources was unrefined;

• various equity based multipliers were piled on top of each other, skewing the funding and exacerbating the inadequacies of the original data;

• there are big differences in resources available to schools serving the same types of student bodies;

• the emphasis in WA schools was heavily focused on the last years of secondary school, almost more than most comparable jurisdictions in the world, especially the most successful in the field;

• indigenous students are a large part of the WA school population and a significant factor in overall underperformance; and

• more resources did not necessarily result in better outcomes.

Reading the Teese report when you are not in the education game is quite a journey. As a business journalist with an amateur interest in economics, I was led towards the elements where the review compared WA with other jurisdictions.

For instance, WA high school students have 1.38 teachers for every single teacher a primary school student has. This is the biggest gap in the country, by some quite considerable margin. NSW is 1.28, Victoria 1.24 and Queensland 1.23.

The OECD mean is 1.18.

Countries such as Finland, China and Sweden, which are regarded as very progressive in educational terms, reverse this focus, having more teachers per primary student than secondary. However, it is not that simple, with countries such as Finland having more teachers in lower secondary school than in primary school, emphasising the need to direct education resources earlier in students’ careers rather than at the very end.

An interesting highlight is that of Alberta, in Canada, which does the opposite of WA. The Teese report shifts from teacher ratios to funding when examining this Canadian province’s record but it is still valid. Alberta puts 20 per cent more funding per student into the first four years of schooling (including a pre-school year) than it does for each and every high school student.

According to the Teese report, Alberta is the highest-scoring province in Canada and achieves results comparable to Finland, which is the best OECD country in terms of education outcomes.

I appreciate this example immensely because long-serving Business News columnist Joseph Poprzeczny highlighted the attributes of Alberta’s education system as far back as 2006, pointing out that it was not hamstrung by the attributes it shares with WA – a sparsely populated region with a resources-based economy.

The big issue with a shift in educational funding as proposed is that it comes with two major challenges, which no doubt resulted in the protests we have seen in the past week or to.

Firstly, some schools have been over-resourced and grown comfortable with that. It is always difficult to make changes to such structures and, I suspect, this is where the most pain is being felt right now.

Secondly, and more fundamentally challenging, is the potential for there to be a lost generation or a cohort that misses out.

Even if our current funding model favouring final years of high school is trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, there must be some students for whom the increased resources make a difference. If that funding is transferred to earlier years, such as primary school, then the potential is that students about to enter their final years of school may miss out on funding that they would otherwise have finally gained. That could make them losers twice.

That is where additional funding, in the short term might be necessary.

Then again, you also have to wonder at some of the resources thrown at poorly performing schools and think that this is not about education. In a survey of schools used by the Teese report, underperforming high schools had twice as many teachers per year 12 student than they did per year nine student whereas other schools, average and better performing, had a ratio of 1.3 teachers in the last year of high school compared to year nine.

Are these teachers there to teach? Or are the high numbers there to control students who generations ago would not have stayed in school? I don’t suggest we give up on them, but there is the possibility that greater resources applied to those children earlier in their schooling may have better equipped more of them for the challenges of completing years 11 and 12.

Nevertheless, the Teese report also clearly shows that some schools outperform others notwithstanding funding and socio-economic obstacles to their success. This shows that better organised schools with the right targeting of resources can overcome problems that all the misdirected money in the world won’t solve.

So, potentially, schools can do more with less, if they have the flexibility and leadership to do so, which is what the highly successful independent schools model was all about.

And, in the end, the government’s treasury, and its taxpaying base, is not inexhaustible.

Education and health already take up half the state’s budget. They have been growing faster than the government can collect taxes to pay for it.

The Commonwealth might have a great ability to fund promises like Gonski, but it too has limitations.

If we can find a mechanism that delivers tangible improvements without massive, unsustainable funding increases, then that is a major win for our community and our economy.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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