School Funding is indeed wasted Kevin, but not in ways that you are suggesting

sub title: More Dog Whistling from Kevin Donnelly:

Given that Christopher Pyne, anointed Kevin Donnelly as the one who could have his way with the Australian National Curriculum you think he might just sit back a little. But no – here he is again, but this time back to his old ways of vindictively threatening funding for Australia’s most needy students. But perhaps, after the Barry Spurr fiasco, Christopher Pyne has called on him to create a distraction.

So let’s look at his arguments and let’s apply Kevin’s own standards of Judaea-Christian tradition of solid, impartial, non-emotive, non-misleading, rational discourse.

His first claim runs as follows:

A prevailing myth of Australia’s left-leaning education establishment is that increased funding of government schools leads to improved educational outcomes.

But if you take out the misleading elements of this sentence, it might read more like this:

The prevailing position of Australia’s education establishment is that increased funding for high need schools will lead to improved educational outcomes.

Saying it this way reads a little differently doesn’t it? Here is the rationale for my edits:

  1. The Gonski report does not argue for more funding for Government schools – their status as Government schools is not the reason for additional funding. The Gonski report argues that Australia needs a resource standard that would be the amount of funds it takes to education an average child in Australia. On top of that we need to provide additional funds to be directed on the basis of needs – you might have noticed, Kevin, that it is called ‘needs based funding’ not Government school funding.
  1. Left leaning is nothing but a dog whistle. I am left leaning and Jane Caro might confess to this heinous crime too, but not David Gonski, nor Liberal Minister Adrian Piccoli. Rather, there is a consensus that needs based funding is the right way go.
  1. Thirdly, The use of the term ‘a … myth’ is quite emotive and misleading. It is not a myth just because Kevin says it is. In fact, the overwhelming weight of impartial, informed experts and researchers supports this view. Kevin knows better than to use red rag language like this. A more appropriate word would be ‘position’.

His next argument is that the OECD’s PISA tests show that increasing expenditure is not the solution. He is referring here to tables comparing global schooling expenditure to comparative PISA results. This argument actually has zero relevance to the Gonski claims because it has nothing whatsoever to do with needs based funding. It does not give any consideration to where the funding is directed.

Statistics on the global resourcing of schools tells us absolutely nothing about where the money goes. For example, the vast bulk of increases in schooling expenditure in Australia, since the mid 90s, has been spent on non-needy schools. Australia lags behind – way behind, other OECD countries on expenditure on public schools, where most of the needy students go, but is way out at the front of the pack on expenditure to private schools. In fact, no other country has directed such a huge amount of new funding on this sort of reverse targeting – on students who need it least.

This is a good example of Kevin’s sleight of hand approach to mounting an argument. He has cherry picked: this one, of many observations from the OECD reports, The OECD reports offer many other conclusions that were not referenced by Kevin. Those of most relevance to this debate include:

  • How resources are allocated is just as important as the amount of resources available to be allocated. P41
  • Much of the impact of socio-economic status on performance is mediated by the resources invested in schools. P43
  • How resources are allocated to disadvantaged and advantaged schools is also related to systems’ levels of performance. In higher performing systems, principals in socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools reported similar levels of quality of physical infrastructure and schools’ educational resources, both across OECD countries and across all countries and economies participated in PISA 2012 (Table IV.1.3). As shown in Figure IV.1.11, even after accounting for per capita GDP, 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by the level of similarities in principals’ report on schools’ educational resources between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. P43

Of particular note is Figure IV.1.11 which illustrates that, on this indicator of equity, Australia is at the bottom of the pack – equal to the United States, with only Turkey and Mexico less equitable than us

  • Across OECD countries and all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools is not related to a system’s overall performance.

Kevin does not refer to any of these conclusions, preferring to use the one OECD conclusion that is ostensibly making his case. Here is the gist of his argument:

The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education

But what he should have said, drawing on all the relevant information might look more like this

 The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education, but they also don’t invest heavily in private school systems and they do invest more resources in low Socio-economic schools and ensure that the school facilities and standards of physical resourcing across schools are similar.

Kevin supports his poorly argued claim by drawing on a report prepared by Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh MP that appears to support him.

In Long Run Trends in School Productivity: Evidence from Australia, Leigh and Chris Ryan, analysing test results from 1964 to 2003, observed minimal improvement and concluded: “Real per child school expenditure increased substantially over this period, implying a fall in school productivity.”

But, of course, there are no comparable tests between 1964 and 2003, and Leigh and Ryan did not investigate where the expenditure increases occurred. If they had, they would have discovered that the bulk of the increases, above and beyond CPI, can be attributed to the combined result of the Whitlam decision to fund private schools in the 1970s and the huge boosts these schools enjoyed over the Howard years.

Kevin’s third argument is that the catholic system achieves superior results to the Government system.

To be honest, I don’t quite understand why this is an argument for not increasing funding to public schools. Surely if this was true it would support Gonski’s recommendations.

But is it true? Kevin does not substantiate or reference this claim.

Kevin also neglects to add that according to the OECD report 2013 cited above, (Figure ii-i-19) the results for Australia on the different performance on PISA (Mathematics) of school systems, after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools favours public education by a small margin.

And finally, Kevin’s last argument is about class size.

Perhaps this is relevant because Kevin assumes that the additional funds that would flow to high needs schools would all go towards reducing class sizes. This is an assumption as there are many other demands on cash strapped high needs schools – remedial support, counseling, diagnostic assessments, ICT, investing in teacher professional development, teacher remuneration …

Kevin ignores research that demonstrates that there is a positive relationship between smaller class sizes and student outcomes for low SES students and this is where the bulk of the additional funds will be directed.

He has also neglected to note that, since Government funding for private schools commenced in the 1970s, private schools (non-Catholic) have led the way in reduced class size even though this is where we get almost no gain from our investment. On the other hand Catholic School class sizes have absolutely plummeted and are now on par with Government schools.

Perhaps these two systems could be persuaded by Kevin to give back to the Government the additional funds they received that have been directed to reduced class sizes. After-all Kevin is adamant that money does not matter and should not be wasted and this is the key area where increased funds have not translated into improved outcomes.


This essay has a number of fundamental weaknesses: un-necessary emotive language designed to unduly influence readers, failure to substantiate core claims, cherry picking of evidence to suit a pre ordained conclusion and lack of engagement with the core conclusions of the OECD research. F-


It is the Funding Stupid: Fixing Remote Indigenous Student Attendance

The Commonwealth has recently announced yet another Remote Schools Attendance Strategy focused on improving attendance through the funding of a cadre of school attendance officers and supervisors in identified communities across Australia. In fact it is one of the very few initiatives focusing on Indigenous students that the Commonwealth is continuing to fund.

Attendance is also a key priority for the Northern Territory Government (NTG). The NTG has recently published for final report of Bruce Wilson’s extensive Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory called “A Share in the Future”. This Report underscores the importance of continuing to focus on improvements to attendance in spite of poor progress and makes a number of related recommendations.

There is no doubt about poor school attendance being a stand out feature of remote Indigenous schools in the NT. Imagine having an average 60% attendance rate at best in an urban white dominated schools where only about a quarter of the children attended more that an average of 4 days a week. That is the reality.

However Wilson’s review report makes a number of claims about student attendance, that are questionable and is silent on some of the most important matters that contribute to the problem.

Firstly, Wilson claims that there is a causal link between improved attendance and improved student outcomes. I am sure most of us think this makes intuitive sense but is it actually the case?

Secondly, Wilson argues that the NTG has spent incalculable resources over many years to improve the school attendance of Indigenous students, but without any material improvement. I will dispute this in this article.

Thirdly, Wilson’s recommendations related to attendance, while an improvement on his original draft report, neglect two critical issues: school funding and the quality of what happens in classrooms.

The relationship between school attendance and student outcomes

The report includes two tables that show that there is a direct relationship between the percentage of days students attend schools and their NAPLAN scores. Wilson makes the common mistake of assuming that this relationship is a causal one: that the more time a student spends in class, the greater their NAPLAN score.

But this is not necessarily the case. A link could be due to a third factor, or the causality could be reversed. For example, a school could radically improve its curriculum and pedagogy causing both attendance to rise and results to improve, or it could be the case that students who are more successful are more likely to attend more regularly.

The question Wilson should have asked is: does a student improve when s/he attends class more frequently? To answer this question, it would be necessary to focus on schools where attendance is improving and then look at their NAPLAN scores. But there is a catch.

At the recent AARE National Conference James Ladwig and Allan Luke presented a paper arguing that there is no relationship between school student attendance and improved student outcomes for Indigenous students. Here is what they have to say:

The overall claim that increased attendance is linked with improved achievement seems like common sense. It stands to reason that if a student attends more, s/he is more likely to perform better on annually administered standardised tests. The inverse also seems intuitive and common sensical: that if an individual student doesn’t attend, s/he is less likely to achieve well on these conventional measures.

But sometimes what appears to make sense about an individual student may not factually hold up when we look at the patterns across a larger school or system.

Ladwig and Luke did not undertake a simple correlation exercise comparing attendance levels with NAPLAN results. Instead they attempted to focus on those schools where student attendance improved.

However, what they found was that Indigenous dominated schools making big improvement in attendance rates are very rare. So rare that the empirical study of the changes in NAPLAN score is making a lot out of a tiny tiny set.

They also found that attendance in remote schools is highly resistant to change. This of course comes as no surprise to long term teachers and principals in these schools who simply sigh and shrug when the latest new or recycled magic bullet is announced.

Luke and Ladwig were able to identify a very small group of schools that showed improvements in school attendance AND NAPLAN improvements, but in every case, these same schools had “implemented significant curriculum and teaching method reforms over the same period examined”.

They concluded that “attending school may or may not help generally, but improving achievement depends on what children do once we get them to school”.

I couldn’t agree more.

What Wilson missed

Wilson’s recommendations around attendance suggest some very important areas for attention – encouraging parent responsibility, identifying the community factors that negatively impact attendance, using kinship connection to enhance attendance maintaining and making more inclusive Clontarf type programs, and better management of the impact of increased attendance on classrooms.

But he neglected to address the two major areas that might make a difference: what happens in classrooms and adequate needs based funding.

Ladwig and Luke have identified the first factor – curriculum reform and quality professional development. But they assume that this is straightforward and will translate to change in what happens in classrooms. I disagree.

What Ladwig and Luke missed

I am disappointed that they neglected to note that all the professional development and curriculum reform in the world cannot change practice in the NT as long as the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing remote schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (standard practice in all other states).

Attendance rates are frequently misunderstood.   I recall a Minister, who shall not be named, once asking why 40% of remote Indigenous students do not attend school in response to a briefing about attendance rates being at 60% for remote NT schools. The reality is both better and worse. All of the students included in ‘the denominator’ (100%) attend school some of the time but the average RATE of attendance is 60%. However in NT remote schools only around 27% attend more that 80% of the time.

I have described in a previous blog just how much staffing by attendance, and not enrolment, impacts on the classroom:

… a primary school with 300 children enrolled, but an attendance rate of 60per cent, would be allocated staff for 180 students not 300. Yet the number of students who need to be assigned to teachers and classes is 300 not 180 – they just attend irregularly. This would require making class sizes of about 33 not 20.

So on any one day, a teacher might have only 20 children in their class but about 33 children on the roll.  Based on the expectation that only about 27 per cent would attend over 80 per cent of the time, this class of 33 might have about 9 children who attend on a very regular basis and the remaining 24 children would also attend, albeit on a highly irregular basis.

Can you just imagine the chaos of such a classroom and how hard it would be to focus on the small number of students who are there regularly?  Add to this mix, inexperienced short term principals, a high number of novice teachers, a generally non-English speaking student body and cultural challenges, and you get an even more accurate picture.

How can a regularly attending student progress in their learning when the teacher has no choice but to attend to the high needs and behaviour management demands of the irregular attendees? They need a calm learning environment and they get the extreme opposite of this. Staffing on enrolment – on the same basis as other schools – could support this.

I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we just don’t want to know?

One of the issues that worries me about the findings of Ladwig and Luke is that it can operate as a “get out of jail free card”. It can too easly slide into being understood as, “Attendance is dependent on factors outside the schools control and is not a priority. Instead lets just focus on what happens in classrooms”. Of course, don’t be too surprised when this too produces no change. We have come to accept this inevitability.

I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.

Ladwig and Luke have done an important piece of work identifying an issue that requires further investigation. But, it is important that we ask the right questions, and have high quality researchers like this team get into the classrooms for a period of time in order to observe first hand how the current set up in NT remote and very remote Indigenous schools guarantees failure through gross indirect funding discrimination.

What would your school do with Gonski money?

Throwing more money at schools isn’t the answer yells Dr Scott Prasser. This is the man who has defended every red cent that the Government has allocated to Catholic schools – even the 50% of them who were overfunded after the SES model was introduced and their funding level was grandfathered.

The Gonski Review Panel did not address the issue of how the additional funds so sorely needed by public and needy schools in Australia because this was outside their terms of reference.

But it is an important question. Glen Fowler in an article in the Canberra Times, How Money Makes a Difference tells the story of Richardson Primary school – one of a very small number of ACT disadvantaged schools and how they managed their Low SES National Partnership funds to improve learning outcomes for their children. He is what they did

Richardson Primary started by enhancing its capacity to gather and analyse data about how their students were performing. They purchased licences from the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) to administer annual internal tests in literacy and numeracy at all year levels. That way, they didn’t have to wait for NAPLAN results. They had up-to-date information about where students were falling behind and needed extra support.

Drawing on hard data that indicated students were struggling with vocabulary development and reading comprehension, the school set about enhancing teacher capacity to address these issues. Every staff member attended a five-day intensive course in Dr Spencer Kagan’s high-impact collaborative learning strategy. Kagan’s approach aims to engage every student, especially those who are struggling, by structuring activities so that students feel individual and collective responsibility for their learning.

Additionally, every teacher attended a two-day seminar with educational expert, Dr Dylan Wiliam, on using his formative assessment strategies to enrich each student’s learning journey.

The school also purchased teacher and classroom resources to complement structured and supported teacher-learning teams that ensure effective school-wide implementation of these key strategies. This razor-sharp focus on improving instructional practice through collaboration and reflection has led to more confident and skilful educators, adept at engaging every learner every moment of the learning process.

The school’s final strategy was to build community partnerships. Working with the YWCA of Canberra, the school established an Intel Computer Clubhouse for 10-18-year-olds in the area. The Clubhouse is an out-of-school-hours high-tech digital studio where young people can work with industry-standard hardware and software and collaborate with mentors on passion projects.


This is an interesting set of initiatives for a number of reasons

Firstly, This school understands that particularly in relation to students who are not achieving agreed benchmarks in reading outcomes, NAPLAN test results come too late. Fowler doesn’t state it but I am sure the school also understands that NAPLAN does not provide information for this group of learners. It is too narrow and not diagnostic in design. It is interesting to note that after using these more diagnostic assessments it was found that the real barriers to reading developments were vocabulary and reading comprehension. These are of course quite linked but neither is well tested by NAPLAN.

Secondly, the professional development focus was cooperative learning using groups of differing ability students using a well-researched evidence based approach. Now cooperative learning has a long history in education but there is a big difference between a few teachers across a school taking this approach and a well-prepared well-trained school adopting it en mass. Its worth noting that recent research has identified a growing trend for schools to adopt streaming approaches in their classrooms – not because it is well researched but because this makes it easier to teach based on NAPLAN content as the key organiser.

Thirdly, basing classroom learning experiences around information based on formative assessment allows for learning personalisation and ensures that the time spent on learning is both accessible and challenging.

Finally, there are things about Richardson Primary school that are not mentioned in this report but that matter a lot. First of all the principal is Jason Borton, who is known to many twitter-active educators as a wise, brave and outspoken leader on key education issues. High quality leadership for low SES schools is critical and systems should be investing in strategies to ensure that. Secondly, I don’t know how but Richardson Primary have managed to have relatively small class sizes – 19 at most in all but kindergarten where the ration is 16-1. Don’t let anyone id you that the size of the class does not matter.

So there you have it, this school has not wasted a cent on extrat resources to drill down on NAPLAN, new fancy learning packages aligned with NAPLAN. In fact they appear t have completely ignored it – and righty so in my view.

Instead Richardson Primary is well placed to support all its children through high quality leadership, a whole school focus on well evidenced pedagogical strategies, intelligent and focussed use of formative and diagnostic assessments across the school and a classroom student teacher ratio that is workable. I don’t know how this school will adapt to the highly financially constrained environment they will find themselves in if the full 6 years of Gonski are not agreed to, but it wont be good and students will be negatively affected.

It would be interesting to collect accounts of what other schools are currently doing that will need to stop. I do hope someone is doing this.

Pyne’s threats on Gonski are shameful, but what the NT is doing is worse – much worse.

Trigger Alert:  I am saying things in this article that some people may not want to hear and that many will misconstrue as having a racist intent.  I have the greatest of respect for the many remote NT Indigenous leaders who struggle to be heard: about inadequate resourcing and servicing of their communities; about the lack of consultation; about constant new reforms that are never adequately funded or given time to impact, about ill considered interventionist policies that shame communities and implicitly blame them for everything; and about the racism and neglect by Governments at all levels.

But we must not let the NT government get away with their latest misleading and evil story line that effectively shuts the lid on educational opportunities in remote Indigenous communities.  What they are doing and their false narrative is no better that what we did to the stolen generation.  Both narratives say – there is no hope for the development of strong successful Indigenous children living a traditional life, so lets rip out the funding/supports/services and give up.

The truth is that, while overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is a challenging and even intractable problem, the NT Government has taken advantage of this reality and never seriously tried. They know we expect failure and they hide behind this. The systemic misuse of funds intended for addressing Indigenous disadvantage has occurred across time and with both parties, Labor and the Coalition. The Commonwealth, which has a constitutionally based responsibility to ensure the well-being of Indigenous Australians, occasionally wrings its hands, but has done nothing to call them on this fraud.

But this latest funding cut and its disgraceful rationale is a new low in racist viciousness and we must act.

So here is NT Governments latest evil and misleading argument:

The NT plans to build “a sustainable education system that is better designed to meet the needs of our Territory students and improve their results”, by cutting funds and teaching positions in remote schools because:

  1. NT schools and teachers are the best resourced in the country
  2. But NT children’s school results are the worst in the country
  3. NT education funding and teacher numbers have grown, while enrolments, attendance and school results are down
  4. So the government is cutting teaching and staffing positions in remote schools and  refocusing on early education with 63 extra teachers

Now even if this was true this is not a reason to cut funding.  The increase in spending could be focusing on the wrong things.  It’s a justification for reviewing things.  However the NT government is pre-empting its own review and cutting funds to Remote Indigenous Schools upfront.

But lets looks closer at these so-called facts

Fact 1 – NT schools and teachers are the best resourced in the country

This ‘fact’ is based on the 2013 Report on Government Services (ROGS).  They argue that it shows that the NT government:

  • funded schools at a higher rate than other jurisdictions.
  • has student-teacher ratios that are among the best in the nation.

The ROGS Report shows that the student teacher ratio in the NT is 11.3 whereas in other states it is between 12.8 and 14.3

But here are some inconvenient facts about the NT education funding and the NT staff-student ratio that they do not tell you.

It costs a lot more to staff remote Indigenous schools[1] – the additional cost for relocating teachers, leave provisions back t home base, professional development, remote allowance and so on, make the cost of employing a teacher in a remote/ very remote schools about 50% higher.  But the NT share of Commonwealth/state funding takes this into account so they are already funded for this.

There may be a case for arguing that the Commonwealth state remote metrics do not factor in the full cost of this servicing cost but this case has rarely been put by the NT.  Why? Well I suspect it is because they know that the  Commonwealth knows that they have a weak case because they do not spend even the proportion that they are given on remote servicing.

But lets be clear, this additional funding is for the purpose of delivering, not a higher quality service, but just a basic service.  In regards to quality, the challenges of attracting high quality staff to remote/very remote positions is such that the NT has the highest level of first year out teachers in its remote schools and an extremely high turnover rate.  In other words it costs a lot more but the service quality is inevitably poorer.

The NT claim to have a very low teacher-student ratio but there are two problems with the metric they provide above.

Firstly. The NT have convinced the Reporting Committee responsible for agreeing the schools data in the ROGS Report that Indigenous Education Workers (IEWs)  in Remote schools should count as teachers.  Now these might be highly respected members of the community, but they are ex-CDEP workers with no formal teacher education qualifications.  The IEWs are included in the NT figures as teachers in remote contexts so it is not possible to tell what the figures would look like were these non-teachers excluded.  However the teacher – student ratio would definitely be higher.

Secondly, The NT systematically underfunds remote schools relative to its Darwin schools so this figure does not represent the actual teacher student ratio in remote/very remote schools.  I have written about this elsewhere.  The NT funds on attendance not enrolment and this systematically discriminates against remote schools. Funding on attendance and not enrolment in a situation where attendance is running under 60% means that the remote schools have been ripped off by 100s and 100s of teachers already, before any additional cuts are made.  They also have a school staffing formula that includes “over the core additional teachers” across Darwin schools that are the historical residue of ‘wontok type deals done between pollies.  Remote politicians have not been as successful in this deal playing environment.

Thus Fact One is FALSE especially for remote schools


Fact 2: Our children’s school results are the worst in the country

The 2013 Northern Territory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) results show lowest student attainment in Australia in every test domain and year level, consistent with previous years.

For further details please see the 2013 NAPLAN Summary Report

Now this is TRUE but this “worst in the country” minimizes the systemic failure that these NAPLAN data represent.

There are, in fact, many many classrooms right across the remote Indigenous communities of the NT where 100% of the students score O – yes Zero – on their NAPLAN test.  That is to say, they write their names on the paper but are unable to complete a single question.

And the even sadder fact is that many of their young parents cannot read or write in English either.  In fact the youngest English language literate residents in some communities are the youngest person who went to school in the Mission era.  When the mission schools generation die out some communities will be almost totally bereft of English language functionally literate adults.

Now I am not saying this to be racist – or to put down the struggles of Indigenous peoples to enact a form of self-determination and revive the law and culture of their ancestors.  I see no reason why this should have resulted in the educational calamity that now faces communities across the NT.

I see this as systemic willful and morally corrupt failure on the part of the NT Government and inadequate and inappropriate intervention by the Commonwealth.

Fact 2 is true


FACT 3: While education funding and teacher numbers have grown, enrolments, attendance and school results are down


NT education expenditure is up, and has been higher since 2010, but this is because of a significant injection of Commonwealth dollars flowing from the National Partnership Programs. So while this may be true it is not possible to confirm or deny whether NT specific funding for school has increased above and over normal cost of living increases.

But what is being implied in fact 3 is that ‘we have invested huge amounts of resources into increasing student performance and school attendance and in spite of this, they continue to be poor (We have done everything, the failure is not ours but ‘theirs’).


Attendance has gone down too. Not by a lot but it continues to be a serious issue for almost all remote schools with the larger schools having the poorer attendance. The NT has instituted attendance strategies from time to time but in most cases the only resources put to the strategy have been central office staffing resources to ‘support schools’.  Unlike Darwin schools remote and very remote schools do not have home liaison officer funded positions and with staffing based on attendance-not-enrolment, there are no spare staff to undertake the community work that might help get kids to schools.

In 2008-9 NT did commit some central office resources to work with schools and their communities to develop Remote Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs).  These took months of careful and high quality consultation and over  this period some 13 or so were signed with great fanfare.  However true to form the NT did not put any funding into resourcing the things it committed the Department to do as its part of the agreement.  Things that the community had requested were agreed to in writing and a high profile formal signing ceremony but then never implemented.

note: The creation of deputy principal positions employing respected elders was one such initiative and it was funded years later through the National Partnership program (Commonwealth funds) 

The final betrayal however came from the then Minister of Education for the NT, Marion Scrymgour, who without warning, declared that schools would teacher only in English for the first 4 out of 5 hours of every day.  Now in the consultations for the RLPAs, the communities where a bilingual program still existed, had confirmed that they did want their children to become competent in English speaking, reading and writing  but that they also wanted the bilingual  program to continue and did not see these two goals as incompatible. This decision was the final nail in the coffin of what could have been an important circuit breaker around engaging the community around student attendance.

So when people say to me, “I don’t know what can be done about school attendance in Indigenous communities we have tried everything”, my response is ‘ this is rubbish, signing an agreement, not funding it and then betraying it, does not count as trying something’.

School results

The 2013 Northern Territory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) results show the lowest student attainment in Australia in every subject area and year level. This has not changed over the past five years.  This is true and the consequences for the future viability of NT remote communities will be truly disastrous.  Have they tried everything?  Not by a long shot. They have not tried:

A faired needs based staffing formula –  something that most other states have done and that Gonski  was all about.  Adam Giles, their Chief Minister even admitted that his reason for rejecting the Labor Gonski offer is because it would require his Government to increase education expenditure outside of Darwin and transfer resources out of Darwin schools.

A properly resourced Bilingual program where communities see this as appropriate – The truth is that resources were ripped away from remote schools running bilingual programs early in 2000 and since then schools have struggled on with almost no support.

Fully funded the agreements reached under the RLPA negotiations not through Commonwealth National Partnership funds but from NT resources to fulfill commitments made by the NT.  This would have freed up the National Partnership money to be used for the purposes for which it was intended.

A fully funded student attendance strategy built around local level community consultation across all the clan groups that make up a community.  In spite of all the rhetoric, this has not been undertaken.

Fact 3 is in part unproven and in part false. Overall it is based on a cynical and racist logic that because something has not been achieved it is OK to give up.  It assumes that it is not possible to have successful outcomes for children in remote Australia, no matter how much we invest. That is what we assumed when we took children from Indigenous families, because we believed this was the only solution.  We might not be taking children away but is leaving them, knowingly to fail to thrive educationally, any better?


Fact 4 – Government is refocusing attention on early education with 63 extra teachers because the only schooling levels where smaller class[es] have been proven to make a significant difference are in the early years.

The NT Report justifies this by referring to Productivity Commission, the Grattan Institute and by the Qld Commission of Audit.  But if you follow these claims back, all three reports draw on the work of John Hattie who rather infamously said, ‘I wouldn’t invest a single penny into smaller class sizes’

In fact, Hattie’s own research has been shown to be rather imperfect but even his work on class size does suggest a positive if small student effect-size overall and a more significant student effect-size in two contexts.  The first context is, as NT argues, in the early years, but the second is – you guessed it – with highly disadvantaged English language learners.

SO Fact 4 is false and based on selective use of poorly evidenced data

Now I know we need to priorities working to ensure that Gonski reforms can continue.  But this issue, too, is vital.  So I am begging – yes begging – all of you who care about justice for Indigenous Australians not to put this issue at the back of the social justice bus.  Because that is what has been done with issues facing remote Indigenous Australians for over 200 years.

 We must and we can do both.

[1] 2012 NT DET Annual Report quote The cost of delivering educational services in the Northern Territory is significantly greater than in any other state or territory of Australia. The factors contributing to this are varied, but many are a result of the large proportion of NT schools in remote, isolated and very remote communities.

Remoteness increases costs associated with personnel (school and teaching staff), infrastructure (including staff housing), curriculum delivery and travel.”

The appalling funding cuts to our most disadvantaged schools/students in Australia requires a strong and broadly based condemnation

Anyone who has read anything about schooling in Australia would have some awareness that the education outcomes for Indigenous communities in remote and very remote Northern Territory are not only appalling by Australian standards but among the worst in the world.

What is happening now in the NT in terms of further funding cuts to these schools will have devastating effects but there is likely to be only muted outrage from many of us well meaning educationists and social justice activists for many reasons[1]:

–       There are lots of issues to fight, this one is not my priority because I do not have enough knowledge

–       its just too hard’ to know what is best

–       Because its failing now anyway and all that has been attempted has failed so why throw more money at it

So in this post I want to provide some information about what HAS NEVER BEEN ATTEMPTED through all the turbulence and short term fixes and magic bullets.

What has never been attempted has been the implementation of long term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools.  Just think about that for a minute.  Our national shame – the record of almost total systemic failure to support over 2 generations of peoples living in remote Indigenous communities to a level of basic literacy required for even an unskilled job  – has occurred with copious wringing of hands but IT NEVER HAD A CHANCE.  It was never funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Most other states can tell you that they have a formula for staffing their schools that includes a needs-based component as part of their core funding.  They might put different weightings on different needs – e.g. they might give extra weight to higher levels of low Socio-economic status, remoteness of school, ESL needs, percentage of single parents or use enrolment data about parent occupation and education.

In the NT the opposite has been the rule – yes, the exact opposite.  NT has been financially privileging its Darwin schools directly at the expense of its remote schools and they have never been called to task on this.

I saw this up close and personal when I worked at a senior level in the NT Department of Education.  The NT staffing formula is an unwieldy data base because it has a whole swag of individual above the line allocations to individual (mostly Darwin) schools that are not derived from any transparent formula they are historical.  Sometime before 2008 the NT commenced work on a revised staffing formula.

I joined the Department in June 2008 and at the time the very committed staff who had been hard at work on developing a new needs based staffing formula were under the impression that this was going to senior management and the Minister for tick off at any moment.  I watched the process of their painful disillusionment  – others mocking them for being naïve, make work change requests and so one.

One of the many issues of controversy was the staffing by attendance policy.  Now even in state systems where all schools have an attendance well above the 90% mark, the idea of staffing by attendance would have been considered unfair.  This is because the schools in the highest needs communities would be the ones to be penalised by this.  Needless to say it is not an approach taken by other states.

But in the NT the use of this policy is not just unfair, it is, in my view, a serious case of indirect discrimination, and a misallocation of Commonwealth funds from at least two sources.

It is a very serious case of indirect discrimination, because it systematically leads to a gross underfunding of schools based on race.  Remote schools average attendance rates are low – many schools average between 50% and 62% attendance rate.  So if funded only on attendance – without any minimum floor –  NT would save up to 50% of its staffing costs but 100% of these children would attend over the school term – just many on an intermittent basis

It is a misallocation of Commonwealth resources because the Commonwealth Grants Commissions allocates funds to states and territories using a highly complex set of formulaes and one important element of this is the adjustment for levels of disadvantage.  So the NT Government receives a over the line amount of funds in order to address the extreme and long term disadvantage of its remote Indigenous population but it does not expend this money on for this purpose and there seems to be no process of transparency or accountability around this.

It is also a misallocation of an additional allocation of funds specifically directed to the NT under the NTER intervention in 2007 and continued today.

In 2007 there were 2 important decision made which had a significant positive impact on the NT education budget.  Firstly the Commonwealth Government and the NT Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in September 2007 that included a commitment, on NT’s part, to move from “staffing based on attendance” to “staffing based on an Agreed Student Number” (note: this would, be based on estimates of the numbers of age relevant children in the designated area, so it would expected to be, at least at the level of enrolment, but possibly higher). In exchange the Commonwealth provides ongoing and direct funding for 200 staffing positions for remote schools and additional capital funding for more classrooms and staff housing in remote communities.  NT took the funds but this work has never been done. This has enabled the NT Government to continue to underfund Australia’s most needy schools for years.

The second outcome of the NTERC intervention related to the ending of CDEP in many communities.  This led to many Indigenous Education Worker positions coming off CDEP and their funds for this role as an NT funded job transferred to the NT.  It looks like these latest cuts will pocket these funds given for this specific purpose.

So what does it mean to staff a school based on attendance?

I have written on this previously but here is a brief summary

Let us suppose a schools with 300 children and an average attendance rate of 60%.  Of this children around 25% of students might attend over 80% of the time, but all students would attend some of the time.

Firstly, how many children would be on the roll for the average class if the official teacher-student ratio is 1-20?

Well a primary school with 300 children enrolled , but an attendance rate of 60%, would be allocated staff for 180 students[2] not 300. Yet the number of students who need to be assigned to teachers and classes is 300 not 180 – they just attend irregularly. This would require making class sizes of about 33 not 20.

So on any one day, a teacher might have only 20 children in their class but about 33 children on the roll.  Based on the expectation that only about 25% would attend over 80% of the time, this class of 33 might have about 8 children who attend on a very regular basis and the remaining 25 children would also attend, albeit on a highly irregular basis.

Can you just imagine the chaos of such a classroom and how hard it would be to focus on the small number of students who are there regularly?  Add to this mix, inexperienced short term principals, a high number of novice teachers, a generally non-English speaking student body and cultural challenges, and you get an even more accurate picture.

One of the reasons they can get away with this is the COAG approach of only requiring output based accountability.  It is also worth noting that, had the recommendations of the Gonski Report been implemented, there would have been an independent monitoring body to monitor needs based funding.

Is anyone interested in bringing NT to the Human Rights Commission on the Grounds of Indirect Discrimination?  It is long overdue.   And remember they have gotten away with this for years and years and years.

[1] Indeed Fred Chaney argues in the preface to Michael Dillon and Neil Westbury’s important but relatively unknown book “ Beyond Humbug”, that Indigenous affairs policy makers and administrators expect failure, are not tainted by it, and that this sorry state of affairs leads to even poorer policy review and analysis

“ For politicians, bureaucrats and concerned citizens alike it [Indigenous Affairs] is a stressful but safe place in which to work.  Failure blots not your record but that of the blackfellows, who can, in the end, always be blamed” Preface

Dean Ashenden’s Faux Rationality and the Class Size Debate

This article responds to Dean Ashenden’s attempt to critique David Zyngier’s article defending the merits of small class sizes.  The relevant articles plus an earlier one of my own are referenced below for those who want to explore this debate further.

I have two major objections to his article.

Firstly, it is lazy.  A critique of a position that makes a number of important points cannot be said to be a comprehensive critique unless it acknowledges the key points that have been made. 

Zyngier did not just make his case on the basis of the evidence relating directly to class size studies.  He did cite a number of important studies that Ashenden just dismissed out of hand. But he also broadened his case to other important aspects.

For example, Ashenden used the work of John Hattie (Visible Learning) to delegitimize the claims relating to class size without acknowledging that Hattie’s study shows the effect size of single interventions only and therefore has some limitations (as Hattie notes in his book).

But Zyngier also drew on Hattie’s research to argue that class size reduction should not be implemented as a single magic solution, but as a way of supporting the pedagogical changes recommended by Hattie – personalized learning, student feedback, direct instruction and so on.  This is an important point because while Hattie bemoans the fact that education policy ignores his work and focuses overly on class size, it could equally be argued that the number of student in a class limits the ability of teachers to implement the kinds of changes that his own research shows have the biggest student effect.

Secondly, Ashenden’s article claims to be a rational (even econometric) approach to a vexed issue but completely ignores the political realities of the current context.

Our current school funding architecture has privileged parent school choice over all other educational values and the logic according to Kevin Rudd is that by giving parents unlimited choice and lots of school performance information, parents (that is the market) will create heightened competition between schools that will ‘float all boats’.

So we have this intense school market place.  Now what do the high end schools sell to parents in the market – why small class sizes among other things.   Even the briefest investigation of the ABS data on schools will show in no uncertain terms that the independent (i.e. non-Catholic non-Government) sector has led the way on small class sizes over the past 15 years.  They have been able to do this because they get Commonwealth Government (i.e. tax payer) funds far in excess of their needs on top of generous school fees.


Government schools have been the victims of this market model of schooling but they are being told that unlike their unfettered competitors they can’t compete, even in the same arena, because there is not a strong enough case for small class sizes.  They are the ones that must make the hard economic choice between decent class sizes (still bigger than their competitors) and time for collaborative planning.

Yet where the evidence for smaller class size is strongest is for struggling student – and where do we find large concentrations of struggling students – Government schools, in overwhelming numbers.

So my message to Ashenden is this.

Firstly, how dare you get on your high horse and pontificate about the most responsible and parsimonious spending of the taxpayer dollar in our struggling government schools.  How dare you say they must choose between more time for professional development or collaboration or small class sizes when you say nothing about the exorbitant levels of taxpayer funds that go to the high-end Independent schools with absolutely no outcry from the likes of you and Ben Jensen

You see what you forget, when you ride in to represent tax payers with such ethical force, is that the Government’s decision that non-Government school should not lose funds, mean that this picking apart the returns-on-investment options for education is only occurring in the sector where Australia spends far less than most OECD countries while the other sector where we are a high end spender can do what it likes.

I hate our market model of education with a passion. But you can’t expect that one sector competitor can play by the logics of the market place (what parents want) in an unfettered way, while imposing on the other a demand that they play in the market place but cannot adopt any of its logics.

Secondly, Australia is a wealthy nation and it can and should invest more in the education of students in Government schools.  We don’t have to choose just one solution.  Given that this spending is an investment we should not have to choose between ICT based learning, professional development for teachers, early intervention for identified students, more time for collaboration and humane sized classrooms where it is possible to develop positive relations with all students and give them personalized and considered learning feedback.

As Zyngier argues “ to suggest then that investment in smaller class sizes is not necessary for schools indicates a need for a serious reality check – or at least a few weeks in one of these schools as a teacher”.


Dean Ashenden paper – The case against

David Zyngier Paper – The presentation of ‘ the facts’

My earlier papers – The case for