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-

Holding Ken Wiltshire to the flame of his own promises

This week Ken Wiltshire, one of the two reviewers of the National Curriculum,  responded to the widespread concern about the quality and impartiality of the recently announced National Curriculum Review   Critics of school curriculum review too quick to perceive a threat instead of potential way forward.

In this article he promises a review that is professional, independent, balanced and robust based on a methodology that will be methodology comprehensive and objective.  This will include the appointment of experts  for each subject area to evaluate those components of the curriculum.

What is not to like about this?

Well there are a few problems still Mr Wiltshire.

The first most glaring problem is the other person with whom you will have to work.  Kevin Donnelly is one of the least professional, balanced or independent educational commentators I can think of in Australia today.  There is no evidence that he can or is capable of changing his spots.  But enough has already been said about this.

The second problem I have is about professionalism and respect. You tell us this will be a professional process.  Now I do assume that being professional includes being respectful.  But your use of the adjective ‘disgruntled’ to describe a letter of concern from over 150 professional educators does make we wonder.  Can you commit to respectful too perhaps?

There is one final thing Mr Wiltshire.  Would you be willing to add the word ‘open’ to your list of promises?  You encourage us all to contribute to the process but do not assure us our contributions will be made public.  Openness and transparency are features of all outstanding reviews in my book.  The Bradley Review of Higher Education and the Gonski Review are great examples of this.

Kevin Donnelly thinks that Fabianism is a dirty word.


We’ve put up with absolute rubbish from Kevin Donnelly for too long.  It’s time to look at his claims without the emotion and invective

In his latest rant, in The Australian, called, “Education saviour is pulling too many levers[1]”, Donnelly makes the following claims.

1.        Julia Gillard “in a desperate attempt” is going to use education as her lever to stay in power

Sadly, and a little reluctantly, I share concerns about the growing centrality of education in the future election debate.  Although chances are slim, I am pinning my hopes on progress on implementing the key components of the Gonski reforms prior to the election to the extent that they cannot easily be rolled back. 

The temptation to use it the Gonski implementation plan as an election carrot will not save the ALP but it will cost public schools dearly.

2.        Billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit;

Donnelly clearly has not read the ANAO Audit report into the BER[2], because it concludes that where there were poor decisions and centralized rollouts the culprits were state Governments not the Commonwealth and that to some extent this was inevitable given the justifiable time constraints.  May I also remind him that this was a GFC response first and foremost not an education initiative? The audit report makes this clear:

The Government decided on school based infrastructure spending because it had a number of elements that supported stimulus objectives

It also notes that:

The objectives of the BER program are, first, to provide economic stimulus through the rapid construction and refurbishment of school infrastructure and, second, to build learning environments to help children, families and communities participate in activities that will support achievement, develop learning potential and bring communities together[3]

For many schools the capital works were a godsend because the new hall or learning space gave them the capacity to do the thing that Donnelly most encourages – use new space to increase local innovative solutions to education challenges.  Indeed the audit report noted that over 95% of principals that responded to the ANAO survey indicated that the program provided something of ongoing value to their school and school community.[4]

3.        The computers in schools program delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

I am not one to argue that ICT is the magic bullet answer to everything about teaching and learning in our schools.  However I am convinced that with well-informed computer literate teachers, who are also good teachers in the broader sense, students can only benefit.  I also acknowledge that a high level of computer literacy is now a core area of learning.   To achieve this even “out of currency” computer hardware will be better than no computers

Any ICT hardware rollout will result in out-of-date computers and a maintenance/update impost.  But the state of ICT infrastructure in our schools desperately needed to be addressed.  Is Donnelly really arguing that schools that do not have enough in their budgets to manage the whole-of-life costs of having computers should go without?  I wonder which schools these might be?


4.        Julia Gillard’s data fetish is forcing a centralised and inflexible accountability regime on schools, government and non-government, that is imposing a command and control regime on classrooms across the nation.

There is no doubt that we could benefit from a better accountability and reporting regime  – for all schools. So this is one of the few areas where Donnelly and I have aligned concerns but possibly for different reasons. I continue to believe that the changes to the original intention of NAPLAN testing has been disastrous for some Australian schools – but possibly not the ones dear to Donnelly’s heart. 

The reporting of NAPLAN results at the school level has, almost certainly, distorted what is taught in schools[5].  This is especially the case in schools where students struggle – our highly concentrated low SES schools.  It has also contributed to the residualisation of the public school system.  And we now have evidence that when the middle class students are leached out of public schools, public school students loose out in lots of ways.  For example they lose out because of the loss of articulate and ‘entitled’ parent advocates for the needs of the schools.  But they also lose out because each middle class child is actually a resource.  That is their existence in the class enhances the learning of all students in that class.[6]

Donnelly, on the other hand, appears to be more concerned that non-Government schools are now under the same reporting obligations as government schools.  I know of no other area of Commonwealth funding that was not expected to provide a defined level of accountability and reporting.   This anomaly was way overdue. 

5.        The Gillard-inspired national curriculum, instead of embracing rigorous, academic standards, is awash with progressive fads such as child-centred, inquiry-based learning, all taught through a politically correct prism involving indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives.

Donnelly appears to have a short memory on this matter.  The national curriculum effort was kicked off by the previous Howard Government – and that is why History was singled out above other social science disciplines. 

Perhaps Donnelly has not read the national curriculum? If he had he would know that it is just a sequence and scoping exercise and does not address pedagogy at all.  Donnelly has had a bee in his bonnet for years about so called ‘progressive fads’ based on nothing more than sheer ignorance.  And as for the cross curriculum perspectives – these came out of extensive consultation and negotiation and were not imposed by the Gillard Government.  While there are unfortunately many examples of Commonwealth overreach, the cross-curricular perspectives are not examples.

6.        Even though the Commonwealth Government neither manages any schools nor employs any teachers, Gillard is making it a condition of funding that every school across Australia must implement Canberra’s (sic) National Plan for School Improvement.

This is another area where, to some extent, I do agree with Donnelly but for very different reasons. 

My position is that the National Plan for School Improvement is Commonwealth overreach that was unnecessary and risky because it could have put the Gonski implementation at risk.

The National Plan for School Improvement was unnecessary because, all education systems throughout the country already had some form of school improvement planning and annual reporting, and had begun to share good practice through the National Partnership process.  It was also unnecessary because it foolishly cut across the more informed and consultative process being undertaken by AITSL to grow the teacher performance feedback and improvement process in collaboration with the various teaching institutes around Australia.  This process had a strong emphasis on supporting teacher development and self-reflection based on well-supported peer, supervisor and student feedback.  The Commonwealth initiative has recast the whole process into a high stakes, external reporting context that will be much less useful and teacher friendly.  This is a pity.  AITSL’s work should not have been distorted in this manner.

It was, and is, risky as some states seized on the obligations of the Plan as the rationale to push back on the Gonski reforms.  Tying the two together  was poor strategy, in light of the importance of implementing Gonski between now and September 2013.

Donnelly’s objection to the Plan appears to be that is is imposed on the non Government sectors that should, according to Donnelly, be able to receive significant levels of Commonwealth funding with no accountability?.   It’s the imposts he objects to, not their design elements.

7.        Research here and overseas proves that the most effective way to strengthen schools, raise standards and assist teachers is to embrace diversity, autonomy and choice in education. The solution lies in less government interference and micro-management, not more.

I am afraid that Donnelly’s claims that autonomy and choice is the best way to strengthen schools does not have a shred of evidence.  I, and others, have written about the autonomy claims[7] and there is now solid international evidence confirming that market models of education choice are disastrous for education equity and therefore for education overall[8].

8.        Autonomy in education helps to explain why Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools.

There is now enduring evidence that the differences in school outcomes are overwhelmingly connected with student demography and not schooling system.  When SES is taken into account the non Government systems do not perform any better at all.  The very detailed research undertaken by Richard Teese[9] in the context of the Gonski Review process concluded that:

Using NAPLAN data, the paper shows that public schools work as well or better than private schools (including Catholic schools).  This finding echoes the results of PISA 2009 that, after adjustment for intakes, public schools are as successful as private schools

9.        Gillard’s plan for increased government regulation and control and a one size fits all, lowest common denominator approach is fabianism and based on the socialist ideal of equality of outcomes.

Now this is the strangest claim of all.  Here Donnelly uses fabianism as a slur and it is not the first time he has taken this tack.  However it is a term so quaint, so rarely used, that this tactic may well pass unnoticed.  In fact in order to find a useful definition I had to go back to 1932 to an essay by GDH Cole[10].  Cole’s explanation is interesting given the implied nastiness of fabianism:

Whereas Marxism looked to the creation of socialism by revolution based on the increasing misery of the working class and the breakdown of capitalism through its inability to solve the problem of distribution, Webb argued that the economic position of the workers had improved in the nineteenth century, was still improving and might be expected to continue to improve. He regarded the social reforms of the nineteenth century (e.g. factory acts, mines acts, housing acts, education acts) as the beginnings of socialism within the framework of capitalist society. He saw legislation about wages, hours and conditions of labor, and progressive taxation of capitalist incomes as means for the more equitable distribution of wealth; …


The Fabians are essentially rationalists, seeking to convince men by logical argument that socialism is desirable and offering their arguments to all men without regard to the classes to which they belong. They seem to believe that if only they can demonstrate that socialism will make for greater efficiency and a greater sum of human happiness the demonstration is bound to prevail. 

So our progressive tax system, our Fair Work Australia, our transfer payments to those in poverty, our national health system, our public education system, our welfare safety net, our superannuation minimums – these are all examples of fabianism at work, not because fabianism is a secret sect with mal intent as implied by Donnelly but because we have come to see the benefits of a strong cohesive society where the wealth of the country is not enjoyed by the few while the majority slave in misery. 

What’s so bad about our proud achievements Donnelly?  I for one want to keep moving in this direction and for me implementing the Gonski reform is the essential next step in schooling policy.

10.     Tony Abbott’s view of education, is based on diversity and choice where schools are empowered to manage their own affairs free from over regulation and constraint.

It is interesting that Donnelly thinks he knows what Tony Abbott’s view of education is, because I suspect most of us remain unclear on this matter.  Abbott has said on one occasion that more funding should go to Independent schools – an astonishing claim given our profile relative to all other countries.  His shadow Minister has said a bit more but his statement that we should go back to didactic teaching (like when he was a boy) does not imply a commitment to allowing schools to manage their own affairs to me.  But maybe he only means that this is what Government schools should do.  That would probably be OK according Kevin Donnelly’s view of the world.

[3] Ibid P 8

[4] Ibid P 26

[5] A useful, research article about this is the submission prepared by Dr Greg Thompson in response to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Education Bill 2012 – Submission no. 16 available at this URL

[6]The best explanation for the important of ‘ other student affect’ on student learning is from an unpublished paper by Chris Bonner where he notes that “the way this resource of students is distributed between schools really matters. Regardless of their own Socio-economic background, students attending schools in which  the average socio economic background is high tent to perform better that if they are enrolled in a school with below Socio-economic intake