News the Australian Government had been conducting an internal review into school funding arrangements did not go down well when made public last week. The invite-only review had been soliciting opinion on the idea of allocating additional money – a 'loading' in education jargon – to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Alas, the guest list was heavily weighted in favour of independent and Catholic schools, and an irate response by public school advocates forced the government to open the review to the public and extend the deadline for submissions.
What had previously been the lead question, "Is there a need for this loading?" disappeared from the terms of reference once the review became public. Given the gap between Australian students from the highest and lowest income families is on some measures equivalent to almost three years of schooling, and the Gonski school funding review had considered loadings to be the principal means of addressing this disparity, it was certainly an awkward question to being with.
Worryingly for the government, this debacle risks further cementing the view that conservatives are at best ambivalent towards addressing disadvantage. Whatever good the flagship Independent Public Schools and upcoming teacher quality reforms might bring, walking away from the 'unity ticket' on Gonski funding post-2017 has left Education Minister Christopher Pyne without a policy that specifically addresses Australia's long tail of education disadvantage.
This is why a rethink on loading arrangements presents Pyne with a chance to recast his party's image in the education debate by nestling an equity-enhancing policy within the more traditionally conservative framework of accountability.
As it stands, much of the discussion over loadings has been over how they are best calculated. Currently there are per student loadings scheduled for disability, material disadvantage, low English proficiency and Indigeneity. However, little detail has been provided on how the government will ensure this additional money will be put to good use.
This is not a misguided concern. Last week the President of the Australian College of Educators Stephen Dinham called primary education a practice largely based on "folklore, dogma, ritual and untested assumptions." Globally, debates are being had on whether rigorous evidence is used by the teaching profession to inform practice, with many concluding that the current answer is largely 'no'.
When the stakes are as high as a child's future, we can't dismiss these criticisms lightly. Nor is it sensible to introduce loadings to tackle disadvantage without ensuring they are used effectively. Given there is evidence that devoting more funding to disadvantaged students can lead to improved school results, the challenge is delivering funding in a manner that maximises this benefit. Here the government would be wise to learn from the United Kingdom's experience in implementing a similar funding reform.
Launched in 2011 by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK government, the 'pupil premium' saw schools which enrolled disadvantaged students attract an additional loading of public funding. Currently the figure sits at £1,300 and £935 a year for primary and secondary students respectively.
Schools were initially free to pool this money into their general accounts, which saw some unable to demonstrate the money had been spent to benefit disadvantaged students. Often schools ploughed the money into existing forms of support and did not implement new programs, though a reduction in support from local government no doubt encouraged this. More worryingly, less than 50% of teachers consulted academic research to inform pupil premium spending. Unsurprisingly then, less than 3% of teachers surveyed in 2012 by UK charity The Sutton Trust could identify the most cost-effective ways of adapting classroom practice to increase student results. Grimly, The Sutton Trust concluded:
"Little of the £1.25 billion allocated through the Pupil Premium for disadvantaged children in England in 2012-13 will be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment."
In response accountability measures were tightened. Schools were required to publish annual reports detailing both spending on pupil premium eligible students and their associated outcomes. The English schools inspectorate was also given greater power to examine the effectiveness of pupil premium spending, and to mandate that under-performing schools undertake expert reviews of their spending plans.
These new conditions collectively required a greater use of robust evidence, which London's Institute of Education claims has driven a renewed focus on the role of the teacher as a researcher. As the expectation of executing rigorously informed classroom interventions was raised, teachers responded by better engaging with research literature in order to find and implement effective means of spending the pupil premium. As the British Education Research Association's inquiry into the role of teachers as researchers found, there is robust evidence to suggest this research focus can improve the quality of students' learning in schools.
It is still early days, but there are signs these changes are beginning to pay off. The most recent English school inspectorate report noted that school leaders were spending the money more effectively, and had become much better at precisely monitoring student outcomes.
Though these changes occurred in concert with other reforms including the establishment of the Education Endowment Foundation, an education research grant-making body that also disseminates the results of research to educators, they do highlight the need for a laser-like focus on getting the most out of the money we spend on our most disadvantaged students.
Too often we have seen increases in spending yield little to no gain in student outcomes. Changing policy direction to expand the loadings recommended by Gonski beyond 2017 while ensuring they are implemented within a system that demands spending is research-informed and well-evaluated could be a true game-changer. It also would present Pyne with the opportunity to blend an aspiration for greater social mobility with a hard-headed focus on results that could just win him plaudits on both the left and right.