Lifting student performance, reversing declining attendance and closing the education gap must be the priorities of the next National School Reform Agreement, after years of funding increases failed to secure a significant boost to academic achievement.
A Productivity Commission interim report released on Wednesday found new initiatives were needed to raise academic outcomes, boost student wellbeing, address vast education equity gaps and improve quality teaching.
Commissioner Natalie Siegel-Brown said reforms signed in 2018 had made little or no impact on student outcomes.
“Performance has flatlined. Despite an increase in funding, there has been no steep change in outcomes,” she said.
Referring to the report, she said that Australians persistently fall short of the ideal of an equitable education for all students. Every year, between 5 and 9 per cent of Australian students do not meet year-level expectations in either literacy or numeracy.
The agreement, which expires at the end of next year, is a joint undertaking between the Commonwealth, states and territories on objectives and targets to lift education outcomes, and is supported by bilateral funding agreements. Negotiations between federal Education Minister Jason Clare and his state and territory counterparts on the next agreement are due to start in November.
The Productivity Commission did not consider the adequacy of federal-state school funding arrangements as part of its review.
The report calls for a change in the way academic achievement is measured after a decade of stalled literacy and numeracy performance in national and international tests.
“We need to track academic outcomes over time rather than at [a] single point, and we need greater transparency and accountability for this,” Siegel-Brown said.
While the share of students completing school increased from 87 to 90 per cent between 2015 and 2021, school attendance declined from 78 per cent to 71 per cent, with most of the fall occurring before COVID-19.
Clare said the report’s “important” findings aligned with his view of the teacher workforce challenges and equity issues facing the schooling sector.
“It says we have a teacher shortage crisis and that a big part of that is workload. The National Teacher Workforce Action Plan that education ministers will finalise in December will focus on this and other measures to attract, prepare and retain teachers,” he said.
The report found teacher effectiveness is the most influential in-school factor that has an impact on student outcomes, and that teachers are overly burdened with low-value tasks.
Education researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies, Glenn Fahey, said that, despite real per student funding increasing by 21 per cent over the past decade, student achievement has either fallen backwards or improved only marginally.
Australian students recorded their worst results in 2018’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), failing to exceed the OECD average in maths and dropping in global rankings in reading and science. NAPLAN results in numeracy have improved slightly over the decade but have gone backwards in other areas, such as high school writing.
“We have seen increased funding and resources over two decades at the same time student outcomes are significantly behind where they were in early 2000s.”
Fahey argues that the measurement of educational outcomes is too shallow and that clearer assessment of children is needed before they start school as well as a national measure to give a better picture of how students are performing on finishing year 12.
“ATAR has flaws in that it doesn’t provide a national barometer of school leavers’ capabilities. We don’t have a clear school readiness starting point which would help so we can intervene earlier.
“We must be unapologetic in pursuit of academic achievement; otherwise we risk Australia becoming the poor and dumb man of Asia,” Fahey said.
Jordana Hunter, the education program director at the Grattan Institute said academic performance of Australian students had stagnated or gone backwards, and the central focus of the next agreement must be lifting excellence and supporting students struggling to catch up.
“There is a shockingly wide gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students and states and territories [have a] lot of work to do to close the gaps. But even Australia’s highest performers are falling behind the top performers internationally,” she said.
Hunter said governments must ensure teachers can get the most out of every instructional minute with students.
“We are stretching teachers far too thin, we are asking them to do jobs that don’t relate to their expertise, and we are not supporting teachers with the right staff in schools.”
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said it was essential that the funding agreements between the states, territories and the Commonwealth have student outcomes at their core and are driven by evidence.
“The majority of the issues identified in the interim report align with key policy reforms under way, targeted at modernising teaching and learning in NSW,” Mitchell said.
Victorian Education Minister Natalie Hutchins said the state government was working through the report’s findings and welcomed “opportunities to collaborate nationally on student outcomes, student wellbeing and supporting hardworking teachers”.