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Back in April 2010, when she was Education Minister, Julia Gillard commissioned an enquiry into School Funding in Australia. They are asking for submissions by 31 March, and my friend JV  has suggested that I join her in making a submission. I thought I’d post some of my initial thoughts here, to see if my readers have any useful comments to add. These thoughts are pretty rough, but given I’ve promised JV a post for nearly a week now, here they are.

Brief Background to school funding

A brief background for any interested non Australian readers. In Australia, we have three major school systems. We have Government schools, which are secular, and run by the States and Territories. They are funded largely by the States and Territories out of consolidated revenue (and have different curriculums and systems). We have Catholic parish schools, which are funded using a combination of a per student grant from the Federal Government, and fees to parents, and are run as a system by the Catholic Church (largely, there are some exceptions).

And we have private schools, which have a huge range from elite ($20,000 plus fees per year) to small local school that has been started by a group with some particular educational or religious philosophy they want to teach (here is an example, although being in the upper middle class of Sydney it is probably more expensive than average). These are funded school by school basis, by the Federal Government. It is a very complex funding system, which is based around an amount per student depending on the average socio-economic background of the school, ranging from 13.7% of the cost of a government school education to 70% of the cost. However, that isn’t quite the full story. When the system was introduced a few years ago, the formula led to a significant reduction in funding for some of the schools with the richest student backgrounds. So those schools get a guaranteed level of funding which is significantly higher than what they would get given the formula.

We have had a very strong movement from government to private schools in the last few years, from 71% at government schools in 1995 to X% in 2010. This is particularly pronounced in highschool years.

From what I’ve read, we have one of the highest proportions of private schooling around the world, and we also provide some of the strongest support to private schools of anyone. In most other countries that I have read about (and I’d love more data on this) non government schools cannot simultaneously charge fees and receive government funding.

The Enquiry’s emerging issues

The Enquiry has put out an emerging issues paper, in which they have asked for comments on the themes which have emerged from their consultation so far.

Their key themes are:

  • Equity of educational outcomes
  • Recurrent funding
  • Capital funding
  • Targeted and needs-based funding
  • Support for students with special needs and students with disability
  • Governance and leadership
  • Community and family engagement

I’m expecting my major comments to be on equity of educational outcomes, and the three funding bullet points.

Equity

The first question the enquiry has asked is about equity.

[The panel] … believes that equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. The panel does not intend it to mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes, but rather that they will not be prevented from achieving their maximum potential because of their background or family circumstances.

There is a range of definitions of equity. I must admit I like this one, as it is about the outcome, not the government’s inputs. But the difficulty will lie in deciding how much of “background or family circumstances” should be compensated for. There is a spectrum here. Providing extra resources to compensate for a disability is, in theory, relatively uncontroversial (even if in practice very few governments do it as completely as this definition would suggest). Providing extra money or other resource so that teachers are more likely to teach in unpopular places is also not controversial in theory (at least I don’t think so) but in practice only happens in very remote areas, rather than the poorer areas of our major cities.

But should the educational system should provide extra resource to the child who has no books in the house, compared with the one who does? What about more resource to the child whose parents don’t provide coaching after school compared with the child who has three hours every afternoon? And, most controversially, my read of the enquiry’s definition of equity suggests that there should be no way in which private schools should be able to have access to extra resources compared with public schools (assuming the student body is comparable). So no fees beyond standard costs, no building funds, no extra computer labs, etc.

To me, the logical conclusion is that no private school should be able to charge fees if they get government help. This has always been my view, but it seems to follow logically from the equity definition. Of course, the corollary is that the government provision must be adequate for all. Which is nice in theory, but I know many cases where it has failed in practice.

Philosophically, my strong preference is for government schools to be adequate. There shouldn’t be any need for private schools. It is important for us as a society to education all members of society to their potential. Education is not a consumer good, it is an investment in our society’s future. There is an individual benefit to education, in that on average, the better educated you are, the more likely you are to earn more money over your lifetime. But in most countries, that benefit from a school education is assumed to be repaid by the higher taxes you will pay over your lifetime, and in the general improvement in productivity from the society as a whole (plus, of course the non economic benefits of having an educated population, such as a richer cultural environment).

Education cannot, by itself, fix all the problems in society. But it can avoid making them worse, and, if done well, can provide an opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (of all kinds) to improve their circumstances. But not if the education provided to the most advantaged members of society significantly increases that advantage, by further improving the outcomes of the child.

So I would like to see an outcome from this review

Other links:

Larvatus Prodeo thread on the review

Jane Caro in the SMH recently

Market mechanisms in education and why they don’t always work

What is equity in education from Save our schools

Jon Stewart interviewing Diane Ravitch about her book which is anti standardised testing

The NSW Department of Education’s views.

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Ross Gittins, in his column this week talked about how much we seem to distrust the government because we don’t want to pay extra taxes to help flood victims, even though we are very willing to give money voluntarily.

And yet Julie Bishop this week complained that the government isn’t doing enough, because some Australians might not be able to take an Australian government chartered plane out of Cairo, as it is taking too long to get there.

I am sure that Cairo is pretty uncomfortable for anyone there right now. Because nobody much has worked for a week, food and money distribution systems are starting to break down, so it is hard to get food, and cash. If you are staying in a central Cairo hotel, you are likely very close to Tahrir Square, where the main protests are, so it is sensible to try and get out.

But as far as I can tell, all the people killed and injured so far have been protesters, or police. A tourist is probably pretty safe, at least so far. It may descend into serious anarchy, but it hasn’t got anywhere near that yet.

I was in Cairo two weeks ago, so I have been thinking about this a lot. If I were in Cairo right now I would be very grateful for anyone helping to get me out. But should the government have to do it? I don’t think there should be that much political capital available to the opposition because people have to wait a few days for rescue from discomfort.

And as I write this, the people of Cairns and Far North Queensland are in the middle of a category 5 cyclone, with the Queensland government warning that for 24 hours, nobody will be able to come to their aid, because it will be too dangerous for emergency workers.

No government can stop that. But from what I can read from far away, the Queensland government has done everything possible to prepare the population for the inevitable.  To me, that is the role of government. It is doing as much as possible to prepare for disaster, taking the tough decisions of creating and enforcing expensive building codes, and then helping people rebuild afterwards.

It is nice to be a citizen of a rich enough country that we can think that airlifting citizens who have chosen to holiday somewhere less stable when everything goes pear shaped. But in a situation when we are arguing about how paying for rebuilding flooded infrastructure? Rescuing the middle class on holidays is definitely optional.

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Watching Julia Gillard being sworn in as Australia’s first female prime minister by Quentin Bryce, Australia’s first female Governor-General, I realised there were more. I live in NSW, which has a female Premier, and female Governor, and I work in the financial services industry where Australia’s biggest bank is run by a woman.

While I fear that Julia Gillard is in danger of succumbing to glass cliff syndrome (put a woman in charge when it is clear that leadership is a poisoned chalice) like many before her, I couldn’t help feeling a small frisson of pleasure at how far women have come in this country.

Edited to add that as an actuary, I forgot to add that the CEO and President of the institute of actuaries are also women.

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Ever since I won the negative in a debate at school on the topic “that Anzac Day was the birth of modern Australia” by taking the then trendy anti-war view of Anzac Day, I’ve struggled to decide what I think of Anzac Day.

But this year, the nuances of my thinking have got more complicated. Chatterboy and Hungry Boy are old enough that they are learning about Anzac Day at school. Largely they are learning about the Gallipoli landings themselves – what a debacle they were. It’s a simple story so far, but it quickly becomes complex when we talk about it.

In personalising the story for them we’ve talked about their relatives. The boys have two grandfathers and two great-grandfathers who served in World War I, none of whom fought in the Australian army. One was an ANZAC, from New Zealand, who fought on the Western Front in France. One was a Scot, who fought for the Argyll Highlanders on the Western Front. One was English, and fought on the Western Front. But the final one was a Croatian officer, who fought for the Austro-Hungarian army, in Italy.

An increasing number of Australians have family histories like this. Their ancestors come from both sides of the great European and Asian wars. But as Australia becomes a land full of people from other places, Anzac day is increasingly irrelevant to the very many Australians without a personal connection to the wars and battles in those wars that are commemorated.

The Anzac Day commemorations, as personal memories of the horrors of war fade, still largely commemorate that narrow group of ancestors who fought for Australia a long time ago. The boys’ grandfather, who was a Yugoslav partisan (captured by the Gestapo twice) was never allowed to march because other Yugoslavs, who had been on other sides in the complex struggle that was the Yugoslavian WWII, got to Australia first and put their case to the RSL. Some RSL leaders have allowed Turks, in particular, to march in Anzac Day, because they were “an honourable enemy” but others hate the idea.

Anzac Day used to be, at its best, a day that remembered the stupidity and futility of war, as well as recognising the sacrifices of those who fought and died, regardless of whether the fighting was sensible. The structure of the day, with the marches, and the dawn service, doesn’t make it easy. But I’d like to see a way in which there could be more recognition of the sacrifices and dead of all the wars, and all the losses in the wars that have made Australia what it is – many of which have done so by sending refugees to us from conflicts around the world.

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The SMH had a scare article in the main section of the paper today, arguing that Australian house prices were about to drop, following the US.

The rise in the number of Australian households who are in so much difficulty with their mortgage repayments that they are facing selling up – or being sold up – is continuing its ascent beyond the 200,000 mark reached in November. By this year’s end, some 270,000 Australian households will be in severe mortgage stress.

No one knows how Australia’s housing asset bubble will end. But new American research points to an unexpected and unnerving phenomenon for banks caused by a wave of more belligerent borrowers caught in a property bubble burst.

Many are now more likely to lose their emotional attachment to their homes and walk away, tossing the keys to the bank, even if they have the capacity to keep making mortgage repayments. One published estimate found that 17 per cent of all Americans who default on their mortgage repayments no longer choose to try and tough it out – they walk off.

The problem with this argument is that the rules are different. In many US states, if you choose to walk away from your house and mortgage, the bank is only entitled to whatever it gets from selling the house. It is called a non-recourse mortgage, and has been the subject of fierce debate as to whether those rules should be changed. But here in Australia, if you walk away, you still owe the money to the bank. Unless you declare yourself bankrupt (which itself has worse consequences here in Australia than in the US, where the stigma is not as great), the bank can still pursue you for the money even if you aren’t living in the house.

I’m one of those who believes, with The Economist, that Australia house prices are still over valued. The ratio of prices to rent in most parts of Sydney make it uneconomic to buy rather than rent, unless you are betting on big house price rises in future (which is always dangerous). And the rental market hasn’t got close to overheating in the way that usually presages massive house price rises.

But it’s pretty silly to draw analogies from mortgage defaults in a market where the rules are completely different as to when and how our bubble will burst.

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The SMH has published a league table of all schools in NSW, derived from the myschool site, ranking them by their Year 5 and Year 9 average results. They’ve called it an “alphabetized list” (because league tables are illegal), which is rubbish, because each school has a ranking (calculated on the average year 5 and year 9 results).

There are all sorts of problems with the ranking (it ignores year 3 and year 7, it doesn’t show the raw material the school started with, which is why the selective schools dominate the list, just to name two), but the bigger problem, for me, is the intrinsic assumption made both by the website that it is OK for children from low socio economic groups to get worse results. The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) is used to decide which schools are ranked against which. So the thinking behind the MySchool website is that it is perfectly fine for children from a school like John Warby Public School to be significantly worse than the state average, because if we compare their results with similar poor children, they mostly do a lot better. I’m sure that means that the effort the teachers, parents and children of that school make is well directed. But imagine what more they could do for their children if they had the resources of this school.

It’s not acceptable that this site implies that John Warby Public School students are getting a good outcome from our school system. That implies that it is fine for children from poor backgrounds to get a worse education than average. This information should be being used to take resources away from the schools which are beating the state’s unadjusted average, particularly if they are private schools, and give more resources to schools that have a NAPLAN average below the average.

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Well, give me some statistics about something I care about, and I can’t help myself. I’ve just spent an enjoyable hour and a half getting statistics about all our local primary schools, plus the high schools we’re thinking of sending Chatterboy and Hungry Boy to.*

Robert at Larvatus Prodeo points out some of the problems the site has if you happen to be compared with a selective school – the demographics of the parents of a selective school probably aren’t as important to the NAPLAN results as the fact that all the students have passed an exam to get in. I’d add to that a problem here in NSW – OC classes for year 5 make some schools (eg my old school) look very strange. If you double the size of a year cohort, by adding  a group of students who are all in the top 5% of the state, you’ll appear to do a fantastic job of teaching your year 5 students! Not surprisingly, the school is suddenly substantially better than every single one of its statistically similar schools for Year 5.

The Grattan Institute (via LP) has a report pointing out that there are better ways to measure students than a crude correction for demographics – value add (looking at the change in students’ individual scores from year to year) is a much better way of measuring school performance, and has the advantage of being more comparative across demographic starting points (although then you run into the problem of which school gets the credit, given the tests are done fairly early in the school year).

Helen, who hasn’t managed to get on to the site, laments the continuing commodification of our schools.

For myself, I’m mostly too busy wallowing in statistics to draw any conclusions. But I’d really like to know what we parents are expected to do with the information. Julia Gillard said:

And what people will see is they’ll probably see some areas where their child’s school is going well or better than similar schools or as well as or better than the national average. They might see some areas where their school is falling that bit behind and they’ll want to go and have a conversation at the school about what they can do to lift that performance.

But when people have chosen a school, I think what they will do is they will look at My School and if there’s an area that they think their school needs to lift in then they will be there talking to the teachers, talking to the principal, working in partnerships with school to lift those standards.

There is a limit to how much control parents have over the children’s education. There are generally lots of reasons why people live where they do, and enormous costs (social, as well as economic) to moving house, or moving their children to a school further away. And there is also a limit to the influence any parent, no matter how involved, can have over the performance of their local school. Most teachers, quite reasonably, will resent parents telling them how they can teach their little darlings better.

But the government has had access to this information for quite some time. And what have they done with it? They have funded schools strictly on a formula which nobody, even the beneficiary schools, believe has any semblance of fairness. If they really believed that this information was useful in improving school performance, then they would already be using it to try and improve the performance of all those schools which have a below average performance. But I can’t see any evidence of that in this government’s “education revolution”. Instead, every school in the country, regardless of how good their facilities already are, has a building program. And I’ve not seen any evidence in any educational policy announcement of the struggling schools getting any extra help or resources to lift them to the level of the most successful schools.

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* Actually the most interesting part of the site, for me, was the socio-economic scores themselves. Some surprises there in which schools had the highest scores around where we live. I suspect that some of the counter-intuitive results (Mosman not being the highest, for example) came from the proportion of Mosman parents who send their children to private schools even in primary school.

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