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Australia’s international rankings in science, maths and reading have dropped, but while politicians claim to be funding education adequately, critics point out that the money is being directed to all the wrong places. By Kristina Olsson.

Australia’s falling student rankings

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge.
Credit: AAP / Diego Fedele

Australia’s education system is about to endure yet another review – this time of initial teacher training, prompted by an apparent slide in the international rankings of our students in maths, science and reading.

The catalyst is Australia’s results in the 2018 Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) standardised tests. These assessments of 15-year-olds across OECD countries are meant to gauge their readiness for life after secondary school.

Australia has traditionally performed well in PISA tests. But in the past 15 years, our rankings have fallen behind China, Singapore and Britain, provoking a re-emergence of the funding debate and the blaming of teachers.

So, how did Australia fall behind, and is it a plunge or a slip? Is it about funding? Are our teachers that bad?

The answers are complex, subject to ideological bias and fiddling behind the scenes.

The federal minister for Education, Alan Tudge, hasn’t directly addressed all the questions that reliably turn up every time the matter of school standards erupts across the media. But when it comes to funding he insists that, in the past decade, there’s been a big increase: 38 per cent in real terms to schools across the country.

In a speech in March, Tudge said that since 2013 there had been an 80 per cent increase in overall school funding to $23.4 billion. He then announced a commitment to a further 40 per cent increase to reach $32.8 billion in funding by 2029. Tudge stated that between 2013 and 2029, funding to government schools would have increased by 193 per cent, and by 161 per cent to independent schools, including faith-based, and by 109 per cent to Catholic schools.

This funding would be “locked in”, Tudge said, with a caveat: “The states and territories will need to live up to their side of the bargain also, but with record funding to all schools our focus is now on how to use the money, not how much schools should get, or the distribution between the sectors.”

But of course, the distribution between the sectors and how much each school gets are vital to the quality of Australian education.

A 2019 report by the Grattan Institute found that while Australia had increased the “real resources” available to schools by more than $2 billion in a decade, the extra money went to the schools that needed it least.

The inequities are visible: contrast the soaring sports facilities, private buses and individually tailored chairs for students at private schools against the shadeless sports ovals of public schools, where the classroom resources are often provided by the teachers themselves or through grants acquired by hardworking parent groups.

But the solution may not be as simple, or as obvious, as it seems.

Dr Nick Kelly, a senior lecturer in interaction design at the Queensland University of Technology, and an expert in design and education, says there is always a need for more money in public schools  but there are more complex issues at play. One of them is instability, an endless shifting of the goalposts within schools.

“Over the past 10 years, the only constant in public schools has been change,” he says. “It’s never-ending.”

Kelly is referring, in part, to the many inquiries and reviews the system has undergone almost every two years. And that’s where a significant part of the education budget goes – into paying consultants for such reviews. Meanwhile, in the areas of real need – quality teaching time, the nurturing and retention of good teachers, mentoring, student resources – money runs short.

Kelly blames the current malaise on the new neoliberal business approaches that have been imposed on schools. These warp the role of teachers and turn them, he says, into “middle managers”.

“There is now an enormous amount of management and reporting that teachers have to do, apart from covering the curriculum,” he says. “They are accountable for every second of the day. So much is expected.”

This is exacerbated by the number of maths and science teachers “teaching out of field” in subjects they have no expertise in because of a shortage of teachers in those areas. “So, they’re teaching these as well as their own subjects, juggling with timetabling,” Kelly says.

Indeed, teachers report finding the reporting demands “unsustainable”. One Queensland primary teacher was teaching at least five classes, each of 30 students, around assessment time. “Whenever a student didn’t pass, their parents had to be contacted by phone,” she said. “We had to record this, and if a parent didn’t answer the phone, we had to email. That’s an enormous number of calls and emails.” This applied to full-time teachers as well as those working on casual contracts.

How does this impact on student ratings? “There’s only so much you can achieve in the classroom while you’re doing all this reporting work,” Kelly says.

“There’s a big gap between the public perception – they’re lazy, they make mistakes, they get long holidays – and the reality,” he says. “Teachers I talk to add up the hours they do and the pay they get and they would do better working at Coles.”

Teachers, he says, are “expected to be superheroes in what they achieve”.

There is a yawning divide between how teachers are regarded by the community and the self-image of the teaching profession – one that’s leading to dissatisfaction.

A 2019 survey by Monash University actually found that the Australian public regarded teachers as “respected and trusted”, as do other regular surveys. But teachers themselves reported feeling “underappreciated and not valued”.

Faced with this, the level of attrition in the profession is no surprise. Estimates suggest that up to 50 per cent of Australian teachers may leave in their first five years.

“We lose so many good teachers,” Kelly says. “They graduate and go into schools and into situations of insecure employment, teaching across so many subjects, and no slack given. There’s a sink or swim mantra.

“But when students enter teacher training and are asked about their motivations, they cite: contribution to society; love of subject area; work–life balance and personal reward and satisfaction. Asked again when they’ve been teaching a few years, they’ve dropped off on contribution to society, and work–life balance has plummeted; they cling to a love of their subject area and personal reward.”

Of course, the devil in the detail is inequity.

Jo Lampert, professor of social inclusion and teacher education at La Trobe University, cites a growing body of research that “emphasises how crucial it is that teachers understand the backgrounds and communities in which young people and their families live – especially if they’re to teach equitably, without bias, and with a critical understanding of historical educational disadvantage.

“Research on teacher education for high poverty schools is largely associated with social justice education and premised on two assumptions,” she says. “First, that teachers do make a difference and should be encouraged to see themselves as agents of change.

“Second, without nuanced knowledge of poverty and disadvantage, and especially its intersection with race, teachers are prepared as though all students and all communities have equal social advantage.”

Initial teacher education, Lampert says, should “take special responsibility for preparing teachers for high-poverty high schools”.

“It is seen as a civic responsibility in teacher education, as moral work. And educators have a responsibility for preparing teachers so they can enact the moral work they engage in every day in a way that is not only effective, and responsible, but meaningful and fulfilling,” she says.

But there is currently low institutional support for teachers in schools variously described as disadvantaged or diverse in terms of race and social class, she adds.

Professor Annette Woods, research co-ordinator for the school of early childhood and inclusive education at Queensland University of Technology, agrees that Australia “has always had an issue with equity”. “There’s a big gap between students doing well, and a long tail at the back,” she says. “And we currently have a very inequitable funding system.”

Of course, money is part of it, she says: “Money counts. We couldn’t cut money to hospitals and expect them to run properly.”

Woods sees schools as a microcosm. “And communities have been hit hard. Australia has become more inequitable. In some communities the smallest things, like a car tyre blowing out, can mean parents can’t get the kids to school.”

What all these experts cite – and what the government doesn’t talk about – is the overall feminisation of the teaching profession and its effect on teachers and schools. Is it coincidental that this is paired with higher reporting and administrative demands on teachers, with higher casualisation, stagnating salaries, long hours and more take-home work?

This is to say nothing of the imposition of the role of front-line social worker in schools. Add higher rates of disadvantage and inequity and the time left for ensuring excellence in the classroom, and in standardised testing such as PISA and NAPLAN, shrinks substantially.

Critics of Minister Tudge’s comments that “there is no link between funding increases and better student performance” point out that in Britain – where Tudge asserts standards have risen while funding has been cut – teachers commonly advise lower-performing students to stay home on the days of PISA testing to ensure high scores. Whole schools will often opt out.

And of course, it happens here too. Any teacher will tell you that. Keeping test scores up comes with the territory and might be the only official recognition they get.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Schools’ sliding scales".

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Kristina Olsson is a Queensland writer and journalist. Her most recent book is the award-winning memoir Boy, Lost.