Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1622      December 11, 2013

Strengthen public education

“The PISA results that have been released today show that Labor has been delivered a very bad report card on their period in office because from 2009 to 2012 Labor can’t dispute that they were in office and had been for three years and yet, since that time, in science Australia’s ranking has fallen from 10th to 16th, in maths, from 15th to 19th, and in reading, from 9th to 14th,” Education Minister Christopher Pyne told the media.

Pyne was commenting on the results of the OECD’s 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of mathematics, reading and science which were released by the OECD last year. PISA 2012 measured the mathematical, scientific and reading literacy of around 510 000 15-year-old students across 65 participating countries and economies, including 34 OECD countries. The tests are conducted every three years.

But it is the Coalition who deserves the very bad report card. Pyne conveniently overlooks that Australia’s PISA results have been slipping since 2000, when the Howard government had been in office for four years. The extreme right-wing David Kemp was Education Minister from 1996 to 2001 – the critical years that paved the way for the slide in Australia’s performance in the following years. The Howard government remained in office until the end of 2007. The impacts of the Howard years are still being felt.

The PISA testing is quite comprehensive, going well beyond rote learning or basics. For example, the mathematics test covers life skills such as requiring students to engage in analysis, to identify the mathematical elements in a situation, to formulate questions and to search for solutions. Likewise the reading and science tests involve higher skills of analysis and searching for solutions.

PISA also involves the collection of a wide range of useful data relating to schools, teachers, student motivation, etc. (For the full PISA report, www.oecd.org/pisa)

Rankings a diversion

Pyne, like the media, is also wrongfully focusing on rankings. A slip in rankings could be due to other countries improving their performance or a decline in performance. Ranking is an indicator, but it is not the key question. The measure of performance, the actual test results, are more important and, as stated earlier, Australia’s performance has been steadily declining since 2000.

Australia’s mean scores, the actual measure of performance, as well as rankings have gone backwards:

  • Mathematics was 533 in 2000 (6th), 514 in 2009 and 504 in 2012
  • Reading was 528 (4th) in 2000, 515 in 2009 and 512 in 2012
  • Science was 528 (8th) in 2000, 527 in 2009 and 521 in 2012.

The drop in performance is not the only reason to be concerned. While our top students are up there with the best in the world, the difference between their results and those of the lowest achieving students is high by international standards and has increased.

Gap widening

There is a high correlation between socio-economic status (SES) and performance. Students from disadvantaged areas are two years or more behind those from advantaged areas in reading, maths and science. Indigenous students are three years behind high SES students. Half of all Indigenous students are failing to reach the minimum standard in maths.

It is also important to note that there is no difference in the results of public and private schools once socio-economic factors are taken into account. However, the smallest average decline in results between 2009 and 2012 was in public schools.

Pyne ignores all of this. “The fundamental problem is teacher quality,” he told the media, who were happy to run with that one. Blame the teachers! A quick, simple populist response, just like the “turn the boats back” mantra. It diverts attention from the real issues, such as government failure to adequately staff and resource public schools and pay teachers a salary commensurate with their training and responsibilities.

That is not to say more cannot or should not be done to improve the quality of teaching. But that is not the crux of the problem. Australia’s teachers, especially in public schools, do an amazing job.

Feeding the rich schools

There are, however, serious problems with under-resourcing of public schools and the funding model.

The Australian Education Union (AEU) said the decline in student performance and widening achievement gaps revealed in PISA 2012 showed the urgent need for more equitable school funding arrangements across the country.

“The Gonski Review pointed to both declining scores and widening achievement gaps and said: ‘Australia will only slip further behind unless, as a nation, we act and act now’,” AEU deputy federal president Correna Haythorpe said. “The PISA results also show that high performing school systems pay teachers more relative to their national income per capita than Australia does.”

The Australian Council of Education and Research analysed the PISA data for Australia and highlighted the nature of the gap. For example, the ACER found that the mean score difference of 90 points between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in mathematical literacy equates to more than two-and-a-half years of schooling.

In scientific literacy, Indigenous students achieved a mean score of 440 points compared to a mean score of 524 points for non-Indigenous students. The difference of 84 score points equates to about two-and-a-half years of schooling.

In reading literacy Indigenous students recorded a mean score of 428 points compared to a mean score of 515 points for non-Indigenous students. This difference of 87 score points equates to two-and-a-half years of schooling.

Howard model

The Howard Coalition government introduced a new funding model in 2001 purporting to be based on the socio-economic status of students in a school. The SES model funded schools according to the postcode of each of its students, as if all students from a low socio-economic region or suburb are disadvantaged. In reality, wealth not postcode determines whether parents can afford $15,000 or $25,000 a year in fees for each child.

The SES score of a school determined the level of funding from the federal government. It ignored the actual socio-economic status of students whose parents could afford the top private schools. As a result, the wealthiest private primary schools enjoyed a boost of 80 percent or more in funding between 2001 and 2010 and elite private high schools by as much as 50 percent.

Pyne has made it clear that he wants the Howard SES model, and not the Gonski/Labor funding formula which attaches a set amount per student, reduced for private schools according to the school’s ability to raise funding and an extra amount for disadvantaged students.

Howard’s SES model has made a major contribution to the two-tier, two-class education system and the widening gap. So too has the diversion of millions of dollars from the public education system to private schools.


There are two other important and related developments contributing to Australia’s declining performance for which Labor must take responsibility, and have the backing of the Coalition.

The first of these is NAPLAN testing. It is no secret that many schools are now “teaching to the test” and spending hours and hours practising tests at the expense of other elements in the curriculum and broader development of life’s skills. The focus on narrow NAPLAN-style outcomes will see Australia slip even further backwards.

The second is the concept of competition and an education market with Labor’s MySchool website providing parents with a crude measure of school performance. Education is being commodified and so-called “parental choice” and rankings system carries with it the notion of large variations in quality and “failed schools”.

The OECD report, Education Policy Outlook: Australia 2013, (June 2013) noted: “Australia has a high degree of school choice which, if not well targeted, can contribute to segregation of students. Around 96 percent of students attend a school that competes for enrolments with at least one other school. Evidence shows that school choice, along with other factors, may undermine equity in the education system by segregating students into schools based on their socio-economic background. It is important to ensure that there are mechanisms to mitigate this negative effect.”

The concept of a universal, free secular education system is being undermined which prevailed with the establishment of public education systems in 1870s. Instead, segregation is being fostered, not just along socio-economic but also religious lines. There is little equity in the outcomes for students, those who entered the system disadvantaged, will exit it even more disadvantaged for life.

The PISA results are a timely warning that the current form of federal funding is perpetuating and increasing disadvantage.

It is not clear what funding model will be used by states that signed up for Gonski under Labor, but they will be committed to maintaining their contribution. But those that have signed up to “Gonski” with the Coalition will not be under any obligation. They will be free to cut their own spending or direct all the additional dollars to wealthy private schools if they wish.

The Communist Party of Australia believes the guiding principle and aim of the education system should be the provision of free, universal and secular public education for all children from pre-school right through to post-secondary, to produce a highly educated and cultured society.

Education involves much more than passing numeracy and literacy tests. It is about the full development of human potential, equipping people for life as well as preparing them for further studies or work.

The CPA believes there is no place for class-based choice or competition in education. Education is a basic human right, not a privilege for those who can afford it. Australia has the wealth to be able to provide every child with a quality education.

The public education system must be strengthened with increased funding for teaching and non-teaching staff, for the building and maintenance of classrooms and other school facilities, and the purchase of resources.

The CPA calls for the phasing out of state aid to non-government schools. The MySchool website should be pulled down. All teaching and non-teaching staff should be employed centrally by education departments on a permanent basis for ongoing work. The education system needs democratisation not privatisation.

Next article – Sycophant Australia loses respect

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