The Productivity Commission draft report on the national education evidence base certainly caused a stir yesterday. NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, a strong Gonski education funding reform supporter, immediately attacked it, saying it was out of date and told us nothing we didn’t already know. Commentator Jane Caro, a staunch advocate for shifting funding from private to public schools, also criticised it on social media. The Australian, which during the election campaign ran a perverse and absurd campaign claiming there were no economic benefits to education funding, seized on the report to gleefully claim “$10bn in school funding fails to lift student results“. Education Minister Simon Birmingham, chuffed at the apparent support it provided for the Liberals’ “no point in increasing education funding”, gleefully backed it. Far-right Centre for Independent Studies researcher Jennifer Buckingham used it to attack what she calls “the education establishment“.

Problem is, everyone was either seeing in the draft report what they wanted to see, or seeing what wasn’t there at all, because the Productivity Commission wasn’t making any judgement about the efficacy of education funding of any kind. How do we know that? Well, it’s tricky, and the evidence is very subtle … it’s the bit in the report that says:

“The Commission has not reviewed the education evidence base itself. Judgments or analyses about ‘what works best’ in education practice are beyond the scope of this inquiry.”

It’s easy to see how this could have been missed, being buried all the way down on page 3 of a 255-page document.

What the PC is looking at is hinted, with equal subtlety, in the title – it’s about the evidence base for education funding. That’s what the government asked it to examine. There’s no doubt about the Liberal Party’s hostility to extra education funding and its preference for pumping money into private schools ahead of public schools — that’s on the public record. Indeed, earlier this year, Malcolm Turnbull explicitly suggested the Commonwealth abandon public school funding altogether and keep funding private schools. But there’s no hidden agenda in what the PC was asked to look at — Scott Morrison’s terms of reference asked the commission to “provide advice on the refinement of the national approach to collecting and using data for early childhood education and care and schools, and other information as relevant, to improve Australia’s educational outcomes”.

There’s some broader context for this: education, health and social care employ around one in five Australians. They are massively economically important sectors — education might not provide the same level of employment as health and social care, but it’s a big export earner and crucial to future economic performance. But because of the nature of the activities involved — teaching kids, caring for people, improving health outcomes — and because governments primarily fund them, these industries aren’t amenable to the kind of standard productivity assessment we can do in market-based sectors of the economy. The ABS has repeatedly noted this point, as has the Reserve Bank: there’s a huge sector of the economy that is critically important to us where we struggle to know whether we’re achieving efficiencies or not, or whether we could get better value by reallocating funding.

That, in the end, was what the Gonski debate was about — directing more funding to disadvantaged students, who are the ones whose performance has undermined Australia’s position in standardised international comparisons.

The PC is examining ways to significantly improve our understanding of what’s happening in education — not commenting on what’s happening. Its opening point “notwithstanding substantial increases in expenditure on education over the past decade, national and international assessments of student achievement in Australia show little improvement and in some areas standards of achievement have dropped” is a statement of the obvious and old news (on that, Piccoli is right). The entire Gonski debate was informed by the fact that Australia’s performance compared internationally had been in decline. We also know from recent NAPLAN results that we’re not seeing big improvements in education outcomes. And, the PC says, Australia isn’t alone in facing this challenge.

The nearest the commission comes to commenting on what is happening, rather than the evidence base, is its view that:

“‘excellence in education requires more than money’ … There is now broad agreement that monitoring, benchmarking and accountability alone, are insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. These processes must be complemented by the use of data and evidence to identify and implement the most effective programs, policies and practices. This will help to allocate resources more effectively and improve outcomes with respect to national education objectives.”

It makes — remembering this a draft report — a suite of proposals, but there are three key points:

  • It suggests more rigorous, uniform and less duplicative “top-down”, system-wide data collection, but complemented by a lot more “bottom-up”, ground-level research evaluating outcomes at school and classroom level, preferably via controlled trials;
  • It suggests much greater use of longitudinal data, including greater use of data linkages and less privacy restrictions; and
  • It thinks this new research framework should be implemented by a new education research body operating independently of governments.

Some of this is obviously problematic — as the census has demonstrated, there are enormous sensitivities around privacy in data collection, even for “de-identified” data (the PC appears unaware that there’s really no such thing as de-identified personal data of any volume). And it’s doubtful whether The Australian knew it was signing up to a new government body when it spruiked the report.

The PC isn’t interested in judging the benefits of additional funding — it’s interested in being able to judge those benefits, right down to the level of what’s happening in your kid’s classroom to determine if a particular program or initiative is having results. But the media and politicians were too eager to score ideological point to bother reading that far.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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