(Image: Getty)

While some of the alarm about Australia’s performance in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is justified, the issues around Australia’s schools performance are complicated.

It isn’t really telling us anything we didn’t already know, at least about the need to improve the outcomes from our massive investment in primary and secondary schools.

PISA is a triennial assessment around performance in reading, maths and science. It’s both a league table — thus the headlines about Australia’s declining performance — and provides a time-series look at a country’s performance.

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The league table stuff, for all the febrile media coverage, isn’t that important; Australia performs about the same as, or slightly above, other economies with which we tend to compare ourselves — the US, the UK, Japan, NZ — and well above some major economies like Germany and France (indeed, a large number of European countries). And if countries in our region are improving their performance, that’s actually good news for Australia, which is well-placed to benefit from their economic success.

But the trend within Australia is not good. According to the OECD, “while Australia’s reading performance in PISA 2018 was similar to that observed in 2015, when considering a longer period, mean performance in reading has been steadily declining, from initially high levels, since the country first participated in PISA in 2000. Performance in mathematics has been declining too since 2003, and in science, since 2012.”

And it would be worse without migrants — immigrant students noticeably outperform local-born students.

This decline in performance is despite an increase in educational funding. The most recent comprehensive data for school funding from the Australian Council for Educational Research only goes to 2015, before the Turnbull government’s Gonski 2.0 funding program kicked in.

Even so, the ACER data shows that, despite a decline in per-capita real funding of both primary and secondary students between 2010 and 2015, 2015 real funding per student was significantly above the comparable funding level in 2005. Unless state and territory governments cost-shifted education funding in response to Turnbull’s Gonski embrace, it’s likely real per-capita growth will have resumed its increase after 2015.

So Australia’s flagging PISA performance has been despite real growth in funding for schools since the early years of PISA.

That underperformance has historically been because disadvantaged students have performed poorly. That continues to be the case in reading: according to the OECD, “in reading, more rapid declines were observed amongst the country’s lowest-achieving students”.

On the positive side, “students’ performance in reading, mathematics and science was less strongly associated with socio-economic status in Australia than on average across OECD countries”.

That means disadvantage isn’t destiny to the same extent here that it is elsewhere. But it does mean that one of the central goals of the Gonski project, to lift the performance of disadvantaged students by better targeting resources at them, hasn’t succeeded to the extent hoped for.

If you remember the debate around Turnbull’s Gonski 2.0, he and then-education minister Simon Birmingham wanted the “full Gonski” in terms of redirecting resources away from wealthy private schools, especially those run by the Catholic Church, and toward disadvantaged students.

This was shamefully wrecked by an opportunistic Labor that portrayed it as an attack on Catholic schools. While Anthony Albanese is trying to exploit the PISA results, what Labor won’t talk about is its role in those results when it comes to resourcing advantaged over disadvantaged students.

And we didn’t need PISA to tell us that we have a major productivity issue in our educational systems. We can’t even measure it. Education, like health and social care, gets left out of official productivity estimates like the ones released this week because we don’t have sufficient information to do it properly.

Yet we know that those two areas — which are major employers in their own right as well as crucial to the economy — are the most important for improving productivity in Australia. That’s why the Productivity Commission identified those sectors as critical in its Shifting the Dial report.

It specifically recommended an urgent program to combat teaching out of field, a comprehensive evidence-based skills development program for teachers and more and better data sharing between governments (which are instead considering less data-sharing).

Shifting the Dial has been ignored by the government since its release. But nor has anything replaced it in terms of policy, as Australia has gone from being a low-productivity growth economy to — as this week’s ABS data confirmed — falling productivity.

This agenda-less government has no plan for improving productivity or performance in education, or anywhere else. But as its role in the Gonski 2.0 debate shows, there’s plenty of blame for Labor to share when it comes to education as well.

Is education heading towards a crisis? Will either side be able to fix the trend? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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