Responses to OECD report miss the mark
20th September 2011

In the following I argue that the Australian Education Union's response to the OECD's Education at a Glance report misses the mark.

A brief glance at education funding

Just as the release of the OECD's Education at a Glance is a predictable event that happens this time each year, so is the response from the president of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos.

In response to the findings in today's 2011 publication that Australian governments, compared to other OECD governments, spend less on education as a percentage of GDP and more on non-government schools, Gavrielatos is quoted as arguing, "Australia is out of step with almost all other major nations when it comes to where we spend our money in school education."

Flashback to the release of the 2008 Education at a Glance and, once again, Gavrielatos uses the OECD report to condemn funding to Catholic and independent schools.  In an AEU media release he states, "These figures demonstrate the urgent need to increase public education funding if we are to compete successfully in a global economy."

As they say, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. While it is true that public and private expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP in Australia is 5.2 per cent, while the OECD average is 5.9 per cent, it's simplistic and misleading to argue that such a situation automatically means that more needs to be invested.

While teacher unions consistently argue that governments need to better fund schools, employing more teachers, having smaller classes and less face-to-face teaching, the reality is that there is little, if any, correlation between amounts invested and improved educational outcomes.

After analysing the results of international mathematics and science tests the 2000 edition of Education at a Glance concludes, "There seems to be neither a strong nor consistent relationship between the volume of resources invested nationally and student outcomes."

In a 2006 study, the German researcher Ludger Woessmann also concludes that spending more is not the solution when he states "Overwhelming evidence shows that expansions on the input side, such as physical expansion of the educational facilities and increased spending per student, generally do not seem to lead to substantial increases in children's competencies and learning achievement."

As the president of a teacher union representing government schools, it's understandable why Gavrielatos argues that such schools should receive funding priority and that it is wrong that Australian governments invest so much in supporting non-government schools.

According to Education at a Glance 2011 it is true that Australian governments invest significantly more in non-government schools. At 21.8 per cent of government funding, Australia's figure is well above the OECD average of 9.8 per cent.

What non-government school critics like Gavrielatos fail to acknowledge, though, is that the reason investment in Australia is so high is because so many students, compared to overseas, attend non-government schools. Australia has one of the highest rates of non-government school enrolments at approximately 34 per cent. Parents are voting with their feet and over the 10-year period 1998-2008 enrolments grew by just over 20 per cent, while government school enrolments flatlined at 1.2 per cent.

It's also the case that while Australian governments, on average, fund state schools at $12,639 per student, non-government school students only receive $6,607. The fact that state and federal governments do not have to meet the full costs of educating non-government students (governments pay 57 per cent of the total costs, while non-government schools contribute the other 43 per cent) saves taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

In addition to arguing that funding to non-government schools should be cut, the AEU president also uses Education at a Glance 2011 to imply that parents are wasting their money paying non-government school fees as such schools, after adjusting for the impact of socioeconomic status, fail to outperform government schools.

Of interest is that the head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Barry McGaw, makes the same point in a recent interview where he states, "Our research shows that the performance of those private schools is not necessarily better than public schools but parents feel the pressure to buy what they feel might give their children an advantage."

While it's true that the OECD report, based on one test related to the reading ability of 15-year-old students, suggests that Australian non-government schools fail to outperform government schools after adjusting scores to reflect school and student socioeconomic background (on the basis that high SES students are expected to do well while low SES students underperform), the research in this area is inconclusive.

Countering the OECD report's argument is research carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) associated with the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth. After analysing what impacts on success at tertiary entry, the researchers state "Students who attended non-government schools outperformed students from government schools, even after taking into account socioeconomic background and achievement in literacy and numeracy."

Gary Marks, from the ACER, makes the same point when he argues that socioeconomic background "only accounts for about 10 to 20 per cent of the variation in student performance in developed countries" and that when it comes to tertiary entry that "attendance at a Catholic or independent school significantly increased the odds of university participation, net of socioeconomic background and prior achievement".



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Responses to OECD report miss the mark
20th September 2011
In the following I argue that the Australian Education Union's response to the OECD's Education at a Glance report misses the mark.A brief glance at education fundingJust as the release of the OECD's ...

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