February 20, 2012 | Graham

Education’s Gonski now.

The government has just released the Gonski review of education and while I have yet to read it and so am relying on news reports it appears to have made a number of obvious errors.

First is that contra the assertions made by the inquiry, there is little relationship between expenditure on education and outcomes. Some years ago I came across a table that neatly summarised this but can’t lay my hands on it now. However, here is some information from an article that On Line Opinion is about to publish tomorrow by retired maths lecturer John Ridd that makes the same point.

It has the following table comparing Australian TIMSS results in 2007 to other countries either selected for their cultural and ethnic comparability – USA and the UK – or because they topped their respective categories – Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Maths 4th grade Maths 8th grade Science 4th grade Science 8th grade
Hong Kong 607 Taiwan 598 Singapore 587 Singapore 567
US 529 US 508 US 539 US 520
UK 541 UK 513 UK 542 UK 542
Australia 516 Australia 496 Australia 527 Australia 515

The percentages of the GDP spent on education by each of these countries according to the CIA Fact Book is:

Hong Kong 4.5%; Taiwan N/A; Singapore 3%; USA 5.5%; UK 5.5% and Australia 4.5%. Note that the best performing spent the least, and were all Asian.

This confirms my anecdotal observation which is boosted by statistics showing a decline in Australian educational performance over the last 20 to 30 years.

That is that the much cheaper education that I received in the 60s and 70s was superior to what is being delivered now, even though my grade one class had 50 students in it and we wrote on slates .

We have been spending more money since, but only to go backwards.

Second, public education ought to be the province of the state governments, not the federal. The commonwealth should not be wading in with additional monies to prop up state schools. If it wants real reform it should encourage the states to set up a situation where they fund both state and private schools to some extent and allow them to keep some more of the GST so that they can afford to do that.

The extra $5 billion being demanded by the review will merely allow the states to vacate more of their responsibility in education and won’t actually improve the situation.

Third, the Howard Government’s SES system of funding was the most effective and transparent you are likely to get, apart from the fact that it allowed the Catholic school system to allocate resources internally outside of this framework. If it needed simplification, then it needed to bring Catholic schools under the same system as everyone else. Apart from that it worked well.

By relying on income tax returns to determine funding per student the Gonski review is setting up a very messy situation which will effectively fund tax minimisers at a better rate than the rest of us. The SES system, by relying on demographic statistics dodged the tax minimisation trap.

We need reform to education, but this isn’t it. The real problems lie in standards, the capabilities of teachers, the lack of ability of schools to innovate, low expectations of what students can achieve, and a culture that doesn’t rate intellectual performance very highly.

That’s why we are out-gunned by the Singaporeans, the Taiwanese and the citizens of Hong Kong. They’re smarter about education and spend what is required, not more.

Posted by Graham at 8:47 pm | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. $5 million bucks will compund the problem, not solve it. I teach first year university students, so I see the immediate “outcomes” of the schooling system. The issues are: standards and teaching quality, ie teacher education and teacher performance. When you need an OP 2 for teaching and and an OP 12 for law, we will begin to make progress. Finally, I consider my state school education completed over 40 years ago to be superior my the expensive GPS schooling of my children completed a decade ago.

    Comment by John Harrison — February 21, 2012 @ 6:19 am

  2. I beg your pardon????? The issues are teaching quality? Whilst I agree the op needs ro set a higher bar…. Most teachers I have met work hard and set high standards for themselves. Have you looked at the curriculums of the relative countries? The countries we are measured against have much more restrictive curriculums and felt heavily on rote learning… Which us mire about memory and recall than thought. Oh that’s right, the countries rating higher in this report don’t value independent thought. Why teach it? Maybe the problem with the report lies in what is being measured and how it is being measured.
    When you rely on a journalists interpretation of an educational document instead of reading for yourself, sometimes the sensationalism gets in the way of good sense and one’s independant thought is traded for being swept with the tide.

    Comment by suzan — February 21, 2012 @ 7:03 am

  3. Typical – no mention of Finland.

    A system built on equity that delivers excellence.

    Really cultural comparability?

    Comment by steve — February 21, 2012 @ 7:06 am

  4. McKinsey did a study a few years ago and came to the conclusion that the biggest determinant of outcomes was teacher quality. http://mckinseyonsociety.com/downloads/reports/Education/Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf.

    No mention of Finland because I was using the TIMSS results from John Ridd’s article http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13273.

    You’ll find that Finland spends more than us, but not much more than the USA and the UK, and if funding were the determining factor you wouldn’t expect this to be the case.

    Comment by Graham — February 21, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  5. This is a pretty shallow piece for a number of reasons.
    – You set out the % of GDP spent on education by a number of countries – but this does not necessarily mean comparative per pupil expenditure. The cannot be compared like this.
    – the logic that the lack of a direct and measurable +ve relationship between $ in and outcomes out assumes an awful lot
    1. that the funds are spent in the best possible way and not on flagpoles, rich schools that can then expend $ on luxuries etc
    2. that the standards are comparable year on year. They might be going up

    When an economist or maths expert says funds don’t matter and I will send my child to a poorly funded school I might think there is sincerity in this line.

    It takes significant funds to increase teacher capability across all schools – cant be done without increased funds

    Comment by MargaretClark12 — March 9, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  6. Hi Margaret,

    Lots of people send their kids to poorly-funded schools – that’s the Catholic Education sector which lags the others. They do it voluntarily and I don’t see any evidence that the results are inferior.

    You can also do a comparison between what is spend on education now versus what was spent on it 40 years ago. Despite more absolute money being spent there has actually been a decline in standards.

    In fact, your post bears out the fact that spending doesn’t determine education as you point out money can be wasted, which is certainly what seems to be happening in Australia. We’re indulging in a conspicuous consumption binge, not an education revolution.

    Comment by Graham — March 12, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  7. “…a culture that doesn’t rate intellectual performance very highly.”

    AND a culture that rates SPORTS performance as highly important. MILLIONS, and MILLIONS are spent on better and better stadiums, arenas, etc.

    Study after study is done that shows “increase expenditures per pupil” doesn’t help.

    The “spend more!” MODEL is broken.

    Comment by Wesley — March 17, 2012 @ 8:00 am

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