How money makes a difference in our schools

Extra funds can help to facilitate big changes in students.

On August 2 last year, the Coalition told voters it was on a ''unity ticket'' with Labor on school funding. As it turns out, that wasn’t quite true.

In the May budget it announced that two-thirds of the resources, previously allocated in agreements between the Commonwealth and states and territories, will not be delivered. 

The government no longer even claims to be on a unity ticket in relation to the central principles of the Gonski Review. The Commission of Audit, set up by the government, argued money doesn’t matter. Minister Pyne’s own adviser, Scott Prasser, has claimed “just throwing more money at schooling makes no difference to student outcomes”.

Of course, Prasser is right in a way. It’s just that nobody, least of all the Gonski Review and its supporters, believes that just throwing money around is what’s needed. Still, comments like Prasser’s can resonate as political rhetoric because it’s not always easy for parents and community members to see what the political debates about dollar figures mean in practice at their local school. 

The story of one local Canberra school is instructive. Over the past few years, Richardson Primary has been provided with significant additional resources to support the youngsters in its care. 

Richardson started by enhancing its capacity to gather and analyse data about how their students were performing. They purchased licences from the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) to administer annual internal tests in literacy and numeracy at all year levels. That way, they didn’t have to wait for NAPLAN results. They had up-to-date information about where students were falling behind and needed extra support.


Drawing on hard data that indicated students were struggling with vocabulary development and reading comprehension, the school set about enhancing teacher capacity to address these issues. Every staff member attended a five-day intensive course in Dr Spencer Kagan’s high-impact collaborative learning strategy. Kagan’s approach aims to engage every student, especially those who are struggling, by structuring activities so that students feel individual and collective responsibility for their learning.

Additionally, every teacher attended a two-day seminar with educational expert, Dr Dylan Wiliam, on using his formative assessment strategies to enrich each student’s learning journey.

The school also purchased teacher and classroom resources to complement structured and supported teacher-learning teams that ensure effective school-wide implementation of these key strategies. This razor-sharp focus on improving instructional practice through collaboration and reflection has led to more confident and skilful educators, adept at engaging every learner every moment of the learning process.   

The school’s final strategy was to build community partnerships. Working with the YWCA of Canberra, the school established an Intel Computer Clubhouse for 10-18-year-olds in the area. The Clubhouse is an out-of-school-hours high-tech digital studio where young people can work with industry-standard hardware and software and collaborate with mentors on passion projects.

Clubhouse members become part of a ''Global Village'' of peers at similar centres around the world, sharing their knowledge and interests. The centre is helping young people develop the kind of self-belief and self-confidence that doesn’t dissipate at the Clubhouse door.  

So, has the significant additional investment at Richardson Primary changed the lives of the young people who attend it? In the last reported NAPLAN results, improvement at this school occurred at twice the rate of the ACT average. NAPLAN has its limitations but the findings are supported by the data from the annual ACER assessments and the observations of teachers and school leaders.

Tragically, the money that helped this happen was part of a Low-SES National Partnership that is now being withdrawn. The National Partnership dollars were meant to be rolled into the Gonski funding formula. Now Christopher Pyne and co have slashed two-thirds of the Gonski funding, the school looks like it might be sent back to where it started.

The Gonski Review employed a very simple methodology. It determined the funding levels currently being enjoyed by schools where the overwhelming majority of students are meeting basic expectations. It then recommended that every young Australian should be supported to those levels - with the resources they need to succeed.

When it comes to giving every young person in our community an education that sets them up for a meaningful and prosperous life, we should all be on a unity ticket.