Federal Politics

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It's not how much you spend but where you spend it that matters

Investment in teaching is about improving the skills of teachers, not paying them more, writes Dean Dudley.

Funding of education in Australia has dominated both federal and state politics in recent weeks. The federal government is seeking to increase funding in light of the Gonski review's findings, while the NSW government has slashed funding to public and non-government schools to the tune of $1.7 billion.

Many readers might question why we are apparently living in an age of unprecedented technological achievement and national wealth, but education has not improved in real terms since the late 1970s.

In light of these events, it might be time for the Australian public to be enlightened about the scary reality of educational inflation.

By etymology, inflation means flatulence. It was only in the mid-1800s that inflation became known mainly as an economic phenomenon and in the past 40 years it has encroached into economic debates about education.

Educational inflation is similar to inflation of paper currencies, where too much funding chases too few opportunities for societal growth or commodities. In other words, it is all the money that is spent on education that yields low or no student achievement.

In the recent political environment, it has become almost impossible to separate educational inflation from improving student achievement.


To cut through the rhetoric and political spin on education funding, it is worthwhile to examine the evidence of where publicly sourced tax dollars need to be spent to improve learning.

First, investment in teachers is where we can make the most difference, but not in the ways we hear of from politicians or bureaucrats. Investment in teaching is about improving the skills teachers have to understanding learning and the ability to turn that understanding into effective and meaningful intervention. It is not about teacher salaries or doctoral qualifications. Teachers have had a profound influence on a child's ability to learn since long before they received $83,000 a year or even had university degrees.

Money is better spent providing time and space within the school day for teachers to work on projects that allow them to better understand their students as learners. They need the time and resources to have conversations with colleagues and ''experts'' about their teaching interventions. But investment in teacher profiles such as ''highly accomplished teachers'' or ''leaders of learning'' have an inflationary effect. Teachers work well towards learning goals as a collective unit, not nesting within an artificial hierarchy.

Second, investment in students can be quite effective, but typically is not politically attractive. Programs that empower students to understand their own learning and reduce inequities of social circumstance are best. Students who know where their strengths and weaknesses are but also have the skills to redress these stand to benefit most from this sort of student funding. These types of programs are rarely funded by politicians or educational bureaucrats because they lack the ''glamour'' needed to sell education spending. Rather, expensive and low-yielding money is consumed on student laptops, iPads or elitist private school tuition. These products of student consumption are attractive because they are immediate and concrete. The real learning needed for societal growth, unfortunately, is neither.

Finally, schools and curricula also provide infrastructure for learning. Schools and curricula that activate both the means and opportunity for learning are the most effective. This means providing an environment where children are safe, not only from fear or harm, but to explore, create and make ''meaningful'' mistakes. Funding of ancillary staff and buildings that create an environment where learning is celebrated in all its forms should be a priority.

It is not about funding open classrooms, electronic whiteboards, reduced class sizes, and elitist schools which are simply political spin to improve the quality of life perception for the middle-class. This inflationary influence within our education systems means that the current political discourse is also flatulent. The implications of our ignorance are that we are not preparing our society to deal with some of the catastrophic problems we face in the coming century.

We have become increasing individualistic consumers of education and as such avoided having the necessary public debate on improving education so we may benefit as a society.

Next time a politician makes a policy speech about improving funding for education, ask yourself, will this simply feed my middle-class consumer desires or will it truly prepare Australia to live in a very different and changing world.

Dr Dean Dudley is a Churchill Fellow and lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University.