Education is one of the policy areas where strong ideological predilections have often driven decision making. But better evidence on what works is increasingly providing a stronger base for good policy.
“We do know that public education spending hands down beats tax cuts and pretty much any other expenditure when it comes to long run economic wellbeing,” says Gill Callister, secretary of Victoria’s Department of Education and Training.
She is critical of the idea that slower than expected progress in educational outcomes means investment has failed. The idea of reducing education spending because it’s not achieving enough progress is like calling for “cuts to medical research because we haven’t cured diabetes yet”, she told a Trans-Tasman Business Circle event on Friday.
“We have to resist the ideological tide that drags investment backwards and forwards in education, because depriving people of education is an altogether absurd notion, either by design or neglect, and we allow it at our peril,” she said.
“Looking ahead, more than ever, Australia’s long run prosperity is contingent on our human capital endowment. In short, we need to invest in our ideas machine. In our hard and soft infrastructure of transport, education, skills and innovation. It’s people who make our ideas machine work.”
The importance of education was emphasised on a recent trip to the United States during the election campaign. Callister was struck by how much voting patterns have become stratified by educational attainment, with the categories of college educated and non-college educated dividing people “almost into tribes”.
Investment in education, training and skills can help steer us away from the “deep, fractious inequality” demonstrated by the Brexit and Trump victories, the secretary suggested.
‘A new agenda for progress’
There’s a renewed sense of confidence in Victoria in the capability of the public sector.
“At home in Australia, most strongly in Victoria, a new agenda for progress is emerging. A new consensus is beginning to take shape around the role of government, beyond increasing the efficiency of markets, to creating human, organisational and institutional capabilities that we need to succeed in the 21st century,” she explained.
“And there is a sense of urgency, I think, driving this. George Megalogenis in his most recent Quarterly Essay put things plainly: ‘We will either catch the next wave of prosperity, or finally succumb to the great recession’.”
But ideologically-driven chopping and changing in education funding makes it difficult to deliver optimal results.
Denouncing the “sniping” and “bickering” that occurs around education funding — and the Gonski model in particular — Callister argued for paying attention to where evidence says funding should be spent — and that money is important.
“We do have good evidence about what works in education, and we have evidence about what’s just a distraction, what’s snake oil. We know funding makes an enormous difference to outcomes. What matters most to outcomes is where and how you invest your resources and your effort. And that where is in the places that need it most and our teachers as professionals,” she said.
Investing in teacher quality is key. “The wave of international evidence from the successes of the world’s very best school systems shows unequivocally that investing in teaching quality, capability and development makes the single biggest difference to outcomes.”
There is strong evidence that spending on early years education has huge impacts down the line.
“At a minimum, it boosts social mobility, reduces welfare spending, reduces deficits, and promotes economic growth,” Callister said. “We know early years education correlates with employment, higher wages, better health, lower rates of obesity and smoking, and fewer arrests.”
She ended by issuing a call to supporters of high quality education to help build a culture of valuing education.
The Victorian government’s Building the Education State policy “is about building classrooms, improving organisational performance, making continuous advances with curriculum, assessment, teacher quality”, she said. “These things will take us a long way, but the full extent of our success in the 21st century will be fully realised based on the place of education in Victoria, its place in our public sphere, the extent to which we value and privilege education culturally.
“Victorians I think have always valued education, but we need renewed urgency that lifts us above the ‘it’s making no difference’ sniping. Shifting values and behaviours like this is in some ways akin to an Everest in public policy. And this is where all of you come in. Changes are difficult to make, but they’re possible. Big ones are possible if you try hard enough and long enough and enlist good people to the cause.”