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ABC News
ABC News
national education and parenting reporter Gabriella Marchant

Australia's public education funding went backwards during COVID pandemic

Australian governments cut education spending during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, as most of the OECD did the opposite, according to a new report.

The latest OECD Education at a Glance report shows Australian public education expenditure was cut by nearly 2 per cent from 2019 to 2020, by comparison the OECD average rose by around 1.5 per cent.

Of the OECD's 38 powerful member countries, just one  — Hungary — slashed spending more than Australia at that time. 

The organisation's annual report card compares education funding and policies across OECD nations, providing a mixed picture of Australia's education sector.

As in previous years, the report shows by proportion, Australia has one of the largest private school sectors in the world.

The report also shows while degree-qualified early childhood, primary and secondary teachers in Australia are paid more than the OECD average, they have more classroom time. 

Students 'needed support'

As the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, many Australian schools began online lessons as most students were asked to stay home.

Describing the impacts on children across the OECD, the report said measures to support students remained critical.

"Public funds will be needed to protect students and minimise the learning losses associated with COVID-19," it said.

However, according to OECD data, Australia was one of a minority of countries whose public spending decreased at that time.

That was despite steady growth in per-student investment over the decade prior.

Australian Education Union Deputy President Meredith Peace said the investment dip showed governments had left teachers in the lurch.

"At a time when schools and students were doing it extraordinarily tough as we got into the worst of the pandemic, they needed support."

Ms Peace said she was also concerned by the comparatively high proportion of private funding Australia relied on to educate its students.

"We have a funding model in place firstly that directs significant amounts of federal funding towards private schools, where we see that the overwhelming majority of students in our public schools are not funded to the resource standard that the federal government themselves set."

In 2019, Australia's primary and secondary institutions were funded by private sources at nearly double the OECD average, according to the report.

Most of those private sources were families paying fees.

Waiting for Gonski author and Centre for Public Development Fellow Chris Bonnor, said Australia's set-up was creating a two-speed education system.

"There's no gain at the top and no real gain at the bottom," he said.

"If we continue to separate students in this way on the basis of their family advantage and wealth, then we're looking at a continuing decline in overall student achievement in Australia, and this decline has been going on for two decades.

"We know from the Gonski review that the peer effects on individual student outcomes are … even more substantial … the peers in schools, their impact is even greater than a student's own family."

Teachers paid well, but work tougher conditions

The education union's Meredith Peace said she was also concerned about how Australian teachers fared compared to other countries.

On the one hand, the report brings good news — across the board Australian teachers are paid above the OECD average — even as early childhood educators. 
"Pre-primary teachers in Australia earn 5 per cent more than tertiary-educated workers on average," the report said.

However, Ms Peace said she was concerned about the amount of time Australian teachers were expected to spend in the classroom.

"The report highlights that we have more teaching hours in the classroom than many of our other international countries."

Ms Peace said across the education sector, issues beyond pay were contributing to critical ongoing vacancies.

"Our workforce shortages go directly to issues of workload," she said.

"That is the number one issue that teachers are talking about that drives people out of the profession."

It is a problem Australian governments have said they are committed to fixing.

Education Minister Jason Clare's convened a working group with his state and territory counterparts to find solutions, to report by December 2022.

He was contacted for comment. 

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