A penalizing system of accountability in Australia exacerbates equity gaps in education

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This blog is written by Dr. Emma Rowe, Lecturer in Education in the School of Education, Deakin University, and the author of a case study on accountability and education in Australia commissioned for the 2017/8 GEM Report. The blog is part of a series showing that accountability in education is shaped by a country’s history and political, social, and cultural context.

Background: Australia’s education system

Australia’s education system is fundamentally centralized. Central bodies (federal or state) fund schools and make key decisions on curriculum. However, decentralization of schools has remained the over-arching goal of successive governments.  The 2004 Act stipulates that schools maintain the authority to recruit their own staff, develop their own school charters, elect independent school councils and operate and determine their own budget. In 2014, the federal government legislated Independent Public Schools with the aim to make one-fourth of public schools in Australia autonomous and decentralized.


Politicians and policy-makers tend to regard the improvement of standardized test results as the primary challenge. The 2013 Act aims ‘for Australia to be placed, by 2025, in the top 5 highest performing countries’ in terms of OECD PISA results. However, the Federal Review of Funding also found a ‘significant gap between the highest and lowest performing students in Australia, relative to other OECD countries’, estimated at 3 to 3.5 years. Schools significantly influence student educational outcomes due to clustering of low socio-economic status students. Rural and remote schools are more likely to serve lower socio-economic status cohorts of students, and struggle for resources, including experienced teachers. And almost half of Australia’s population consists of first- or second-generation migrants.

A primary stated aim for Australia is to achieve high-quality and high-equity education and to be competitive within the global landscape. Our current policies around accountability are designed in such a way to meet this objective. But these policies rely heavily on standardized testing and utilize punitive means of accountability. A penalizing system of accountability exacerbates equity gaps.

Penalty for failure: penalizing students, teachers and schools

q1In comparison to the United States and England, Australia was a relative late-comer to the introduction of accountability policies in education, such as standardized national testing, and linking national testing to public reporting and comparisons of school-based test results.

These reforms were first initiated in 2008-2013 and have been extended since by federal governments. A 2008 Act established the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which is responsible for the governance of major accountability policy drivers, including:

Through these initiatives and new governance bodies, it is relatively straightforward to identify the confluence of performance-based data, as tied to individual schools, teachers and students. The standardization of the curriculum enables large-scale standardized testing at common age points.

q2During this period, Australia also shifted towards a greater reliance on punitive methods of accountability. Schools and teachers were held accountable for standardized test achievement and a school’s performance was tied to rewards and penalties.

Under a number of national agreements (2009-2013), each state or territory education department was required to set performance targets according to NAPLAN results and the national minimum standard benchmark. They would then be audited to determine whether they had successfully achieved their performance target. q3If it had under-performed relative to the performance target, the respective department of education would not receive its full allocation of funding (and schools would also not receive their full funding).

Public schools, which enrol 65% of students, were particularly damaged by the policy. They predominantly do not charge fees (although there are exceptions) and receive most funding from the state government. Public schools also predominantly educate the higher proportion of lower socio-economic status students. By contrast, private schools receive most funding from the federal government and educate mostly higher socio-economic status students. Public schools tend to be more vulnerable within a competitive market (except for those that have selective admissions). If funding, staffing and resources maintain disparities, Australia will struggle to achieve both quality and equity and will struggle to remain globally competitive.

Evidence suggests that accountability measures (particularly when utilized to sanction UNesco6 FFFand penalize schools and staff) do not lead to increased student outcomes. Rather, a penalizing approach can increase the achievement gaps between high and low performers, as evident in Australia.

Government-initiated reports have recommended that ACARA strengthen its powers, particularly within the remit of teacher quality and initial teacher education, and ACARA was endorsed for another six-year period in 2015. Potentially positive directions include the recent overhauling of needs-based funding, although private school funding continues to be securely and safely anchored by the federal government.


  • Shift away from a penalizing approach to accountability, which imposes sanctions and penalties onto schools and teachers deemed as lower performers, according to standardized testing.
  • Move towards a ‘capacity-building’ approach to accountability in education, supporting schools, teachers and principals. Rather than penalize staff for low performance:
    • increase targeted professional development;
    • encourage collegial peer-review and support; and
    • foster resource-rich learning environments.
  • Build the capacities and resources of students from disadvantaged groups – and of the teachers and schools that serve high proportions of disadvantaged groups.
  • Minimize resource and quality differentials between schools.

2017/8 GEM Report recommendations

Global Australia
Governments must make the right to education justiciable in national law, which is not the case in 45% of countries. The right to education is not justiciable in national law.
Governments should be transparent about the strengths of weaknesses of education systems, opening policy processes to broad and meaningful consultation and publishing a regular education monitoring report. Australia has produced four national education monitoring reports since 2010, the last of which was in 2013.
Governments should develop credible and efficient regulations with associated sanctions for all education providers, public and private, that ensure non-discrimination and the quality of education. There are no regulations in public or private education on how many pupils there should be per teacher in the classroom.
Governments should design accountability for schools and teachers that is supportive and formative, and avoids punitive mechanisms. Australia uses a test-based approach to accountability of schools, teachers and students, which tends to rely on standardized tests to measure under-performance. These are then linked to penalties and sanctions for schools and teachers. Government funding is linked to results and around 10% of teachers’ pay is also now linked to performance.
Governments should fulfil their commitment of spending at least 4% of GDP on education or allocating 15% of total government expenditure. Australia has reached one of the two financing targets for education financing, spending 5% of GDP but only 13% of total expenditure.

See the full set of blogs in this series



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