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Primary school efficacy: the best lever we have to improve the nation's productivity

Primary Focus' submission to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Australia's Productivity Performance
Labour force productivity Primary education Productivity

Concurrent with the decline of productivity growth in Australia is the decline in educational outcomes relative to international standards and our own past performance in primary and secondary school. While correlation is not causation, we argue in this submission that a key driver of national productivity is cognitive capacity of the entire population, that K-12 education is the primary vehicle for a nation to lift its cognitive capacity and that primary school efficacy is necessary for successful high school outcomes at the population level. A strong foundation in reading, writing, spelling, grammar, mathematics and general knowledge are the fundamentals of a productive workforce. We know the capability of the workforce is declining in these domains year on year. This is a profound drag on the nation’s productivity performance as it affects every workforce and every industry in this country.  

This submission contains three parts:

  1. The economics of education
  2. Primary school as a predictor of productivity performance
  3. How to improve the productivity of primary schools

There is a clear evidence base for what needs to be done to improve primary school performance.

  1. Focus on teacher practice in primary schools
  • Australia’s history of high level and subject agnostic policy initiatives aren’t making a difference because they are too far removed from the classroom to impact student learning.
  • What teachers do in the classroom is the most important in-school factor for educational success.
  • Students with high performing teachers can learn four times as much in a year as children with low performing teachers.
  • If schools are not supporting every teacher to deliver practices that have the greatest impact, in every classroom, performance will not improve.
  1. Focus on evidence-based teacher practice
  • In our universities teachers are not taught the instructional approaches that research shows have the greatest impact.
  • Evidence shows that students with the best outcomes receive teacher-directed instruction in most or all cases.
  • However, teacher-led instruction is often omitted in favour of student-led approaches such as inquiry learning and project-based learning, where students drive their own learning.

In advocating for primary school efficacy as a critical productivity lever for Australian governments, the payoff is long term. The nation’s children receiving better learning foundations in 2025 will mean a more productive workforce from 2045 onwards. These are long term investments. However, if these investments are not made, there are no other activities or investments that can make up for them.

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