I have now read over 150 articles on the Commonwealth’s new funding model – most of them little more than repeats of press releases or snide remarks about its destined failure.
There are a few that stand–out, but unfortunately only a tiny minority have bothered to go beyond the media briefings, to analyse the figures and investigate the issues to any extent. This is particularly shocking given how important this proposed new policy is for all Australians.
So what to make of what is on the table? Here is my take on the good, the bad and my on balance assessment. But firstly I would like to be clear that I approach this issue from a social justice value base. And, unlike many, I acknowledge that this does not make me an impartial observer – just a well informed, committed and passionate one.
I will deal with the bad first
The funding falls far short of the Gonski Recommendations
The oft-quoted Gonski figure of $5 billion per year in 2009 terms has gone forever. Others have assessed that over 6 years this would have increased to about $39 billion in real terms. What is on the table is less $14.5 Billion over six years, or less than 50 per cent of what was assessed as necessary to achieve a quality needs based education funding regime.
The $14.5 billion includes $2.34 billion ($390 million per annum) that is already out in schools through the National Partnership Programs. Yes this program was lapsing in 2014, but as far as schools are concerned, it is out there funding extra teaching resources. It just means they won’t experience the taking-away of these much-needed resources.
The targeting approach recommended by Gonski has been diluted in significant ways to the detriment of our most needy schools
Gonski’s key message was that if Australia is ever to lift its educational outcomes it has to do it through targeting those most disadvantaged.
The current funding offer provides the vast bulk (83 per cent) of the funds in the form of base funds based on the Student Resource Standard. The remaining 15 per cent of the funds are for needs based loadings.
The loadings or targeting measures are a key element of the Gonski reforms because as Colebatch notes “our funding system gives too little to the students who need it most, and the growth in funding should be used to redirect money to the most disadvantaged 25 per cent”
However while there are still targeted measures or loadings in the Government plan they are not well targeted and this difference is crucial.
Where Gonski proposed targeting the bottom 25 per cent of Socio-economic status the Government’s offer targets the bottom 50 per cent. This makes a very big difference for schools at the low end of the ICSEA scale, because the money is spread as thin as vegemite over the vast majority of schools. I had a brief search on MySchool and, although that is hard to do, it confirmed my sense that almost all schools can find a student or 2 in the bottom 50 per cent.
Where Gonski advocated for needs based loading for Indigenous students it would only apply the loading when the proportion of Indigenous students reached 5 per cent. This would have included over 95 per cent of NT schools but only a minority of other schools. There is no doubt that the decision to apply this loading for every Indigenous student has cost the NT dearly.
It is clear that the non-Government sector influenced this part of the deal making, as this dilution represents a clear win for them at the expense of the needs of the most disadvantaged schools. The greatest need by far is in the public system and few schools serving the poorest communities in Australia are non-government. Richard Teese notes that
About 80 per cent of all disadvantaged children attend government schools. Yet despite this, state and federal governments are set to give all non-government schools real increases in funds over the next three, and possibly six years. This includes the 1000 schools currently overfunded – schools that are “funding maintained”.
This more than anything cements our divided and highly unequal system into the future – a savage irony as also noted by Teese
We risk emerging from the most thorough review of national school funding with an architecture of advantage and disadvantage that is even stronger than when we began.
This is also a fantastic political win for the Independent education sector because it opens the door to a voucher type approach where wily non-Government schools can cherry pick the highest performing students who meet any of the loadings criteria but who do not require the extra ‘heavy lifting’ required by state schools who must take all comers.
By putting a price on the child’s head we are assuming that all children all Indigenous children are alike and all children in the bottom 50% are alike. The NAPLAN results for NT Indigenous compared to the NAPLAN results for non-NT Indigenous are very very different – suggesting this is not the case. The schools and associated families of the children with the highest needs have indeed been sold out. And of course the NT has been sold out too.
On the other hand, Bill Daniel’s (Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia) implicit endorsement of the proposal suggests that they are indeed highly satisfied.
It brings with it all the inherent risks associated with federal overreach
Bernard Keane makes the point that the real benefit of these funding reforms may not lie in the additional funding. The funding he claims is just a means to an end – “… the real benefits may well lie not in the extra dollars but in the changes to performance information and allocation of decision-making within large systems.” He goes on the say that “ In effect, for that extra $9.4 billion, Gillard wants the state to sign up to more rigorous entry and assessment standards for teachers, more power for school principals and greater performance information for parents”.
Keane might view these as benefits but I take a different view. All states already have in place comprehensive and well-researched school improvement processes and were already sharing ideas based on what they had learnt from their programs.
And there is no strong evidence that giving more staffing hire and fire power and budget autonomy to principals enhances education equity but there is strong evidence that competition between schools over their ‘market share’ of ‘desirable student enrolments’ increases inter school differences and further disadvantages schools that have the hardest job.
It does not address the schools that are currently overfunded under the current SES model
This is disappointing especially as I can recall there were articles that made it clear that even the coalition MPs acknowledged that the grandfathering of the overpayments needed to have a use by date.
It does not play fair between the states
This has been the focus of the WA Premier and he does have a point. The logic outlined by Garrett is that they have drawn a Student Resource Standard line and applied a simple state blind gap filling model to the funding allocations. That is, their allocations are based on what it costs to bring all schools up to this standard.
WA currently funds schools at a higher pre student rate than either Victoria and NSW so their funding gap is less. This sounds fine from a distance, but it is worth remembering that Victoria, NSW and Qld have all taken funding away from schools and now appear to get a windfall gain from this cynical action.
It is also worth comparing this funding carve-up to other similar state negotiations over education funding. For example, when the Early Childhood Education National Partnership funding shares between states were being negotiated Qld and NT has a much lower proportion of 4 year olds in preschools and argued that they aught to receive a larger share. This ‘state blind gap resourcing’ approach was not followed on that occasion although there were some minor adjustments in recognition of this gap.
I think the key thing to take from this is that all states do not have equal bargaining power just like the unequal lobbying power between the education sectors.
It does not address the fact that Australia has one of the most class segregated and unequal schooling models in the world
I nearly didn’t include this negative because, even if ‘Gonski original’ had been proposed, this problem would have remained. This was because the terms of reference for Gonski placed this out of bounds
It has been our obstinate commitment to the god of parent choice that has led to this outcome
So after all this – what are the positives?
The proposal offers new money to the public education system
The Government school share of the funding is $12.1 Billion. Some $2 billion is already out in schools (under National Partnership Programs) but around $10 Billion is clearly additional to current expenditure.
This is important and we shouldn’t waste this opportunity because it is not on ideal terms. It was never ever going to be. Moreover, opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne says an Abbott government would keep the old system, implying that it will offer nothing new for public schools.
If we don’t embrace this offer during this Government’s term we may end up with something far far worse. Tony Abbott has already gone on record saying that equity should mean all schools get the same level of Government funding. This would be an absolute outrage.
It tosses out, once and for all, the AGSRC – and this is critical
The AGSRC or Average Government Student Resource Cost was the basis of the old funding model. It was just that – it was a costing figure derived from calculating the average cost of educating a child at a Government school. This has been a sore point for decades because the average cost for Government school students is based on a student population that is very different from the non-Government school population and is getting more and more different over time. The effect of using AGSRC to determine funding formula meant that non-Government schools were financially rewarded when public school residualisation caused the costs of educating the increasingly poorer and needy students at Government schools to rise.
This new offer ushers in a Student Resource Standard based on calculations that are much more defensible.
The need for a better deal for public schools is urgent – It cannot wait
As David Zyngier notes currently only 71 per cent of Australian government spending goes to public schools. Only Belgium and Chile spent a lower proportion of government funding in the public sector.
The debate we have around school funding and school choice in Australia is absolutely unique. We take as normal and natural that Governments fork out a large amount of dollars to pay for the education of parents who chose not to use the Government provided systems. In the vast bulk of countries this choice would not be subsidized.
We are paying the price for this choice in our international test results. I must say I don’t particularly care about that, but I do care that we are paying the price in terms of large numbers of children who fail to reach their potential because our schooling arrangements have disadvantaged them. We need to acknowledge this and put this right. This is a start.