For everyone Schools funding: why money does matter

Since the 2012 Gonski Report revealed the deep inequity in Australia’s schools funding system, the gap in educational outcomes has only gone backwards under the Liberals, writes research officer KIRSTEN SADLER.

In late February 2012, the final report of the Review of Funding for Schooling (the Gonski Report) was released to the public, with much hope it would catalyse a fairer funding system that supports the educational opportunities of every child. 

The funding model outlined in the report’s recommendations included a needs-based approach, which emphasised the goal of reducing inequality in educational outcomes and an increased role for Commonwealth funding of public schools.

The report famously defined “equity in schooling as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.”

To coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Gonski Report’s release, the Centre for Public Education Research held the Why Money Does Matter school funding conference in February, hosted by the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF).

A range of prominent educational experts and academics spoke on why the Gonski ambitions have not yet been achieved and what is required to ensure that Australia’s public school students receive excellent and equitable educational outcomes.

“All government funding for Catholic and Independent schools increased by about $1,900 per student. In contrast, funding for public schools increased by a mere $469.”

Dr Ken Boston AO, a member of the Funding Review Panel, lamented that the school funding system that has emerged since the Gonski Report landed is neither needs-based nor sector-blind, and that Australia has not developed a high-equity and high-quality system of school education. Dr Boston identified a steadily widening funding gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools – a theme touched on by several speakers.

Trevor Cobbold from Save Our Schools exposed how school funding over the decade to 2019 has “massively and increasingly” favoured non-government schools. Cobbold noted that over this period, in real terms:

…all government funding for Catholic and Independent schools increased by about $1,900 per student. In contrast, funding for public schools increased by a mere $469 per student, that is, by less than $50 per student per year. The total income per student of Independent schools increased by over seven times that for public schools while the income of Catholic schools increased by six times.

This funding disparity is borne out in PISA 2018 data, cited by Cobbold, which showed that Australian secondary students in public schools were considerably more likely to be hindered by teacher shortages, a lack of educational materials, and poor infrastructure than students in non-government schools.

Current combined government SRS allocations equate to one in eight public school students having no funding at all

This perverse situation was facilitated in some part by restrictions placed on the Review Panel’s terms of reference, several ‘special deals’ between governments and independent schools, and the Coalition government’s amendment of the Australian Education Act in 2017.

According to education policy expert Lyndsay Connors, this legislation “traduced” the initial conceptualisation of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) by capping Commonwealth contributions to government schools and providing accounting ‘gifts’ to states that allow them to direct a portion of their SRS funding obligations away from public schools.

As NSWTF president Angelo Gavrielatos pointed out, current combined government SRS allocations equate to one in eight public school students having no funding at all, whilst private schools are funded for 25,000 students beyond their current enrolments.

So, what can be done to reverse the growing inequity in schools funding? Ensuring that government schools are funded at a minimum 100% of the SRS as soon as possible was advocated by Trevor Cobbold and Adam Rorris.

Dr Rachel Wilson noted that the equity goals promoted by the Gonski Report and the various National Declarations on Educational Goals needed to be prominent and accountable in the National Report on Schooling.

Several speakers called for greater transparency in funding and a greater contribution from the Commonwealth for public school infrastructure. This becomes more urgent, as Adam Rorris noted, in an education system that will see the highest enrolment growth in public schools; in areas of high disadvantage hardest hit by COVID-19; and with students with a disability over the next 10 years.

However, as Angelo Gavrielatos observed, none of these reforms are likely to occur if a Liberal government is returned at the next federal election.

Presentations from the Why Money Does Matter conference are available.

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