Public Education and the Disadvantaged Let Down by Labor

The My School website reveals shockingly large achievement and income gaps between the richest and poorest metropolitan schools in Australia. However, there is little difference between the results of well-off government and private schools, even though total private school income is about double that of government schools.

This suggests that nearly $400 million in annual government funding for wealthy private schools is being wasted and would be better spent on the most disadvantaged schools to improve student outcomes.

There are huge achievement gaps in literacy and numeracy between the lowest socio-economic status (SES) government schools and the highest SES government and private schools. For example, the gaps in Year 5 in each major metropolitan city range from 75 to 90 points on the national test scales. This is equivalent to three to four years in learning.

The achievement gaps are even larger in Year 9 – ranging from 93 to 115 points, or four to five years of learning.

There are colossal differences between some schools. For example, there are gaps of over 200 points between the Year 9 results of several low SES government schools in the western suburbs of Sydney and several high SES schools in the north shore and eastern suburbs. In Melbourne, there are gaps of around 140-180 points between some low and high SES schools.

The average literacy and numeracy results of Year 9 students in lowest SES government schools in Sydney and Perth are below those of Year 5 students in high SES schools. In Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, the Year 9 results of the low SES government schools only just match the Year 5 results of the high SES schools.

It should be noted that there are very few or no low SES private schools that are comparable to the lowest SES government schools in each city. Private schools in the most disadvantaged areas of metropolitan cities tend to draw higher SES families resident in these areas.

Low SES government schools are vastly under-funded for the task they face. For example, they have less than half the total income per student of high SES private schools in Sydney and Melbourne. They only get 4% more per student than high SES government schools in Brisbane, 8% more in Melbourne and 15% more in Sydney.

This is scandalous given the huge differences in student achievement.

On the other hand, there is little difference between the literacy and numeracy results of the highest SES government and private schools in each city, even though the private schools have much higher income. The total income per student of high SES private schools in Sydney and Melbourne is nearly one and a half times more than that of the high SES government schools. In other cities, the income of high SES private schools is 67-75% greater per student than that of high SES government schools.

High SES government schools are clearly more efficient at producing high quality outcomes. Nearly $400 million a year in government funding is being wasted on the wealthiest 80 or so private schools in Australia. This funding would be better directed to where it is most needed – disadvantaged government schools.

Disadvantaged government schools get only a fraction of what they need to make a real difference for their students. Overseas studies show that the additional funding required for low income students to achieve adequate standards is double or more the cost of educating an average student.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments have failed public education and the disadvantaged. Their neutral treatment of the public and private sectors ignores the fact that government schools provide for the large majority of low SES students.

They have supported the private choices of the wealthiest families in Australia at the expense of the learning needs of disadvantaged students. While low SES private schools should receive government funding, there is no case for governments to fund wealthy private schools. All it does is reduce the funding pool for disadvantaged schools.

A new approach to education funding is needed to give low SES government schools the resources they need to make a difference for their students. This is the key challenge for the Gonski review of school funding due to report at the end of the year.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was first published in the August issue of Australian Teacher Magazine

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