Education Disadvantage is Being Ignored in the ACT Election Campaign

This article was published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2016

Education disadvantage is the forgotten issue in the ACT election campaign despite its importance to the Territory’s social well-being and economic prosperity. Continue reading “Education Disadvantage is Being Ignored in the ACT Election Campaign”

Reversing the Flight to Private Schools Depends on Reforming Australia’s Incoherent and Unfair Funding System

New school enrolment data show that the long-term shift of students to private schools has stopped in recent years. But, whether it will be sustained is uncertain given school funding trends that massively favour private schools.

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this month show no change in the share of enrolments between public and private schools over the past three years. Public schools enrolled 65.1 per cent of all students in 2015, the same as in 2013 and 2014. Prior to this, private schools had regularly increased their share since the 1970s.

The figures show different trends in primary and secondary school enrolments. Public primary schools increased their share of enrolments from 68.9 per cent in 2011 to 69.5 per cent in 2015, with small increases each year.

However, the shift to private secondary schools has continued at much the same rate as in previous years, although it did slow markedly in 2015. The public school share fell from 60.3 per cent in 2011 to 59.2 per cent in 2015. The year-on-year growth in private secondary school enrolments has averaged about 0.3-0.4 per cent since 2010, but in 2015 it was 0.2 per cent, the smallest increase since 2009 and 2010.

The shift in primary school enrolments to public schools came largely at the expense of Catholic schools. The share of Catholic school enrolments declined from 19.4 per cent in 2011 to 18.9 per cent in 2015. The Independent school share fell only in 2015, down from 11.8 per cent in 2014 to 11.6 per cent.

The Catholic share of secondary school enrolments fell slightly in 2015 for the first time in decades, from 22.6 to 22.5 per cent. The Independent school enrolment share increased from 17.7 per cent in 2011 to 18.3 per cent in 2015.

While it is important not to read too much into small changes, the figures do suggest a significant change in trend in primary school enrolments. Families now seem to be more inclined to enrol their children in public schools than for many years.

There appear to be a couple of factors behind the change.

One is that there has been a significant slowdown in average weekly earnings growth in the past few years and some families may be finding it harder to pay fees at private schools. Wages growth has been at historically low levels over the past three years – increasing at about 2 per cent a year compared to 3.5-4 per cent in the decade before.

The slowdown in wages growth has probably more affected the ability of Catholic school families to pay fees than those in Independent schools who tend to attract better off families. When families are feeling the pinch, their first option is likely to be reduce expenditure on primary schooling rather than secondary.

The second is that over the past few years there has been increasing awareness in the community that there is little academic advantage in attending private schools. Public schools achieve similar results to private schools for a given socio-economic background of parents. Research findings consistently show that students from a given socio-economic background achieve similar results in public and private schools. Increasing awareness of these findings may be affecting decisions about whether to enrol in private schools.

There can be no certainty that the change in trend will be sustained as the long-term shift to private schools has been fuelled by increasingly skewed government funding. Between 1998-99 and 2013-14, government funding (Commonwealth and state/territory) per private school student, adjusted for inflation increased, by 39 per cent compared with only 17 per cent for public schools.

The situation has been even more dire in recent years. Real government funding for public schools has decreased while funding for private schools continued to increase. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, public school funding per student fell by 3 per cent but private school funding increased by 10 per cent.

Many private schools serving the most privileged sections of Australian society continue to receive large funding increases while many schools serving the most disadvantaged communities have received only small increases and, in some cases, reduced funding.

For example, government funding of Korowa Anglican Girls School in Melbourne, with 83 per cent of students from the highest socio-economic status (SES) quartile and 1 per cent from the lowest quartile, increased by 38 per cent between 2009 and 2013. In contrast, funding for Northern Bay P-12 College in Geelong, with 73 per cent of students from the lowest SES and 1 per cent from the highest quartile, had its funding cut by 18 per cent.

In Sydney, government funding for Ravenswood Girls School, with 85 per cent of students from the highest SES quartile and none from the lowest quartile, increased by 28 per cent while funding for Punchbowl Boys HS, with 63 per cent of students in the lowest SES quartile and only 2 per cent in the highest quartile, had its funding cut by 3 per cent.

Given this, it is a big call to expect that public schools can hold or increase their share of enrolments. Australia has a distorted, incoherent and unfair school funding system in which privilege trumps disadvantage.

The Gonksi plan promised change. However, it was sabotaged by the refusal of the Abbott and Turnbull governments to fund the last two years of the plan when some $7 billion was due to flow to schools, including $5.8 billion to public schools.

At least Labor has given voters a clear choice on education by promising to restore a large part, though not all, of its original commitment made when it was in government. It offers hope that disadvantaged schools and students will finally get some justice and that public schools will be able to reverse the enrolment shift to private schools over the longer term.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was originally published on John Menadue’s blog Pearls and Irritations

Previous Next

Media Release: New Figures Show that Government Funding Has Massively Favoured Private Schools

Monday February 15, 2016

Updated school funding figures published today by Save Our Schools show that government funding per student in private schools has far outstripped that for public schools over the past 15 years. SOS National Convenor, Trevor Cobbold, said that increases in government funding for many elite private schools has far exceeded that for many disadvantaged public schools.

“The new figures show that Australia has an incoherent and unfair school funding system. Past government funding increases have been woefully misdirected to favour more advantaged students over disadvantaged students.

“There can be little wonder that Australia has failed to improve the results of disadvantaged students or to reduce the large achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students over the past 15 years. Public schools bear the very large burden of disadvantage but received less than half the funding increase provided to private schools.

“Between 1998-99 and 2013-14, government funding (Commonwealth and state/territory) per private school student, adjusted for inflation, increased, by 39% compared with only 17% for public schools. More recently, real funding for public schools actually decreased while funding for private schools continued to increase. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, public school funding per student fell by 3% while private school funding increased by 10%.

“Other figures drawn from the My School website show even more perverse funding patterns, with government funding per student for many high fee, exclusive private schools in Victoria and NSW increasing by several times more than for many highly disadvantaged schools.

“In Victoria between 2009 and 2013, the average funding increase per student for 16 selected elite private schools was 25% compared with 3% for 17 disadvantaged public schools [Chart 1]. Six disadvantaged schools had their funding cut.

“For example, government funding for Korowa Anglican Girls School, with 83% of students from the highest socio-educational advantage (SEA) quartile and 1% from the lowest quartile, increased by 38%. In contrast, funding for Northern Bay P-12 College in Geelong, with 73% of students from the lowest SEA quartile and 1% from the highest quartile, had its funding cut by 18%.

“In NSW, the average funding increase per student for 14 selected elite private schools was 23% compared with 11% for 15 disadvantaged schools [Chart 2]. One disadvantaged school had its funding cut.

“For example, government funding for Ravenswood Girls School, with 85% of students from the highest SEA quartile and none from the lowest quartile, increased by 28% while funding for Punchbowl Boys HS, with 63% of students in the lowest SEA quartile and only 2% in the highest quartile, had its funding cut by 3%.

Mr. Cobbold said that the incoherent and unfair funding system is set to continue because the Turnbull Government has refused to fund the last two years of the Gonski plan which would have seen an extra $5.8 billion delivered to public schools.

“Continuation of this unfair funding system will incur major social and economic costs because of the failure address disadvantage in education. It severely limits the life prospects of hundreds of thousands of students, it harms the economy, and it weakens the social fabric of Australian society.

“A bi-partisan commitment to a national school funding plan directed at reducing disadvantage in education is desperately needed. A high performing education system with minimum levels of disadvantage means a high performing economy.”

Previous Next

Victorian Education Minister Fails in His Response to Criticism of Funding Guarantee for Private Schools

Wednesday March 4, 2015

With its legislative guarantee that private schools will receive 25 per cent of expenditure on public schools, the Victorian Government has joined with the Abbott Government in sabotaging the Gonski school funding agreement.

A key feature of the funding model agreed between the previous Federal Labor Government and the Victorian Coalition Government was to move away from arbitrary, politically determined, funding percentages for private and Catholic schools, and to fund both public and private schools according to need. The objective was to develop an educational level playing field for all Australian children. In stark contrast, the Victorian Government has just written into law a percentage funding formula for private schools, which is a direct attack on the Gonski principles.

In response to criticism by the Gonski panel member, Ken Boston, the Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, has claimed this is not important because state government funding of private schools is based on need. This is highly misleading, even disingenuous. The Minister’s claim ignores the fundamental fact that private school funding by the state government is based on public school costs instead of need in the private system. Some of the money may be eventually distributed according to need, but the total bucket of private school funding is determined by expenditure in public schools.

Under the legislation passed in the Victorian Parliament, the total amount of state government recurrent funding for private schools is determined as at least 25 per cent of total expenditure on public schools. That is, the total bucket of money given to private schools is determined by need in public schools, not by need in the private sector.

The number of disadvantaged students in the private school sector has no influence on the level of funding it gets from the state government. Indeed, the proportion of disadvantaged students in the private sector could decline but it would still get the same 25 per cent of the cost of public schools. Similarly, even if the proportion of disadvantaged students in private schools increased it would not attract any additional government funding because it is determined by expenditure on public schools. The Gonski funding model dispensed with this absurdity.

In Victoria, as elsewhere in Australia, disadvantaged students account for a much greater proportion of public school enrolments than they do in private schools. In 2013, 29 per cent of public school students in Victoria were from low socio-economic status (SES) families compared to only 15 per cent in Catholic schools and only eight per cent in Independent schools. That is, the proportion of low SES students in public schools was double that in Catholic schools and nearly four times that in Independent schools.

Similarly, the proportion of Indigenous students in public schools was three times that in Catholic schools and five times that in Independent schools. Overall, the proportion of disability students in public schools was double that in private schools.

On average, the school results of disadvantaged students are much lower than for other students and additional funding is provided to improve their results and to meet the higher costs of educating students with disabilities. This increases average expenditure across public schools.

This is where the unfairness of this funding system comes in. Despite having much lower proportions of disadvantaged students, Catholic and Independent schools get state government funding that is based on the costs of the public system which are higher because of its higher proportions of disadvantaged students. So, if the state government increased funding to government schools to address issues of disadvantage, at least 25 per cent of it would flow on to private schools, whatever their enrolment of disadvantaged students. This link sets up a perverse incentive for the private sector to reduce their already low commitment to disadvantaged students, and simply pocket the funding.

Once the total bucket of money is determined for private schools, some of it is then distributed according to need. Under what is called the Financial Assistance Model (FAM), there is a per capita component and a needs-based component to state government funding of private schools.

Each school gets a per capita component which is not based on need. It is the minimum level of state government funding for all schools. Schools such as Geelong Grammar, Scotch College, Brighton Grammar, Lauriston, etc. down to the poorest private school all get a per capita funding amount. This amount is very slightly modified according to a formula to determine each school’s capacity to support its student population. Lower SES schools get a slightly higher per capita grant than higher SES schools. The per capita component makes up about 40 per cent of state funding of private schools.

The needs-based component is determined by student and school characteristics. Schools attract additional funding based on the number of low SES, Indigenous and disability students. This needs-based component accounts for about 60 per cent of state recurrent funding of private schools.

However, funding for private schools that are part of systems such as the Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventist, Lutheran and Ecumenical school systems is given to the system authority, such as the Catholic Education Commission, to distribute to individual schools as it sees fit. There is no requirement for the authority to distribute the money according to the formula of the Financial Assistance Model. Moreover, the system authority is not required to demonstrate how the money is distributed. The Catholic Education Commission, for example, has consistently refused to divulge how its funding is distributed.

These system authorities account for the large majority of private schools in Victoria and the large part of state government funding for private schools. Yet, there is no public information available on how the money is distributed.

The lack of information on how taxpayer funding for private schools systems is distributed has been strongly criticised by national reports on school funding. A 2009 National Audit Office report (pp. 22, 85) and the Gonski report (p. 47) on school funding both criticised the lack of transparency on how school systems distribute taxpayer funds to their member schools.

The Minister representing the Minister for Education in the Legislative Council, Steven Herbert, told the Council last week that the Catholic Education Commission distributes the funding to its schools based on need. He said:

The Catholic Education Office has a fully grown system. We respect the system and we respect the way it operates, and it distributes the funding according to its formula of need and according to its needs.

But, the Minister did not say what that formula is. The fact is that the Government does not know. It is operating on faith that private school systems distribute their funding according to need. This is not enough for accountability to the taxpayer.

The contrast with its approach to public school funding is instructive. The Education Minister has promised to reveal how much federal and state funding each public school has received under the Gonski funding plan. He should do the same for private schools. School systems should be required to disclose how they allocate taxpayer funds to member schools.

Instead of obfuscating, the challenge is now for the Victorian Education Minister and the Victorian Labor Government to bring their education funding policies into line with those of Federal Labor and Gonski on what may be a key issue in the next Federal election. If they don’t, they will have simply joined Abbott and Pyne in their sabotage.

Trevor Cobbold

Previous Next

New Figures Show that Government Funding Increases Favour Private Schools

Wednesday January 28, 2015

New school funding figures provided to Senate Estimates show that government funding increases for Catholic and Independent schools have outstripped funding increases for public schools since 2009. The percentage increase in funding for Catholic and Independent schools was almost double that for public schools despite the fact that public schools enrol the overwhelming majority of students in need of increased support.

Total government (Australian & state/territory) funding for Catholic schools across Australia increased by 19.5 per cent between 2009 and 2012 and by 18.3 per cent for Independent schools (see Chart 1). This compares to an increase of only 10.6 per cent for public schools.

The new figures were compiled from the My School website by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). It is the first time that aggregated school income figures derived from My School have been officially published by ACARA.

Chart 1 – Increases in School Funding 2009-2012.pdf

The disparity in funding increases is primarily due to larger funding increases for Catholic and Independent schools by state and territory governments. State/territory government funding for Catholic schools increased by 18.8 per cent and for Independent schools by 15.7 per cent compared to only an 8.8 per cent increase for public schools. State governments are the primary source of funding for public schools, but are clearly failing to deliver the funding public schools need.

In contrast to the failure of state and territory governments, Australian Government funding increased by similar amounts for public, Catholic and Independent schools. Funding for public schools increased by 21 per cent compared to 19.7 per cent for Catholic schools and 19.3 per cent for Independent schools. National partnership funding under the previous Labor Government at least ensured that the increase for public schools was on a par with the increase for private schools.

Increases in fees and charges have also helped Catholic and Independent schools to increase their total income by nearly double that of public schools. The total income of Catholic schools increased by 18.5 per cent and by 17.5 per cent for Independent schools compared to 10.5 per cent in public schools.

As a result of these increases, the total income of Independent schools is about 45 per cent higher than that of public schools – $17,941 per student compared to $12,403 per public school student (Chart 2). Public and Catholic schools have a similar total income per student. Government funding accounts for 73 per cent of the total income of Catholic schools and 42 per cent of Independent school income.

Chart 2 – Income of Public and Private Schools, 2012.pdf

The funding difference between public and Independent schools is less for net income per student while Catholic schools have slightly lower net income than public schools. Net income excludes income allocated to current and future capital projects and income allocated to debt servicing. The reason these items are excluded is that private schools must provide for part of their capital expenditure out of current income whereas capital expenditure for public schools is funded separately by government.

However, it is well known that many non-systemic elite Catholic schools and other elite Independent schools give priority to gold plating their facilities (multiple sporting ovals, indoor swimming pools, gymnasiums, tennis courts, auditoriums, and even equestrian centres). These gold plated facilities provide a considerable advantage for private schools in attracting enrolments and they are partly financed from recurrent funding by governments. In contrast, capital expenditure on public schools is confined to providing a base standard of facilities. Governments do not provide funding for multiple sporting ovals, indoor swimming pools, gymnasiums, tennis courts, auditoriums, and equestrian centres in public schools.

Thus, excluding recurrent income allocated to gold plating private school facilities from income comparisons of schools reduces the apparent funding advantage of non-systemic Catholic and Independent schools over public schools, even though expenditure of this income provides a significant resource advantage for these private schools.

The total income of Catholic and Independent schools is also under-estimated by the exclusion of several items from the estimates. While the total income of public and private schools includes notional allocations for various central administration costs, a number of other items are excluded which primarily benefit private schools such as student transport subsidies, the cost of tax deductible donations, the cost of Australian and state/territory administration of private school funding and the cost of private school regulation by state/territory governments.

For example, most private schools offer tax deductibility on contributions to building and library funds set up by the school and allows parents of non-government school students to reduce the level of personal tax being paid. This cost to government is not included in private school income. The Australian Government administers the large part of government funding of private schools, but the cost of this is not included in private school income whereas the cost of state/territory government administration of public schools is notionally allocated to schools. State and territory government expenditure on the administration of private school registration and accreditation is excluded from private school income. These exclusions mean that the total and net income of Catholic and Independent schools is under-estimated in comparison with public schools.

The exclusion of private school own-funding of gold-plated facilities and the exclusion of several Australian and state/territory government costs that benefit private schools means that the current measure of net recurrent income under-estimates the income of private schools compared to public schools. On the other hand, the inclusion of private school own funding of standard facilities in total recurrent income over-estimates the income of private schools compared to public schools. However, the exclusion of other government-provided benefits from the income of private schools may mean that total recurrent income is a reasonably comparable measure of public and private school income.

A further consideration in comparing the income of public and private schools is that public schools have to do more with their funding than Catholic or Independent schools. Public schools face much greater challenges because they enrol the vast majority of low SES, Indigenous, disability and remote area students. For example, about 82 per cent of all students in the lowest SES quartile in Australia attend public schools compared to 12 per cent attending systemic Catholic schools and six per cent attending Independent schools. In addition, 84 per cent of all Indigenous students attend public schools compared to 10 per cent in Catholic schools and six per cent in Independent schools. About 77 per cent of funded disability students attend public schools.

On average, these students have much higher learning needs than other students. Much higher costs are associated with ensuring that low SES, Indigenous and remote area students achieve adequate standards of education and improve their results relative to high SES students. Much higher costs are also associated with educating students with disabilities.

Clearly, it is public schools that are doing the heavy lifting in education in Australia. Catholic and Independent schools do not assume the same social obligations as public schools. They under-enrol higher cost students which means that they effectively have an even higher level of income.

School funding priorities in Australia are completely awry. Unfairness is at the heart of current funding approaches. Public schools need much higher per student funding than both Catholic and Independent schools to meet their challenges. Yet, they have much less total income per student than Independent schools and only a similar amount to Catholic schools.

The OECD says that fairness in resource allocation is important for ensuring equity in education opportunities and has labelled Australia as a low equity nation in the resourcing of schools [OECD, Pisa in Focus, No. 44, October, 2014]. Its data on the allocation of resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools show that only four of the 34 OECD countries and only 10 out of 65 countries participating in the PISA tests have greater inequity than Australia.

The Gonski funding plan introduced by the previous Labor Government was designed to give more priority to improving equity in education by increasing funding for disadvantaged students in all school sectors. The large part of the $16 billion funding increase from the Federal and state governments would have gone to public schools. However, the plan has been sabotaged by the Coalition Government because it refuses to fund the final two years of the six year plan when the bulk of the $16 billion increase was due. It has also been sabotaged by the refusal of many state governments, with the notable exception of the NSW Government, to commit to funding increases. Indeed, some have cut school funding.

At the Federal level, nothing will change until the next election. Labor should re-affirm its commitment to the full implementation of the Gonski funding plan. State and territory governments should also follow the lead of the NSW Government in keeping to its Gonski commitments and step up their funding of public schools.

Trevor Cobbold

Previous Next

Wealthy Private Schools Walk Away from Pyne’s Train Wreck With Millions in Over-funding

Monday June 9, 2014

Calculations by Greens NSW MP John Kaye show that the Abbott government’s termination of the Gonski process after just four years will deliver a $169 million a year windfall to 163 private schools, while the average NSW public education system will lose funding that could employ four new teachers in the average public school.

Federal education Minister Christopher Pyne’s axing of the last two years of the Gonski deal will cost the average NSW public school $387,000 a year by 2020.

The same decision will leave the state and federal funding of the state’s wealthiest private schools well above the level set by the Gonski review.

Some of the elite winners from Mr Pyne’s decision, such as Loreto Kirribilli, Brigidine St Ives, and St Aloysius’ College in Milsons Point will be paid more than $5 million a year over the Gonski amount, in large measure because a funding guarantee given to them by John Howard in the year 2000.

Kaye said: “Terminating the Gonski process after just four years will leave government funding of the wealthiest private schools intact while destroying the opportunity for public schools to catch up.

“Private schools like Loreto Kirribilli and St Aloysius’ College in Milsons Point will continue to receive millions of dollars a year largely unaffected by the Gonski principles. Public schools will be denied a big boost to their annual budgets.

“Indexation of wealthy private school subsidies and the growth in the underlying Gonski resource standard were supposed to eventually transition all schools to the same funding principles.

“By cutting off the funding agreement after just four years, the Abbott government has not only robbed NSW public schools of the chance to increase teacher numbers and reduce class sizes, but it has left the scandalous funding of the wealthiest private schools largely as it was.

“The state’s 163 wealthiest private schools will continue to be paid $169 million a year more than the Gonski amount.

“More than $68 million a year of that overpayment goes back to John Howard’s funding maintenance deal with the powerful private school lobby.

“Schools like Loreto Kirribilli will continue to receive funding based on their pre-2000 levels, maintained by three Federal separate governments.

“Loreto will receive $9.1 million in state and federal funding, which is $6.4 million over its Gonski amount. It would receive $4.3 million less if it had not been Funding maintained in 2000.”

Kaye estimated that it would take 202 years for Loreto Kirribilli to have its funding adjusted to its Schooling Resource Standard.

“Thanks to Christopher Pyne’s back flip, NSW’s wealthiest private schools will continue receive an average of more than $1 million a year over their Gonski amounts. Averaged across the state’s public education system, each school will miss out on a $387,000 boost that could increase staff numbers by four additional teachers.

“If the last two years of the National Agreement were honoured by the Abbott government, NSW public schools would enter 2020 with an additional $851 million in their annual budgets.

“The Gonski formula and the National Education Reform Agreement were far from perfect but at least they tried to even out some of the worst injustices in the funding system.

“The Abbott is ending the reform process before public schools receive the major part of their funding growth and before indexation has a chance to equalize the public private gap.

“The NSW government should start cutting into its $1 billion funding of non-government schools to make the system much fairer,” Dr Kaye said

Previous Next

Is there ‘evidence that independent public schools lift student performance’?

Asked by Senator Penny Wright at a session of the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment whether there was any evidence that Independent Public Schools (IPS) lifted student performance, Mr Tony Cook, Associate Secretary, Early Childhood Education and Care in the federal Department of Education answered that there was “a range of evidence”. Continue reading “Is there ‘evidence that independent public schools lift student performance’?”

Abbott Govt Turns its Back on Public Schools and Disadvantaged Students

Thursday May 15, 2014

The Federal Budget is a disaster for public education in Australia. It has killed off the Gonski school funding increases for 2017-18 and 2018-19. Public schools stand to over $6 billion as a result. The unity ticket on school funding promised by Abbott and Pyne before the election has been completely shredded.

State governments are unlikely to make up the loss and may not even meet their own commitments to increase funding, in which case the loss to government schools will be even bigger. The huge funding loss reduces the prospect of Australia improving its school results and reducing the large achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students.

Under Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI), Federal Government funding for schools was expected to increase by $10.3 billion (excluding indexation for rising costs) over the six years to 2018-19, with $2.8 billion committed to the first four years. This left $7.5 billion to be delivered in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

This has been rejected by the Federal Government. From 2018, increases in Federal funding for schools will be limited to increases in the consumer price index (CPI), with adjustments for student enrolments.

Public schools will bear the vast part of the loss. Under the NPSI, public schools would have received 83 per cent of the overall increase and would have amounted to $6.2 billion over 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Moreover, tying future funding increases to the CPI is likely to mean a real cut in funding. The CPI is not a good measure of rising costs in education because it reflects productivity increases in the rest of the economy. The wage price index for public education and training is a better measure of costs in schools and it has increased by much more than the CPI in the past. Funding increases based on the CPI will not match future cost increases and will compound the funding shortfall facing public schools.

The Federal Government says it is shifting responsibility for school education back to the states, but it is very unlikely that they will make up the loss. The future of state and territory government funding for public schools is itself in question, especially as the Federal Government has released them from their commitments under the NPSI to increase their funding.

The Abbott Government has turned its back on public schools and disadvantaged students. This is not really surprising given that the Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has repeatedly said that Australia does not have an equity problem in education.

Without the Gonski funding increases, Australia has little prospect of increasing student outcomes or reducing the huge learning gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Disadvantaged students are two to three years behind their advantaged peers in reading, numeracy and science and three-quarters of them attend public schools. These schools are massively under-resourced for the task they face. The Abbott Government has ensured that they will continue to struggle.

As the Greens spokesperson on education, Senator Penny Wright, said “The Coalition has abandoned every child, every parent, every teacher and every school, but none more so than those in greatest need”.

It is not without irony that almost to the day that the Government killed off funding increases for disadvantaged students a major research study published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that increasing funding for disadvantaged students has large long-lasting benefits.

The study found that a 20 per cent increase in per student funding for children from poor families leads an increase of about one extra year spent in school, a 25 per cent increase in average earnings and a 20 percentage-point in the annual incidence of adult poverty. So much for the idea that money doesn’t matter in education!

Trevor Cobbold

Previous Next

Shorten Re-affirms Labor’s Commitment to the Full Gonski

Tuesday April 1, 2014

Following questions raised about its commitment to the Gonski funding for the two final years of the six year transition period, the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, has clarified Labor’s position. At a doorstop interview in Perth yesterday, Shorten gave an unequivocal commitment to the full Gonski funding:

JOURNALIST: You have committed and you still will commit to the next election for those years five and six?
SHORTEN: Yes.
JOURNALIST: That will cost I think about $7 billion additional is that you’re prepared for that?
SHORTEN: We budgeted for this when we were in Government and furthermore, what does it cost Australia if we short change our kids?

Save Our Schools welcomes this clarification by the Leader of the Opposition. Unfortunately, mixed messages had come from the Opposition that raised concerns for organisations and people campaigning for the full Gonski to give a better deal for disadvantaged students.

The planned $7 billion Federal funding increase for the two final years of Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement would complete the biggest increase in school funding in living memory – over $10 billion from 2013-14 to 2018-19. If the state governments who signed up to the plan stay on board, the overall funding increase will be of the order of $14 billion.

It would deliver large increases to under-resourced schools and to disadvantaged students. About $8 billion in Federal funding would go to government schools which enrol the vast majority of low SES, Indigenous, disability and remote area students.

The funding increase offers the best prospect of ensuring that all children complete Year 12 or its equivalent and reducing the large achievement gaps between rich and poor that Australia has ever seen. It will help boost workplace skills, improve productivity and reduce health, crime and welfare expenditure.

Labor’s clarification puts the microscope back on the Budget. In May, we will find out whether the Coalition Government intends to continue dismembering the Gonski plan. The forward estimates of the May Budget will reveal the funding planned for 2017-18, the fifth year of the Gonski funding plan.

The Coalition has so far refused to fund the final two years. It has also refused to hold state governments to their agreements with the previous Labor Government to increase funding for schools; it has refused to place conditions on the funding increase it provided to the governments that did not sign up to Gonski; and it has refused to require governments to implement a needs-based funding model. All it has done is to guarantee more funding increases for private schools, including Australia’s wealthiest.

The issue at stake in the Budget is whether the Coalition will continue its tradition of giving priority to funding privilege in education over reducing inequity and disadvantage. The prospects are not good as the Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, believes that Australia does not have an equity problem: “I don’t believe there is an equity problem in Australia”. The evidence from international and national test results is overwhelming that Australia does have a major equity problem and doing something about it is at the heart of the Gonski funding plan.

Trevor Cobbold

Previous Next

The Folly of ACT School Closures Revealed

Tuesday January 14, 2014

Education Minister Joy Burch has exposed the folly of the 2006 school closures as an expensive and short-sighted mistake. The loss of spare capacity has now seen new classrooms built in schools only kilometres from closed schools, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Ms Burch started the 2014 year by proudly announcing the completion of $16 million worth of works at Macgregor, Duffy, Hughes, Majura and Yarralumla primary schools (The Chronicle, 7 January 2014, p4). This follows her 2013 in-principle approval for two new private schools in Charnwood and Spence.

Duffy is only a few kilometres away from the now-closed Weston Creek and Rivett primary schools. Macgregor Primary School and the two new private schools are not far from the now-closed Flynn Primary School.

In the Northwest Belconnen region alone, the combined increase in capacity of the three schools (Macgregor expansion and the two new private schools) is estimated at:
• Charnwood (Brindabella College): 194 students enrolled by 2018, increasing to 650 K-12 students
• Macgregor Primary School: an extra 250 students enrolled by 2016 (to reach a total of 700 students)
• Spence (At-Taqwa Islamic School): 800 students enrolled by 2022.

If the two private schools eventually proceed (and neither has been given the green light yet), the combined effect will be to add another 1700 student places to the Northwest Belconnen region. (Potential enrolment growth from Dunlop and Macgregor West would already have been already included in the 2006 planning.)
All-in-all, the 2006 school closures have cost the government tens of millions of dollars, and the community even more in terms of lost services and social capital.

To save a $21.3 million over four years for 23 schools, the ACT Government has spent more than $15 million on new classrooms and on refurbishing existing ones to accommodate new students. And that doesn’t even start to count the cost of new classrooms and schools in the private sector. The huge capital investment that followed, including two new P-10 schools and IT upgrades, promised as sweeteners to surviving schools, were a welcome investment in the sector, but according to government claims, were not dependent on closing schools.

The government has also borne the cost of refurbishing the closed schools for other uses. This has so far added up to around $40 million. Another $1.1 million dollars was spent on “community consultation” after the schools were closed, much of it on consultants. While community facilities are something the community lobbied hard for in 2007, much of this $40 million could have been avoided as many of the closed schools were engaged and active in their local communities, with some doubling up as community facilities in their own right. Some now-closed schools had even proposed more community use as a cost-free, and possibly revenue-raising, alternative to closing their schools. Just keeping Flynn Primary School open could have reduced that bill to less than $30 million because of the cost of protecting the heritage values of the site while adapting it wholesale for other uses.

In contrast, Joy Burch’s own announcements this week show that it has cost about $2 million for an “older school upgrade”. If this had been spent on each of the 23 schools instead of closing them, the total cost to government would have been around $46 million, without the angst and social costs. The actual cost would most likely have been lower: condition assessments for 2006 show that most schools needed an average of around $0.5 million to bring them up to “normal” standard, leading to a total refurbishment cost of around $12 or $13 million.

The total cost of not closing schools could have been around $35 million—significantly less than the $55-or-so million spent so far to close them and keep them closed. And these are just the direct, easily documented costs to government.

It is good news that Ms Burch places a value on neighbourhood schools that her predecessor, Andrew Barr, never understood. Her proud announcement of up to 300 more places at Macgregor Primary School to meet the growing demand from the local area is to be applauded. It is a shame, however, that she does not yet have the courage to make the obvious move and at least apologise for her government’s mistakes, if not re-open closed primary schools rather than throwing yet more money at keeping them closed.

Sarah James

Previous Next