Many Victorian Schools to Miss Out on Equity Funding

The Victorian Government recently announced changes to the Education Maintenance Allowance which provides assistance to low-income families for textbooks, stationary, excursions and school uniforms. Until now half the allowance was paid directly to parents and the other half to schools. From 2013, an increased allowance will be paid to parents but no payments will go to schools. The Government says that the savings achieved will allow more equity-based funding to be provided to schools with a high proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The following article on the changes was contributed by a Victorian school principal.

The Victorian Government recently announced changes to the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) that have by now been widely canvassed in the media. Mostly the coverage has been scathing, with school principals, and organisational heads condemning the cuts as mean spirited and indefensible in that they target those school communities most in need of assistance.

In essence the state government in changing the formula whereby schools receive a portion of the EMA – for primary schools that amounts to $117.50 per annum per eligible child and for secondary schools the amount is $234.50 – have taken serious amounts of money, actual cash, out of school accounts. Depending on a school’s Student Family Occupation (SFO) Index, the amount removed can be as high as $60,000 or even more. Lost revenue to schools in the order of $30,000 per annum because of the changes is not uncommon.

The government argues that the changes they are making are in response to difficult times economically and that they are actually refining the program whereby they will be redirecting money to several hundred schools in most need of financial assistance because of the economic disadvantage of their families.

Superficially this sort of argument may have appeal to some. Dig a little deeper and the view becomes abhorrent. Firstly, only several hundred schools may benefit, and then only marginally. As yet, the government has been particularly coy about the actual sums of money they claim by which schools will benefit. Experience suggests such evasiveness more often than not is little more than an exercise in smoke and mirrors. The net effect is the reduction of many millions of dollars from our schools.

The SFO Index, which measures household economic disadvantage on a scale of 0 to 1, is designed to provide an aggregated average number for all families. Thereby a school with, say an SFO of 0.4 could be described as being a little less disadvantaged than the majority of schools. Under the new formula, schools with an SFO of less than 0.5 can reasonably expect to lose all their school portion of the EMA. Yet it is entirely possible that such schools could have up to one third of all students’ families as recipients of EMA payments. That is no insignificant percentage of economic hardship.

The problem lies in the mathematics – no small irony there! Because the SFO Index is an average of all families, schools which have a broad cross section of wealth and poverty in their communities, the SFO can mask the level of economic hardship amongst its families. The upshot of this is that the hardship of those families isn’t magically cancelled out by the presence of families at the school with relative financial abundance. It simply doesn’t work that way. Ripping out the $117.50 per EMA student from schools on the basis of an aggregated averaged number completely ignores the complex and powerful differences between schools to the detriment of all.

In a practical sense schools will have a devil’s choice to make. Cop the cuts or pressure poor families to cough up the dough! Neither of these approaches is fair nor appropriate.

As a rule, those schools, with significant numbers of EMA students aren’t exactly flush with funds. To lose even $15,000 from their annual budget – and many schools will lose considerably more – can be quite devastating. Schools don’t segregate students on indices of disadvantage when making decisions about their provision of educational programs, resources and services. The loss of the school portion of the EMA will affect all students at those schools if they do not recoup that money from the EMA families. Programs will have to be cut, resources pruned and services reduced across the board – that is the consequence of the mathematics, devoid of trickery, that schools will be forced to employ to deal with this issue. Everyone loses out.

Alternatively, requesting that parents struggling to make ends meet should make up the shortfall is assuming that they have had the surplus money all the time. That is simply not true, a fact that our increasingly remote state government would do well to heed.

There was a time when, in our country, economic hardship was seen as the time we all dug deep and helped those in most need. It would be a sad reflection indeed if those times were to pass into memory lane – dusted off for occasions of sentimental reminiscing.

Henry Grossek
Principal, Berwick Lodge Primary School

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