ACT Liberals Ignore Disadvantage to Defend Privilege

Tony Abbott recently claimed that private schools are the victims of an “injustice” because they get less public funding than government schools.

ACT Liberals have taken up this claim with a vengeance in their election promise to increase funding for private schools. They have revealed their true colours – their first priority is to support better-off families, not low income families.

They ignore the real injustice in ACT education – a massive achievement gap between rich and poor. Increased funding for private schools can only compound this gap.

The Liberals have promised to increase Territory funding of private schools to be on a par with NSW Government funding of NSW private schools which is benchmarked at 25% of average government school costs. Given that Territory funding of ACT private schools at present is about 17.5% of average government school costs the promise amounts to a funding increase of 43%. This would give an increase of $19 million a year. It is to be phased-in over eight years.

Nearly three-quarters of the increase – around $14 million – would go to high SES private schools even though they comprise less than two-thirds of ACT private schools.

Several high SES private schools would have their funding increased by around $1 million or more a year. Marist College would gain an additional $1.6 million a year; Daramalan College would get an additional $1.4 million, while St. Clare’s College and St. Edmund’s College would get an extra $1 million a year.

Amongst Independent schools, Burgmann Anglican School and Radford College would get increases of nearly $1 million. Canberra Boys Grammar and Canberra Girls Grammar would each get an increase of about $0.6 million

These schools are already getting massive amounts of government funding (Federal & Territory). According to the My School website, Daramalan got $13.5 million in 2010, Marist got $12.5 million, St. Clare’s got $10 million and St. Edmund’s $9.3 million. Radford received $8.2 million; Burgmann $8 million, Girls’ Grammar $4.8 million and Boys’ Grammar $4.5 million.

So, the new funding promise from the Liberal Party will add even more to the gravy train of government funding for the highest SES private schools in Canberra.

The Liberal Party has obfuscated the real cost of its promise. It says that it will cost $31.4 million over the Budget forward estimates for the next four years. This is budget-speak jargon designed to hide the true cost. It refers to the total additions to the forward estimates after four years, not the actual funding increase over the base year funding. The actual funding increase is indeterminate and depends on the phase-in amounts each year which the Liberals have not specified. The addition to base funding at the end of the first four years could be as little as $10 million or over $20 million. There is also no indication of the cost over the final four years of implementation.

A simple way of measuring the cost of the proposal is to calculate the increase of going to 25% of average government school costs from the current level of about 17.5%. This is a 43% increase which can be applied to the current Territory funding for each ACT private school to obtain the total increase. This is the basis for the estimates of the funding increases in the charts.

The Liberals’ argument that ACT private schools should be on a funding par with private schools elsewhere is vacuous. It has no regard to the circumstances of private school students in the ACT or the level of student disadvantage in these schools. For example, average incomes in the ACT are much higher than in other states so that private schools are much more affordable for families here.

The real injustice in ACT education is not the lack of funding for private schools. It is the huge achievement gap between rich and poor.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) show that the ACT has the largest achievement gap between high and low SES students in Australia. On average, low SES students are about three to four years in learning behind high SES students.

Low SES students are also doing worse than those in most other states. Their average results are about six months or more of schooling behind low SES students in all other states except Tasmania and the Northern Territory. The latest national PISA report says:

….low socioeconomic students in the Australian Capital Territory are not particularly well served by their education system, with average scores for these students only just above those for Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and between 19 and 24 score points lower than students of the same socioeconomic level in the other five states. [p. 281]

The latest NAPLAN results also show large achievement gaps between children of highly educated and highly skilled parents and those from lowly educated and low-skilled families. For example, Year 5 and Year 9 students of low educated and low-skilled parents are about three to four years behind students of high educated and highly skilled parents in literacy and numeracy.

The large majority of low income and other disadvantaged students in the ACT attend government schools – 74% are in government schools compared with 20% in Catholic schools and only 6% in Independent schools. Low income students comprise a much larger proportion of total enrolments in government schools than in private schools – accounting for 14% of government school enrolments compared to 6% of Catholic school enrolments and only 2% in Independent schools.

Many more government schools have higher concentrations of low income students than private schools. Twenty-one government schools have 20% or more of their students from low income families compared to only one Catholic school and no Independent schools.

Clearly, it is government schools which face the major challenges. It is government schools which should get priority for future funding increases so we can start to close the achievement gap between rich and poor.

The ACT Labor Government has indeed a shameful record on equity in education. The continuing large achievement gap reflects the failure of its education policies over the past decade. But, the Liberals’ new policy is completely wrong-headed and indiscriminate. Their $19 million promise would be far better directed at disadvantaged students in both government and private schools.

A future ACT Government should support the implementation of the recommendations of the Gonski report to increase funding to reduce the effects of disadvantage in education. All parties vying for office should commit to a comprehensive funding program to improve the results of low achieving students and reduce the gap between rich and poor. 

Trevor Cobbold

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