Can We Afford to Continue Funding Private Schools?

We cannot afford to continue funding private schools the way we do now. The current SES funding model is inequitable, wasteful, capricious and incoherent. It is a canker on Australia’s egalitarian ethos.

The SES model provides massive taxpayer funding to the wealthiest schools and families in Australia. Schools with Year 12 fees of over $20,000 are being subsidised by $2000-$5000 per student. Geelong Grammar, the most expensive school in Australia, will receive $4195 per secondary student and total federal funding of $4.8 million this year.

Nearly 50 per cent of private schools are funded at above their SES score rate because of a “no losers” guarantee that schools receiving high levels of funding under the previous scheme would not have their funding reduced. This over-funding costs taxpayers about $700 million a year and much of it goes to higher SES schools.

In contrast, the extra funding for the most disadvantaged government schools in Australia is less than $1000 per student. The diversion of millions of dollars a year to schools least in need while those most in need are denied adequate funding is a national disgrace.

The SES scheme is also capricious and incoherent. Schools with the same or a similar SES score can receive very different funding. Some scores have seven or eight different funding rates.

Funding for private schools should be determined by need. Taxpayer funding for wealthy schools would be more equitably and efficiently used to support disadvantaged students, the large majority of whom are in government schools.

There is a large achievement gap between rich and poor in Australia’s schools. The average 15 year-old student from a low SES family is two to three years behind their high SES counterparts. An average low SES 15 year-old student in a severely disadvantaged school is about 3½ years behind her high SES peer in a school of mostly high income families.

Reducing this gap should be our major education priority. Apart from the social injustice, it is a measure of the potential to improve workforce skills and productivity. Eliminating inequity in education would boost productivity. It would also reduce the costs of health care, social security and crime.

The SES scheme should be abolished and replaced by one which better links funding to education need. A very large funding boost for government schools is needed to reduce the achievement gap. We cannot afford not to do this.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 2011.

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