Gillard Turns Her Back on the Disadvantaged

The highlight of the Gonski report is its well-founded and important recommendation that Australia needs to spend an additional $5 billion a year on schools, predominantly government schools, so that they can address the issue of disadvantage. When all the figures are finalised, more may be needed, but as the reports says:

Australia must aspire to have a schooling system that is among the best in the world for its quality and equity, and must prioritise support for its lowest performing students. Every child should have access to the best possible education, regardless of where they live, the income of their family or the school they attend. [p. xiv]

The lowlight was that in her response to this vision, the Prime Minister repeatedly and pointedly refused to commit to the additional funding. Instead, she proposed further reviews and community discussions. She did not even promise to provide the funding when the budget was in surplus, as Tony Abbott did when he committed to a dental health care scheme. She simply turned her back on the disadvantaged.

So much for the rhetoric about closing the gap and ensuring that wealth does not determine educational outcomes.

The latest NAPLAN results show that Year 9 Indigenous students are five years behind high socio-economic status (SES) students. Indigenous students in remote communities are six or more years behind. For students from the lowest SES quartile, the gap is three to four years. Gillard has simply left them in the lurch.

When looking at the equity challenges, most of the Gonski analyses are balanced and provide a way forward, but in other ways the report has copped out.

The most difficult question faced by the review, and hence the government, was what to do about the over-funding that private and Catholic schools received under the “no losers” guarantee by the Howard Government – the so-called funding maintained schools. This over-funding amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, much of it going to some of the wealthiest schools and families in Australia.

To help the government out, the Gonski review effectively rewrote its terms of reference to include adherence to the government’s commitment that no school will lose a single dollar. The report makes it very clear that this is the only basis for some of its recommendations. So it proposes a minimum level of funding for elite private schools to ensure that none lose funding. The so-called funding maintained schools are also not to lose any funding.

What we have is a new “no losers” guarantee which writes the Howard Government’s guarantee into the funding bottom line and indexes it into the future.

This sleight-of-hand brings an even greater problem for the future. A major absurdity in the old “SES” scheme is that private schools on the same SES score got vastly different levels of government funding, because of the multitude of special deals that had been done. This was particularly true of the Catholic sector.

The Gonski review has recommended continuing a SES funding scheme, but with schools on the same SES score receiving the same funding. The Government’s “no school will lose a single dollar” mantra means that the current funding maintained rates at each SES score will drive the funding rates in the Gonski model. The baseline funding in the Gonski model at each SES score must be that of most over-funded school in order to achieve the same level of funding for all. Otherwise, we will get another group of funding maintained schools who get more funding than others on the same SES score, which contradicts the report’s recommendation.

This would mean a massive funding boost for many private schools. For example, Cranbrook would have its per student funding doubled to ensure it gets the same funding rate as Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College which has the same SES score but is funding maintained. Similarly, Melbourne Grammar would have its funding more than doubled in order to get the same rate as Loreto Mandeville Hall. Canberra Boys and Girls Grammar schools would have their funding more than doubled to make it equivalent with that of Marist College North Shore in Sydney which is classified on the same SES score.

The strength of the Gonski report is that it has recognised the problem of disadvantage in Australian schooling, and has made serious recommendations about future funding in this area, with a school resources standard and loadings for various forms of disadvantage.

The weakness – a self-inflicted weakness – is that the report is designed to fit within the framework of current government commitment to the idea that no school will lose a dollar in funding.

The end result is that the current situation continues. There is no additional funding to address disadvantage, while private schools continue to be over-funded according to the SES funding model, and will have that over-funding indexed into the future.

But at least the $5 billion target is now clear. It is an eminently justifiable down-payment on a system that will really start to address equity issues. This is the challenge to a government committed, at least rhetorically, to equity.

Trevor Cobbold
Dr. Ian Morgan

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