The following is the Conclusion of a new working paper published by Save Our Schools. It provides a comprehensive review of the of the implementation of the Gonski funding model by the Labor Government in 2013. The full paper can be downloaded below. Comments on the paper are invited. Notification of issues not covered and mistakes of fact, analysis and interpretation will be appreciated. Please excuse any remaining typos and repetitions. Comments can be sent to the Save Our Schools email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The implementation of the Gonski funding model represented a watershed in school funding in Australia. It changed the whole focus of school funding from increasing choice under the Howard Government’s SES model to improving equity in education. It also broke with the past by providing an objective and consistent approach to funding schools and to establish an integrated national approach to school funding across jurisdictions and school sectors.
The major achievement of Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI) was to legislate the principles and framework for a funding system based on need. It established a minimum resource standard for every school in the country and provided additional funding loadings for various forms of disadvantaged students: low SES, Indigenous, remote area, language background other than English and students with disabilities.
The model was supported by the commitment of a massive increase in funding of nearly $16 billion over six years, the large part of which was to go to public schools. It offered the best chance in living memory to make a real difference in improving the education outcomes for disadvantaged students, most of who are enrolled in public schools. It promised a huge boost to public education.
Another achievement of the NPSI was that it broke the longstanding link between government funding for private schools and average government school costs. This was a highly significant change because the link was a major source of inequity in school funding. Every time state governments increased funding for public schools, a portion of it flowed through to private schools including the most privileged and richest private schools.
However, the potential of the NPSI was undermined by several major flaws, some of which were self-inflicted by the Labor Government and some which were forced on it by the Liberal Opposition’s ruthless campaign against the model and resistance by private school organisations.
The NPSI abandoned the dual equity goal set by the Gonski Report. Government statements did not mention the equity goals espoused by the Gonski Report. There was no mention of ensuring that all students achieved an adequate education. There was no mention of the social equity goal implicit in the Gonski report that school results should be similar across different social groups, in particular, that the average results for low SES, Indigenous, remote area, and limited English proficiency students should be similar to those of high SES students.
These strong equity goals were replaced by a weak equity goal of improving the results of disadvantaged students and high priority given to meeting the performance target of being in the top five achieving countries in the world. This was seen as the way to boost Australia’s economic competitiveness. In effect, the priority given to equity goals by the Gonski Report was displaced by economic goals. It meant that large inequities in education could continue.
A major failure of the NPSI was that the large proportion of the planned funding increase was back-loaded to the last two years of the transition period which made it hostage to a change of government. The funding committed over the first four years was only a small percentage of the planned increase and it was largely financed by funds re-cycled from other programs. The long delay in implementation negotiated with the Catholic Church also put the model under threat by a change of government.
Too little of the funding increase would go to disadvantaged schools and students because of two methodological problems. First, the base SRS was set too high because the reference schools used to estimate the SRS included high fee private schools. The over-estimation of the SRS meant that many public schools, particularly selective schools, and private schools that were already adequately funded would receive additional funding that would have been better directed to disadvantaged students and schools. Second, the under-resourcing of disadvantaged schools was compounded because the funding loadings for disadvantaged students were far too low to make a significant difference to their outcomes. The maximum loadings were well below those recommended by research studies and only applied to a small number of schools and students. Consequently, too little went to disadvantaged students. Only 26 per cent of the total planned increase was to be allocated to funding the disadvantage loadings.
The biggest flaw in the NPSI was its corruption of needs-based funding principles by several special deals for private schools. As with the introduction of the previous SES model, the NPSI ensured that no school would lose a dollar of funding. In fact, it went further by providing all schools with an increase in funding irrespective of need. Many private schools that were over-funded compared to their SRS entitlement continued to receive funding increases, albeit at a lower rate than other schools, and it would take over 100 years for many to revert to their actual funding entitlement. The deal also destroyed any prospect of establishing a coherent and principled funding framework as recommended by the Gonski Report because it ensured that many private schools on similar SES scores would continue to receive different levels of funding for a long into the future.
Another outcome of the deal was that high SES private schools charging fees of over $20,000 per student would continue to receive large amounts of government funding that enabled them to maintain their large resource advantage over lower SES public and private schools.
While the NPSI eliminated the link between private school funding and Average Government School Recurrent Costs (AGSRC), it was replaced by a new link with total government funding. Under the deal negotiated with the Catholic Church and extended to Independent schools, private schools would maintain their share of total government funding into the future. This deal was intended to protect the market share of private schools. It meant that private schools could double dip on government funding in some circumstances. For example, the share of government funding going to public schools would increase following an increase in the proportion of students in public schools or an increase in the proportion of higher funded disadvantaged students in public schools. Private schools would be compensated by increased Commonwealth funding if the increase in public school funding caused the funding share to private schools to fall below the agreed floor.
Another special arrangement was that Catholic and several Independent school systems in each state and territory continued to be block funded using student weighted average system SES scores to calculate their total funding. Each system could allocate funding according to their own needs-based funding system. This arrangement created the potential for some schools to be over-funded and others to be under-funded, depending on the degree to which the actual distribution of funds differed from that if funds were distributed according to the formula provided in the Education Act. The arrangement was very beneficial for Catholic schools in competing with Independent schools in wealthy areas because it allowed them to charge much lower fees.
A consequence of this deal was to make the funding of private schools even more incoherent and inconsistent. Eight state/territory Catholic systems, many Catholic dioceses and 12 Independent school systems were able to determine their own distribution arrangements for member schools and this created the potential for schools on the same SES score in different systems and sub-systems to have different levels of funding.
The irony of all these special deals was that Julia Gillard claimed that one of the reasons for reviewing the funding system was that the SES model “had become politicised by political deal-making”. Yet, the outcome to the review was even more political deals with private school organisations and massive over-funding of private schools that ensured the maintenance of Australia’s class-based education system.
Another fundamental flaw of the NPSI was that it proposed to extend the market in education by adding a science test to national testing and reporting and promoting greater autonomy for school principals in the allocation of budgets and staffing. In pursuing these policies, the Government was more motivated by ideology than evidence. It ignored the fact there was very little evidence to show that reporting school results improved student and school achievement. It also ignored the weight of research evidence was that greater school autonomy had little effect on student results. School autonomy also reduces collaboration between schools and increase social segregation and inequity in education.
A final failure of the NPSI was that school funding remained highly fragmented. It failed to establish a common funding framework to ensure coherence and transparency in how funding is allocated to systems and schools. This was a political failure that was partially self-inflicted but also the result of political campaigns by the Liberal and National Party Opposition and private school organisations.
The development of a more coherent national approach to funding schools was dependent on negotiations with state governments and private school organisations. The Labor Government clearly hoped for a national approach, but it was hamstrung by its agreement with the Catholic Church to delay the introduction of the new funding model. As Carmen Lawrence had foreshadowed, this allowed time for the Opposition to campaign against the model to sow confusion about its implications for private schools. It also allowed time for private school organisations and state governments to draw out negotiations and gain concessions that undermined the integrity of the model. It made the future of the model hostage to the imminent Federal election. It in fact signed the death warrant to full implementation of the NPSI.
Despite all its flaws and the political mistakes in its implementation, the NPSI provided the foundation to reduce the vast inequities in education in Australia. This was a major achievement in the face of the ruthless campaign led by Tony Abbott and the Federal Coalition to defend the privileges of private schools.