It is no exaggeration to say that the future of Australia’s education system is in the hands of the current review of school funding. It has the opportunity to change the face of school education in a way that has not been done for nearly 40 years.
What is at stake is whether Australian taxpayers are to continue to provide large subsidies to the wealthiest families and schools in Australia or whether disadvantaged students will finally get their due and be provided with the resources to ensure that they all receive an adequate education and to reduce the huge achievement gap between rich and poor.
A fundamental change in government funding priorities is required, but it remains to be seen whether the review committee, with its unbalanced composition in favour of private school interests, is up to the task.
However, statements by the committee chairman, David Gonski, about the need to focus on improving equity in education are heartening. The issues paper released by the committee at the end of last year stated its clear intention to focus on improving equity. It has adopted a good definition of equity: “equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions”.
High quality, low equity school system
Without doubt, improving equity in education is the biggest challenge facing Australia’s education system.
Australia has a high quality education system. It has high average results in reading, mathematics and science by international standards and it ranks consistently amongst the top performing countries, although it has slipped slightly in recent years.
However, Australia fails to match other high performing countries on equity. It has a low equity school system.
The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Assessments (PISA) show that, on average, 15 year-old students from low socio-economic status (SES) families are two to three years behind high SES students in reading, mathematics and science. The gaps have increased slightly since 2006. Results from PISA 2003 and 2006 show that low SES students enrolled in schools with a high proportion of students from low SES families are nearly four years behind students from high income families in high SES schools.
Fifteen year-old Indigenous students are three to four years behind high SES students. Remote area students are two to three years behind and provincial area students are about 18 months to two years behind.
High proportions of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students are performing at the lowest levels. In 2009, 22-28% of low SES students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 4-5% of high SES students. Thirty-five to 40% of Indigenous students did not achieve the benchmarks while 24-33% of remote area students did not achieve them.
The large majority of disadvantaged students are in government schools
The large majority of these students attend government schools. Nearly 80% of low SES, 86% of Indigenous students, 84% of remote area students, and 80% of disability students attend government schools across Australia; while over 70% of provincial area students do so.
These students comprise a much larger proportion of government school enrolments in Australia than in private schools. For example, data from the 2009 PISA study shows that 35% of government school students are from lowest SES quartile, compared to about 16% of Catholic students and 10% of Independent school students. On the other hand, only 16% of government school students are from the highest SES quartile compared to almost 30% of Catholic students and almost 50% in Independent schools.
The proportion of Indigenous and remote area students in government schools across Australia is about three times that in Catholic and Independent schools.
Private schools have more resources than government schools
As a result, government schools face a much bigger challenge than private schools in dealing with education disadvantage. They have more to do with their resources. Yet, government schools have much fewer resources than Independent schools and similar resources to Catholic schools.
Average total expenditure in government schools in Australia in 2007-08 (the latest year for which comparative figures are available) was $10,723 per student compared to $15,147 in Independent schools and $10,399 in Catholic schools. The average expenditure in all private schools was $12,303 per student.
These figures are derived from official figures in the National Report on Schooling in Australia published by the national education ministers’ council. They exclude the imputed cost of capital and payroll tax from government school expenditure because these items are not included in official private school expenditure figures.
Government funding increases have favoured private schools
Despite government schools providing for the vast majority of educationally disadvantaged students and being under-resourced in comparison to private schools to meet these challenges, the largest increases in government funding (federal, state and territory) over the last decade have gone to private schools.
The largest increases in government funding went to the most privileged school sector – Independent schools. Government funding for Independent schools increased by 112% between 1998-99 and 2007-08 and by 84% for Catholic schools compared to 67% for government schools.
Many of the most selective private schools in Australia have total expenditure of $20,000 – $30,000 per student, or two to three times more than government schools. Yet, they receive $3,000-$5,000 per student in Federal Government funding. This is six to ten times more than the additional $500 per disadvantaged student under the Smarter Schools National Partnership program.
Government funding for many wealthy schools has increased by over 200% since 2001. For example, it increased by 256% for King’s School in Sydney and by 315% for Geelong Grammar, the most expensive private school in Australia.
Current school funding policies are compounding privilege in education. Government schools are being denied the funding they need to provide an adequate education to all their students. Governments are effectively placing more value on enriching the lives of those from privileged backgrounds than those who are not as well favoured in society.
This is indefensible in a society that calls itself a democracy. It is a grave social injustice. It is a waste of talents, skills and resources which curbs productivity growth.
Major tasks for the school funding review
The Gonski committee has two major tasks.
The first is to design a new system for funding private schools to replace the failed SES model introduced by the Howard Government. The scheme has diverted millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest families and schools in Australia. It is an unfair, capricious and incoherent funding model.
An alternative funding model for private schools would consist of baseline and equity components. Baseline funding would ensure that no private school has less total resources than government schools and would vary according to the social inclusiveness of their enrolment practices. For example, schools which charge high fees would receive less funding as would schools that do not have a comprehensive curriculum that includes teaching evolution and sex education.
The equity component would provide additional funding for low income, Indigenous, remote area and disability students. Private schools with higher proportions of these students would receive more funding.
The other major task for the Gonski review is to determine the level of funding that government schools require to ensure an adequate education for all students and to eliminate the large achievement gap between rich and poor.
Overseas research studies show that the additional expenditure required for low SES students to achieve at adequate levels is 100-150% more than the cost of educating an average student. Even more is needed to close achievement gaps between rich and poor
The national partnership program provides additional funding for low SES schools and for literacy and numeracy support. The total additional funding available to government schools through these programs amounts to less than $500 per student. State and territory governments are supposed to provide an equivalent amount as well.
This additional funding for disadvantaged students amounts to about 10% of average expenditure in government schools. It is a far cry from what is necessary according to research studies. On this basis, about $6 – $9 billion more a year for government schools is needed to close the gap between low SES students and the average for all students. Much more is needed to close the gap between low and high SES students.
This is an enormous figure, but it reflects the long neglect of the education needs of disadvantaged students by successive Australian governments.
This is the challenge for the Gonski review. If it is to follow through on its commitment to achieving equity in education outcomes it has to ensure that much greater resources are allocated to government schools because they enrol the vast majority of low SES, Indigenous, remote area and disability students.
This is an abridged version of an article published in the lastest issue of Dissent.