School Funding Should be Better Directed at Reducing Disadvantage

The following is a summary of a confidential submission to the Gonski Review of School Funding commissioned by state government education departments. It was written by Professor Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne. It says that the Australian school system has become segregated between rich and poor with government funding being spent on supporting school choice rather than reducing the achievement gap between rich and poor.

This paper examines the changing role of public schooling in Australia. It describes a fundamental change in emphasis from creating a framework of universal provision (“opportunity”) to achieving quality outcomes for all students. Current funding arrangements do not support the change required in public schooling from offering opportunities to achieving outcomes.

NAPLAN data shows that public schools work as well or better than private schools (including Catholic schools). This finding echoes the results of PISA 2009 that, after adjustment for intakes, public schools are as successful as private schools.

However, there are wide variations within public systems. Schools that enrol mainly children from well-educated homes are highly successful in both relative (intake-adjusted) and absolute terms. They represent a very effective and economical investment. Schools that enrol mainly children from low income and poorly educated families record reading scores that place the average child at about two years behind the average child in a school with mainly high SES students. This gap tends to grow over stages of schooling.

From a historical perspective, public schools serving socially advantaged families have clearly achieved the national emphasis on outcomes. But public schools serving mainly socially disadvantaged families struggle to convert opportunity to outcomes, and remain within the older framework of expectation and performance. Australia does not fund them as if the intention were to enable them to produce results that are not simply “good, for who students are”, but good in comparison with the performance expected of schools serving socially advantaged families.

A public system cannot be decidedly more successful for well-educated and prosperous families than for poorer families and still be described as “public”. The point of public funding is to ensure an equitable performance, at least in national minimum standards, but arguably well beyond this: all families today depend on educational success, not just in minimal levels of literacy and numeracy, but in higher order skills and academic progress.

Almost all schools that serve predominantly poor families in Australia are public schools. This finding relates to metropolitan and provincial schools, not only schools in remote or very remote communities. Despite decades of funding and enrolment growth, there are very few private or Catholic schools across Australia that enrol predominantly children from lowest SES backgrounds. Public schools educate 80% of all students with disabilities and 80% of all indigenous students.

Policies of parental choice have created opportunities for families to enrol children in private schools. The paper examines the overall level of sector drift that has occurred over the last sixty years. This is done separately for primary and secondary education. It concludes that aggregate drift over the long term has been relatively modest (around 8%).

The extent of drift is larger when viewed in the shorter term from around the mid-1970s. There are both demographic and demand factors underlying the overall trend. To interpret demand factors, we need to know how strong the trend to private schooling has been amongst different populations in Australian society.

The paper presents findings of a social analysis of change in public and private enrolment shares over the two decades, 1986-2006. The analysis demonstrates that the greatest increase in the proportion of students attending private (including Catholic) schools has occurred in high SES localities, while no increase at all has been registered in low SES localities. This finding is true for both primary and secondary schooling. At both levels of schooling, drift has increased as a function of the social complexion of an area—the higher the level of SES of an area, the greater the drift, and vice versa.

One result has been that, today, proportionately as many children in poor communities attend public schools as they did two decades ago—around 4 out of 5 (both primary and secondary). There has been no change in the “exposure” of public schools to the needs of the poorest families, 80% of whose children continue to rely on public schools.

At the same time, need has intensified. Poverty and income inequality have made increasing inroads in Australian society. Many employed workers—not only unemployed workers—now live in poverty. Their children, while most vulnerable to economic and social forces, need to do better at school today than was once the case. They are under pressure to complete school rather than leave early, to achieve good rather than poor exam results, and to go to university or TAFE rather than risk unemployment. The quality of public education has grown in importance, not only for young people who once exited early from school but for those who are aiming higher – or should aim higher – and need the challenge of innovative and demanding programs and the support to manage these successfully.

Why have richer rather than poorer families migrated to private schooling? The paper argues that this is primarily a response to mounting competitive pressures on educational performance. School completion rates have more than doubled since the ‘seventies, much of this increase has translated into demand for university, and access to high-demand courses imposes high selection standards. More and more middle-class parents have sought to give their children a head start in private primary schools, others have switched from Catholic to private non-Catholic establishments to gain competitive advantage. While public schools represent a very effective and low-cost alternative as evident in NAPLAN and PISA results, the world of institutional values is different: it is centred on exam results and prestige university courses.

In a market-driven world, the greater the level of success of children from the socially most advantaged homes, the more uncertainty and insecurity is created amongst parents who are not so advantaged, but are “aspirational”. They are vulnerable to the market power of better-off families who enrol their children in high-performing and selective schools, whether private or public. But they are also unnerved by media stories of low standards in public schools. Thus they, too, migrate, even though not to the same extent as more prosperous and highly educated parents.

While private schools are frequently claimed to enrol a large social range of children, this is not borne out either from a study of the composition of enrolment trends or from an analysis of intakes to schools serving local communities.

In poor urban areas, public schools “over-reflect” the social profile of the area. They have a disproportionate share of the poorest families, but also of children who are most educationally disadvantaged (not necessarily by socio-economic status). Local community after local community displays a characteristic pattern in which non-government schools—whether Catholic or private non-Catholic—”under-reflect” the social profile of the area, though not invariably. They recruit a disproportionate share of socially and also academically advantaged children.

The result is a pattern of residualization in poorer communities, and an intensification of the stress experienced in public schools in more socially mixed areas. The division of labour between schools works in such a way as to create more socially blended environments in the private sector and more complex and manifold disadvantage in the public sector.

The New South Wales Department of Education and Training has modelled the impact of differential social mix on children’s NAPLAN scores, and this is replicated for Victoria in the paper. In brief, the average child from a poor background increases his or her score with every increase in the social mix of the school attended. This is true of all other children as well. This multiplier effect points to the risk of selective schooling as aggravating underlying patterns of residential segregation. Policies of parental choice enable geography to be by-passed. But this happens with respect to only a very small number of low SES children.

Basically there is no escaping the imperative of making strong public schooling available to every community. Children should not have to move to access quality. Many simply cannot move. Instead of spending on moving students, public authorities should spend on improving schools.

The paper considers the implications of this for school funding policy. The emphasis in the recommended approach is on ensuring that high quality public education is available to every local community, and that funding operates to assure the highest possible standards of achievement for children from all social backgrounds.

It says that there should be an integrated approach to policy across levels of government as compared to the current fragmentary approach which divides responsibility for public and private schooling between the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments. Within each jurisdiction, one public authority should be responsible for delivering State and Territory and Commonwealth support to schools within a framework of national accountability arrangements. These arrangements should enable more effective targeting of resources as well as greater flexibility and certainty for schools.

Funding should be according to a standard price per student, adjusted for relative need as measured by student and school characteristics and means-tested against fees and other revenue. Core funding should be supplemented to compensate for disadvantage. Choice should be managed so as to ensure that segregation does not occur and that public schools are fully supported as regards their viability and their vitality as community assets.

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