The Barnett Govt Has Taken the Axe to WA Public Schools

The claims by the Western Australian Government that it has massively increased school funding in recent years are highly misleading. The fact is that the Barnett Government has taken to the axe to funding of public schools while boosting its funding of private schools. It has abandoned disadvantaged students, the vast majority of whom attend public schools.

After adjusting for rising costs and excluding book entry and other non-classroom items, total government (Commonwealth and state) funding of public schools in Western Australia was cut massively between 2009-10 and 2013-14 by $1,341 per student while government funding for private schools was increased by $1,288 per student [see Chart 1 below]. That is, private school funding was increased by nearly as much as funding for public schools was cut. The percentage cut to public schools was 8.9% while the increase for private schools was 12.1% [Chart 2].

The cut in public school funding was due to a huge cut in Western Australian Government funding of $1,554 per student (-11.6%) which completely swamped the small increase in Commonwealth Government of $213 per student (12.1%). While cutting real funding to public schools, the state government increased funding for private schools by $386 per student (13.2%). The Commonwealth Government also increased funding for private schools by $902 per student (14.2%).

The cuts to public school funding continued in the last financial year for which official figures are available. Total government funding for public schools was cut by $311 per student (-2.2%) in 2014-15 over the previous year while funding for private schools increased by $311 per student (3.0%). Commonwealth Government funding for public schools was cut by $18 per student (-0.9%) and Western Australian Government funding was cut by $293 per student (-2.4%). Commonwealth Government funding for private schools increased by $300 per student (4.3%) and state government funding increased by $11 per student (0.3%).

The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that average reading, mathematics and science scores across all Western Australian schools have slumped since 2009. The reading score fell by 15 points on the PISA scale, which is equivalent to about half a year of learning; mathematics fell by 25 points and science by 18 points.

In addition, the proportion of students below international standards has increased. In 2015, 17% of WA students did not achieve the minimum standard in reading – up from 13% in 2009; 18% did not achieve the mathematics standard – up from 13% in 2009; and 15% did not achieve the science standard – up from 11% in 2009.

The latest NAPLAN results show large gaps in achievement between disadvantaged and advantaged students. In 2016, low socio-economic status (SES) Year 9 students were about four years of learning behind their high SES peers in reading, writing and numeracy. Indigenous Year 9 students were four to five years behind high SES students.

Some 15% of low SES Year 9 students are below the national minimum reading standard compared to less than 1% of high SES students; 30% are below the minimum writing standard compared to 5% of high SES students; and 9% are below the numeracy standard compared to virtually no high SES students. The picture is very much worse for Indigenous students: 29% are below the reading standard; 50% are below the writing standard, and 21% are below the numeracy standard.

The vast majority of low SES and Indigenous students are enrolled in public schools – about 80% of low SES students and nearly 85% of Indigenous students. Yet, funding for public schools has been drastically cut while funding for private schools increased.

The Barnett Government has no commitment to reducing disadvantage in education by targeting funding increases where they are most needed and would do the most good. It has abandoned disadvantaged students in public schools in favour of more support for private schools. Its priority has been to increase privilege in education at the expense of disadvantaged students.

The Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has criticised state governments for not maintaining their investment in school education over recent years while the Commonwealth increased its funding effort. But, one of the first steps taken by the Abbott Government was to scrap the obligations on the states to increase their funding in line with Commonwealth increases under the Gonski funding plan. The then education minister, Christopher Pyne, derided the conditions attached to Commonwealth funding under the plan as ‘command and control’ measures and said that “it would be up to the states to decide whether they spend their money or not because they are sovereign Governments and should be treated like adults”.

Birmingham now says that the Federal Government will require states and territories to at least maintain the real level of their per student funding effort. The next Western Australian Government should agree to this, commit to reversing past cuts to public school funding and target increases at disadvantaged students and schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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