The Federal Govt. Should End the Secrecy on its School Funding Model

The Federal Government should end the secrecy on its preferred school funding model and release the details for public comment. There is a very real danger that the needs of government schools and disadvantaged students are being discounted in secret negotiations with state governments and private schools. Ending the secrecy would allow government school organisations to participate in the discussions.

The public has not been given any details on the amount of funding and how it will be allocated. All this is being negotiated behind closed doors with state and territory governments and Catholic and Independent schools. Government school organisations are excluded from the formal negotiations.

No one can seriously believe that the five Liberal state/territory governments are going to give priority to government schools and disadvantaged students. As Tony Abbott has said, supporting the funding of Independent and Catholic schools is “in our DNA”.

It is outrageous that government school organisations are not included in the negotiations. Government schools are entitled to have as much, if not more, say in the formulation of the new funding model as private schools. They enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students for whom the Gonski recommendation for additional funding is intended.

The Government should immediately release its proposed model and engage with government school organisations over the details just as it is with private school groups.

Unless details of the new model are released this week there will be little opportunity for any genuine public scrutiny, debate and input on the model. The Government says that the details will not be released to the public until March or April next year. This is much too late. If left to then, the new funding arrangements will be a fait accompli to be rushed through the parliament before the Federal election.

There are many outstanding issues still to be considered thoroughly by government school organisations and the public.

One is the funding loadings to be applied to low socio-economic status (SES), Indigenous, remote area, disability and non-English speaking students. The funding loadings have received little public discussion, but they are critical to the model and will determine the total funding to be allocated to these students.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the Gonski report got it wrong on the funding loadings to be applied to low SES students. It proposed loadings ranging from an extra 10% of the school resource standard for each low SES student in schools with under 10% of students in the lowest SES quarter to 50% for each low SES student in schools with more than 75% of students in the lowest SES quarter. Thus, at best a low SES student in a very high SES school would be allocated and extra $5,000 if the national resource standard is determined at $10,000 per student.

This appears much too low to ensure that low SES students achieve a benchmark standard, which is only the minimum equity goal. Research studies show that educationally disadvantaged students should receive large additional funding to meet education standards. For example, several education cost studies show that the additional expenditure required for low income students is double or more the cost of educating an average student. This would require an additional $10,000 per student if the national resources standard is $10,000 per student.

If the loadings for low SES students are too low, then the total funding to be allocated to all disadvantaged students to achieve national minimum standards will also be too low. Thus, the extra $6.5 billion being discussed for disadvantaged students is unlikely to be enough.

Similarly, there should be more debate about the loadings for disability students. The Gonski report did not provide an indicative estimate of these loadings and the Government has failed to release any estimates for comment and discussion. This is a critical issue for government schools. They enrol nearly 80% of all disability students.

Another major issue that has not been discussed openly is how the Federal Government plans to ensure that all private schools are funded on a consistent basis without reducing the funding of “funding maintained” (FM) schools. FM schools are funded at higher rates than other schools on the same SES score.

The Government has committed to increasing funding for all private schools in real terms and that all students, regardless of school, will be funded on a consistent basis. This means that all schools on the same SES score will be funded at the same rate. It was a key recommendation of the Gonski report to counter the incoherence of the current SES funding model whereby schools on the same SES score may be funded at very different rates. It also means that FM schools will have their funding increased, not reduced.

These commitments imply that private schools currently funded at their SES score rate will have their funding increased to match that of FM schools. It will require a completely new set of funding rates that incorporates the highest FM rates at each SES score.

This would mean a massive funding boost for many elite private schools. For example, the Minister for Education’s old school, Barker College, could receive a huge increase of the order of $8 million a year, based on 2009 figures. Barker College is funded at the rate applying to its SES score of 127 which was $1,467 per primary student and $1,864 per secondary student in 2009. However, there are schools on the same SES score as Barker College but which are funded at much higher rates because they are FM schools. For example, the funding rates for St. Aloysius’ College at Milson’s Point were $2,682 per primary student and $3,801 per secondary student. The highest FM rates for schools on an SES score of 127 in 2009 were $4,710 and $5,984 for primary and secondary students respectively.

The Government’s commitments mean that Barker College and other schools funded at their SES rate will receive windfall increases in Federal Government funding. Many other elite schools would receive very large increases of over $4 million a year, based on 2009 figures.

In NSW, they include SCEGGS Redlands ($5.5 million), Abbotsleigh ($5.4 million), Newington College ($5.3 million), Cranbrook ($5 million) and The King’s School ($4.7 million). In Victoria, they include Caulfield Grammar ($9.6 million), Wesley College ($9.4 million), Carey Grammar ($7.9 million), Methodist Ladies College ($7.8 million), Scotch College ($7.1 million) and Melbourne Grammar ($6.8 million). In Queensland, they include Anglican Church Grammar ($5.4 million) and Brisbane Boys College ($5.7 million).

Similarly, Canberra Boys Grammar would gain $5.6 million and Canberra Girls Grammar $5.3 million. In Adelaide, the Pembroke School would get an increase of $5 million and Scotch College in Perth would gain $4.8 million.

Save Our Schools has estimated that the total windfall gain to private schools from the Government’s commitments at about $1.9 billion, but it could be more or less depending on the rate schedule adopted. This would put a huge hole in the Gonski funding bucket. The entire proposed 30% Federal Government contribution envisaged by the Gonski report would go to medium to high SES private schools and leave increased funding for disadvantaged students to the vagaries of negotiation with state and territory governments.

Such a windfall gain for well-off private schools would be an outrage and a calamity. It would be far better used to meet the educational needs of low income, Indigenous, disability and remote area students in government and private schools. It is these students who the Gonski report says should be given priority for future funding increases, not students from higher SES families.

The Government should come clean on the funding implications of its commitments to private schools. It should clarify whether it intends to deliver huge funding increases to higher SES private schools. Government secrecy is stopping public scrutiny.

While the Government’s commitment to implementing the Gonski funding model is a far reaching and welcome initiative, it has delayed releasing the details of its preferred funding model for far too long. It should immediately release them to allow public scrutiny and comment, especially by government school organisations which have been excluded from the process thus far.

Trevor Cobbold

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