The Pressure is on the Gonksi Review to Deliver on Equity

The following is a summary of a speech delivered by the National Convenor of Save Our Schools, Trevor Cobbold, to the State Council of the State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia in Perth on 19 November 2011. It can be downloaded below.

If the Gonski Review of school funding is to deliver on its own equity goal it must deliver a new school funding model that restricts funding for wealthy private schools and provide a large boost in funding for government schools.

The Review has repeatedly said that its primary focus is to improve equity in education outcomes. It has set its own standard by which its recommendations will be judged.

If it fails to deliver this, it will look like the vested interests of privilege have prevailed again in regards to school funding. After all, three of the six members of the committee represent private school interests and a fourth is on record as advocating markets in education with more choice and competition.

Mr. Gonski himself faces a stern test of his commitment to improve equity in education. Is he prepared to recommend that the $4.5 million in taxpayer funding for his old school, Sydney Grammar – and of which he was chairman before being appointed to head the Review – be diverted to low income government and private schools?

The current SES funding model is inequitable, wasteful, capricious and incoherent. It is a canker on Australia’s egalitarian ethos. It has diverted millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to the wealthiest families and schools in Australia while those most in need are denied adequate funding.

Funding for private schools must be overhauled. It is time to give priority to funding real need rather than greed.

Government schools enrol the vast majority of students whose family backgrounds are associated with low levels of school achievement. Census data shows that 77% of low income students attend government schools and the latest enrolment data shows that 86% of Indigenous students, 79% of disability students, and 83% of remote area students attended government schools in 2009.

The results from latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that, on average, low SES 15 year-old students are two to three years behind high SES students in reading, mathematics and science. The gaps have increased since in 2006.

Other 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 2-2½ years on average behind non-Indigenous students and are three to four years behind high SES students. Remote and very remote area students are about 18 months behind metropolitan students, and are two to three years behind high SES students.

Similar large achievement gaps are also apparent in NAPLAN results. For example, a recent report by the COAG Reform Council shows that 18% of low SES students in Years 5 & 9 did not achieve the national reading benchmark in 2010 compared to 2% of high SES students.

Despite the greater challenges faced by government schools, government funding priorities have favoured private schools over the last decade or more. The largest increases in total government funding (federal, state and territory) have gone to private schools. Schools serving the wealthiest families continue to receive large and increasing amounts of government funding. Much lower increases were awarded to government schools.

The most privileged school sector – Independent schools – received the largest increase. Between 1998-99 and 2007-08, government funding per student in Independent schools increased by 112% and 84% for Catholic schools. The increase for government schools was only 67%.

Some of the biggest funding increases have gone to the wealthiest schools. For example, Federal funding per secondary student in 22 NSW elite schools increased by an average of 118% between 2001 and 2011. This compared with a 70% increase in total government funding for NSW government schools in the nine years between 1998-99 and 2007-08.

In Victoria, Federal funding increased by 211% for 17 wealthy schools compared to 63% for Victorian government schools between 2001 and 2011.

The result of these increases is that the wealthiest schools and families in Australia are now being subsidised to the tune of $3000 – $5000 per secondary student.

In contrast, the additional Federal funding provided to disadvantaged schools under the Smarter Schools National Partnership program is less than $500 per student. Thus, Federal Government funding for high fee private schools is 6 to 10 times greater than the additional funding provided to disadvantaged schools.

It is a national disgrace and a scandal.

There can be no justification for providing millions in government funding to schools that are the preserve of the wealthy. It means that less funding is available for schools serving the education needs of low income, Indigenous students and students with disabilities.

It means fewer teachers, fewer support staff, lower salaries, fewer books and less equipment than is needed in schools serving low SES students and other equity groups. That is, less of everything that matters for those who need it most.

Having made massive gains in the last 15 years, private school organisations representing the wealthiest schools now want even more. They are making another brazen grab for more government funding.

Several organisations advocate the introduction of student entitlement funding models, which is code for vouchers. For example, Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) have proposed that all students in government and private schools should receive the same base government funding entitlement topped up by equal loadings for students in certain categories of disadvantage.

Neither has given any indication of the overall impact of their model on funding for government and private schools. There can be little wonder at their reticence. Both models will provide a massive funding increase for private schools but no increases for government schools. Indeed, under particular assumptions, they will result in a massive reduction in funding for government schools.

Well-off private schools have already received some $6 billion in over-funding under the SES funding model since it was introduced. Having done its job, they are now prepared to ditch it in favour of another scheme which will give them billions more. Their greed is insatiable. It is a graphic case of power and privilege at work.

Instead of more increases in government funding for private schools, the Gonksi review should recommend a massive increase in government school funding to reduce the large achievement gaps and improve equity in education. An additional $6 billion a year is needed to close the achievement gap between low SES students and the average for all students. Even greater increases in funding are needed to eliminate the achievement gap between low and high SES students.

Trevor Cobbold

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