The Real Class War on Display

The real class war in education was on show this week. It was an object lesson in how the rich ruthlessly exploit their power to gain privileges at the expense of the poor and less well-off. Within a few days they extracted commitments to a funding increase for private schools which will likely amount to about $1.5 billion from the Federal Government and an unspecified increase from the Coalition.

A scare campaign on school funding initiated by Independent school organisations, which represent the wealthiest schools in Australia, had the leaders of both major parties vying frantically to curry favour. Independent schools claimed that over 3200 schools would lose funding under the Gonski report recommendations. The claims were orchestrated throughout the Murdoch Sunday papers. Lists of schools, private and government, which would allegedly lose hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars were bandied about. It was alleged that schools would lose a total of $1.45 billion a year at an average of about $450,000 per school.

It was no matter that the claims were wholly without foundation. It was no matter that they ignored the consistent promise of the Federal Labor Government over the past couple of years that “no school would lose a dollar” under new school funding arrangements. It was no matter that they ignored loadings for low income, Indigenous, disability, non-English language and remote area students recommended in the Gonski report that will boost funding for many government and private schools. It was no matter that they ignored that many disadvantaged private and government schools would gain from the report’s recommendation that an additional $5 billion a year be targeted to these schools.

But, they were enough to send political leaders scurrying to appease the rich and powerful.

The claims scared the life out of the Prime Minister. She was quick to ingratiate herself to the Independent Schools National Education Forum:

I am incredibly proud of the way that as we’ve gone through this big journey of change, independent school leaders have been a partner with us, with me, in every step of the way.
You have never said go slower or don’t go as hard, every stage of the journey you have urged us on, because you want to see the best for the kids you teach at every stage of their education….you’ve always been there for the big changes that go with the extra resources.
Your sincere and complete support for progress in Australian schools has been vital to the success of our approach….
I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought ‘That’s not fair’. I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think ‘That’s a great example’.

The last statement is in sharp contrast to what she said about the current SES funding model when it was introduced by the Howard Government. She rightly criticised funding increases to elite private schools as “both ridiculous and unfair”. But, of course, consistency of principle does not matter when the priority is to toady to the moneyed elite.

She gave them a big new promise. Not only would no school lose a dollar as she has long re-assured private schools but every school, even the richest, will get a funding increase. She promised that: “Every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase under our plan”.

The Federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, chimed in to say that this means that schools will get a real increase in funding, that is, it will exceed cost increases.

This promise has far-reaching implications. It means that the Government has committed to a massive increase in funding for private schools.

Under the current arrangements, Federal recurrent funding of private schools increases by about 6% a year. A real increase means it must increase by more, say at least 7%. On 2009-10 figures, this implies an increase of at least $456 million and maybe it will be even more.

It also means that many highly privileged schools that are currently over-funded get to keep their over-funding and have it increased in real terms. There are over 1000 so-called “funding maintained” (FM) schools which are over-funded by $615 million (2010 figures) and this will be increased as part of the promise to increase real funding. All this over-funding goes to medium and high SES private schools. No low SES private school is funding maintained.

But, there is more because the Prime Minister made another promise. She also promised that “all students, regardless of school, will be funded on a consistent basis for the first time”. This means that all schools with a similar socio-economic status (SES) will be funded at the same rate. This was a key recommendation of the Gonski report.

However, the FM schools at each SES score are funded at higher rates than other schools funded according to their SES score – an incoherence of the current funding arrangements criticised by the Gonski report. In order for all private schools to funded on a consistent basis, the funding rates for the non-FM schools will have to be increased to match the highest FM rate at each SES score because the promises that “no school will lose a dollar” and that all schools will get a real funding increase mean that the FM funding rates cannot be reduced.

Preliminary estimates indicate that this commitment to funding private schools on a consistent basis would give a funding increase of $275 million a year to just 74 high SES private schools across Australia based on 2009 figures. The total figure for all non-FM schools will be very much bigger. There are nearly 1100 private schools with an SES score above about 92 (where the FM funding starts) which are currently funded at their SES score rate. All these schools will get an increase in funding to match the maximum FM rates at each SES score. Given that just 74 schools currently funded at their SES score rate will get an additional $275 million a year, the total increase is likely to be of the order of an additional $1 billion a year on 2009 figures, or even more.

Together, the promises of a real increase in funding for all private schools and to fund all schools on a similar basis will result in a massive boost in funding to private schools of the order of $1.5 billion. It is going to make a big hole in the Gonski funding bucket for disadvantaged students and schools. The rich gain at the expense of the disadvantaged.

Nor was the Leader of the Opposition to be left out from genuflecting to those he serves. He intoned:

I stand before you as a proud Australian, as a product of the independent school system, as someone who believes that I can say with deep conviction that I am a friend of the independent schools of Australia. I know them intimately. I am a friend of the independent schools of Australia and I think that you can judge me by my deeds and not simply by my words.

He claimed that Independent schools are victims of an “injustice” because their proportion of government funding is less than their enrolment proportion. Incredibly, he said “…there is no question of injustice to public schools here. If anything, the injustice is the other way”.

The implication is that Independent schools deserve same funding entitlement as government schools even though almost 50% of their secondary students are from high SES families and only 10% are from low SES families. Contrast that with government schools where 35% of secondary students are from low SES families and only 16% are high SES. Government schools also have three to four times the proportion of Indigenous, disability and remote area students as Independent schools.

Abbott’s statement revealed a disgraceful and callous disregard for the large proportion of disadvantaged students who are not receiving an adequate education. Low-income students are on average two to three years behind their high-income peers at age 15 as are remote area students. Indigenous students are three to four years behind. 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.

If Australia is to do anything about these massive achievement gaps it is government schools which should get the large bulk of future funding increases, not wealthy private schools. Government schools enrol the vast majority of educationally disadvantaged students – nearly 80% of low income and disability students, 86% of Indigenous students, and 83% of remote area students. Independent schools do not perform anywhere near the same social obligations as government schools.

Yet, Abbott’s first priority is to defend and extend the privileges of the wealthy. It is all about protecting the resource advantage of schools that serve the wealthy.

It is clear that disadvantaged students can expect little from a Coalition government. Its education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has already said as much. He says that Australia does not have an equity problem in education. This is why he proposed ripping out $330 million from the Low SES School Communities national partnership program in the last election campaign and to introduce a 50% tax rebate on school fees which would cost about $1 billion. The rebate would, of course, largely benefit wealthy families whose children attend high-fee Independent schools.

Not to be outdone in the fawning stakes, the Coalition responded to Gillard with its own promise to increase funding for private schools. This promise and the Coalition’s commitment to retain the current incoherent funding model will ensure that elite private schools continue to have a massive resource advantage over disadvantaged government and private schools.

There is now complete bi-partisan agreement to support privilege in education in Australia. The rich are entitled to government funding according to both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and they bent over backwards this week to get their message across. They committed to another windfall gain for medium and high SES private schools – $1.5 billion from Labor and an unspecified amount from the Coalition.

Neither Gillard nor Abbott mentioned disadvantage and the achievement gap between rich and poor. Six months after the Gonski report was handed down, Gillard has still not committed, even in principle or in part, to its recommendation for a $5 billion increase in funding for disadvantaged students and schools. Yet, within a day of the rich and powerful applying pressure, Gillard came good with another $1.5 billion which could be better spent on disadvantaged government and private schools.

At least there was one dissenting voice from political party ranks – interestingly, from the Coalition, not Labor. The NSW Coalition Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, got it in a nutshell:

I think everybody actually knows what the right thing to do is: to have needs-based funding. Who can oppose that, unless you have some sort of overriding ideology and, unfortunately, overriding ideologies are overriding what is an eminently sensible and fair thing to do for all Australians. I think it’s terrible. [Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 2012]

Whenever public education advocates and schools claim funding priority for disadvantaged students and government schools, representatives of the rich criticise them for “class envy” and “class war”. There is indeed class warfare out there, but it is being conducted by the wealthy and it has been going on for a long time. As the multi-billionaire business magnate, Warren Buffett, so famously said a few years ago:

There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning. [New York Times, 26 November 2006]

This week showed how it is done. We saw the real class war and just how powerful are the wealthy.

Trevor Cobbold

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