It is no exaggeration to say that the future of Australia’s education system is in the hands of the Gonski committee, currently reviewing school funding. It is clear that a fundamental change in government funding priorities is required but it remains to be seen whether the Gonski committee, with its unbalanced representation, is up to the task.
The greatest challenge facing Australia’s education system is to reduce the large achievement gaps between rich and poor.
Students from low socio-economic status (SES) families are, on average, two years to 2½ years behind high-SES students in learning. Low-SES students enrolled in schools with a high proportion of students from low-SES families are almost four years behind students from high-income families in high-SES schools.
Indigenous students are 3½ years behind high-SES students. Remote-area students are two years to 2½ years behind and provincial students are 18 months behind.
The demands on government schools are especially great. They enrol the vast majority of educationally disadvantaged students. About 80 per cent of low-income, indigenous, remote-area and disability students attend government schools, and more than 70 per cent of provincial students do so.
These students comprise a much larger proportion of government school enrolments than in private schools. For example, low-income students comprise 40 per cent of government school enrolments, compared with only 22 per cent of independent school enrolments and 25 per cent in Catholic schools.
Thus, government schools face a much bigger challenge than private schools in dealing with education disadvantage. However, their resources are only 70 per cent of those of independent schools and are similar to Catholic school levels. New figures published by Save Our Schools show that average total expenditure in government schools in 2007-08 was $10,723 a student, compared with $15,147 in independent schools and $10,399 in Catholic schools.
Funding policies over the past decade have given greater priority to supporting privilege in education than to overcoming education disadvantage. The largest increases have gone to the most privileged school sector – independent schools. Government funding for independent schools increased by 112 per cent between 1998-99 and 2007-08 and by 84 per cent for Catholic schools, compared with 67 per cent for government schools.
Many of the most selective private schools in Australia have total expenditure of $20,000-$30,000 a student, or two times to three times more than government schools. Yet they receive $2000-$4000 a student in federal government funding. This is four times to eight times more than the additional $500 a disadvantaged student under the Smarter Schools National Partnership program.
Government funding for many wealthy schools has increased by more than 200 per cent since 2001. For example, it rose by 236 per cent for King’s School in Sydney and by 268 per cent for Geelong Grammar, the most expensive private school in Australia.
Funding policies are compounding privilege in education. Government schools are being denied the funding they need to provide an adequate education to all their students. Governments are in effect placing more value on enriching the lives of the privileged.
This is indefensible in a society that calls itself a democracy. It is a grave social injustice. It is a waste of talents, skills and resources and curbs productivity growth.
Governments are simply not doing enough to close the achievement gaps. Government schools will receive an additional $266 million a year through the Smarter Schools National Partnership programs for low-SES government schools and literacy and numeracy improvement.
This is a far cry from what is needed. Academic research studies show that the additional expenditure required for low-SES students to achieve at adequate levels is 100 per cent to 150 per cent more than the cost of educating an average student.
On this basis, about $6 billion to $9 billion more a year is needed for government schools to close the gap between low-SES students and the average for all students. Much more is needed to close the gap between low- and high-SES students.
A fundamental change in the funding priorities of federal and state governments is required to transform Australia’s high-quality, low-equity school system into a high-quality, high-equity system.
This should be the main task of the Gonski inquiry. However, the committee is compromised by conflicts of interest and private school interests are a majority.
We can only hope that privilege will not trump disadvantage in education yet again.
This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 November and on-line in the National Times.