In the seemingly never ending debate about the best way to fund our schools, relatively little consideration is given to the effects of the declining influence of state governments and the increasing exercise of power by the Commonwealth. However, in our discussions in the panel which reviewed school funding in Australia – the so-called Gonski review – state-commonwealth relations were, inevitably and necessarily, pivotal to our deliberations. It may come as no surprise that the recommendations that flowed from that analysis have been largely overlooked and relegated to the “too hard” basket.
Strictly speaking, the National Government has only limited constitutional power over schools. The authority it does exercise – with increasing intrusiveness into state decision making – derives from its powers to make grants to the states and territories. It is now a major player in funding, assessment and curriculum development.
It wasn’t until the 60s that the Commonwealth started to provide funds for schools, largely in response to concerns about resource adequacy in Catholic schools for Indigenous education. These pressures resulted in bipartisan support for state aid for non-government schools provided from the Commonwealth purse. Over time, this policy has widened existing divisions between school sectors, complicated administration and led to serious long-term distortions and inequalities in Australia’s schooling system – both educational and social – that have proved remarkably difficult to ameliorate.
The split responsibilities for funding and the glaring inequities between government (state funded) and independent (commonwealth funded) schools that have arisen derive, at least in part, from the apparently well-intentioned policies of the 60s and 70s. Over many decades, Commonwealth funding for private schools increased at a faster rate than for government schools, particularly during the years of the Howard government: between 1995 and 2005 federal funding for public schools increased by $261 per student while there was an increase of $1584 for each private school student. Data from the Productivity Commission show that total public funding has increased by 9.8% for private schools but only 3.3% for public schools over the last ten years. Recent announcements of special finding deals for increased funding to Catholic and Independent schools can only exacerbate this problem, while the adoption of Gonski style needs based funding has stalled. And despite repeated claims about such increases facilitating choice, it is clear that the extra funds to non-government schools have been used to improve facilities and decrease class sizes rather than to reduce fees.
One of the effects of these distortions is that, while Australia still has average to high standards of educational performance, there are growing signs this is falling off, and there are now bigger differences between the top and bottom performers than is true of many comparable countries. International data consistently show that more equitable systems routinely achieve higher levels of performance and that the link between student background and educational achievement is more marked in Australia than in other high performing OECD countries.
The drift of students and resources from government to non-government schools has accelerated here in the last decade or so and further concentrated wealthier students in the private sector. The higher up the social scale, the greater the drift.
A system which siphons off the children of wealthy and better educated parents into private schools has weakened the advocacy for public education, diluted the funding base and resulted in wasteful duplication. Resources which might be used to provide for improved facilities and teacher support in existing schools are diverted into setting up new school places. The absence of co-ordinated planning between Commonwealth and State Governments results in the creation of unnecessary school places and increases the costs per student without improving overall quality. For example, a recent report indicates that in New South Wales, despite much publicised population pressure, dozens of schools sit half empty, with space for thousands more students. The Department of Education figures show that there are 43 Sydney schools with a utilisation rate of 55 per cent or less; another 52 operate between 56 and 65 per cent.
This sort of wastefulness, the result of educational decisions made without reference to the cumulative impact on all schools, is one of the reasons the Gonski panel recommended that joint Commonwealth- State bodies for school planning be set up; this recommendation, if implemented, would ensure better use of taxpayers’ dollars and reduce the pressure for additional expenditure while improving the overall outcomes for students.
These trends toward concentrations of disadvantage are compounded by the selection and exclusion practices of some of the schools in highest demand who send the more costly and difficult students to the government system. Too many schools keep up their “standards” by washing their hands of those who often really need help.
It seems reasonable to insist that no school should be established unless it is clear that one is needed and should not receive taxpayers’ funds unless it is prepared to be fully accountable for those funds: to provide programs for all students, no matter what their ability; to allow students to choose whether or not to sit university entrance exams; and to retain all students who are enrolled until the end of their schooling, developing appropriate programs for managing those with severe social and emotional problems. Otherwise, our commitment to providing a quality education for all Australia student continues to look pretty thin.
Carmen Lawrence was former WA Premier and Commonwealth Minister.
This paper was presented at the Australian Institute’s Revenue Summit on October 17 2018