CHRIS BONNOR. Institutionalised farce: funding Australia’s schools.


The nation’s education ministers have just had a day together to sort out school funding. There was considerable posturing but little agreement. And they managed to sidestep real problems and urgent solutions. They do have some awareness of the institutionalised inequality created, in part, by school funding – but no real will to fix it.

In a new report Bernie Shepherd and I outline the problem, starting with the contrasts between the schools in Albury and Wodonga, two of our most prominent border towns. One school on the NSW side is Albury Public School. Across the Murray is Wodonga Primary School with students who are less advantaged. After all the talk about equity you’d expect the strugglers at Wodonga to be better supported. Quite the opposite: while NSW annually provides over $8000 for each of the students at Albury Public, those in the Victorian school make do with $2000 less.

How odd – for schools so close? But this is happening all over Australia. Large numbers of public school students are funded at up to 50% more than others. Federal Minister Simon Birmingham has now used this type of information to demonstrate negligence by the States in the way they have funded schools. He has also (very selectively) used Ken Boston’s analysis by showing how Gonski’s recommendations had been corrupted in their implementation. Let’s face it, the Minister is right on both counts – even if he also selectively apportions the blame. It’s everyone’s mess!

The federal government tells us we are well into the post-Gonski era and have to create something else. The something else has already been revealed as continuing two decades of sector bias without meeting real need. As the SMH reported, it’s almost certainly back to the bad old days. But it doesn’t have to be like that. At least one alternative and better suggestion has already been floated, including by Grattan’s Peter Goss.

But the problem is that the very word ‘Gonski’ is almost a proxy for ‘school money’. The reality is that Gonski proposed solutions to a host of school funding related issues. Do we need something different to show how to lift their strugglers, where the money could come from and how to get it to where it is needed? No, that’s what Gonski did. Our problem is that most governments walked away from his vital recommendations. NSW did reach an agreement with the federal government and initiated what seems, at this stage, to be a very successful ‘Gonski-like’ program. What an irony that it now it has to fight to guarantee the remaining federal share of the cost.

Of course we know that real progress in schools is not just about money; we get told that so often, especially by people … with money. But an equal post-Gonski problem is that we didn’t bother with the mechanisms needed to make the funding side work. Labor ran a mile from Gonski’s proposed Schools Resourcing Body, the proposed mechanism to coordinate funding from different governments. The Coalition then told the states they could do as they wish. After all, they were “adult governments”, according to previous minister Christopher Pyne.

Over the last five years some of these adult governments have neglected their own public school children. They have also upped the funding of non-government schools, creating another policy conundrum. Strange how Birmingham didn’t mention that.

Simon Birmingham needs to take the lead at the Ministerial Council and establish the infrastructure required to make needs-based funding happen right across Australia. And all the ministers need to revisit Gonski’s findings and recommendations. Let’s face it, Gonski was sent out on a mission impossible: improve equity without taking money away from anyone. He achieved this by showing how to distribute new money in fairer ways. If the new money isn’t found then existing funding needs to be redistributed. If doing Gonski was hard, then taking money from the advantaged and investing it in the strugglers is going to be much harder.

But the do little or nothing solution will see our framework of schools increasingly fail. This failure is very evident in the data that emerges each year about our schools. Student achievement is ordinary, we are widening the gaps between the haves and have-nots, too much money is spent at the advantaged end, the strugglers are increasingly corralled together, inequity is on the rise.

It’s hard to believe: all these matters, along with the opportunity we lost when we sidelined Gonski, didn’t feature on the agenda at the ministerial talk-fest.

Maybe next time.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.


Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. Thanks to Dean Ashenden for assistance in the preparation of this article.

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3 Responses to CHRIS BONNOR. Institutionalised farce: funding Australia’s schools.

  1. Avatar slorter says:

    While ever neoliberal dogma permeates the political scene from both left and right nothing will be done! This dogma believes in a social hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots”. They have taken this corrosive social vision and dressed it up with a “respectable” sounding ideology which all boils down to the cheap labour they depend on to make their fortunes. Many cheap-labour conservatives are hostile to public education. They think it should be privatized. School vouchers are just a backdoor method to widen the gap. Neoliberalism has seen the gradual erosion of the nation state, and in its place Transnational Corporations have infiltrated Federal governments worldwide. The beginning of this atrophy in Australia can be traced back to the Hawke/Keating governments. Hawke and then Keating implemented the Neoliberal system in Australia be under a global environments trending that way, weakening of import tariffs and the selling off of public assets such as the Commonwealth Bank. The LNP has continued to implement this dogmatic ideology on Australian citizens.Today we have fake job centres churning people through a system that has at least 1 million unemployed and close to a million underemployed. The system is designed to be dysfunctional. It is the perfect opportunity for privately owned job agencies to suck government funding for a nonexistent service. Added to this, it suits the Neoliberal power-brokers to keep millions unsettled and poor. This serves their ultimate purpose, which is to make people so desperate for employment, that they will take any job, no matter how poor the conditions. Mass unemployment also keeps the hourly rate of pay low. The greater the demand for work, the more power the capitalist class have in exploiting workers. Why would you want a healthy public education system in this climate!

  2. Avatar Graham English says:

    ‘gone’ to the same school. Urgh!

  3. Avatar Graham English says:

    I went to a truly awful Catholic secondary school. It was in a country town in the 1950s. The infrastructure was terrible, the staff was mostly unqualified, the emphasis was on making sure we all became good Mass going Catholics, not on teaching us to think or to continue our education beyond school. Most of the boys left at the end of year nine.
    I attended that school because my parents felt obliged to send us to Catholic schools. And they thought they were doing us a favour.

    I don’t know if the local state high school was much better. I do know that had all the secondary aged kids in the town went to the same school we’d have had a more varied curriculum. I hope it would have meant we’d have had all qualified teachers some of whom had been to university and who’d have encouraged us to do likewise.

    All that is long ago and far away. I hope there are no schools, independent or otherwise like that now. But it left me knowing that parents choose schools, not kids and often enough they do not choose what is best for their child, especially if they are not educated themselves or if they are otherwise disadvantaged.

    Therefore it is up to governments to ensure that as far as possible kids get the best education they can. And generally this means paying a lot of attention to the kids who are likely to be disadvantaged. Schools in middle class suburbs do well in exams mostly. Middle class parents, usually educated themselves, tend to choose better schools.

    I am not one of those ‘eat the rich’ people. If Somewhere-or-other College can afford two heated swimming pools and an auditorium that Carnegie Hall would envy good for them. If parents can afford $30,000 a year for each of their children go for it. But like Chris Bonnor I am all for money being spent at the disadvantaged end. I’ve been there and had that done to me. I am firmly on the side of the have-nots. Spend the money where it is needed.

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