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.