Chris Bonnor. Malcolm abandons the middle in schooling

Apr 2, 2016

Two plus years of conservative government has given oxygen to a number of strange solutions to ill-defined problems. Malcolm Turnbull’s proposal to have the States alone fund government schools, leaving the Commonwealth to look after private schools, is the latest.

As a serious suggestion it has been widely condemned, but it would be premature to dismiss it as a piece of spontaneous kite flying. Conservatives have been playing in this space for some time. In April 2014 the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) flagged having wealthy parents paying fees for public education. Around the same time Tony Abbott commissioned another Tony (Shepherd) to come up with ideas, including about funding for schooling. Most of his suggestions were wisely ignored – but issues arising from having schools funded by two levels of government struck a nerve.

Then in June last year the Abbot government’s green paper on federation reform contained a proposal for the Commonwealth to abandon funding of public schools. It was one of four options – but it seems Turnbull’s current proposal has won the day. Malcolm has lurched to the right again. That emotional attachment of the Coalition to private schools, once declared by Christopher Pyne, won’t be shaken.

It’s not that having two levels of government play around with schools isn’t a problem. It certainly is – and it helps explain why our current framework of schools is largely unsustainable. It’s just that sensible solutions to date have been placed in the too hard basket – or modified out of contention after lobbying by sectional interests.

The best example is Gonski’s recommendation that a Commonwealth/State schools resourcing body be established to help restructure school funding to reflect student needs, regardless of sector. Both levels of government would contribute, but the allocation of funding would be well outside the political sphere and arguably manageable across levels of government.

The fact that it didn’t happen is regrettable – because the Prime Minister’s current proposal is going to open a pandora’s box of new problems, while failing to resolve longstanding ones. In their most generous moments there will be few observers who would believe that a Coalition government will slow down galloping funding increases to private schools.

Even leaving aside the school sector trench warfare that would be renewed, shifting all funding of public schools to the states, in the absence of any overarching equity monitoring, risks cementing the inexplicable variations between the states in the way they currently fund schools.

There are many examples, best illustrated by comparing recurrent funding for secondary schools with an average level of socio-educational advantage (ICSEA 950-1050). On average the state and territory governments across Australia fund each student in these schools at around $10,260 (2013 figures from My School). Location alone suggests that there will be noticeable differences between the states/territories: Students in the Northern Territory, for example, are funded at $16,400, well above the national average.

But secondary students in Victoria are funded at around 60% of the level of students in the ACT. In fact Victorian public school students are funded by their state government at levels well below those in other states. If you want to be a well-resourced public secondary student, don’t attend high school in Victoria, or for that matter in Tasmania. Aside from the two territories, the best funding per student comes from the state governments of South Australia and Western Australia.

It’s not as if current Commonwealth funding solves any of these problems. The average federal recurrent funding to state public secondary school students was $2000 three years ago. Victoria, Tasmania and especially Queensland are well below this figure. There may be a good explanation for these variations but I’ve missed it.

The patterns of capital expenditure on schools by the states…just don’t seem to form any pattern at all. The last time I checked (two years ago) annual capital expenditure per government school student in NSW and Victoria averaged around $500, but had generally declined over four years. In contrast, capital expenditure per student in Queensland government schools almost trebled, to around $1700 per student in 2012. Capital expenditure increased in South Australia. It also increased in Tasmania to 2011, yet all but disappeared in 2012. Western Australia showed a three year decline followed by a substantial boost in 2012.

In the light of all this it is instructive to read the following in Matthew Knott’s SMH report. He showed how last year’s green paper warned that the option now adopted by Turnbull

“could, however, lead to very different funding models being applied across the states and territories and between the government and non-government sectors, leading to differences in the level of public funding for schools with similar population characteristics.”

Too late, that’s already happening – and on a large and inexplicable scale. Left to their own devices – especially the political ones – governments at both levels won’t get it right. We have to get back to Gonski’s recommendation to set up a schools resourcing body, funding schools on need with the money coming from both levels of government. Yes, where the money comes from is important, but where it goes, and who is checking, is critical.

In the meantime and while he is licking his COAG wounds, the Prime Minister could do worse than read Jessice Irvine’s piece in the Fairfax media. Why would a canny investor like Malcolm Turnbull ignore the big dividends which would come from investing in schools?

“Kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds are our greatest untapped source of potential growth. They are our most undervalued stock…..Investing in our most vulnerable kids remains the best social investment strategy around. Only a foolish investor would turn his back on it.”

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Director of Big Picture Education Australia.

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