We should have known it would come to this. For years both Labor and the Coalition have ducked and weaved while the education sector battled to ensure that at least the Gonski funding hope was kept alive. Labor recast Gonski’s recommendations into a form that the Gonski panel would hardly recognize, and the Coalition was never committed – in fact it is only a few months since they announced that extra Gonski funding wasn’t going to happen.
But the agitation wouldn’t go away and the May budget included a further $1.2 billion. It comes with certain obligations imposed on the States, somewhat of a backflip from previous Minister Pyne’s rejection of any such “command and control”. It also comes with various other conditions, including performance pay for teachers, something which was amongst the shortest-lived of Labor’s previous initiatives.
Labor’s current Gonski commitment is $4.5 billion over 2018-19 – a much bigger ‘Gonski’. Labor Leader Bill Shorten has released a state-by-state and electorate-by-electorate breakdown of where the money will go. In effect Labor is promising what it sees as the full Gonski. It certainly isn’t and I’m not referring to money.
In response, Education Minister Birmingham – in the new Coalition regulatory mode – was quick to point out that Labor will continue a model riddled with inconsistencies in funding between the states, territories and non-government systems.
He could have added his own government as a contributor to such inconsistencies – but his response does raise significant questions. How will the funding be targeted, will it get there and under what forms of accountability? Even bigger questions include: what will be the purpose of this funding, how will it target need and what steps will be taken to ensure efficiency, consistency and efficacy?
These are the same questions that Gonski asked, and to which he provided answers, several years ago – but his solutions were never taken up. Funding was to be focused on need and bring schools up to a resource standard to improve student outcomes. It was to be coordinated by a federal/state schools resourcing body to create some logic in the way schools were funded by the two levels of government.
What has happened in the post-Gonski years is that the way we fund schools from both levels of government, has achieved almost farcical dimensions. Everyone seems to believe in equity and boosting the struggling schools – but the evidence shows that we have not been doing that. Recurrent funding increases (per student) for schools have been at the same rate for the advantaged and disadvantaged for the last six years. When it comes to school sectors, increases for non-government schools are running at double the rate of increases to government schools, the ones which enrol more of the strugglers. As I have previously shown, the differences between the states defy explanation.
The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition don’t have to go too far to see what has happened in the absence of efforts to achieve better coordination. Instead of visiting their local schools for the inevitable photo ops they could dig into what the funding data is showing about these same schools. What would they find?
Let’s start with Bill Shorten’s electorate of Maribyrnong. It includes a variety of government and non-government schools, funded in ways that must have escaped the notice of the local member. A couple of Catholic secondary schools are very well funded, in part because they enrol students with a below-average level of socio-educational advantage (SEA). The Catholic Regional College receives $15,320 per student in combined government funding – but this is over $3000 more than goes to nearby Braybrook College, a government school with an even lower SEA. It is also well ahead of Pascoe Vale Girls Secondary College and St Albans Secondary. Caroline Chisholm Catholic College, also in the electorate, is funded, by governments, at levels ahead of two of these government schools. There are also some inconsistencies between the government schools.
In effect the Catholic schools have become more public than the government schools – but only in terms of their funding. In their operation they are private schools. Only the government schools must be available to every local student, from every family and under every circumstance. Not only that, there is a raft of quite different obligations, accountabilities, policies and practices impacting on the two sectors. The school playing field is anything but level. Go figure!
So let’s visit the Prime Minister’s electorate in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There aren’t too many government schools there because previous governments, in their wisdom, closed them down and the current government is scrambling to meet the new demand for public school places. In NSW public funding of non-government schools seems to have been at more sustainable levels. But Yeshiva College and St Clare’s College, in the Wentworth electorate, manage to receive more public funding than the not too distant Rose Bay Secondary College and Randwick Girls High School. Yeshiva College has just 69 students, so diseconomies of scale apply, something which raises other questions. All these schools have a similar SEA level.
The electorate of Wentworth reveals more. The level of student achievement, as measured by NAPLAN, doesn’t significantly vary between schools which enrol similar students. But the total level of investment which goes into these similarly high achieving schools varies wildly, from around $12 000 per student in the public schools to double, and in some cases triple, that amount in the local private schools. With his background in business the Prime Minister would know about the need for investments to pay a dividend. It seems that the public investment of around $65 million each year in the private schools isn’t making much difference to student achievement. When he next wants to show that money doesn’t improve results he has the evidence on his doorstep. In the meantime, Bill Shorten might like to think about where the $15 million Gonski money he has earmarked for the electorate should not go.
In the past, to point to this sort of thing would raise the usual accusations of the politics of envy. There is not envy behind these figures, just dysfunction. Gonski’s sector-blind solution would have avoided this happening. But both parties have avoided most of Gonski’s important solutions, and now have to give urgent attention to resolving the consequences. They either have to reduce funding to the non-government schools or level the playing field in the ways they operate. Doing nothing isn’t an option.
But nothing is precisely what they will do.
Chris Bonnor AM FACE is a retired Australian principal, education writer and Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He is a previous president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council and author of several books including The Stupid Country and What Makes a Good School, both written with Jane Caro.