Chris Bonnor. The education gap is widening.

Jan 9, 2015

A repost in case you missed this important article by Chris Bonnor.  John Menadue


It appears we are going to have yet another tilt at reforming federalism. The persistent overlap between the Commonwealth and states in school education is frequently stated as reason enough to rethink the roles of government. Last May the Commission of Audit demonstrated its expertise in matters educational by suggesting that the states, almost alone, should run education.

Recently Terry Moran wrote in favour of shifting funding and responsibilities back to the states. His first example was schooling, something he said could be passed to the states, in the process eliminating what he called the “programmatic confetti that has been traditionally sprinkled by Commonwealth ministers across the education sector”.

Part of me warms to such forays into federalism. The record of the Commonwealth is mixed, at best. It swings around with each change of government and distributes funding to schools in ways which David Gonski described as lacking logic or consistency. It torments schools with what is loosely described as education reform, some of which can easily be described as “programmatic confetti”.

But school education demonstrates a problem. Efficiency should always be on the agenda, but so should consistency, excellence and equity. One response to the need for consistency is the Australian curriculum. A response to the need for excellence and equity was the Gonski review. An agenda driven by concern about efficiency could easily turn back the clock on achievements in such areas.

Shifting responsibility for school education entirely to the states just won’t happen. We’ll always need better co-ordination between the states and with the Commonwealth. The problem is that proposals to establish this co-ordination have not been seriously considered.

In the case of resourcing school education the best example is the National Schools Resourcing Body proposed by the Gonski review. It could have eliminated most of the current anomalies in the way we provide and resource schools. For inexplicable reasons, most likely inertia, it just didn’t happen.

Along with my colleague Bernie Shepherd I’ve used data from the My School website to illustrate what are both anomalies and absurdities arising because we don’t have a National Schools Resourcing Body.

Let me illustrate some.

We’ve long known that, without any constitutional rationale, the states overwhelmingly fund government schools while the Commonwealth favours non-government schools. In the main, funding from governments takes school and student need into account. If the needs demonstrated by each of the main sectors is any guide (using data from My School) funding should be flowing, in greater amounts per student, to government schools.

But in the years 2009-2012 increases in funding certainly did not reflect relative needs. The combined per student recurrent funding from all governments increased by just 10.9% for students attending government schools. The increase for students attending Catholic schools was 19.8% and 20% for students in Independent schools. The overall pattern certainly is the inverse of what would reasonably be expected – with almost no difference between Independent and Catholic schools despite the greater demonstrable level of student need in the latter.

Some might think this is an argument to pass funding over to the states, but let’s see what they are currently doing. Once again My School data provides a clue.

On average across Australia, state and territory recurrent funding to government schools increased between 2009 and 2012, but with large variations. The largest increases (around 5%) went to students in Queensland, ACT, Tasmania and South Australia. Funding increases in NSW, Victoria and WA were far more modest at around 2%, and recurrent funding per Northern Territory student actually went down.

The differences between the states are even more evident when it comes to funding non-government schools. Funding for Catholic schools tended to rise by around 5-6% across Australia, but rose by 11.4% per student in Victoria and by 2.4% in NSW. Independent schools received more consistently high increases, with the greatest increases again in Victoria. In all states except Queensland funding per student in non-government schools increased at a higher rate than for government schools. The pattern in the two territories varied.

State and territory governments also direct most capital expenditure to government schools, but again there is little evidence of any balance. In round figures the capital expenditure figure was $700 per Australian student in 2009 and also in 2010, and closer to $900 in 2011 and 2012 – but there were great variations between the states.

Annual capital expenditure per government school student in NSW and Victoria averaged around $500, but generally declined over the 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 the reverse pattern: a three year decline followed by a substantial boost in 2012.

States and territories did not provide significant capital funding to non-government schools, with the exception of the Northern Territory and Queensland. On average, Queensland provided almost as much capital funding to non-government school students as South Australia provided to government school students.

These examples don’t create much confidence that funding of schools is best left to the states alone. Nor should the Commonwealth have sole responsibility. For school education the way through lies in balance between governments and a balanced attention given to efficiency, consistency, excellence and equity. The Gonski review’s proposed National Schools Resourcing Body is a solution for school education. Just do it!


Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. More about his analysis, with Bernie Shepherd, of My School data is available at

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