Is that all there is? A bad deal for government schools

May 16, 2023
Modern classroom with white floor. High school.View of the interior of elementary school. During the semester break, there were no students, the chairs were put on the tables.

This year’s budget will not set school education alight. It contains too many harsh lights, some bright lights and certain very soft lights. Funding arrangements have endured in the budget that will mean the diminishment of government schools and the expansion of non-government schools.

Harsh lights

For 2023/4, $28.3 billion will be provided for all schools. There are modest increases to government and non-government school funding from 2023/4 to 2026/7. Non-government schools go from $16,646 in 2023/4 to $19,260 in 2026/7. Government schools go from $10,264 in 2023/4 to $12,108 in 2026/7.

Clearly, non-government schools still enjoy considerable largesse over this period. No one expected otherwise because the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) between state/territory and federal governments was delayed until late 2024.

Schools will continue to be funded according to the Schools Resource Standard (SRS). This is an ‘estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs’. The harsh funding mix between government and non-government schools remains.

This mix is a federal arrangement involving an 80/20 split. The wealthier federal government provides 80% of non-government school funding and 20% of government school funding. The poorer states and territories do the reverse. Usually, the federal government meets its SRS funding obligations to and even provides nongovernment schools with top ups. The states and territories do not usually meet their SRS funding obligations to government schools.

So, when considering national and state funding together nongovernment schools are overfunded, and government schools are underfunded. This endures under this budget.

This funding arrangement has meant the diminishment of government schools and the expansion of non-government schools. Further, government schools teach most disadvantaged students but don’t receive adequate funding to do so.

To address these problems structural change, of the sort proposed by the Gonski Review (2012), is vital. Is it likely?

The federal government has appointed an expert panel to inform the next NSRA. It will provide advice on specific reforms and relate them to tied funding. Its minimalist brief means it is unlikely to propose the systematic change necessary to boost government schools and arrest the flow of students to non-government schools. Targeting and tinkering are more likely.

Given that government schools must wait until the 2025 for any funding boost, the budget could have been more generous with top up money. Instead, it provides the ‘school upgrade fund’ which is not ongoing. In 2023/4, $215.8 million is provided for new classrooms, buildings, refurbishments and upgrades.

At least some government schools will get a makeover. Of course, this money will not afford them the opulence enjoyed by wealthy private schools. It won’t even let them match the facilities of the less affluent private schools that are rapidly multiplying in our ever-expanding new suburbs.

Meanwhile the federal government has made no promise and set no timeline for when government schools will receive their 100% SRS funding.

Soft lights

One soft light arises from ‘reprioritisation’ whereby unspent or recoverable monies are diverted to other priorities. Notably, the government expects ‘to recover $1.9 million over 4 years from 2023–24 (and $1.1 million per year ongoing) from ‘overpayments and improving funding integrity in non-government schools.’ It intends to enhance regulation and compliance to ‘prevent, detect and respond to non-compliance and fraud in the non-government school sector’. This won’t bother non-government schools much unless their fraudulence is publicly exposed.

Bright lights

A budget bright light is its strong support for Indigenous students. Its Better, Safer Future for Central Australia Plan includes ‘$40.4 million over two years from 2023-24 to schools in Central Australia to ‘improve school attendance and education outcomes’.

Programs for Indigenous children in Western Australia gained extra funding. For example, funding is added to its Building Boarding Schools on Country Program. This involves constructing a new boarding school at Windjana Gorge, a nearby Indigenous Education Research Centre and an upgrade to Yiramalay Studio School.

Such items speak to Minister Clare’s insistence that education better support the most disadvantaged. This view aligns with the SRS equity group funding loadings — ‘students with a disability, a low English proficiency, the socio-economically disadvantaged, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and school location and size’. But the budget did not help all these groups.

Such equity-group thinking it is often decontextualised. This budget’s community-based approaches to addressing disadvantage have much untapped potential for school education. These approaches include the ‘Stronger Places, Stronger People’ initiative and the ‘Thriving Suburbs Program’.

A further budget bright light is its attention to the crises associated with teacher recruitment, reputation, shortages and departures. These are associated with the heavy burdens of bureaucracy that distract teachers from teaching. The budget provides additional funding to the ‘Teacher Workforce Action Plan’, originally $9.3 million, additionally $328 million. National and state governments have developed this plan to ‘attract, train and retain people in the teaching profession’. Through the ‘Teacher Workload Reduction Fund’ ($25 million over 4 years from 2022–23) it recognises the need to better support teachers and to reduce their bureaucratic workloads. It also injects ‘$10 million over two years from 2022–23 for a national communications campaign to raise the status of the teaching profession’.

Two programs under the National Partnerships payments to the states can also be seen as bright lights. The Productivity Commission’s Review of the NSRA recommends that schools better address students’ well-being. Also, various pressures, over recent years, led to schools developing consent and respectful relationships programs and training. Both have gained support till 2026/7. All up $307.2 million for the former and $69.4 million for the latter. Further, the Covid 19 period contributed to mental health issues for many students and funding for this was also boosted ($192.0 million).

The lack of available mental health services beyond the school makes school-based services vital. Further, given the ongoing problems associated with violence against women and girls, consent and respectful relationships education is essential. Interestingly, nongovernment schools get almost half the consent and respectful relationships funding even though they constitute only 34% of the school population.

That’s all there is this time. Next time, Minister, you must deliver a much better deal for government schools.

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