LYNDSAY CONNORS. Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Oct 14, 2016


Is the Hon. Simon Birmingham, Federal Minister for Education and Training, the man?

In his recent appearance on the ABC’s Q&A, Senator Birmingham announced that there are private schools that are ‘over-funded’.

This came as the Turnbull Government is under pressure to commit the Commonwealth to meeting its share of the funding required to achieve the Gonski resource standards. The Coalition Government will have, reluctantly, funded only one-third of the transition towards those standards by 2017. For schools that are yet to reach the appropriate standards under the formula developed by the Gonski Review in 2012 the Commonwealth bucks will stop there. The Coalition budget commitment of only $1.2 billion over four years will not do much more than cover the effects of inflation. It falls far short of the $3 billion needed to bring all schools to the Gonski standards in 2019 according to the timetable foreshadowed by the previous Labor Government.

When Birmingham announced that some private schools were ‘over-funded’, he seemed to be oblivious to the fact that this has been the case since 1973, when the Commonwealth first became a significant player in the recurrent funding of schools. So it is time to revisit the history of this ‘over-funding’ of private schools in Australia.

Established by the Whitlam Government in 1973, the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission set out its recommendations in the ground-breaking Karmel Report. These included resource targets and were

“… aimed at raising the standards of all schools that are below the target and at phasing out the financial support of the Australian government for those schools above that target”.

The Committee stated the following:

“In recommending this action the Committee does not do so because it disapproves of high standards – quite the reverse – but because it believes that government aid cannot be justified in maintaining or raising standards beyond those which publicly supported schools can hope to achieve by the end of the decade.”

But it took no time at all for religious sectarianism and the politics of entitlement to trump the concept of need.

The Whitlam government was unable to get its legislation for the establishment of the Schools Commission through the Senate without extending public grants to schools that were operating beyond the then recommended target resource standards.

The politics of Australia’s religious sectarianism had played their part in the Whitlam Government decision to deal the Commonwealth into a school funding partnership with the states and the private school authorities. But there was no denying the real need for higher public investment in the bulk of Australian schools.

The definition of ‘need’ proposed by the Karmel Committee meant that the lion’s share of ‘state aid’ for private schools would flow to the needy, over-crowded and rundown Catholic parish schools with their high proportion of students from low-income families. But the then Country Party was not going to stand for all that money flowing to schools serving the Catholic community, with its traditional links to Labor.   The price the conservatives demanded for passing the legislation was that a share of the funding go to the other private schools, which were mainly Protestant, well-endowed and more closely aligned politically with their own side of politics.

The point of re-visiting this history is that no educational rationale was ever provided, in 1973 or since, for the private school ‘over-funding’ recently acknowledged by the current federal Minister.

The murky sectarian politics that were on the verge of becoming obsolescent by 1973 live on in our school system, tainted as it is by resource inequalities that cannot be justified on educational or any other grounds. These have now reached the point where they are undermining efforts to raise outcomes overall.

Minister Birmingham has justified the Coalition’s decision to abandon the Gonski resource standards on the grounds that the original Gonski funding model has been ‘corrupted’. This argument, specious as it is, sounded touchingly innocent or naïve. Could Simon Birmingham really be unaware that needs-based schools funding models in this country have always been corrupted?

He has been reported recently in the media as having stated that he ‘was determined to do away with the cosy deals Bill Shorten ran around the country stitching up before the 2013 election” (“Gonski funds skewed to aid the Catholic school system”, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October, p.3).

But there is a long, long trail of ‘cosy deals’, mainly with Catholic schools, winding back through the history of schools funding since 1973. What Birmingham is confronting, whether he knows it or not, is the policy equivalent of the famous Russian doll toy where, in this case, one ‘deal’ is securely nested inside the next deal and so on.

These included deals about indexation; and grandfathering or ‘funding maintained’ concessions. The financial effects of these deals have compounded with each successive Commonwealth administration from Fraser through to Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard and now the Turnbull era.

Of these, the Howard era was perhaps the most innovative and agile. The most colourful deal was the work of David Kemp. When it came time to integrate the Catholic systems into his SES-based scheme, the new formula was based on the schools’ socio-economic status as a surrogate of parental capacity to pay.

The Catholic systems true scores, however, would have resulted in a funding cut. So a score was invented to fit the then current rate of funding to these schools (with the added bonus of some minor ‘rounding up’). This was christened as ‘deeming’. It was soon followed by the introduction of a special funding category called ‘Catholic funding maintained’ to ensure that the formal funding formula was only applied for Catholic systemic schools where its strict application would be to their financial benefit.

The Coalition has not been alone in carrying out a string of politically convenient special deals with elements within the private school sector, but it has a long and well-documented history of misdirecting Commonwealth funds by ignoring educational priorities. Who better then than the Coalition to start cleaning up the mess that it has largely created over decades?

Even if he was only stating the obvious, Minister Birmingham has made a start. At the same time, he strongly hinted that the Coalition may even be prepared to take back some Commonwealth funds from the over-funded private schools to support some re-distribution – consistent with the emphasis by the Turnbull Government on keeping a tight rein on the budget.

But this is the very least it could do.

The Turnbull Government cannot be allowed to use ‘corruption’ of the Gonski model as the excuse for withholding the educational opportunities available to students in those schools that bore the costs of the corruption over years, while those who benefited continue to receive Commonwealth funding that maintains them at or takes them over the standards specified in the Gonski model, which received widespread public support.

As it stands, the Turnbull Government’s policy will set a de facto standard for one group of schools that is well short of the Gonski standards while it is prepared to go on underwriting those standards for others, the ‘others’ including the schools that serve a disproportionate share of students from higher income families.

Minister Birmingham has stated publicly that he supports the Gonski principles. The underpinning principle of the Gonski vision is encapsulated in the Preamble to the Australian Education Act 2013:

The quality of a student’s education should not be limited by where the student lives, the income of his or her family, the school he or she attends, or his or her personal circumstances.

It is this principle that underpins the recommendations of the Gonski Review for all schools to have funding from all sources at a standard that reflects their circumstances and the educational needs of the students they enrol.

The NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, has been prepared to defend these principles and has led the states in pressuring the Commonwealth to provide its share of the funding needed to achieve the Gonski standards in all schools.

But the Gonski principles also require some form of national agreement between the Commonwealth and school authorities, government and non-government.

Here again, Minister Birmingham has indicated that the Coalition Government may be prepared to consider the establishment of the National Schools Resourcing Body recommended by the Gonski Panel. This would be the best way to go about refining and updating the original Gonski model and reducing if not removing the effects of longstanding ‘corruptions’.

Is Birmingham the man to save the Gonski resource standards?

Or is the hint of removing some funding from a handful of over-resourced private schools an attempt to set off the predictable fireworks from the influential lobby groups that protect their interests? Is it simply a ploy to divert attention from the real priority – the need to bring the majority of Australian schools up to the resource standards required for them to provide the educational opportunities that can enable their students to become engaged citizens and to live active, informed and rewarding public and private lives?

Lyndsay Connors AM has held senior positions in education at the Commonwealth and state levels and was a member of the Commonwealth Schools Commission during the 1980s.

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