Part 2: Society bears costs of education policy ‘crimes’

In most other countries it would be hard for a government to persuade an electorate it was dealing with widespread economic hardship while it was funding private schools with resources beyond the dreams of avarice.

Despite the fact that its funding policy removed the downward pressure on private school fees, the Howard government claimed that fees would fall.  

But even when the opposite happened and fees continued to rise, this only added to the cachet of these schools. And in a time of high anxiety, places in public selective schools likewise gave parents the sense of providing their children with something ‘special’.  

All over the country we see ‘high’ status schools over-subscribed, while the opposite is true of schools serving the least advantaged. The latter are over-represented in the public school system. 

Some of the excess capacity that is essential to choice and competition policies wend their way down into these schools. They are then left with a disproportionate share of the heavy lifting in education, and insufficient resources for the workload.  

It is a shameful state of affairs. Clearly students are not to blame. And the decisions of parents have all been made within the framework set by governments. 

The blame for this policy failure and the responsibility for fixing it lie fairly and squarely with governments and, in particular, the federal government.  

 In Opposition, Julia Gillard had been a scathing critic of the Howard government’s scheme. Yet, when Labor won office in 2007, as education minister and then prime minister she prolonged the life of these policies for most of its six-year term. And when establishing the Gonski Inquiry, Gillard added the proviso that any of its recommendations on a fairer funding model could not create “losers”.  

This required schools serving students from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds to be guaranteed a minimum amount of money. This privileging of entitlement over need significantly increased the total cost of the reform.  

The inclusion of public funding for schools for which no educational justification has ever been provided – or ever could — has contaminated every attempt by Labor to establish genuine ‘needs-based’ funding since the Whitlam years.  

 At the start of the 2010 school year Julia Gillard (as education minister) launched the MySchool website. Its emphasis on transparency has yielded valuable data on the finances of schools, student and teacher numbers, and the level of educational advantage of students. It also provides data on school performance as measured by the national literacy and numeracy assessment program, NAPLAN.

While the policy rhetoric emphasised equity and equality, the naming of the website itself – “my” school, not “our” schools – and the message to parents that they should use it as a tool for individualised choice of school, added to the heat of market forces.  

By the time of the Covid-19 crisis, the effects of the evolutionary trend noted by Max Angus in 2007 had become much clearer. The system had evolved into one that diverted energy and resources that should go to supporting the vital work of teachers in schools and classrooms into structures and processes for sifting and sorting students among competing schools. 

This includes the investment in the apparatus of NAPLAN testing, which is of limited value in providing timely feedback to teachers. Then there are the costs of marketing schools to parents. Particularly in the private school sector, buildings play a direct role in this marketing. 

Generous recurrent funding to cover teaching costs has enabled the diversion of their private funding into the construction of buildings and facilities, which Trevor Cobbold has described as an “arms race”

A critical factor in success at school is time spent with effective teachers.  And yet, recent trends show a growing diversion of funding to the employment of increased administrative staff in schools and systemsAs Cobbold has also stated, the priority should be to employ resources that have a direct effect in improving student outcomes generally and in increasing equity in outcomes. 

 The costs of these policy ‘crimes’ are borne most directly by those students but they go well beyond these immediate victims to society as a whole.  

 By late 2019, there were signs suggesting that conservative governments, particularly in NSW, had started to recognise that their market-based funding policies had got out of hand.  

Confronted with a costly mix of under-used and overcrowded schools, NSW’s Berejiklian government accused parents of bypassing their local school and “shopping around” and started to re-draw local enrolment zones.  

 Australia entered this crisis with a school system that worked to maldistribute the teaching workload, the public funding and the teaching force among its schools. As with universities, its teaching force was being de-stabilised by casualisation; and the secondary school system was overly reliant on staff teaching out of their field of expertise.  

When the virus hit, it immediately revealed inequalities in our school system as sharply as it did in other vital services such as aged care and child care.  The ‘chosen’ schools generally have excellent infrastructure and conditions for flexible learning during social isolation; while others struggled. 

The immediate priority is to prevent further damage to the most vulnerable students. It is also clear there will be great demands on the public system by a society living with or recovering from the effects of this pandemic. Priority must be given to shoring up the capacity of schools that are open to allcomers to continue to deliver educational programs and to provide expert support in maintaining students’ health and wellbeing. 

While the Howard Government’s SES-based scheme has done lasting damage, the current Commonwealth government has further weaponized the federal system.

It has guaranteed through legislation that it will provide 80% of the public funding needed for private schools to reach or exceed the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) – the standard set by the Commonwealth. 

By comparison, the Commonwealth will only provide 20% of the required funding to public schools (which will have to rely for the remainder on what states provide). Under the current Commonwealth/state funding agreements, this condemns public schools to waiting until 2027 to reach that lesser standard, if then. Meanwhile, private schools will be funded at or more than 100% from 2003.  

This disparity is particularly unacceptable in light of the pandemic.

The most principled response would be for the Commonwealth government to take responsibility for providing all the additional recurrent funding required for all schools to achieve its prescribed SRS over the next five years or so. This would require removal of the sector bias in the Commonwealth legislation.  All schools would then receive 100% of the additional recurrent funding required to meet the prescribed standard.  

Agreements with school authorities, state and territory as well as private, would need to be re-negotiated, so that those government and non-government school authorities were held responsible for maintaining their expenditure on the remaining non-recurrent costs to an agreed standard.

 Removing the Commonwealth’s sector bias would add to its Budget commitments, but is really largely a re-distribution of the financial burden from states to the Commonwealth.  It will be a cost to all taxpayers in the future but it is the kind of investment for the future in our education system that is advocated by most economists, who also argue that the economy should be able to manage repayment over the years ahead.

Just as importantly, it is the responsibility of the Commonwealth government to take this on because it carries the responsibility for having created the problems that have damaged the health of our school system, especially through its privatisation agenda.  

Some of the costs could be reduced by the Commonwealth by removing public funding from all schools that now charge private fees that are sufficient in themselves to provide a standard of resources at or above the “official” SRS according to the Coalition’s policy. 

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Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she co-authored Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement.

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