The Barnett Government Has Slashed Funding for Public Schools

Mar 7, 2017

The claims by the Western Australian Government that it has massively increased school funding in recent years are highly misleading. The fact is that the Barnett Government has taken to the axe to funding of public schools while boosting its funding of private schools. It has abandoned disadvantaged students, the vast majority of whom attend public schools.   

Its claims of increased funding for public schools ignore the growth in student enrolments and rising costs. The official figures for public schools also include large increases in book entry items (user cost of capital, depreciation) and other items (payroll tax, school transport) that do not deliver any funding for use in the classroom. These items accounted for 34% of Western Australian Government funding for public schools in 2014-15 and their increase between 2009-10 and 2014-15 accounted for nearly half (47%) of the nominal increase in state funding. These items are not included in figures for government funding of private schools.

After adjusting for rising costs and excluding book entry and other non-classroom items, total government (Commonwealth and state) funding of public schools in Western Australia was cut massively between 2009-10 and 2013-14 by $1,341 per student while government funding for private schools was increased by $1,288 per student. That is, private school funding was increased by nearly as much as funding for public schools was cut. The percentage cut to public schools was 8.9% while the increase for private schools was 12.1%.

The cut in public school funding was due to a huge cut in WA Government funding of $1,554 per student (-11.6%) which completely swamped the small increase in Commonwealth Government of $213 per student (12.1%). While cutting real funding to public schools, the state government increased funding for private schools by $386 per student (13.2%). The Commonwealth Government also increased funding for private schools by $902 per student (14.2%).

The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that average reading, mathematics and science scores across all Western Australian schools have slumped since 2009. The reading score fell by 15 points on the PISA scale, which is equivalent to about half a year of learning; mathematics fell by 25 points and science by 18 points.

In addition, the proportion of students below international standards has increased. In 2015, 17% of WA students did not achieve the minimum standard in reading – up from 13% in 2009; 18% did not achieve the mathematics standard – up from 13% in 2009; and 15% did not achieve the science standard – up from 11% in 2009.

The latest NAPLAN results show large gaps in achievement between disadvantaged and advantaged students. In 2016, low socio-economic status (SES) Year 9 students were about four years of learning behind their high SES peers in reading, writing and numeracy. Indigenous Year 9 students were four to five years behind high SES students.

Some 15% of low SES Year 9 students are below the national minimum reading standard compared to less than 1% of high SES students; 30% are below the minimum writing standard compared to 5% of high SES students; and 9% are below the numeracy standard compared to virtually no high SES students. The picture is very much worse for Indigenous students: 29% are below the reading standard; 50% are below the writing standard, and 21% are below the numeracy standard.

The vast majority of low SES and Indigenous students are enrolled in public schools – about 80% of low SES students and nearly 85% of Indigenous students. Yet, funding for public schools has been drastically cut while funding for private schools increased.

The Barnett Government has shown no commitment to reducing disadvantage in education by targeting funding increases where they are most needed and would do the most good. It has abandoned disadvantaged students in public schools in favour of more support for private schools. Its priority has been to increase privilege in education at the expense of disadvantaged students.

The Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has criticised state governments for not maintaining their investment in school education over recent years while the Commonwealth increased its funding. But, the Coalition Government gave the Western Australian and other state governments free rein to continue cutting their funding of public schools as they had done so under the previous Labor Government.

One of the first steps taken by the Abbott Government was to scrap the obligations in the Gonski funding plan for the states to increase their funding in line with Commonwealth increases from 2014. The then education minister, Christopher Pyne, derided the conditions attached to Commonwealth funding under the plan as Canberra ‘command and control’ measures and said that “it would be up to the states to decide whether they spend their money or not because they are sovereign Governments and should be treated like adults”.

It should be no surprise, then, that the WA Government and several other state governments cut their funding to public schools in the first year of the Gonski plan. They were encouraged to do so by the Abbott Government in order to sabotage Gonski.

Birmingham now says that the Federal Government will require states and territories to at least maintain their real level of per student funding. The next Western Australian Government should sign up to reversing the funding cuts for public schools.

Deteriorating school results and falling state government funding for public schools should be a major focus in the last week of the WA election campaign. The declining or stagnant school results, the high proportion of disadvantaged students not achieving expected standards, the large inequities in achievement by disadvantaged and advantaged students, and the cuts to real funding per student in public schools have been virtually ignored to date.

Given the failure of the Barnett Government to support disadvantaged students and public schools, Labor should commit to reversing the cuts to public school funding and target increases at disadvantaged students and schools.

Trevor Cobbold. National Convenor, Save Our Schools.  

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