Bronwyn Hinz

Why Simon Birmingham is wrong about school funding

Education ministers from all of Australia’s governments, state, territory and Commonwealth, met on Friday to begin negotiations over school funding. Various claims have been made and strong positions taken.

The Turnbull government’s education minister, Simon Birmingham, has claimed the model of school funding famously recommended by David Gonski had been “corrupted” by deals made with different education authorities around the country before the Coalition took power.

Education minister from NSW, Adrian Piccoli, who is a member of the Liberal National Party state government, wants the Turnbull Government to roll out the last two years of Gonski funding. He has declared a “war over fairness” and accused the federal government of abandoning public schools. Other ministers echo his claims and concerns.

It is time to cut through the spin and have a hard look at what is really happening with school funding in Australia and what is called the “Gonski model”.

So who is responsible for school funding and how is it shared?

While technically (under the Constitution) school funding is a responsibility of the states, continuing the arrangements that existed prior to Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth government has been increasing its policy and funding role since the 1950s, and especially since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government began providing recurrent funding to all public (government/state) schools and private schools (nongovernment schools, Catholic and independent). This was in large part an effort to decrease educational inequalities, but over the successive decades, due to a patchwork of decisions and competing agendas from different governments, it has had the opposite effect.

Since the 1970s Commonwealth funding to private schools has increased much faster than that to public schools, and far in excess of the private sector’s enrolment growth and relative need. There has been a particular surge in funding since the so-called SES (Social Economic Status) funding reforms to private schools were introduced by the Howard government, under which school fees were no longer considered by the Commonwealth when calculating their relative need, and under which the Howard government “no school would lose a dollar”, not even those found to be over-funded.

Fees at private schools have also increased disproportionately and far above inflation. While all school sectors have a mix of students of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, an overwhelming and increasing majority of socio-economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, indigenous students and rural and remote students attend public schools.

States still retain responsibility for schooling, and provide most of the funding that public schools receive (as well as giving a bit to private schools), but the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding to all schools and attaches an exhaustive list of conditions to that funding, which influences what schools and school systems (including states) can do. The impact of this ranges from non-existent to mediocre to damaging.  This is because it is quite difficult for the Commonwealth to enforce things to happen in schools, and in school systems, when it runs neither.

And quite often, the Commonwealth’s “new” initiatives are recycled ideas from the states (Victoria has had independent public schools since the early 1990s) or its ideas are bad, or impractical given the division of responsibilities and their lack of administrative expertise and capacity compared to the states in the schooling domain (a point emphasised in the Gonski report).

Making this intergovernmental policy settlement more complex, Australia also has a growing number of national authorities jointly “owned” by all the governments, such as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) which is responsible for the national tests (NAPLAN) and Australian Curriculum, among other things.

What Gonski recommended

The Gonski Review, commissioned by Commonwealth Education Minister Julia Gillard was the broadest review of school funding of all sectors and all levels of government since the early 70s. David Gonski and his fellow panellists were charged with figuring out what was wrong and how to potentially fix it. His review found that inequalities in Australian schooling were increasing, that student background had a large and unacceptable link to student educational outcomes, and that funding for needy schools was inadequate. It proposed a cash injection, distributed using a sector-blind, needs-based funding model, composed of a base amount per student, plus top up funding for six different types of disadvantage. The neediest schools would, hypothetically, get the largest increases, reflecting the greater investment required to ensure those kids got decent opportunities and that birth lotto didn’t determine their educational outcomes.

The Gonski Review also said that although the Commonwealth should use this model to determine how much funding it gave to the school systems, the school systems (state education departments, Catholic Education Authorities in each state etc.) should continue to be the ones that allocate the funds to individual schools, and that they can use their own needs-based models (compatible to the Gonski model) to do this, on the proviso that all school funding be transparent.

This would allow states to learn from each other about variations in their school funding formulas. For example to explore whether it is better to have a higher base amount or higher supplement amounts, or more funding for one supplement (such as poverty) than another (such as rurality) and then see which formulas get best results for students.

Why the 27 different agreements is NOT a ‘corruption’ of Gonski

Funding amounts would be set in bilateral agreements with each state and school system. (Not one single national agreement). This is why 27 different agreements is not a “perversion” of Gonski but a reflection of Gonski. These bilateral agreements took into account the different starting points. They were to enable the transition from a hodge-podge of different recurrent (ongoing) and short term funding programs (such as National Partnerships), where similar schools in different places got different amounts, to a coherent, needs-based system.

The two ‘flaws’

The “Gonski” implementation plan had two major flaws. One was the promise by Julia Gillard that “no school would lose a dollar” (not even the richest schools charging fees double or triple the base funding amount). The other was that the implementation (and transitional funding arrangements) would be phased in over six years, with about half of the funding increase not flowing to schools until the fifth and sixth year.

Because the Commonwealth budget only goes for four years, opponents of the “Gonski” plan, including the current Commonwealth, Coalition government, could claim the final two years, and big cash boost, was “unfunded”. This is why the Abbott and Turnbull governments have sought to forge a new funding agreement to start in 2018 (which would have been the 5th year of the 6 year funding agreement forged by the Gillard and Rudd governments).

The Gonski Review also emphasized governments needed to cooperate with each other and to be transparent about funding with each other.

Axing Gonski now cannot be justified

While educational performance as measured by national and international standardized tests (a limited measure) have stagnated or fallen in most states as government funding for schools has increased, this is largely explained by the fact that this government funding has not been allocated to the schools that most need it, and it has not always been allocated to the most effective programs, such as investing in teachers and investing in high quality early education (such as preschool) for all kids, so that they are better able to amplify their development and learning at school.

The “Gonski” plan is still only half-implemented.  It’s only been a few years, transition agreements are still in place, and most of the funding increases have not yet flown to schools. Schools needing the greatest boosts have not yet received it. Axing it would be premature and harmful.

Minister Birmingham announced his intention to cut funding via national media, to whom he also released some select figures. He did not shared the full figures and analysis with the other education ministers prior to their meeting to allow an informed discussion. Such moves are neither transparent nor cooperative.

The future is messy

Any new agreement on school funding would not begin until 2018. Forging a new agreement is far easier said than done and may not even be possible. This is because the “Gonksi” funding amounts were enshrined in formal intergovernmetnal agreements between governments AND because these transition arrangements and final funding amounts are also enshrined in Commonwealth legislation – The Australian Education Act – which means the approval of the lower house and the Senate is required to pass it.

So unfortunately the politicking and game playing will continue for a long time yet. I believe each government minister will do what they thinks is best for their own government’s agendas and priorities. This was a central finding of my PhD on school funding reform and Australian federalism.  Such agendas sometimes reflect party lines, but just as often do not.

We need to match investment to where needs and opportunities are greatest. This is a responsibility all Australian governments have, not just to our school students, but also to the whole country.


bron-hDr Bronwyn Hinz is a Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and holds a PhD in political science and education policy from the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examined how federalism influences school funding reform in Australia. She has written widely on this topic and in April she was the invited Australian speaker at Forum of Federation and UNESCO symposiums on federalism and education policy in the 21st century. A version of this post first appeared on her personal blog and thoughts on this blog are her own and don’t necessarily reflect those of her current or previous employers. For those interested, much more background info and analysis in earlier posts, in the publications and media page of her website, and in her PhD.

Turnbull’s $1.2 billion “additional funding” for schools is not additional at all, here’s why

The Turnbull Government budget announced an additional spend of $1.2 billion on schooling between 2018 and 2020. It was billed as part of a $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan.

At first I found the latter figure bewildering because the $73.6 billion did not seem to fit with the Commonwealth expenditure on schools of $14 billion per year, or the combined state, territory and Commonwealth expenditure on schools of $52.42 billion for 2013-14. (These are the most recent years for which comparable data is available).

So I went searching for where it came from. You might be interested to know I discovered this “additional” funding package would be better described as a partial restoration of the funding cuts of the 2014 budget. It is not new funding at all.

The key was buried on page 14 of the Quality Schooling, Quality Outcomes report by the Commonwealth Education Department, which itself was quietly uploaded on Sunday last week after the announcements.

In the Department’s own words:

“Consequently, as a result of using this index*, the Australian Government will provide an additional $1.2 billion over four years from 2017–18.

This additional investment in schooling will bring the Australian Government’s total funding commitment for school education to a record $73.6 billion over the Budget and Forward Estimates period.”

[*Italics are mine]

In other words, the “new” money is just the result of ditching the paltry CPI index rate in favour of a slightly higher “education specific indexation rate of 3.56%” which is still below the higher indexation rates (up to 4.7%) that the Coalition removed in its 2014 budget.

This partial restoration of funding comes with conditions

But wait, there’s more. This funding comes with extensive conditions on specific reforms the states and nongovernment school system authorities must undertake. These include standardised tests for Year 1 students, minimum standards for Year 12, performance pay for teachers, and use of explicit instruction for the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

I doubt the Commonwealth government has the capacity to implement or enforce any of these “requirements” given it neither runs schools nor employs teachers.

Furthermore, most of these measures are already in place at state or school level. The Commonwealth entering the fray with its own versions and conditions could further blur responsibilities in the already contested and opaque schooling sphere. It would also redirect attention and resources from classrooms as teachers, schools and system authorities seek to demonstrate how their pre-existing programs meet Commonwealth requirements. I made these same critiques in relation to the many conditions of the National Plan for School Improvement put forward by Labor in 2013.

I’m not alone with these concerns. Since my wrap of the school funding announcements was published a week ago, the National Catholic Education Commission and the Australian Primary Principals Associations have each raised similar concerns on the conditions.

Significantly, these conditions are proposed despite the Coalition’s critique of Labor’s policy conditions in its education grants and despite the Coalition’s rhetoric about making the states sovereign in their own spheres.

As I outlined in a paper last year Schooling federalism: Evaluating the Options for reform – each Commonwealth has increased the depth and scope of its involvement in schooling – despite evidence here and abroad, suggesting the states are much better placed to develop and implement school funding and programs. Even the Gonski Review said the Commonwealth should back off the minutiae and respect the states’ experience and expertise.

Finally, the kicker: the growth in school funding between 2015/16 and 2019-20 under this new indexation rate is estimated to be 26.5%. This is significantly lower than the 66.1% growth in Commonwealth funding for schools between 2004/05 and 2013/14. These figures are all on page 14 of the government’s own report.  The devil is truly in the detail. And I will continue to examine more of these details as they emerge.

So what will schools and states get under the Coalition’s  promised $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan?

Smaller funding increases and more conditions and tests, which I doubt will improve learning or outcomes for Australian school students.


B+Hinz+smilingBronwyn Hinz is a Policy Fellow with the Mitchell Institute for Education Policy at Victoria University, where she specialises in schooling, early childhood and federalism. Bronwyn’s PhD examined how federalism has shaped the reform of school funding policies at State and Commonwealth levels. This was jointly supervised by the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the University of Melbourne, and submitted January 2016.

She has previously worked for the Education Foundation, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, two federal politicians, and the University of Melbourne, where she taught public policy making and Australian politics. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, where she undertook comparative research on intergovernmental institutions, school funding and education policy-making in the United States and in Canada.

Her research has won multiple national and international awards and her analysis frequently appears in print and broadcast media. Her first book, Many Hopes, One Dream, was published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2009 and launched by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. More recently she wrote the chapter on education policies for the 2014 edition of Australian Social Policy published by Oxford University Press, co-authored a major report on early childhood education, and represented Australia at international symposiums on federalism and schooling organised by the Forum of Federations and UNESCO.

This post is an edited and updated extract from her personal blog 

Follow Bronwyn on Twitter @bronwynhinz

Urgent: take a closer look at the Abbott Government’s plans for school funding

Two months ago, four proposals for reforming government roles and responsibilities in schooling were leaked from the Abbott Government’s federalism taskforce’s confidential Green Paper.

The most talked-about option involved the Commonwealth taking over the funding of all schools, and potentially charging parents fees for public schools, while the states would continue to do everything else in schooling.

Understandably, this provoked national outcry and valuable discussions about Australia’s growing inequities, the nature and importance of public education, and the broader purposes of schooling for individuals and the nation.

But this particular option is the least likely to be adopted.

The other three options from the federalism taskforce hardly made it into the public domain. This absence of scrutiny is worrying.

The Melbourne School of Government subsequently commissioned me to write a report assessing all four reform options proposed. I assessed each option against the six criteria put forward by the federalism taskforce. I also considered political feasibility, desirability and constitutionality.

The four reform options are:

  1. States and Territories fully responsible for all schools
  2. States and Territories responsible for funding public schools and the Commonwealth responsible for funding nongovernment schools. States remain responsible for delivery education in government schools and the regulatory framework for all schools.
  3. Reduced Commonwealth involvement in school programs
  4. The Commonwealth is the dominant funder of all students on an equal and consistent basis, but States and Territories maintain other current responsibilities, including the regulatory framework for all schools and the provision of public schools.

Here is a summary of what I found.



Option 1 (full state responsibility for schooling) is the clear winner, and has significant potential to improve schooling outcomes and equity. If schools and school systems only dealt with one level of government, it would make it easier for them to develop and implement coherent and responsive programs, and would make it easier for them to target funding and other resources to where needs are greatest. This arrangement already exists in Canada, which has a high-performing and high-equity school systems despite no federal department of education, federal minister or program involvement.

However, the success of Option 1 is dependent on the states receiving an increase in revenue commensurate with the increased funding responsibilities, which is politically difficult.

Option 3 (greatly reduced Commonwealth involvement) is the most likely proposal to be adopted. It offers the same potential benefits as Option 1, although to a lesser degree, and is likely to deteriorate over time.

Option 2 (split funding responsibilities) will likely exacerbate all existing inequities and inefficiencies, without delivering any substantial benefits.

Option 4 (The Commonwealth provides the funding but states do everything else) fails almost every criteria and would probably worsen outcomes, accountability and equity in Australia’s school system. Fortunately, it is also very unlikely.

Stagnant or falling results in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, persistent gaps in resources and school completion rates, and worryingly-high student disengagement indicate new approaches are urgently needed in education policy.

It’s time we had a serious conversation about the intergovernmental reform options our state, territory and Commonwealth leaders are currently considering in the schooling portfolio.

The consequences for young people and for the nation of failing to reform current arrangements and failing to build solid foundation and framework for our schools are dire.


B+Hinz+smiling copyBronwyn Hinz is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government and a Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy. She is also in the final stages of a PhD which examines how federalism has shaped the reform of school funding policies at State and Commonwealth levels, which is jointly supervised by the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the University of Melbourne.

She has previously worked for the Education Foundation, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, two federal politicians, and the University of Melbourne, where she taught public policy making and Australian politics. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, where she undertook comparative research on intergovernmental institutions, school funding and education policy-making in the United States and in Canada.

Her research has won multiple national and international awards and her analysis frequently appears in print and broadcast media. Her first book, Many Hopes, One Dream, was published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2009 and launched by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. More recently, she wrote the chapter on education policies for the 2014 edition of Australian Social Policy. Follow Bronwyn on her blog  and on Twitter @bronwynhinz

Here is her report  Schooling Federalism: Evaluating the Options for Reform

Listen to Bronwyn discussing her report on Radio National

News report  about the leaked Green Paper “options”.