Their buildings are substandard— cheap and poorly ventilated. Their classrooms are under resourced and uninviting. Their gardens are sparce and bleak. Their play and sports grounds are inadequate— frequently small and ill equipped. Their students often struggle at school and their families often struggle at home. Money is scarce, employment and housing are insecure and good health care is usually unaffordable.
Their teachers work harder than most because their students need more help than most. But these teachers don’t receive anywhere near the support and recognition they deserve. Many such schools are government schools. Yet they are left to make do with minimal resources and minimal care from state and federal governments. They have been pretty much abandoned— left to deteriorate, not properly helped prosper.
Instead, these governments have allowed the private sector of schooling to grow without limit— depleting struggling government schools of the material and human resources they need for their students to flourish rather than flounder.
These schools and these kids are part of the’ long tail’ of under-achievement that characterises the Australian schooling system. But the tail’s problems can’t be addressed in isolation. They are the tragic effect of much bigger problems. Australia’s schooling system is amongst the most privatised and least equitable in the world. And it underperforms on many indicators.
New opportunities for equitable, achievement-oriented, change in Australian schooling have arisen in 2023. We now have a progressive national government, an equity-sensitive federal Minister for Education, and the National School Reform Agreement is being renegotiated.
The time is thus ripe to reconsider and reconfigure the fateful intersections between school funding, equity, and achievement. This requires a critical examination of the vexed relationships between the public and private sector and federal and state governments. On Monday, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education hosted a policy symposium and public forum, called Funding, Equity and Achievement, which interrogated these intersections and vexed relationships.
The symposium room was packed with 75 experienced education policy analysts, members of key stake-holder groups and people from state and federal governments. Ten eminent thinkers, including speakers Professor Barry McGaw, The Hon Dr Carmen Lawrence AO and The Hon Verity Firth AM, shared their views and the public forum attracted over 250 participants off and online. And Melbourne University’s Twitter feed had over 3000 views.
The Gonski Report of 2011 was a touchstone for discussion at this event. All agreed that its funding solutions to the problems of equity and achievement have since been seriously watered down.
Some argued that the political timidity of the national Labor government, the power of the private school lobby and the sectional interests of the states were ultimately responsible.
‘Gonski lite’ was the result. Yes, ‘needs-based’ recurrent funding arrangements were a result and the focus on needs was welcome. But ultimately, as many policy experts at the Symposium showed, greed replaced need. Gonski was always in the lite side, others insisted. It was constrained from the outset by an invented funding architecture involving state, Catholic and Independent school systems. This architecture, they argued, is a policy construction and convenience. Yet is treated as immovable and untouchable. The implicit message to the Gonski review team was don’t mess with the private schools.
Historians in the room shared examples of the formidable power of private schools’ backlash-politics – and of their serious electoral consequences.
State schools abandoned by governments
So began an unjustifiable pattern of school funding. This is known as the 80/20 split. The wealthier federal government provides 80 per cent funding to private schools and 20 per cent of funding to state schools. The poorer states and territories do the reverse. And here is the kicker. The Federal government meets its funding obligations to private schools and constantly provides them with lavish top ups. In contrast, the states and territories seldom meet their funding obligations to state schools.
Speakers at the Sympisoum provided an avalanche of carefully researched numbers which left no doubt about the serious funding inequities. Slide after power-point slide showed how private schools have been consistently over-funded and how state schools have been consistently underfunded.
A vicious funding circle was identified. The more resources the private sector gets, the more it grows. The more it grows, the greater its market dominance and share of allocated resources. Along with this is a sense of entitlement to automatic funding. In turn, this has led to the private school sector opening new schools and upgrading and expanding existing ones at will.
This sector has thus enjoyed unfettered growth – becoming ever bigger, more middle class and more segregated from wider Australia. Few people in the room agreed with the funding split that has allowed this to happen. Many firmly believed the Commonwealth should more equally share its funding benevolence with state schools.
And for this to happen they thought, a National Schools Resourcing Body as proposed by Gonski should be established. This would over-see funding for both public and private schools— together. The relationships between the sectors would be in plain sight.
Public funding to private schools is untied. They are not required by law to provide any wider public benefit. They do as they please despite the copious amounts of public money they receive. The Symposium audience was shown how the wealthiest private schools draw on their funding excesses to fund their infrastructure excesses. We wondered if such overabundance could be justified in educational terms. We agreed it was more about market signalling than student learning. So why fund it?
Other questions arose. Should public money be conditional on private schools democratising their fee structures, entry policies and governance practices? Yes.
What can stop them from draining the state school sector of money, reputation and the ‘best’ teachers, students and parents? Cap their growth for a start. Properly fund all state schools so that they can be the best they can be.
The policy symposium provided unequivocal evidence that increases in private school funding have been at the expense of funding for public schools especially for struggling schools in struggling locations.
Such underfunding, we agreed, leads to under achievement. Indigenous kids, country kids, kids with disabilities and kids from low-income families under-achieve because they are under-supported. They are under supported because they are under-funded.
Struggling schools in struggling locations have less money to spend on the bare necessities. Additional resources are necessary to allow them to meet their complex needs in the best ways possible. Distinct and distinctive interventions are required.
Ken Boston, a member of the Gonski Committee and former Director-General of the NSW Education Department, said as much, back in 2017: “They need smaller class sizes, specialist personnel to deliver the appropriate tiered interventions, speech therapists, counsellors, school/family liaison officers including interpreters, and a range of other support. And that support requires money. You can’t deliver education as a genuine public good without strategically differentiated public funding directed at areas of need. That’s what Gonski sought to achieve.”
Such under-support is sometimes driven by a naive policy mindset. It goes like this, ‘It’s not the money that matters but what you do with it’. Money AND what-you-do-with-it matter. It is not an either/or situation
Serious concerns were expressed that the current federal Labor government might not live up to its policy rhetoric. People feared it might adopt a target and tinker approach. Safe, simple and unlikely to make much difference. Time and again people called for systemic change.
Presenters shared international studies that convincingly show how achieving equity at the systemic level leads to systemic improvements in achievement. Put equity first and achievement follows.
Further, segregated education systems concentrate disadvantage. This, it was shown, has all sorts of deleterious effects and not just on the schooling of disadvantaged kids. Social cohesion depends on social mixing and where better to learn to mix than at school? The shared case study of Poland’s dramatic rise in school results is attributed to its introduction of comprehensive schools.
Many agreed that, despite its limitations, the Gonski review made hope possible. State school supporters united behind the slogan ‘I give a Gonski’.
Now such supporters must unite again to save state schools from the residualisation caused by private school expansion. And the federal government must be prepared to stand up to the private school lobby which has neither the public interest nor the national interest at heart.
Timid, standard arrangements and conventional thinking no longer cut it. Change is urgently required.
Professor Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.