Fifty years ago most people, including politicians, championed the idea of equal educational opportunities for all. The politicians may have only done so for their own political advantage, but even this indicates the strength of the notion.
In the 1970s about 77% of students attended a government school. Now it is about 65%. Many parents have been encouraged to believe that a private school education promises a better future for their child. When one studies the resources that many private schools have, it is not surprising that this belief is widespread. Government funding to elite private schools has grown at twice the rate of funding to public schools.
In 2011 the Gonski inquiry into education found that Australia has one of the most unequal education systems in all the advanced capitalist countries, with large divisions of high- and low-income students at different schools.
This confirms that we do not have equal educational opportunities. It is worrying because it also means that government schools, especially those in poorer socio-economic areas, lose their most able students, who otherwise would have assisted in creating a positive and effective learning environment. Students do not only learn from teachers; they also learn with and from each other.
The authors of the Gonski report clearly identified this problem and the fact that the education system is not just imitating social divisions, but compounding them. Consequently, Gonski recommended allocating funding to schools based on a set amount per student, with additional funds for students attending schools in remote locations, with a high proportion of indigenous children, from low socio-economic backgrounds, with limited English proficiency and with a disability.
The Gonski model ignores whether a school is private or government. It has government subsidies going to fee-paying schools. This means schools will still have different levels of financial resources and maintain social divisions in the education system, including in poorer working-class areas. For example, some poorer Catholic schools, which operate largely because of government funding but still charge fees, will be able to provide more resources or smaller classes than the local government school.
In the Gonski model, the rich private schools would still receive some government funding, despite their investments in real estate, their high-salaried principals and their vast sporting and educational facilities.
Gonski's solution to these discrepancies was to advise government school principals to encourage P&Cs to raise more money.
In 2013 the Gillard Labor government was only prepared to support a revised Gonski model. This included cutting $2 billion from government funding for universities, while promising there would be no cuts to funds for all private schools, including the wealthiest. Gillard pledged just $14.5 billion for the school system over six years.
The Coalition government announced that it would not continue the Gonski funding after 2017. In an apparent turnabout on May 2, a day after announcing that university students now have to pay more, the Turnbull government has unveiled “Gonski 2.0”.
This is Malcolm Turnbull attempting to win back voters. Polling has found that most voters in the 20 most marginal seats want Turnbull to reverse his cuts to Gonski funding and believe it is far more important than his plan for a $48 billion corporate tax cut.
But Turnbull is trying to deceive people by pretending to implement Gonski when he is really cutting the already inadequate amount Labor had promised. His model promised an extra $2 billion over four years but the Australian Education Union (AEU) said $3.8 billion is required in 2018–19 alone.
Under Turnbull’s new model, public schools will get less than half the extra funding — only 20% of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) will go to public schools, while the private sector gets 80%. These figures have no educational justification or consideration of how much funding these schools receive from state governments.
Turnbull is not delivering needs-based Gonski funding, and his actions will only widen the inequity between public and private schools.
The AEU has pointed out schools in the Northern Territory that have high needs and are already receiving 23% of the SRS from the federal government. Will they receive less funding?
Victorian public schools will be $630 million worse off compared to the original agreement. It is no wonder that the state governments do not support this new model. No state government was consulted and it will cost schools hundreds of millions of dollars in lost resources.
The AEU has spent a lot of time and resources campaigning for Gonski — a flawed model that only ever promised a few crumbs to government schools and would have entrenched inequality. Now we have an opportunity for the union to campaign for real equal educational opportunities. It would mean scrapping all funding to private schools — after all, they are private ventures.
Equal educational opportunities means that government schools are so well-funded they are schools of first choice for students and parents. That is how Finland has achieved Europe's best education results.
[Mary Merkenich is a Victorian teacher, AEU State Councillor and a member of Socialist Alliance.]