The recently released independent Gonski review into school funding reaffirms what many teachers and parents already knew. Current school funding arrangements are dysfunctional and inequitable and the failure to reform the way we resource our public schools has come at an immense social and economic cost.
Gonski’s recommendations are far from perfect and recommend continued public funding of elite private schools. But they do highlight the need for an immediate injection of funds into public schools.
For decades, public schools have been denied the resources they require to ensure high-quality education for every child. The Gonski review has provided an opportunity to redress some of these inequities and better meet the needs of the most disadvantaged students in our communities.
In Finland, a country that scores the highest on OECD testing, there are no private schools. Finnish director-general of education Pasi Sahlberg told Lateline’s Emma Alberici on February 28: “Our choice has always been to focus more on equity and equality in education rather than choice.
“This is often seen as the two sides of the same coin — that you either emphasise choice, school choice for parents, or the parents can choose the school — or then you put in place policies that make sure that all the schools are good.”
That is clearly not the case in Australia, where Labor and Liberal politicians make a fetish of parent choice. As a result, in recent years the funding has become even more unequal.
Total federal and state government funding per student for private schools rose by 82% between 2001-02 and 2008-09. This compares to a 48% increase for government schools. The funding increase for Catholic schools was 64%.
Yet, as the Gonski report pointed out, public schools take 85% of Aboriginal students, 78% of students with disabilities, 83% of remote area students, 68% of students with language backgrounds other than English and 79% of lowest quarter socio-educational backgrounds.
The average capital investment per student in “independent” schools is more than four times higher than in public schools.
The report recommended the creation of a schooling resource standard with appropriate loadings for disadvantage and an investment of at least $3.8 billion a year in public schools. It said another $1.2 billion should go to private schools.
This funding would consist of separate amounts per student and provide loadings for the extra costs of meeting certain educational needs. These loadings would take into account socioeconomic background, disability, English language proficiency, the particular needs of Aboriginal students, school size and school location regardless of whether they are government, Catholic or independent schools.
It also recommended that all levels of government commit to education reform. Because of the dysfunctional nature of the existing federal funding arrangements and its revenue raising capacity, the federal government must commit to the biggest share of the funding immediately.
There is also urgent need for an extra investment in special education and in public school buildings and facilities.
The Labour and Liberal parties constantly talk about improving education and student outcomes in Australia, but they do little to bring this about. Both parties are committed to what Sahlberg calls GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement.
He told Lateline GERM is “a way of thinking about reforming education that is based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability, testing. In other words … market-based ideas of running the education system.”
This ideology does not deliver fair educational outcomes by any measure. Over the past decade, Australia has fallen behind on OECD education rankings, while Finland occupies the number one spot.
Sahlberg said: “I think one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done. And now we know, also through the OECD data and research, that the equity is the one that is also bringing excellence …
“Our schools are funded very close to what this report is recommending you to do. So we give schools a kind of a basic funding equally based on the number of students they have, and then we adjust the school budget based on the school’s need.
“For example, if there are more immigrant children or pupils coming from the single parent families, the schools normally receive more funding so that they can deal with these issues easily. So there are many similarities in what we are doing now to those recommendations in the Gonski report.”
The Gillard government has paid lip service to supporting the recommendations in the report, but it has made no commitment to fund them. At present, Australian governments spend only 3% of gross domestic product on public schools. The OECD average is 3.5%.
Education minister Peter Garrett has announced a new round of community consultation, but this is really an attempt to delay action on providing the urgently needed funds identified in the Gonski review.
There is no need to review the review. All Labor needs to do is carry out the recommendations by increasing Australia’s investment in education, especially to the public system. Any further delay of funding is a denial of justice for the most disadvantaged students in our communities.