The independent Gonski review, commissioned by the federal government into school funding, was released in February. It concluded that Australia is investing far too little in education and that in our wealthy country there are many schools that are underprivileged.
It also concluded that our education system is not fair — that our school system is stacked against the disadvantaged, while it gives the most privileged the most advantages.
The review recommended an urgent change in the way schools are funded. Gonski recommended a $5 billion annual increase in school funding, equal to an average boost of $1500 a student for government schools. It urged increased government spending on education targeted at those who need it.
The Australian Education Union (AEU), along with others concerned about making our education system fairer, welcomed the report and expected the Julia Gillard Labor government to carry out the recommendations. They were quickly disappointed. Both Gillard and federal education minister Peter Garrett refused to promise any extra funding.
Among teachers and other public education advocates, no one denies that an increase in education funding is urgently needed and the federal funding model — which provides 70% of its funding to private, non-government schools — needs to be changed. But there is widespread debate about the value of the Gonski report’s recommendations.
A key recommendation is for the government to set a fixed rate of funding per student, regardless of whether they attend a private or a government school, based on the needs of the student.
The report proposes a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) of about $8000 for each primary student and $10,500 per secondary student. Extra “loadings” would apply to schools in remote locations, schools with a high proportion of Aboriginal children and schools with many students from low socio-economic backgrounds, with limited English skills or disabilities.
However, the Gonski report specifies that all private schools would receive government money, “regardless of the capacity of the school to contribute or of its actual contribution to the funding for the schooling of its students”.
The report says private schools’ funding would be based on an “anticipated level” of funding from other sources rather than a direct calculation of their fee income. As a result, some elite private schools will still get significant amounts of the SRS funds, even if they charge big fees.
Government schools teach 80% of students from poor backgrounds, 78% of students with a disability, 85% of Aboriginal students, 83% of students from remote areas and 68% of students whose first language is other than English. But close to half the students attending elite private schools come from the wealthiest quarter of Australian society.
If Gonski’s recommendations were carried out, government schools would receive a bit more money, money which they urgently need to lower class sizes, employ specialist teachers in areas like literacy and numeracy and provide extra support for students with higher needs.
But the basic inequality inherent in the system would not change. The privileged would still have the most resources and opportunities and the most disadvantaged will get second-rate and insufficient resources.
This is not a model needed to wipe out unequal educational opportunities. It will not close the wide socio-economic gap in opportunity; it may reduce it slightly or it may actually protect an unequal system.
It is time that those concerned about a fair society and a fair education system argued for one that wipes out unequal opportunities. The Socialist Alliance starts from the premise that education is a fundamental right for all.
It must be free, secular and of the highest quality, so that government schools are the schools of first choice. It follows that private schools would not receive any taxpayer subsidies. Those who choose to provide them and use them would fund them.
Socialist Alliance advocates increased funding for public education so that the needs of all children can be adequately attended to, so that class sizes are decreased, teacher workload is reduced and the casualisation of education workers is ended.
More funding is needed to fund courses in Indigenous languages, to fully fund resources to integrate students with disabilities and to ensure government schools are not forced to amalgamate into huge, alienating places or close completely. There are only winners when a country invests in education.