EDUCATION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Canberra betrays non-government distance education
, April 13, 2013
With a relatively small population spread across a large continent, Australia has long-established schools which provide distance education for children unable to attend regular schools, for one reason or another.
Every state government maintains a distance education department.
In New South Wales, for example, the NSW Department of Education and Communities has made special arrangements to deliver educational programs to students who are isolated or whose special circumstances prevent them from attending school on a regular basis.
Distance education enrolments currently include students whose home is geographically isolated; students travelling within Australia; students temporarily resident or travelling overseas; students with certain medical conditions; and students in extraordinary circumstances, which can include medical or psychiatric problems.
The state distance education system also provides pre-school programs to geographically isolated pre-school students who will complete their primary education through distance education; full time primary and secondary programs; as well as single-course (years 9-12) programs for specific categories of students wishing to study a course not offered in their home school.
Distance education schools are located across the country.
There are around 15,000 students enrolled in government distance education programs, which are funded through state budgets.
Because of the nature of distance education, it is relatively costly to provide these services, which facilitate an intense one-on-one relationship between teachers and students.
In contrast with the fully-funded government sector, non-government distance education in Australia is acutely under-funded.
There are around 4,000 students enrolled in 13 non-government distance education schools in Australia, mostly Christian schools.
These students are the lowest funded and the lowest resourced school students in Australia, each of them on average receiving from the Commonwealth less than 14 per cent of what a state school student receives.
Astonishingly, they also receive less than a quarter of the funding given to day-school students, who are enrolled in the same school.
The general manager of the schools department of Christian Education Ministries, Dr Terry Harding, has made submissions to the House of Representatives standing committee on education and employment, and also spoken to Peter Garrett, Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth. At the minister’s suggestion, Dr Harding made detailed submissions to him.
However, Garrett has done nothing about it, referring the matter to the Gonski review, rather than addressing the immediate funding crisis faced by non-government distance education.
Dr Harding has remarked: “The problem with the ‘waiting for Gonski’ solution is that Gonski based his proposed new funding model on current socio-economic status (SES).
“Because NGDE (non-government distance education) has been arbitrarily assigned the highest SES rank possible, it results in the lowest amount of funding for these students.
“To use this SES rank again in the new model will just perpetuate [present] underfunding...
“This level of funding to Australian non-government district education school students is a gross inequality, a social injustice and an imposition of educational deprivation to a specific cohort of non-government school students.”
A further problem with Peter Garrett’s approach of handling the problem through the Gonski Report is that this inquiry did not examine the problems of the distance education sector, did not mention it in its recommendations, and therefore will not address the deep-seated problems facing these schools and their students.
To tackle the problems of these schools, Christian Education Ministries has recommended a two-pronged approach which has been put to the minister.
The short-term interim equity funding model operates on the assumption that, until a new national funding model is established, existing non-government distance education schools are to be funded on the same basis as their day school’s SES rank.
The long-term solution would involve looking at the cost of providing distance education in the government sector, and giving equivalent funding to non-government schools which are offering the same services to distance students.
It is apparently futile to expect the present government to deal with this issue, not merely because of its current budget deficit, but because of its discriminatory approach towards the non-government education sector.
It is an urgent priority that the next government, hopefully better disposed towards all students, will address the acute under-funding of schools in the non-government sector which provide essential distance education to thousands of young Australians.