SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Needed: a better model for funding schools
, May 24, 2014
Julia Gillard, as education minister and then prime minister, identified the Gonski report on school funding, later renamed the Better Schools Plan, as one of her crowning achievements.
Backed by the Australian Education Union and Australia’s cultural-left education blob (a term coined by Britain’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove), the argument is that Gonski will deliver excellence and equity in education by massively increasing government expenditure.
The Gonski funding model, involving a base level of funding known as a School Resourcing Standard and additional loadings related to disadvantage, is also lauded as bringing clarity, transparency and consistency to school funding. Not so. As noted by the National Commission of Audit, the flaws and weaknesses in the report are manifest and the reality is that those who have been critical of the ALP-inspired approach to school funding have been proven correct.
Under the heading “Complexity of the funding model”, section 9.7 Appendix Volume 1, the statement is made that “new school funding arrangements are complex, inconsistent and lack transparency”. Instead of having a national funding model, we have a situation where the states and territories and Catholic and independent school sectors have their own approaches to allocating funding to schools.
So much for the argument that the Gonski model represents an improvement on the Howard government’s supposedly opaque and inconsistently applied socio-economic status (SES) model.
The Schooling Resource Standard is also criticised for not being “based on a detailed analysis of the cost of delivering education” and the formula employed for quantifying disadvantage for using faulty data leading to students “being misidentified as being inside or outside definitions of educationally disadvantaged”.
Citing international research and an analysis carried out by the ALP federal member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, when an academic at the Australian National University, the audit report also concludes there is little, if any, relationship between increased expenditure and raising standards.
Mirroring the argument put by the Centre for Independent Studies’ Jennifer Buckingham in her School Funding on a Budget, the audit report argues “increasing funding does not necessarily equate to better student outcomes”.
As common sense suggests, and contrary to the Australian Education Union’s “I Give a Gonski” campaign, a more effective way to raise standards is to have a rigorous curriculum, qualified and committed teachers, strong parental engagement and schools, within broad guidelines, that have the flexibility to manage themselves.
As noted in the audit report, it is also important that the duplication between state and Commonwealth governments related to bureaucratic red tape and compliance costs is reduced, in order to allow schools to focus on teaching and learning.
To applaud the commission of audit’s analysis of school funding should not be taken as unqualified support. The suggestion that the states, and most likely their education departments, should control how funding to independent schools is allocated is a mistake.
State schools, on the whole, compete against non-government schools, and allowing state governments or their education bureaucracies to decide how funding is allocated to independent schools represents a conflict of interest.
It’s also a weakness that the audit commission restricts the idea of school vouchers to indigenous students and not to students in general.
The reality is Australia already has a de facto voucher system, because, when non-government school students enrol in a particular Catholic or independent school, they attract state and Commonwealth funding.
Using the example of independent schools, if students move from one to another, then funding follows. While the level of funding might vary, depending on factors such as a school’s socio-economic profile, the principle remains that all students are eligible for government support.
The strength of vouchers, illustrated by their success in U.S. states like Michigan and Florida and cities like Washington, especially among disadvantaged communities, is that enabling more parents to choose where their children go to school, as well as being inherently good, raises standards.
In the context of reducing government expenditure, both state and Commonwealth, it is also disappointing that there is no recognition that school choice, represented by Catholic and independent secondary schools enrolling 34 per cent of Australian students, saves governments billions of dollars every year.
Based on 2011-12 figures, the average recurrent cost to government of educating a state school student is $15,768 while the cost of educating a non-government student is $8,546.
Clearly, the more students that enrol in non-government schools the greater the saving to government. An added bonus is that non-government schools, even after adjusting for students’ home background, outperform most government schools in areas such as the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), Year 12 results and tertiary entry.
Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He is heading the government’s review into the national curriculum. This article first appeared in The Australian, May 5, 2014.