The debate over schools funding will heat up when Education Minister Simon Birmingham meets his state counterparts on September 23. Photo: Daniel Munoz NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli has vowed to fight if money is cut from the state’s schools. Photo: Louie Douvis
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham wants one funding model for all states. Photo: Louise Kennerley
“Gonski is now history.”
That was Dr Ken Boston, an architect of the Gonski reforms, delivering a blunt and pessimistic account of the state of schools funding to education leaders in Sydney last week.
Five years, two federal elections and three education ministers after the landmark report was released, “there is now no prospect of [it] being implemented as recommended,” he said.
He reminded his audience what Gonski was about: social disadvantage is the biggest driver of poor education results, and it has been exacerbated by school funding arrangements for the past 40 years. Gonski was designed to fix that, to give every child a fair go.
“It is surely unacceptable that the 20 most expensive independent schools in NSW receive more than $111 million per annum in public funding, when the gap in reading performance between the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent of our 15-year-olds is equivalent to five years of schooling,” he said.
If he is right, Gonski now represents a lost opportunity for a once-in-a-generation reform of a system where political partisanship, vested interests, ideology and inertia have for decades delivered perverse outcomes. A system that is still leaving hundreds of thousands of children behind.
Today Australia has a patched-together mess of 27 different systems producing irrational and unequal funding outcomes, and a policy debate that is as rancorous as ever, with the NSW Education Minister threatening “war” on his federal counterpart if they cut money from the state’s schools.
Boston laid the blame for the policy failure at the feet of both sides of politics, saying that while Labor delivered more money for education, it also implemented a “corruption of the Gonski report”.
“We had the chance to do away with this interminable money squabble between the sectors especially. Gonski had a solution, but now that chance is gone,” says Chris Bonnor, education expert from the Centre for Policy Development.
“The next conversation will be about redistributing the funding that’s available. That’s an unhappy conversation because no one will agree to what comes out of that.”
That conversation starts officially on September 23, when federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is due to sit down with his state counterparts to hash out a new agreement for school funding that goes beyond 2017 where the current arrangements end.
The political forecast for the meeting is inclement.
Or, as Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek puts it: “The federal government will be turning up to this ministerial meeting, having cut $29 billion from schools, asking the states and territories to do more, and expecting them to be happy with that.”
Skirmishes have already begun among the stakeholders, with a shot across the bow from the Australian Education Union this week. It released analysis by education academic Dr Jim McMorrow that found on the current model, of the promised extra $1.2 billion only $450 million (38 per cent) would go to public schools and $750 million (62 per cent) to private schools.
The union’s federal president Correna Haythorpe said the analysis showed it was clear the Coalition had no commitment to needs-based funding and its plan would deny students the help they needed at school.
The federal government, Catholic and independent school sectors, all rejected this as a politically motivated report.
The complexities and politics of school funding make it almost impenetrable to the casual observer.
Most people just want to know that their child’s school is at least getting what is fair, what it needs to do the best for its students. But right now, depending on your school, that is just not happening. Similar schools in different states get different levels of support.
And now the clock is ticking, with states and individual schools uncertain about their funding allocation from the end of next year.
“Something needs to happen, some new deal needs to be done,” says Peter Goss, schools education director from the Grattan Institute.
“The government can try to take the high road, and take some tough decisions that ensure funding goes to where it will make the most difference. Otherwise, the government schools will continue in aggregate to be funded below their entitlement. The state governments will keep yelling about it, and we will continue an unconstructive, poisonous debate.”
The apparent moment of consensus, the famous unity ticket on school funding that Tony Abbott took into the 2013 election, fell apart months later when then education minister Christopher Pyne reneged on the six-year Gonski deal made by the previous Labor government.
He indicated the Coalition would only fund the first four years and funding after that would grow in line with CPI. That meant school funding would stay at the increased level but the funding gap between relatively privileged and disadvantaged schools would no longer narrow.
The final two years – that’s 2018-2019 – are where the bulk of the Gonski funds were supposed to flow. Ahead of this year’s election, and under pressure from Labor which was making gains with its popular schools funding policy, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced the Coalition would commit $1.2 billion in additional funds for those final two years, or about one-third of what the original agreement had set out.
In a significant move away from the Gonski model, the federal government made that money contingent on the states and territories implementing the federal government’s education reforms designed to boost student literacy and numeracy, teaching and school leadership.
Some states have indicated an in-principle objection to tied grants. But in NSW, which has implemented many of the reforms already, it’s the distribution model – how they will carve up that $1.2 billion – that is at stake at this month’s COAG meeting. If past form is a guide, it’s going to be fiery.
“What I’m concerned about is that the federal government has made noises about redistributing money between states within the existing Commonwealth budget envelope,” says NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli. “And if that means they’re going to take money off NSW, then that’s war.”
Piccoli, who runs the largest school system in the country, has implemented the Gonski model in NSW, where funding for state schools is being distributed on a measured needs basis.
He rejects the argument, made frequently by the federal minister, that Australia has increased funding for years with no improvement in results.
“As the Productivity Commission report [this week] said, for that 10-year period before 2013, additional money was spent but spent in the wrong places. Gonski acknowledged that the funds had gone to the wrong places and recommended how you direct funding to the right places. Which was funding individual student need.”
He is furious about the federal government reneging on its agreement to fund schools on this basis in 2018 and beyond.
“We signed an agreement in good faith,” he says. “We made difficult decisions in NSW so that we could get money into these schools that desperately need it for their children. And if the Commonwealth think they’re going to take it away they will have to fight me for it.”
It may yet be fisticuffs, as Birmingham would not rule out NSW losing out. He says he wants to replace the 27 different funding models with a simpler and fairer one for all states, and that future funding would be distributed according to need.
“Public school students receive significantly more total government funding per student than what goes to private school students,” he says. “On average, total government funding for a student going to a public school is over $16,000 per year, while the government support for a student attending a non-government school is $9300 – more than 40 per cent less.”
Labor’s line that there are $29 billion in cuts to education is not true, he says.
“There are no cuts to school funding and total school funding across Australia will grow from $16 billion in 2016 to $20.1 billion in 2020 and we will be working to ensure that funding is increased each year so that schools currently delivering valuable programs can continue to do so.”
Birmingham would not comment on Boston’s concern about the fairness of millions in public money going to the wealthiest schools in the country.
“I agree with Dr Boston where he says that Bill Shorten running around the country in 2013, signing premiers, bishops and the various education lobbies up to 27 different funding deals was a ‘corruption of the Gonski report’,” he says. “The Turnbull government is determined to right this corruption of the Gonski report and replace the patchwork quilt that Labor cobbled together with a new, simpler distribution model where special deals don’t distort real need.”
But if a state such as South Australia is to get “more” of the $1.2 billion under the new system, as Birmingham told an audience at the University of South Australia in June, even if you had a lousy STEM teacher in primary school, it is not difficult to conclude that other states will get less.
Boston’s solution to this infernal mess is, in fact, not to spend any more money. But it’s still unlikely as it involves what has so far been political kryptonite: taking public money from wealthy schools.
“The solution to Australia’s education problem is not pouring more public money into education, but redistributing the existing funding strategically, to address the things that matter in the schools that need it,” he saidin his speech.
“Far too much is spent in wealthy, independent schools where recurrent funding can be used to service loans on capital works, not necessarily to provide a better education, but to provide facilities to make the school more attractive than its other high fee-paying competitors.”
Gonski’s plan may well be dead, or at least on life support as long as federal Labor is behind it.
But in the incremental improvements that practical politics permits – it is after all, the art of the possible – Gonski’s legacy may at least be a shift to both sides recognising the wisdom of needs-based funding. Even if they can’t agree on who needs it.