So much achieved, so much to do
10 March 2020
It’s impossible to talk about education in Australia without talking about equity and fairness.
Where once politicians and the vested interests running private school systems tried to frame any discussion around funding in terms of choice, a decade of campaigning by AEU members has reframed the issue into one of equity.
As AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says, “this means a high- quality, well-funded public school in every community that can meet the needs of every student”.
By putting needs-based funding at the heart of the conversation, the questions now being asked are: Why are some of the biggest increases in funding going to the schools that need it least? Why does the Morrison Government think $14 billion in cuts is a fair go? Why are public schools missing out on billions that should have been delivered in 2018 and 2019?
Haythorpe adds that as we enter a new decade, but with the same old Coalition government, it’s time to reflect on how much campaigning has achieved — and what is needed next.
“We have achieved important policy change through campaigning together, change that we should be very proud of helping bring about.
“We have shaped the public and political conversation on school funding over the past decades and fought off the worst of the Coalition’s policy agenda,” says Haythorpe.
The changed dynamic has been the result of sheer hard work by members and community supporters, who mobilised nationally in support of equitable funding.
Even in opposition, the Coalition was sceptical about the Review of Funding for Schooling led by businessman David Gonski that started this decade of change. Since the Liberals and Nationals came to power, there have been years of cynical attempts to backslide or undermine the shift to fair funding.
On taking office, Tony Abbott was forced to pledge to “match Labor’s commitment dollar for dollar over the next four years” – only to attempt to rip up that pledge on taking power in 2013.
The enormous public outcry led by educators and parents forced him to honour his promise and agree to the first four years of Gonski funding just six days later. This money is now in our schools and is having a positive impact, proving that funding does make a difference when it is directed at the schools and students who need it most.
“Needs-based funding for schools touches on every challenge that teachers face – whether it is student engagement, workload, class sizes, lack of support staff, or the need for literacy and numeracy programs. It is the only way to ensure that every student has the chance to flourish,” Haythorpe says.
Yet who could forget 2016, when Malcolm Turnbull actually tried to suggest that Canberra should stop funding public schools entirely? Again, AEU members took him on and won.
Over the last few years, under the Fair Funding Now! campaign, supporters have rallied against Treasurer Scott Morrison’s budget cuts of $22 billion over the 10 years from 2018-2027 and the ripping up of five signed state and territory agreements on school funding which has put an end to the final two years of promised funding.
When Prime Minister, Morrison announced there would be “no special deals” then announced a special deal to deliver $4.6 billion extra to private schools and not one cent to public schools, it was met by a storm of protest from Fair Funding Now! supporters and allies.
Thanks to this persistent campaigning, the Labor Party and the Australian Greens were in no doubt that public education was important to Australians and both parties shifted their education policies in line with the demands of Fair Funding Now!
Supporters of fair funding are fighting hard for every win, but the challenge now is to make certain that all schools receive their full share of the fair funding they deserve.
Under current policy, 99 per cent of public schools will remain below the schooling resource standard by 2023 – the minimum amount of funding required to meet the educational needs of their students – while all private schools are on track to receive the full amount.
“Our goal must be to see every school funded at 100 per cent of the schooling resource standard.
It is unacceptable in the country of the ‘fair go’ for public schools to rely on fundraising fetes, cake stalls and teachers dipping into their own pockets to prevent their students from missing out. Governments have a fundamental responsibility to fund our schools and must step up,” Haythorpe says.
Another priority will be to ensure public schools receive a dedicated Commonwealth capital fund for upgrading buildings and equipment.
This is becoming increasingly urgent as unprecedented numbers of students enter the public system.
Australia’s population is growing rapidly yet, as with so many challenges facing our nation, the Morrison Government has so far turned a blind eye.
Public school enrolment recorded a 76 per cent increase between 2014 and 2018. A massive national building program is needed to accommodate those new students and give them high-quality facilities to match the high-quality teaching our teachers and support staff provide.
Haythorpe believes that AEU members should take heart from the huge wins over the previous decades in the face of the challenges ahead.
“Giving up is not an option. We will never give up until our schools and students get the fair funding they deserve.”This articles was originally published in The Australian Educator, Autumn 2020