Turning point


06 June 2020

From bushfire repairs to pandemic preparations, Australia’s unbalanced school funding system has been found desperately wanting – even as educators rise to the challenge of multiple crises.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic proved once again that teachers and educators are frontline staff, essential workers in the Australian economy. In just weeks, schools instigated a completely new method of curriculum delivery – remote learning – while grappling with tough, but vital, health and safety measures.

That pivot came as many schools, particularly in regional and remote communities, were grappling with the aftermath of a devastating bushfire season that affected students and teachers in every state and territory.

But the crises again exposed the underfunding of our public schools and the heavy lifting they do in providing education for most of Australia’s vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Some schools lacked the IT equipment to switch quickly to remote learning. Some lacked even the necessary hand sanitiser, soap and cleaning equipment to keep their workplaces safe.

Essendon Keilor College principal David Adamson says he raided his camp and excursion budget to fund laptops and internet plans for students at the school in Melbourne’s north west who needed them. But, he says, a bigger concern was student welfare.

“I’ve got some Year 9 students who were already pretty disengaged from education. At the moment, they’re not doing much at all. To get them back on track will be a challenge. That’s a bigger cost – how do we provide welfare support for those kids? The risk is that they won’t complete school.”

John Schuh, executive principal of Ferny Grove State High in Brisbane, says his school is “just managing” to balance remote learning with social distancing measures for the 10 per cent of students on campus. Even so, electives for Years 7 to 9 had been dropped and, with a critical shortage of relief teachers, something would have to give if more students returned.

Secondary schools are often large enough to shuffle budgets around for a few weeks, Schuh says. But his primary school colleagues are struggling to supply laptops or iPads to students in need; some had resorted to photocopies and Australia Post to get teaching materials out. “They don’t have the capacity to do things online,” he says.

“We’re very good at solving these problems for the government, but funding would be a huge advantage for everybody.”

Inequality highlighted

The crisis has underlined that government schools educate most disadvantaged or vulnerable students – children without access to laptops or internet, or with complex needs that require strong systemic support, time and resources that schools struggle to provide.

“COVID-19 has really highlighted the inequality in our schools, the lack of infrastructure and resources,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says. “That’s a story that has to be told.

“While we’ve seen some short-term funding from state and territory governments to deal with these issues, it doesn’t deal with the long-term reality of the inequality in resources.”

Haythorpe says clear messaging, extra clearing regimes in schools and immediate support for staff with health concerns were the best government responses to the crisis. “Some states have unfortunately left it to individual schools and said it’s their problem. That has put a lot of pressure on principals and teachers.

“The reality is that many state and territory governments have had to put in extra laptops and computer support – not only to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds that don’t have computers or internet at home, but even schools that don’t have enough equipment,” she says.

“Some schools were actually dealing with shortages of soap and hand sanitiser, which they were required by their state’s chief medical officers to have. If schools are to operate under a whole new set of requirements that say you have to have sanitiser at the front of every classroom, extra cleaning services for the laptops, iPads, tables, chairs, playgrounds – whose responsibility is that?

“It all requires extra resources from government.”

No togetherness here

The crisis has demonstrated that when it comes to education, we’re not all in it together, says Haythorpe. “Private schools were among the first to close in term 1, in defiance of federal government requests for them to remain open. They followed that with a plea for extra funding,” she says.

“But the sector is used to special treatment. The Liberals in Canberra responded to the prolonged drought and bushfires with a $50 million relief fund – for private schools only.”

Haythorpe says the Coalition’s view is that public school infrastructure is a problem solely for the states and refuses to contribute to capital works funding. “The coronavirus crisis has again shown the unsustainability of that position.”

Private schools massively outspend government schools on capital works – Catholic schools spent more than twice as much per student in 2017 and independent schools doubled that again. Despite that, the Morrison Government has promised the sector $1.9 billion in infrastructure funding over the next decade.

But it’s mostly government schools that have been coping with surging roles as Australia experiences a new baby boom. The Grattan Institute estimates an extra 650,000 school places will be needed over the decade to 2026.

Private schools are also the only sector expected to be fully funded by 2023 under the new Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), with inequalities baked into the Liberals and Nationals vision of equity. While every private school will get 100 per cent of its SRS, the target for public schools is to reach just 95 per cent by 2023.

For the hundreds of private schools overfunded under the formula, the transition will stretch to 2029 – although that hasn’t been enough to prevent squeals of pain from the sector, which has asked for even longer.

Meanwhile private schools get access to $3.4 billion to ease the introduction of Direct Measure of Income – the assessment of parents’ ability to pay fees which underpins the SRS for private schools – and a further $1.2 billion “Choice and Affordability” fund, intended to reduce fees, despite the fact that two decades of ever-increasing government subsidies have not stopped fees outstripping inflation.

Together, they make a mockery of then-treasurer Scott Morrison’s claim in 2017, in an interview with journalist Laurie Oakes, that “there shouldn’t be special deals”. “There should be one deal and it should be based on the needs of every single student,” Morrison said.

“This is in the Liberal Party’s DNA,” Haythorpe says. “Their version of needs-based funding is simply not needs-based.”

As always, government schools are rising to the occasion. Adamson says his staff have been “outstanding”. “They’ve taken it on with a passion because they really do care about their kids.

“We take all comers, and we don’t get the support our (private school) competitors do in the community.”

The growing gap

Schuh says he expects the gap to widen. His school spends “nearly $800,000 a year just to make our school function” and this is made possible only by voluntary parental contributions.

“We will see a real financial struggle when we come back (from the COVID-19 lockdown) Parents aren’t going to be able to pay voluntary fees, pay for excursions and we won’t have that income stream that we budgeted for.

“Many of the things that parents expect from schools will be a challenge – the value adding experiences like music programs, excursions and camps,” Schuh says.

Haythorpe says that when the crisis is over, the federal government must address the underlying issue of poor resourcing – giving every public school its full SRS and pulling its weight on capital spending.

“If we had been provided with the necessary capital works and infrastructure investment, that would have minimised a lot of the trauma of dealing with social distancing or remote learning requirements,” she says.

“And if schools had been allocated fair funding, they might have had more capacity to organise the necessary resources, run the professional development needed and to work through a pandemic with less stress.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the funding issues – and we can’t afford to lose momentum.”

A tough start gets even tougher

It was the toughest start imaginable to the year for the staff and students at the three schools that make up Kangaroo Island Community Education in South Australia.

The island was devastated by the summer bushfires. Many students and staff lost everything, and almost everyone was touched by catastrophe.

So when AEU Federal president, Correna Haythorpe visited the schools with State president Lara Golding, she was even angrier at the lack of support from the federal government.

The Coalition had announced a $50 million pot for private schools hit by drought and fire – but nothing for the public schools educating most of the bushfire-hit students.

“One campus we visited had about 38 kids who’d lost everything, and about 95 per cent of them had lost something,” she says.

“And many staff were affected as well, but they were all there at the beginning of the year making school a safe and wonderful place for the kids.

“We’ve seen the same right across the country. There are clean-up costs; schools needed mental health support and counselling services. They might have playgrounds and infrastructure that has been damaged.

“We lost only a handful of schools, but the reality is that a significant number of schools lost playgrounds or sheds or infrastructure that has to be rebuilt.

“We have to ask why the government believes that it is only private schools who need relief funding.”

On Kangaroo Island, 45 staff were directly affected by the fires – from being evacuated, to losing their homes, vehicles or infrastructure, or by having a partner fighting the fires. The campuses played a significant role during the emergency, hosting more than 150 firefighters for many weeks.

When term 1 started, five staff required additional leave either due to trauma or to deal with loss.

The strain on the school’s leaders and other staff was immense, says SA vice president Dash Taylor Johnson. Several had barely had a break since December, working seven days a week to help accommodate fire crews, assist with resources and to support children and colleagues.

“The trauma will be ongoing for many months, possibly years ahead,” says Taylor Johnson.

Who gets what?

Special deals for Catholic and independent schools include:

  • $3.4 billion extra to fund Direct Measure of Income changes.
  • $1.2 billion “Choice and Affordability” fund to reduce private school fees.
  • $1.9 billion fund over the next 10 years for capital works.
  • Pushing out the School Resource Standard transition to 2029 for overfunded private schools.
  • $50 million for bushfire and drought relief.

This article was originally published in Australian Educator, Winter 2020