Gonski funding - the facts


2 December 2016

Claims that schools are “awash” with funds are way off the mark. The final tranche of Gonski funding — $3.8 billion in 2018 and 2019 — is vital to ensure every child at every school gets the resources they need.

The Turnbull Government has always been keen to downplay the urgent requirement for needs-based funding in schools and, to that end, has tended to overstate the new money flowing into the sector following the Gonski review.

Education minister Simon Birmingham talks about “record funding” to schools and his predecessor Christopher Pyne claimed that schools were “awash with extra funds”. Pyne told the ABC’s AM program in 2014 that “schools have all the money they need to get the outcomes for our students”.

The Coalition now plans to end needs-based funding after 2017 and stop schools from receiving $3.8 billion in extra funding in 2018 and 2019.

Are schools getting record funding?

But has funding for schools grown to such extraordinary levels that they now have all they need to meet the diverse needs of their students? The Productivity Commission has claimed that per student funding for schools has increased by about 14 per cent in the past decade, after taking inflation into account.

However, analysis by Peter Goss, school education program director at the Grattan Institute, has found that this analysis ignores the fact that teachers’ wages have also grown each year by about one per cent above inflation, in line with typical wage growth.

“After accounting for the increase in student numbers and teacher wages, the effective increase is closer to half the Productivity Commission’s figure of 14 per cent per student across government and non-government schools,” Goss wrote.

This is an important point but still fails to take into account how that funding was distributed. An analysis of the Productivity Commission’s own data by Save Our Schools found that from 2005 to 2014 government funding to public schools increased by just 3.3 per cent per student, compared to 9.8 per cent to private schools.

Even in the lead up to Gonski, with the addition of initiatives such as the National Partnerships Program, from 2009 to 2014 government funding to public schools grew at half the rate of that to private schools.

This is despite the fact that student need is much higher in public schools. Analysis of My School data shows that low-SES students comprise 30 per cent of all public school enrolments compared to 15 per cent in Catholic schools and only nine per cent in Independent schools.

The positive effects of a small overall rise in schools funding have been outweighed by the negative effects of not distributing it on the basis of need.

Children missing out

The Gonski Review’s comprehensive investigation into schools funding five years ago concluded that too many children were still missing out because of a lack of resources.

That is still the case today, with less than 20 per cent of the extra resources in the Gonski agreements delivered to schools by the end of 2016.

Gonski’s recommendations included a new system to ensure adequate resources for all schools and more funding to help educate children with special needs. It used a benchmark — known as a schooling resource standard — to set a base rate of funding for each student with loadings added to cover the extra costs of meeting certain educational needs. The Australian Education Act contains specific rates of indexation for schools, depending on how their funding levels compare to the SRS.

The six-year Gonski agreements signed with states and territories outline the transition from the old funding system to the new one which will see schools reach the funding levels set out in the Australian Education Act.

The transition was steeply weighted to years five and six, with the intention that, by the end, every school would be funded to at least 95 per cent of the schooling resource standard.

Gonski already making a difference

Despite the overwhelming evidence of funding shortfalls in education that led to the Gonski Review and recommendations, the Productivity Commission report also asserted that the small increase in education funding over a decade had failed to see any more than a “little improvement” in student achievement.

But the report ignored the unfair distribution of resources prior to the introduction of the Gonski needs-based funding in 2014, says AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe.

“The lack of improvement in student results has happened during a time when funding was not based on need, and when the biggest increases in resources went to schools which did not need them,” she says.

A detailed analysis of the National Partnerships Program showed that extra targeted funding to low-SES schools had led to increases in literacy and numeracy for students – backing the recommendations of Gonski.

Today, public schools in most states are beginning to receive additional funding which can deliver benefits
for students.

While the real results are likely to be seen in the years to come, principals and teachers are already excited by students’ improved levels of engagement and their increased literacy and numeracy along with reductions in behavioural issues.

These early indications of the success of a program that targets the gaps in student achievement underline the need to continue Gonski funding, says Haythorpe.

This is particularly important with two-thirds of the extra resources to be delivered in 2018 and 2019.

Abandoning what works

Alarmingly, the Turnbull government wants to abandon this system of needs-based funding just as the evidence is building that it is working.

The government’s re-election in July 2016 confirmed “the uncertain and troubling state of public policy for the funding of schools in Australia”, according to a report by education funding expert Dr Jim McMorrow.

The government’s education policy is largely outlined in the May 2016 Federal Budget, which abandons the Gonski Review’s recommendation of a schooling resource standard.

“Whatever the many shortfalls and inequalities in their funding at the end of 2017, schools have been served notice that a Coalition government in Canberra has no plan to deal with them after that date,” the McMorrow report says.

“As far as the Coalition is concerned, schools operating at resource levels below their ‘Gonski standard’ will just have to soldier on.”

The McMorrow analysis shows that: 62 per cent of extra federal funding would go to private schools after 2017, despite their lower level of need.

Per student funding to public schools would increase by just 1.8% in 2018/19 and 2.1% in 2019/20 – not enough for a school of 500 students to hire even one extra full-time teacher.

This is effectively a return to the pre-Gonski era of funding based on sector rather than need.

“The Coalition’s current policy…effectively ‘freezes’ Commonwealth funding for schools at the level reached in 2017. This is well short of the funding required for all schools to reach resource standards set out in the Gonski report and the Australian Education Act,” McMorrow says.

The Coalition’s pre-election announcement of $1.2 billion over four years does no more than cover enrolment growth, wage rises and inflation in the education sector.

McMorrow says the government has at best “budgeted for a holding pattern” with “no educational rationale for its future funding arrangements”. He concludes: “This is an insecure and potentially volatile situation for schools.”

This is why false claims that schools are receiving record funding, or that increasing resources won’t make a difference to results, should not be allowed to distract us from the Coalition’s real agenda of undermining needs-based Gonski funding and leaving public schools without the resources they need.