Resources delayed are resources denied


13 April 2023

The 2023 school year should have begun with a celebration.

This is the year the Albanese government was expected to deliver on its election commitment for public schools to have the pathway to a minimum of 100 per cent of the funding they need under the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).

Instead, education minister Jason Clare announced a review, delaying the new four-year funding round of the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) by a year. The decision will stall the negotiations between the commonwealth and state and territory governments about their funding commitments and the timeline to achieve the full 100 per cent of the SRS for public schools.

Clare promised “a big year” for education and, at the recent AEU Federal Conference, reaffirmed the ALP’s election promise to deliver fair funding for public schools, and made a commitment to consider equity at every benchmark.

This will require significant changes to funding arrangements, which have entrenched and increased funding inequality for a decade.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says it’s time for action, as resources delayed are resources denied.

“We know what the issue is: a promise was made to the children of Australia, which has never been delivered because the Coalition government systematically destroyed the funding architecture to deliver that promise.

In the last four years, public schools have been underfunded by more than $6.6 billion while private schools were overfunded by more than $800 million. In 2017, the Coalition arbitrarily capped the Commonwealth contribution to public school funding by 20 per cent and made special deals with the independent and Catholic sectors.

Economist Adam Rorris says the SRS is not an aspirational benchmark. “It is the minimum funding required to achieve learning outcomes.”

Exacerbating the disadvantage for public schools is the loss of a further 4 per cent in funding the states and territories can claim for capital depreciation, which means these funds are not delivered to public schools.

It’s a move Rorris describes as an “out-and-out card trick”. “That’s money that was actually taken out by state and territory governments from their contributions to public schools. This trick was never applied to the private schools. Never. This was only done for the public schools,” he says.

Listen to teachers

Haythorpe acknowledges there are wins already on the board for public education since the election of the new federal government.

“The Online Formative Assessment Initiative is gone; the National Teacher Workforce Action plan was developed after consultation, for the first time, with teachers, principals and education support staff via their union, and we now have a government that understands the requirement for equity in education funding and the benefits that will come from it,” Haythorpe says.

“But the Albanese government needs to get on with the business of delivering on their election promise and fixing the funding mess left by Scott Morrison. As (author and commentator) Professor Pasi Sahlberg says: ‘Schools cannot fix inequities in education alone. No society can be called a democracy while some social groups are discriminated against in the provision of education or, indeed, in the provision of other public services such as health and social protection’.”

The problem is that the recently announced review and the resulting delay in the four-year funding agreement means public schools are missing out on another 12 months of fair funding, says Haythorpe.

“This year, there are students finishing Year 12 who have never attended a fully funded public school. That is a national shame,” she says.

The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services, released in February, shows “the sheer scale of the government’s neglect over the past decade”, says Haythorpe.

The Coalition government’s legacy for public education was inequitable funding, increased workloads and a consequent workforce shortage crisis, she says. The report confirms that government funding to private schools per student increased at 1.7 times the rate of the public school increase per student.

“The Commonwealth now invests $16 billion a year in Australia’s private schools. Calling them private when they are funded by the taxpayer to that level is, frankly, a joke,” says Haythorpe.

Money matters

The problem, says Rorris, is that “we’ve spent 10 years sending money to the wrong schools”.

Public schools educate the majority of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students recognised by the original Gonski review as needing extra funding to ensure that they reach their full potential.

The latest figures (2018) based on the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status show that 41 per cent of students in public schools are in the bottom quarter of that socio-economic index compared with 3 per cent of students in Catholic schools and one per cent in private schools. Meanwhile 63 per cent of students in private schools are in the top quarter, compared to 10 per cent of public school students.

Money matters to public schools but they have been denied funding equity. It delivers extra teachers to keep class sizes smaller, it provides specialist resources for teaching and learning, and it provides extra help for students who need it. It also provides much-needed support to teachers and education support personnel, ensuring their workloads can be managed and their wellbeing is considered. This is essential to prepare teachers for their profession, at a time when the teacher shortage crisis is causing thousands of vacancies in schools across Australia.

Rorris says an objective of a new funding system needs to be guaranteed access for all families and students to a fully funded – to 100 per cent of SRS – primary or secondary school.

Australia has never delivered on the Gonski review’s promise of a needs-based, sector-blind (treating public and private schools the same way) school funding model, says Haythorpe. “Public schools are underfunded on average by $1800 per student, every year and it is our members who make up this shortfall through unsustainable workloads, unpaid additional hours, stress and burnout,” she says.

“And it is our schools that now must wait a further 12 months while the federal government conducts a review.

“But we won’t wait. We will hit the campaign trail now so that the federal government understands the urgency of meeting their promise. We know our communities understand the importance of fully funding public schools and it’s time that politicians understood that as well,” says Haythorpe.

Jason Clare agrees that the current the system is far from fair. “The last decade has been a lost decade [for school funding],” he says. “It’s what comes next that matters,” he told the AEU Federal Conference.

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2023