Slowly goes in school funding


3 July 2023

The 2023-24 federal Budget was a distinct anti-climax for public school teachers, students and communities. It offered little new funding to fix the more than a decade long crisis of underfunding in public schools, which has now reached more than $6 billion annually.

Most measures of significance in the Budget had already been announced in the October 2022 Budget, including the provision of 5000 bursaries of $10,000 per year for high-achieving school graduates to study teaching and the Schools Upgrade Fund. The schools fund will deliver a one-year $215 million boost to capital works projects in public schools — just a fraction of the $1.9 billion, 10-year capital grant fund the Commonwealth provides for private schools.

The Budget also put dollar amounts to those commitments made in late 2022 as part of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. Some of these were encouraging, such as the announcement of a $25 million Teacher Workload Reduction Fund to pilot new ways to reduce teacher workloads — something the AEU pushed hard for during the development of the Action Plan. There was also a further $9.3 million to ensure the national guidelines that come out of the Action Plan better support early career teachers and new school leaders and generate improvements to teacher workforce data that will help to better understand future demand for teachers.

Other measures, such as the $10 million national advertising campaign “to raise the status of the teaching profession” may be well meaning, but they are a drop in the ocean for solving the workforce and workload crisis that schools continue to face.

Sliver of hope

However, signs of hope in one small-but-very-significant commitment largely went under the radar: the promise of $40.4 million over two years to improve school attendance and education outcomes and ensure that every school in Central Australia is fully funded to 100 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). Although this is a tiny amount in terms of the total Commonwealth budget of more than $10.6 billion a year for public schools, and will benefit just 36 public schools in total, it potentially represents one of the most important steps forward for the future of Australian public schools on the long-promised, and long-delayed path to full funding for all public schools.

Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe welcomed the announcement but confirmed the AEU’s commitment to ensuring that every child in every public school in Australia is provided with the funding they need.

“While $40 million may not be much compared to other federal Budget commitments, it’s important that we’re clear about what it represents,” she says.

“For public school students in Central Australia, it represents full funding to 100 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard in the region. That funding will help deliver more teachers, more education support staff, and more one-on-one individual attention for students.”

At the 2022 Federal Election the ALP promised to set all schools on a path to 100 per cent of SRS, and education minister Jason Clare has repeated this promise. The Commonwealth’s decision to increase funding of these 36 schools to 100 per cent of SRS is the first step on that path towards realising the promise of full and fair funding for all public school students in Australia.

This hope is tangible as the announcement for the Northern Territory to reach 100 per cent of SRS provides precedent and indicates that the government is well aware of the need for every public school in the country to reach 100 per cent of SRS.

Northern territory turnaround

The entrenched underfunding of public schools in the Northern Territory is more severe than the underfunding in all other jurisdictions. The 2018 bi-lateral funding agreements, signed between the previous coalition government and all states and territories, locked in an arbitrary Commonwealth funding cap of 20 per cent of the SRS and offered 75 per cent of SRS as an aspirational target for states and territories to move towards over five years. This meant that in every jurisdiction except the ACT, public schools were underfunded by at least 5 per cent and, in most cases, closer to 10 per cent.

In the Northern Territory the deal was even worse and required the Territory government to fund a maximum of only 59 per cent of the SRS by 2023. This, alongside the Commonwealth reducing their funding from 23.5 per cent in 2018 down to the self-imposed cap of 20 per cent by 2027, means that in 2023 public schools in the Territory will receive only 80.5 per cent of the minimum combined funding they require. Every student will be underfunded by more than $6000, and one in five students will miss out on the vital resources they need to overcome significant geographical and compound disadvantage barriers.

This was despite the bi-lateral agreement recognising the “delivery of school education in the Northern Territory as unique because of the challenges associated with providing services to a disproportionately high number of disadvantaged schools and students”.

In the Territory, 44 per cent of public school students are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, 40 per cent live in remote or very remote areas and 38 per cent have a language background other than English. Half of all students are in the lowest quartile of the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage and more than one quarter of students in the Northern Territory have a disability and should receive educational adjustments. That makes the Territory’s student cohort unique and highlights the need for additional resources.

Despite this, in 2018 both the Commonwealth and Territory governments absolved themselves of responsibility by declaring that full funding for these students would be too expensive, that the “Northern Territory’s funding commitments under this agreement should be considered in the context of the current subdued economic and fiscal conditions” and that the SRS goal for the Territory should be reduced to only 80 per cent of SRS. This abdication of responsibility has left 20 per cent of public school students in the Territory without any allocated funding, and left schools to face unacceptable shortfalls in resources, teachers and services.

Funding for success

The impact of this funding crisis has been laid out in a new report from the Northern Territory Branch of the AEU titled Funding for Success.

“Our students are disengaging from school at unprecedented rates. Their learning outcomes have deteriorated since the turn of the century, and they are highly stratified by socioeconomic and cultural background,” the report says.

“Our teachers are stressed and burned out, resulting in a labour shortage that has forced us to fill gaps in our schools with corporate department staff. All of this is ultimately driven by an attendance-based funding model that forces our most disadvantaged schools into downward spirals of hyper-residualisation.”

The first recommendation of that report is “to fund all NT public schools at 100 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard by no later than the start of 2026”. This echoes the main recommendation the Gonski review made more than 10 years ago, which devised the SRS as the minimum funding required to allow most students to reach achievement benchmarks. Because the minimum fair funding level has not been delivered over the last decade, cycles of disadvantage have been further entrenched and equity gaps widened.

This is why the new $40.4 million included in the Budget for 36 public schools in the Territory is a small but very significant shift to address past governments’ neglect. It is the beginning of righting a decade of wrongs. It also sets a new benchmark for federal funding of public schools above the arbitrary and restrictive 20 per cent SRS cap imposed by the previous coalition government and demonstrates that the Commonwealth can act to ensure that schools are fully and fairly funded to 100 per cent of SRS.

By Jonathon Guy, AEU federal research officer.

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