Does the Australian Government want to give all Australian children every opportunity to get the best education?
There is only one answer to that question and it was the guiding principle of the 2011 Review of Funding for Schools.
The review panel, led by David Gonski, sought to cut through the political impasse that has long dogged federal schools policy and deliver long overdue funding reforms.
There is a history to this battle.
Gonski is not the only one who has had a go at trying to change things so that every Australian child has an equal chance at a good education.
A century ago the Victorian director-general of education, Frank Tate, fought hard and long against the political might of private school interests to establish public secondary schooling to matriculation level in Victoria. Even the final 1913 settlement required that no public secondary school could be located where it might competitively disadvantage a private school.
In the early 1970s the Interim Committee of the Schools Commission (Karmel Committee) recommended a needs-based funding regime for public and private schools in response to the Whitlam government’s request to examine the financial needs of schools. The committee cautioned:
‘There is a point beyond which it is not possible to consider policies relating to the private sector without taking into account their possible effects on the public sector whose strength and representativeness should not be diluted . . . As public aid for non-government schools rises, the possibility and even the inevitability of a changed relationship between government and non-government schooling presents itself.’
The senate at the time was hostile to the principles of equity underlying the Karmel report, and so, too, was subsequent the Fraser Government. This led to escalating funding for private schools and consequential residualisation of public schools – dynamics that became ever more difficult to turn around. The evidence for these two intimately connected trends, foreseen by the Karmel Committee, includes facts of funding and indicators of residualisation.
The Karmel Committee recommended that 70% of federal schools funding go to public schools, with those schools receiving on a per student basis around 70% that received by private schools, which took account of existing state and private levels of funding. The actual initial allocation to private schools was increased as the bills passed through Parliament, and over the following four decades the per student differential in funding has increased.
For the 2013-14 financial year, federal funding for each private school student averages more than three and a half times the amount allocated for each public school student.
Changes in enrolment share and the social background of students provide stark evidence for the underlying process of the residualisation of public schools.
From 1976 to 2013, the share of all school enrolments in public schools fell from 79% to 64%, and thus the share in private schools rose from 21% to 36%. Over the same period the concentration of low SES students increased in public schools and declined in private schools.
Through the 1970s and 1980s the proportions of low SES and high SES students were much the same in the public and private sectors (though there were, and remain, differences within sectors, largely based on location and academic selectivity in the public sector, and fee levels in the private sector).
This initial similarity between public and private sectors in overall social mix progressively changed over the decades.
In 2011 there were twice as many low SES students as high SES students in public schools, and around twice as many high SES students as low SES students in private schools.
Schools attended by low SES students (now overwhelmingly public schools) face many problems.
Some are documented by the OECD in its detailed analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data. For example, in Australia, more than any other OECD country, teacher shortages are concentrated in schools with a large proportion of low SES students. The disadvantages of the schools compound the disadvantages of the individual low SES students.
David Gonski and his fellow reviewers sought to cut through the intractable barriers to equity in schooling by recommending a largely ‘sector-blind’ funding system that coordinated federal and state funding for both public and private schools and targeted substantial extra funding at low SES and other schools with demonstrable needs – schools where extra funding would make a great difference.
Under the Gonski reforms no school would lose funding.
The reviewers, like the OECD recognised that improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students benefits not only them and their communities, but the whole society – well into the future.
Two of the OECD’s five recommendations for tackling system level policies that hinder equity in education are especially relevant to Australia:
‘Manage school choice to avoid segregation and increased inequities’
‘Make funding strategies responsive to students’ and schools’ needs’
While managing school choice has been difficult for Australian governments since the 1970s, funding that is responsive to students’ and schools’ needs is more politically viable, if fiscally difficult. Thus both Labor and the Coalition committed to the implementation of funding based on the Gonski recommendations at the 2013 election.
The Coalition’s commitment has been shaky, both before and since the election, and it has made no commitment beyond the first four years, when the significant funds that will make a difference would start to flow. Even for those first four years, it appears to be walking away from a commitment to direct additional funds to the schools that need it. As Jim McMorrow put it in January this year:
Failure to implement the comprehensive reforms put forward by the Gonski panel and embedded in the architecture of the Australian Education Act will … mean missing the once in a generation opportunity provided by the Gonski review to settle one of the country’s most intractable and divisive areas of public policy.
If the Australian Government truly does want to give all Australian children every opportunity to get the best education it should fully implement the Gonski reforms.
Barbara Preston is an independent researcher and policy consultant, currently undertaking doctoral studies at the University of Canberra on supply and demand forecasting for the teaching and nursing professions. She has been researching a wide range of education matters since the 1970s – as a teacher union research officer, public servant, and, since the early 1990s, consultant to the Australian Council of Deans of Education and many other organisations. Her research interests include teacher attraction and retention, the nature of the teaching profession, the professional practice of teaching, and schools policy and social justice.