School funding

Stop all government funding for private schools. (Why and how we could do it)

Along with many fellow Australians I was momentarily heartened last year by the United Kingdom’s Labour party announcing that it would scrap elitist private schools in the UK (which are confusingly called “public schools”) if it won the UK election. Had it happened, those UK private schools would have been nationalised, their charitable status removed and their endowments, investments and properties redistributed to the state sector.

I have often called for the defunding of private schools in Australia, but I want to make the distinction between defunding and nationalising. I don’t believe all private schools in Australia should be nationalised. I do believe no private school should receive public funding via governments. Private schools that are unviable without being funded by governments should transition into becoming faith-based public schools, similar to the UK model of faith-based public schools.

UK faith-based public schools

Most faith-based schools in the UK are part of the public system (as they are in most European countries and in Canada).  Religious schools (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) are public schools and almost fully funded by the public. They do not charge additional parental fees – and follow the same National Curriculum, enrolment and staffing rules as public schools.

The difference between the UK and Australia

In the UK, private schools are not publicly funded but have tax deductible status and there are far fewer of them than we have here in Australia, currently they educate only around 7% of the UK population. They rely totally on fees raised from parents and donors.

This was also the situation in Australia prior to the 1963 with the beginning of what has been termed State Aid to Catholic schools aimed at bringing their “systemic” or parish school science facilities up to a comparable standard to science facilities in public schools.

So began the long-term process of providing federal benefits to private schools in Australia. At that time some 25% of students were enrolled in private schools in Australia and in 1965 these schools received 25% of all Commonwealth funding. 

The morphing of Australia’s school funding into the unsustainable model we have today

Today private schools in Australia receive 75% of all federal funding. We have gone a long way past just bringing poor Catholic parish schools up to public school standards. These days the poor schools across Australia, those needing help, are public schools. Today we don’t just fund Catholic schools, we now fund all religious schools including two Scientology schools with fewer than 50 students, each receiving almost $10,000 per student every year from the public purse. We also fund 31 Exclusive Brethren schools that in many cases get more government funding per student than nearby government schools.

In Germany the “Church” of Scientology is an illegal organisation. In Australia they are a tax-exempt charity. And you might remember Kevin Rudd labelled the Brethren group as “an extremist cult that breaks up families.” But now we gift them more money for their schools than we give to many public schools.

The recent OECD Education at a Glance 2019 shows that Australia is the 4th most privatised country for education. Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education, Australia ranks 4th as the most privatised school education spending in the OECD after Mexico, Columbia and Turkey, with 35% of students attending private schools.

In Australia private schools on average receive about $10K per student from combined government funding on top of the parental fees which can be as much as $35k per student (non-boarding).

According to research by former Productivity Commissioner Trevor Cobbold, real government funding (adjusted for inflation) for public schools between 2009-2017 was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic schools increased by $1420 per student (+18.4%) and $1318 (+20.9%) for so-called Independent schools per student.

Total real income per public student over that time period fell by $58 (-0.5) per student for public schools but increased by $1888 (+17.8%) in Catholic schools and by $2,306 (+15.1%) in Independent schools.

May I remind you most Australians (around 65%) still send their children to public schools.

Value for money spent on private schools?

It is claimed by conservative commentators that private schools are more efficient in their use of money. In 2018 2,558,169 or 65% of Australian students attended public primary and secondary schools. Combined government recurrent (non-capital) expenditure (latest figures 2016-17) averaged $17,531 per student across all states and territories. In the Catholic and Independent schools this figure was $19,302 including $10,664 of public funding per student, the rest being mainly made up of parent fees.

For example, public schools in NSW are operating with less than 70 per cent of the income per student of private schools, with public schools reporting a net yearly income of $13,318 a student compared to the private schools’ income of $20,053 a student.

Given recent research finds that public schools (excluding select entry schools) equal or outperform private schools when socio-economic status is considered, one must ask why does it take so much extra money to educate private school students? Perhaps it is because the decline in Australia’s performance in international tests over the decade is primarily due to falling results in private schools, the falls being similar in both Independent and Catholic schools.

Money matters for disadvantaged schools

Study after study indicates that money does really matter in education in disadvantaged communities but not in wealthier ones.

Unfortunately, in Australia it seems that most of the additional government spend on education flows to private schools that don’t need this additional money.  According to ABC research

  • Half of the $22 billion spent on capital projects in Australian schools between 2013 and 2017 was spent in just 10 per cent of schools
  • These schools are the country’s richest, ranked by average annual income from all sources (federal and state government funding, fees and other private funding) over the five-year period. They teach fewer than 30 per cent of students
  • They also reaped 28 per cent (or $2.4 billion) of the $8.6 billion in capital spending funded by government.

Over the past decade, public funding to private schools has risen nearly twice as fast as public funding to public schools. Recurrent public funding to private schools topped $14 billion in 2017.

What should happen

I believe any private school that charges fees over the agreed Schooling Resource Standard (the SRS is $11,343 for primary and $14,254 for secondary students in 2019) should immediately lose all public funding. Elitist schools across Australia charging over $20,000 in fees do not need public money. They will not lose too many students if they need to raise their fees even higher. Those private schools unable to meet their recurrent costs could voluntarily become public schools, opening enrolment to all students in their local area.

Private schools charging less than the SRS should have their public funding reduced gradually by 10% per annum until it is zero. Again, if these schools cannot meet their financial obligations they could be taken over by the state and become, as in the UK and elsewhere, state-run faith-based schools open to all children in their local area. This would be an actual saving of money for Australian tax payers over time.

Given that Catholic and Independent schools in Australia were subsidised by $14.03 billion in public funding  in 2018, should some close and even if 5-10% of their students were to enrol in public schools there would be no problem integrating all these kids into an equitable multicultural diverse public education system. We would then return to the same situation prior to the beginning of the “school choice” phenomenon.

I believe this is what we should be planning because all of the data indicates that what we are doing with school funding in Australia is blatantly unfair and financially unsustainable.

David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier

Q:Which major party will fully fund public schools? A:None. Here’s what’s happening

You would be forgiven for thinking that policy related to schooling is not a major issue in Australia. In the lead up to the federal election, scant attention has been paid to it during the three leaders’ debates. One of the reasons could be because the education policies of the major parties have largely converged around key issues.

Both Labor and the Coalition are promising to increase funding to schools but neither is prepared to fully fund government schools to the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).  Under a Coalition government public schools will get up to 95 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard by 2027, under a Labor government they will get 97 per cent by 2027. Either way we are talking two elections away and to what degree public schools will remain underfunded.

Both the Coalition and Labor plan to fully fund allprivate schools to the Schooling Resource Standard by 2023. Some private schools are already fully funded and many are already over funded

Yes, Labor is promising to put equality and redistribution back on the agenda in areas such as tax reform and childcare policy, but its Fair funding for Australian Schools policy fails to close the funding gap between what government schools get, and what they need.  And yes Labor is promising to put back the $14 billion cut from public schools by the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 plan and will inject $3.3 billion of that during its 2019-22 term, if elected.

The point I want to make is neither major party is prepared to fully fund government schools to the level that is needed according to the Schooling Resource Standard.

I find this deeply disappointing.

There are certainly differences between Coalition and Labor education policies, the main being that Labor will outspend the Coalition across each education sector from pre-schools to universities.

However, as I see it, neither major party has put forward an education policy platform. Instead, they have presented a clutch of ideas that fail to address key issues of concern in education, such as dismantling the contrived system of school comparison generated by NAPLAN and the MySchool website, and tackling Australia’s massive and growing equity issues.

Both major parties believe that the best mechanism for delivering quality and accountability is by setting and rewarding performance outcomes. This approach shifts responsibility for delivering improvements in the system down the line.

And let’s get to standardised testing. There is a place for standardised tests in education. However, when these tests are misused they have perverse negative consequences including narrowing the curriculum, intensifying residualisation, increasing the amount of time spent on test preparation, and encouraging ‘gaming’ behaviour.

Labor has promised to take a serious look at how to improve the insights from tests like NAPLAN, but this is not sufficient to redress the damage they are doing to the quality of schooling and the schooling experiences of young people.

These tests can be used to identify weaknesses in student achievement on a very narrow range of curriculum outcomes but there are cheaper, more effective and less problematic ways of finding this out. And the tests are specifically designed to produce a range of results, so it is intended for some children to do badly; a fact missed entirely by the mainstream media coverage of NAPLAN results.

National testing, NAPLAN, is supported by both Labor and the Coalition. Both consistently tell us that inequality matters, but both know the children who underperform are more likely to come from communities experiencing hardship and social exclusion. These are the communities whose children attend those schools that neither major party is willing to fund fully to the Schooling Resource Standard.

Consequently, teachers in underfunded government schools are required to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of educating the young people who rely most on schooling to deliver the knowledge and social capital they need to succeed in life.

The performance of students on OECD PISA data along with NAPLAN show the strength of the link between low achievement and socio-economic background in Australia; a stronger link than in many similar economies. This needs to be confronted with proper and fair funding plus redistributive funding on top of that.

A misuse of standardised tests by politicians, inflamed by mainstream media, has resulted in teachers in our public schools being blamed for the persistent low achievement of some groups of children and, by extension, initial teacher education providers being blamed for producing ‘poor quality’ teachers.

There is no educational justification for introducing more tests, such as the Coalition’s proposed Year 1 phonics test. Instead, federal politicians need to give up some of the power that standardised tests have afforded them to intervene in education. They need to step away from constantly using NAPLAN results to steer education for their own political purposes. Instead they need to step up to providing fair funding for all of Australia’s schools.

I believe when the focus is placed strongly on outputs, governments are let ‘off the hook’ for poorly delivering inputs through the redistribution of resources. Improved practices at the local level can indeed help deliver system quality, but not when that system is facing chronic, eternal underfunding.

Here I must comment on Labor’s proposal to establish a  $280 million Evidence Institute for Schools.  Presumably, this is Labor’s response to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to improve the quality of existing education data. Labor is to be commended for responding to this recommendation. The Coalition is yet to say how they will fund the initiative.

However what Labor is proposing is not what the Productivity Commission recommended. The Commission argued that performance benchmarking and competition between schools alone are insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. They proposed a broad ranging approach to improving the national education evidence base, including the evaluation of policies and building an understanding of how to turn what we know works into into common practice on the ground.

Labor claims that its Evidence Institute for Schools will ensure that teachers and parents have access to ‘high quality’ ‘ground breaking’ research, and it will be ‘the right’ research to assist teachers and early educators to refine and improve their practice.

As an educational researcher, I welcome all increases in funding for research but feel compelled to point out according to the report on Excellence in Research for Australia that was recently completed by the Australian Research Council, the vast majority of education research institutions in Australia are already producing educational research assessed to be of or above world class standard.

The problem is not a lack of high quality research, or a lack of the right kind of research. Nor is it the case that teachers do not have access to research to inform their practice. Without a well-considered education platform developed in consultation with key stakeholders, this kind of policy looks like a solution in search of a problem, rather than a welcome and needed response to a genuine educational issue.

Both major parties need to do more to adequately respond to the gap in the education evidence base identified by the Productivity Commission. This includes a systematic evaluation of the effects of education policies, particularly the negative effects of standardised tests.

The people most affected by the unwillingness of the major parties to imagine a better future for Australia’s schools are our young people, the same young people who are demanding action on the climate crisis. They need an education system that will give them the best chance to fix the mess we are leaving them. Until we can fully fund the schools where the majority of them are educated in Australia we are failing them there too.

Dr Debra Hayes is Head of School and Professor, Education & Equity at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is also the President of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her next book, co-authored with Craig Campbell, will be available in August – Jean Blackburn: Education Feminism and Social Justice (Monash University Press). @DrDebHayes