Legislation has passed the Federal Parliament and received assent, amending the Education Act and therefore introducing new school funding arrangements. However, the funding debate is still far from settled.
There was a significant amount of sloganeering during the lead up to the passage of the legislation and one could be excused for being unsure whether there was a funding increase or a funding cut.
The reality is that the new funding arrangements will see overall increases in school funding across all sectors and minimal indexation rates. But, the new funding outcome is less than that ‘signed up’ to previously by schools, some governments and employing authorities.
Further, the transition towards the schooling resource standard (SRS – a measure introduced in the current model, recommended by the Gonski review panel, to reflect the average cost of educating a student “effectively and efficiently”) is pushed back from 2019 by a further four years to 2023.
Is it more or less?
Hence the debate about whether the new model is more or less. Essentially, it is simultaneously both. More actual dollars, but less than anticipated and promised.
The legislation does at least further entrench the new funding model in a consistent manner with the recommendations of the Gonski review panel.
But while the legislation ‘settles’ the funding envelope there are significant unresolved issues confronting schools. These issues have the potential to create serious concerns for IEU members, including workload, professional interference and even staffing challenges if enrolments are impacted.
Students with disabilities
Perhaps the greatest failing of the new model is the ‘selling out’ of students with disability. The use of new information from the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) means that, based on the three learning adjustment levels, there is significantly more funding for those with ‘extensive’ needs. But the fact is that 90% of identified students will actually receive less funding than currently.
Extraordinarily the Federal Government’s model is based on a policy position, allegedly supported by a report they will not released, that argues that most students with disability are currently overfunded.
Despite being a recommendation from the Gonski review panel and also an expectation in the legislation, the contentious issue of the socio-economic status (SES) index has not been reviewed and therefore is not resolved. This is major issue as the SES index determines the Federal Government’s funding for each non government school.
There is widespread concern that the index is unreliable and a number of examples cited by employers suggest some serious inadequacies. An erroneous index potentially means schools could be getting less funding than might be their entitlement.
The IEUA has been calling for a review of this index for over a decade. As part of the horse trading to get the legislation passed, the Federal Government has now finally conceded to review the index in 2018. The outcome of this review could have critical ramifications for the non government sector, as there may be potential for different winners and losers emerging from 2019 onwards.
Related to the SES index issue is the decision of the Federal Government to unilaterally remove the system weighted average arrangements that some non government schools systems, like the Catholic systemic schools structure, have operated under. Put simply, until now Catholic systemic schools received a total funding bucket based on the average of their SES scores. The government’s change has a negative impact on their total funding arrangements and while they will unequivocally have an increase in their funding (other than in the ACT), relative to other non government schools and state schools, they will not fare as well in coming years.
No time to adjust
Perhaps the most disappointing element of this change was not just the failure to negotiate or consult, but the absurd timeframe for adjustment, namely just six months before the new arrangements commenced in 2018. Again, as part of the deals to get the legislation passed, the Federal Government has now provided transition dollars in 2018 so that the impact of this change does not commence until 2019. The SES index review will no doubt have a bearing on this issue.
This change for Catholic systemic schools, namely the funding of each school individually, and the ‘expectation’ of the funding model around a school community’s ‘capacity to contribute’ (read – school fees) has the potential to significantly impact enrolments in the sector in future years and consequently impact on our members’ jobs. There will be a high level of scrutiny of fees in the future to assess whether they better reflect the local ‘capacity’ as determined by the SES index, rather than the historic tendency to have relatively flat fee structures across all schools in a system.
Pressure on fees
A further major change to the use of the SES index is the re-drawing of the ‘capacity to contribute’ graph which essentially increases the expectation on all primary school communities’ capacity to contribute and therefore puts pressure on school fees. Correspondingly, it simultaneously reduces the percentage of federal government funding for most non government primary schools and consequently severely undermines gains from indexation.
While the Catholic system of schools is most unhappy with the new model, an unhappiness only exacerbated by an actual funding cut over the next 10 years to every one of their schools in the ACT, the independent school employer authorities have welcomed the new model.
Commentary by independent school employer representatives has argued that the new model, and in particular the immediately aforementioned change to system weighted average, means that from their perspective the model is fairer and creates a more level playing field. It will be interesting to see if that same rhetoric is evident in honest behaviour by these employers in ensuring a similar level playing field commitment with respect to staff salaries and conditions, so that they are never any less than comparable with those in Catholic systemic or state schools.
More red tape
The legislation also ‘ties’ the funding to yet to be declared new requirements on schools. The Federal Government is establishing a panel to provide advice on reforms that will be a requirement of the funding. Given the Federal Government’s policy statement ahead of the last election, the IEUA is concerned that these tied conditions will impact on the work of our members in schools, invariably leading to additional workload, further undermine the professional autonomy of teachers and create further distractions from the core business of schools as more red tape accountability measures are added. This panel is due to report by the end of 2017, so we will have the ridiculous situation of employers and states and territories ‘signing up’ to funding arrangements with no knowledge of the accountabilities that will be required.
The final point to be made about the new funding model is that the underpinning principle of funding according to a calculated need, albeit an arbitrary efficient effective school, has been abandoned and the SRS and indexation settings are arbitrary. While it may be a needs distribution model, with argument still to be resolved about accurate determination of SES, the model is not grounded in determining and funding of actual needs.
The IEUA will continue to contribute to the debate and argue for fair, transparent, adequate and certain funding so that our members are better positioned to undertake their important work in schools. The new legislation still has yawning gaps in all of these aspects.