Funding cuts spark new debate

Another decade of political interference in Australia's classroom

As we go to press, details of the school funding proposals to be included in the federal budget are only beginning to emerge. Minister Simon Birmingham announced some features on Tuesday 2 May and the backlash began almost immediately and has been continuous.

The one constant criticism from the various sectors is the absolute lack of consultation with the education community. The content of the announcement was, at the very least a surprise to education stakeholders. Schools that were to be adversely impacted (“experience negative growth” in the words of the minister) by the funding proposals had not been consulted nor warned. “We will be contacting and discussing arrangements with those schools”. By any measure this is an appalling way to treat schools and the communities they serve but consistent with the arrogance the Union has come to expect from this minister and which we experienced when we sought to meet with him over the potential loss of 200 jobs at Malek Fahd in 2016.

There was little substance in the initial announcement, merely hit list A and hit list B for independent schools, a claim that the government had “come up with a model that ensures virtually every Australian school experiences growth. For most of them, they experience very significant growth in their funding”, the perennial criticism of education standards and the announcement of Gonski 2.0.

No detail of the model was provided, merely that the minister claimed it was fair, it was a ‘one size fits all’ prototype and that there would be lots of winners over a 10 year period. Since the announcement further detail has emerged but speculation remains rife.

Early press reports named 24 independent schools that would lose funding, that is, would get a lesser dollar amount than they were getting this year. Almost all (21) of those schools are in NSW and the ACT. In addition to these a further 343 unnamed (nationwide) independent schools would be getting less than they expected. In the absence of detail, we assume this means either a lower rate of annual indexation increases or no indexation at all. These are clearly not the 'winners' the minister referred to during the press conference.

There are a little over 1,000 independent schools in Australia so 367 represents about 35% for which funding will be reduced or expectations will not be met. On this basis it was curious that the AIS in NSW described the announcement on school funding as “a welcome development”.

An example cited in The Australian newspaper for one Sydney school (hit list A) would see funding reduced from $7.7m to $3.9m, a reduction of $3.7m (almost $4,000 per student). To maintain the same level of resourcing fees would need to increase from the current $10,600 per annum to about $14,400. What is not yet publicly known is how quickly these cuts are implemented or what if any transition period is anticipated.

For the other 343 schools (hit list B) which will not get what they expect, there is currently no detail of the depth of the impact, when it begins or for how long it is proposed it continues.

The majority of non government schools in NSW and the ACT are not however stand alone independent schools but are attached to one of 12 Catholic schooling systems. Several of those directors and the bishops who oversee them have hit out at the proposed model claiming that it will leave their schools severely short changed with the greatest negative impact on primary schools.

The Director of Catholic Education in the ACT has indicated that Canberra Catholic schools will not see a single dollar of improvement over the next decade, funding has in effect been frozen for the entire school life of current infant classes.

In the Sydney Archdiocese, modelling done by the diocese themselves (the government has not supplied such essential detail) indicates that to maintain existing resourcing, school fees would need to increase by between $1,000 and $5,000 per annum depending on the individual school.

This has come about because of a change in the definition of “need” for schools operating in a school system and the proposed end to what is known as the “system weighted average” whereby the socio economic status (SES) for schools are averaged across the whole system. It has also been suggested that changes to the principles of “capacity to pay” impact negatively on schools within a system. “Capacity to pay” is a feature of the Australian Education Act 2013 which only applies to non government schools and which prescribes the percentage of the Schools Resourcing Standard (SRS) that schools need to find from private sources.

It is probably wise to conclude that the model as proposed by the minister will undergo significant amendment as, if left as it is would likely see a massive exodus of students to the government sector with a devastating effect on the budgets of state governments who simply will not cope.

Some press reports have confused the role of David Gonski in these funding proposals. This funding model is not based on any new Gonski work but rather work that is yet to come . David Gonski has been asked to advise the government on how schools should be instructed to spend their education funding. We can look forward to a range of new conditions imposed by government on how schools, teachers and support staff go about their work. That is, at least another decade of political interference in Australia’s classrooms.

John Quessy