For too long government spending on education hasn’t been matched to needs or to what the research says works best.
Previous attempts by both major parties to fix school funding arrangements have been deeply flawed, largely due to political compromises. (For example, the Howard government’s “needs based” funding reforms pledged no school would lose a dollar in real terms, not even schools found to be vastly over-funded using the Howard government’s new, more accurate model for estimating relative need. And Gillard's direction to the Gonski Review that “no school lose a dollar” meant its National Plan for School Improvement spread the additional much-needed funds too thinly – many schools continued to have too little while others continued to receive much more than they needed. The “top ups” or loadings for disadvantage had merit, but only an estimated 17% of the funding boost was allocated to these loadings and these were also spread too thin, with the low SES loading going to the lowest 50% of schools, not the lowest 25% as recommended).
We are still to see the details – at this stage we are only talking about an announcement of an agenda that still needs support of the party room, the federal parliament and states – but I am cautiously optimistic about several aspects of the Coalition’s revised agenda, including:
o Plan to increase school funding from current projections and better-target this funding where needs are greatest, irrespective of state or sector, but maintaining the basic design recommended by the original Gonski Review, the Schooling Resource Standard, which consists of a base amount plus loadings for disadvantage.
o Plan to move more quickly (over 10 years instead over 150 years) to fairer and more consistent funding allocations, meaning that Commonwealth fundingto the most over-resourced schools will reduce and be directed to much needier schools. This redistribution is long overdue, and the Coalition is better placed to make these funding reductions because they are less susceptible to the "class warfare" attacks than Labor. However, Labor was better placed to get the ball rolling.
o Plan to provide greater funding certainty to schools and school systems, enhancing their capacity to make resource decisions over the medium to long term – especially hiring staff and renewing contracts. The short term deals we’ve had for many years now are not conducive to long-term planning.
o Plan to allow states to retain flexibility in how they allocate funding (given their superior know-how and administrative capacity in schooling domain) and to determine their own levels of funding from current levels.
This revised and improved school funding agenda from the federal Coalition flows directly from the original Gonski Review’s recommendations, which made the case for changing to a consistent, needs-based school funding model. Indeed Gonski 2.0 is a natural extension of this earlier review. 2.0 takes the next step and examines the evidence on how to spend this money, what policies and programs make greatest difference to learning and school outcomes. This makes sense. We all know that how money is spent is vitally important. Spending $100 billion on gold-plated chairs, for instance, won’t lift learning.
o Needs-based, sector-blind, nationally-consistent funding is the way forward. But it must consider the relative need of schools (based on the needs of students enrolled) and their capacity to meet these needs, which is influenced by state and sector. (I.e. private schools can charge fees which not only influences who enrolls in a given school, but also the school's ability to meet their needs. And the costs of delivering services vary between states due to geography and population characteristics, among other things. Assessment of needs should also take into account the different starting points and learning growth of student populations in different schools. Once relative need is established, funding should flow in a consistent way to schools in line with their relative need.
o It is important that in “ensuring states and schools are accountable” the Commonwealth doesn’t attach to many conditions and prescriptions on spending and reporting, because research in Australia and internationally shows this is counterproductive. (Time and money is spent on accountability processes instead of in the classroom and on building teacher and leader capacity and expertise etc. where it makes the biggest difference to student learning growth. It could also divert attention and resources away from schools’ pre-existing and carefully designed improvement strategies, which were tailored for their students and specific context, plans which may already be aligned with Commonwealth priorities and informed by research evidence). Repeated studies here and overseas have found its very difficult or impossible for federal governments to make sure certain things happen at state and local levels, states and school leadership teams are much better placed to assess school needs and deliver and monitor funding and other programs, a point emphasised in the original Gonski Review. They need to maintain this flexibility.
This new agenda is a big improvement on previous agendas from Coalition and it could provide a path forward that benefits students around Australia. For this reason it has been received cautious support from the Australian Primary Principals Association (representing all sectors), the Australian Council for State School Organisations, the Independent Schools Council of Australia, the Business Council and the Grattan Institute and others. It builds on Labor’s work in this space, and although it pledges far less money was pledged than under Labor’s plan, it is much better targeted, which I expect means more money, all things considered, for the schools and students that need it most. We’re waiting on the detail in these school funding plans, emerging, as it should, from negotiations with states and consultations with academics and sector. All the problems identified by the original Gonski Review have worsened over time. Evidence from Australia and internationally show that Improving equity must be part of coherent strategy for improving schooling outcomes nationally. It is an opportunity reduce inequalities to allocate government funding to where research suggests it can make the greatest difference. I hope this opportunity isn’t squandered.
Last but not least, schooling is just one – albeit very important – part of our education system. I'm deeply concerned about the lack of funding certainty for the equally important early childhood education, and for VET and university, which provide further pathways to opportunity. In particular:
o High quality preschool is one of the best investments to maximise learning in and beyond school. An essential foundation that enhances children’s ability to make the most of learning opportunities at school.
o Preschools around Australia funded on short term – 2yr- agreements and in the dark on next year’s funding, how many hours of sessions to offer to students and staff.*
o We need secure, ongoing funding for 4yo preschool.
o We need to build on achievements of universal access to 4yo preschool and provide an additional year of preschool for all children, with continued emphasis on quality as well as access.
Wanting more? Here’s the government's announcement and fact sheets with the details so far. My analysis of the Coalition’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy doc is here. And there’s a ton more on Gonski, school funding and federalism in earlier blog posts and my publications and presentations page, including links to television and radio interviews.
* On 4 May, the day after this post was written, the Commonwealth government announced it would extend the National Partnership which provides preschool funding for 15 hours/week for children the year before they start school. But it only extended funding for a further 12 months. Preschools need ongoing funding security. We also need to move to two years of high quality preschool for all children.