School funding must change to improve equity and achievement in Australian schools

The Forum’s distinguished speakers The Hon Dr Carmen Lawrence AOProfessor Barry McGaw and The Hon Professor Verity Firth AMEach considered the nexus between school funding, equity and achievement.The  Forum followed a Symposium addressed by policy experts and stake holders from around Australia. They reviewed the directions of education policy since the Gonski Report (2011), discussed the current architecture of school funding and its discontents, and considered future funding options for Australian schools.

These events came at a crucial time, considering Australia's equity-sensitive Minister for Education has recently established an expert panel to advise Education Ministers around the country about the next National School Reform Agreement. This is up for renegotiation later this year. Over the next few months, serious debates about the future of school education in Australia will and must occur.

With their focus on funding, equity, and achievement these events will help inform imminent changes to the National School Reform Agreement.

The first speaker, Professor Barry McGaw, examined data on school performance internationally. The data demonstrated how achieving equity at the systemic level leads to systemic improvements in achievement. Using Poland as an example, Professor McGaw made the case against separating students based on performance: “Making schools comprehensive makes them more equitable -- there is no advantage to separating students based on performance.” Put equity first and achievement follows.

The lack of equity in the current funding model, was also addressed by Hon Professor Verity Firth AM. She interrogated the current disparities between schools, asking the audience "What can we do it about it?". She argued that the Gonski formula was selectively implementated. This meant its implementation did not effectively address the existing inequalities between government and non-government schools.

Professor Firth argued that the increasing inequality gap between government and non-government schools was largely due to an "elite capture" of the schooling system, where time and time again, public schools were losing the "arms race” for education facilities and resources. Further highlighting this divide, she says “Nowhere in the world does public funding come with so few obligations”. Professor Frith concluded her address with a powerful call to arms:

We need to reach beyond traditional supporters of public education, and we need to provide governments with political cover to do brave reform

The final speaker, The Hon Dr Carmen Lawrence AO, echoed these sentiments. She pointed to the "sobering" impact of "misallocated school funding and educational inequalities" on teachers and students. This is due, she said, to "the failure of governments from both stripes, at all levels, to seriously tackle the systematic issues. She questioned the current foci of school education; "ensuring career security, economic growth and harnessing skills". It is less certain that people would say that education should advance "individual creativity, or health and wellbeing", or be about "reducing prejudice or improving a democracy". Dr Lawrence explained that the lack of interest in the latter, dismally fails to capture the complexity of young people’s lives and inadvertently, denies them the ability to reach their potential.

Dr Lawrence urged the audience to rethink the current state of school funding, whereby the "Commonwealth largely funds the private school system and the state government largely funds the public school system". She emphasised how current education funding policies amplify inequalities, where the disparity of resources from school-to-school impacts student performance. She said "many of the schools that perform ‘better’ do so by excluding. They wash their hands of difficulties and that’s how they maintain a standard.”

She argued that we need to rethink the structure we've created to address inequality and generate sufficient momentum to force change:

The entire nation's well-being is compromised when young people cannot fully engage in education.

The Public Forum and the Policy Symposium generated considerable audience engagement. There was strong agreement that current funding is falling short at giving young Australians "A fair go". A common thread was that despite its limitations, the Gonski review made hope possible for the many who have a stake in the government schools system. It was agreed that such stake holders need to unite again and push for crucial reform, to save government schools from the residualisation caused by private school expansion.

A subsequent report that outlines key policy recommendations and the events findings, will be released in due time.

A recording of the event can be found here.

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Genevieve Siggins