Contrary to what might be expected from the principal of an independent school, I welcome the publication of nationwide school funding anomalies in the Canberra Times and other Fairfax newspapers last weekend. The data presented make the strongest case for implementation of the Gonski reforms; the best chance in a generation for the equitable funding that all Australian schools so badly need.
The truth is that funding of schools in all sectors has long been an indictment of successive governments: the Howard government's failure to create a phase-out mechanism for funding disparities when it implemented the SES model; the Gillard/Rudd government's desperate compromise of the Gonski model during the throes of its self-implosion; and the Abbott government's abandonment of its election promises on education.
The data published by Fairfax make the case incontrovertible. The Turnbull government cannot continue, as its predecessors have, to fudge solutions that perpetuate funding determined as much by historical accident as by any rational calculation of need. As the Canberra Times analysis shows, schools almost side by side in suburbs of virtually identical demographics can receive vastly different levels of support. That's just within the independent sector; never mind the cross-sectoral disparities that have soured educational discourse in Australia for decades.
As always, however, there are significant caveats to interpretation of the data. First, the figures are presented as totals rather than as per capita dollars. Thus, the bigger the school, the more dramatic the headline funding figure, regardless of how a school's funding per student might actually compare with that of others. Yet, the larger an independent school, the more money it actually saves the government since its students are not fully funded by the taxpayer as they would be in the public sector.
Students at my own school, for example, draw government funding – for which their parents contribute in tax – at around $12,000 per year less on average than do their peers in state schools. In total, therefore, their education at Canberra Grammar School saves the government around $20 million per annum; multiple times more than is received in funding. Extended nationally, that equates to billions, which is the pragmatic reason why independent schools are funded; because not to do so would shift a crushing financial burden to the state sector.
Secondly, while independent schools provide juicy targets for scorn, similar anomalies of funding apply to Catholic and state schools. For example, according to figures supplied to the Senate Committee on Education and Employment, the entire ACT government school sector is over-funded relative to its supposed entitlement, while schools in other systems and jurisdictions – including 70 per cent of all independent schools nationwide – are underfunded.
This occurs because, as Fairfax Media recently reported, there are 27 different government funding arrangements operating in Australia. Yet, the outcome of each is being compared to a single means of calculating entitlement – the Gonski-style Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) – which is not yet the basis on which most schools are actually funded.
Once again, take my own school for example. Until recently, Canberra Grammar School was one of few schools in our jurisdiction to receive correct funding under the old SES system in inverse proportion to our community's socioeconomic score. As a school that draws on a region with relatively high professional, educational and income levels, we received some of the lowest per capita funding in the country, and we still do.
Our sudden apparent over-funding is an artefact of our transition from the old SES system to the new SRS model, under which our students will receive even lower funding in real terms over time. In other words, our funding is now above entitlement because our entitlement has been dropped. Many schools on the Canberra Times list will be in the same boat. In fact, almost all schools in the country are on a path up or down towards their new SRS entitlement. Without such transition, sudden funding shifts would jeopardise the continuity of students' learning and teachers' jobs in all sectors.
However, schools transiting in real terms from low SES funding to even lower SRS funding are not the long-term headache for the government. Its greater problem is how to reconcile the consequence of there being no early sunset scenarios where funding has been well above SES entitlement for years; the result of politically necessary but unsustainable promises by governments on all sides that no school should ever lose a dollar.
Perhaps in venturing into the void that has been national schooling policy since 2013, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has at last spoken the truth that others dared not confess; that if we're ever to make progress towards funding equity, then some schools – in all sectors – will lose, at least in real terms over time.
To anyone in independent schools, that prospect is no surprise. It's already under way and, if we've been wise, we'll have been making structural adjustments to ensure our schools' sustainability regardless of what happens. As I've said candidly elsewhere, my own school's recent decision to become fully co-educational was educationally and socially motivated, but it was also triggered in part by the need to hedge against the vagaries of government funding and a diminution in real terms that is inevitable.
That much is clear, but not much else is. Despite the virtually universal warmth with which the ground-breaking Gonski Report was welcomed by the Australian educational community – unions, principals, peak and professional bodies in all sectors – it was trashed by the political disaster that was the Gillard/Rudd/Abbott era; corrupted in deals done in the dying days of Labor, then dumped by the Liberals who offered nothing in its place; a dismal outcome for so significant a piece of work, and a tragically lost opportunity for Australian education.
Yet, it need not be so. The principles of Gonski remain: funding according to need; additional funding for those with additional need regardless of sector; and measured transition to a unified scheme that respects the role of all schools – state, Catholic and independent.
To deliver those principles would be the triumph of intelligent, unifying and positive leadership that the Turnbull government so badly needs. Sadly, the start of a new funding debate has been inauspicious, but if we are ever to get past the politics of inequity, then our best chance is to make Gonski work; and then we can get on with the real job of education, for the good of all Australian children, together.
Justin Garrick is head of school at Canberra Grammar School.