PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: When Julia Gillard finally announces her new school funding policy in a few weeks time, it will be the first time in 8 years that Labor has put forward an alternative funding plan.
Their last plan — Latham’s hit list in 2004 – cut the funding of dozens of schools and contributed to a huge election loss. Catholic and independent schools, including many in my electorate, are not holding their breath for Gillard’s new plan.
School funding is something that I have followed and been involved with for many years. I was the Senior Adviser to Education Minister Brendan Nelson, the last time that there was a considerable change to school funding policy, back in 2005. At this time, the Catholic school systems joined the SES funding model — the model that has now been operating for independent schools since Howard introduced it in 2001.
Reforming school funding may sound straight forward but there are four certainties that the Prime Minister would do well to understand.
The first certainty is that any change in the school funding model inevitably involves winners and losers, unless there are considerable more funds injected to lift the entire base upwards. This is not an assertion, but a statement of mathematical fact.
The Gonski proposals seeks to re-align school funding, but comes with a $5 billion price tag, presumably to meet the requirement that no school goes backwards.
It is plainly clear that the Gillard Government and State Governments cannot afford this. State Governments have said so. But even if they could, modelling by the Victorian Education Department finds that 3254 schools – about a third of all schools — would be worse off.
There are four schools in my electorate that will hit, including Our Lady of Lourdes in Bayswater, Holy Trinity in Wantirna South, St Luke’s in Wantirna, and St Judes in Scoresby. All are low fee Catholic schools serving medium income and sometimes lower income families. These schools will lose up to $750 per student. Many families would struggle to afford these schools if the fees had to rise to make up the funding shortfall.
I will be fighting to ensure that this does not happen and have written to the Education Minister to get a guarantee that no school will lose funds.
The second certainty is that the winners and losers which inevitably come from a new funding model cannot be predicted with any accuracy in advance.
There may be an intent to achieve a certain outcome – to say give more money to lower fee schools in certain areas – but designing a formula to achieve this is difficult due to the huge range and type of schools which exist across the nation.
Hence, the modelling on Gonski shows that low fee Catholic primary schools will be particularly hit. On the other hand, I have been informed that many very high fee independent schools will gain considerably, including one of the most elite private boys schools in the country which is due to gain by a million dollars per year.
The third certainty that the Government fails to understand is that the indexation method for annual increases is what really matters.
The Government might reform the model to give a little extra in year 1 to some schools, but if the indexation method is reduced, any gain is quickly lost. Again, this is simple mathematics.
Over the last 12 years, schools have had their funding indexed against the AGSRC index which increases by about 6% per annum. Gonski recommends a different indexation method that we believe will see increases of 2-3% per annum.
This has a dramatic impact over the medium term. For example, an average school receiving $5,000 per student in public funds might get an immediate $1000 boost in year one, but if the indexation rate was reduced to 2%, they would be worse off by year 5 than if they simply received the existing indexation increases with no year 1 boost.
The indexation rate matters and the Coalition firmly supports maintenance of AGSRC.
Finally, for all the talk about school funding, it is not the main lever for school improvement. Of course, it is important, but to think that a revolution will occur because of a change to the funding model is plainly wrong. A rigorous curriculum and quality teaching is what counts.
I am very concerned about the future funding of non-government schools in this country primarily because the government does not appear to understand these factors that I have outlined.
The developments of the Gonski review do not give me confidence. The modelling shows that schools across the nation will miss out, including low fee schools in my electorate. The government today would not guarantee that schools will not be worse off from their proposals.
The current system of school funding is not perfect – but no system is perfect. However, it is predictable, based on objective data, weighted towards schools serving poorer communities, and provides an average 6% increase in funding each year. It should be extended.