Jane Caro
“The federal government needs to get serious about properly funding public schools”

“The quasi market-based nature of the Australian education system entrenches disadvantage. Compared to similar Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Australian schools have some of the highest levels of social segregation, and this trend has worsened over time.”

– “Improving Outcomes for All” report


In the past couple of weeks, Australians have been confronted by some unedifying behaviour around private schools. Social media and cartoonists had a field day over a video of parents and grandparents from Sydney’s Newington College weeping over the idea girls might invade the hallowed halls of their 160-year-old publicly subsidised private school. Girls, even your nicer class of girls, are still a bridge too far for some.

Then there were reports private school principals were up in arms about proposed changes to their tax deductibility status for donations, which amount to more than $1.1 billion of extra revenue a year. A Productivity Commission draft report has recommended taking gift recipient status from school building funds. Given schools such as Newington charge fees of up to $42,000 a year, it is rather hard to think of them as needing charity – or public funding, for that matter. This is especially obvious when you consider most donations to public schools do not qualify for tax deductions.

In 2021, the OECD reported 41 per cent of government schools in Australia could be classified as disadvantaged, compared with 3 per cent of Catholic schools and only 1 per cent of independent schools. Under successive governments, the social segregation referred to in the report has only grown wider.

The Turnbull government cemented it into place while claiming to do the exact opposite. It legislated an 80-20 split in funding, with 80 per cent of the public funding for private schools coming from the federal government and the other 20 per cent from each state. Funding for public schools would be neatly reversed, meaning state schools would be largely funded by state governments, which are less able to raise revenue. 

The results were entirely predictable. No public school in Australia, bar a handful in the ACT, is currently funded to its minimum School Resource Standard (SRS). Every private school in Australia, bar a handful in the Northern Territory, is funded above it, some way above it. On average there is a 5 per cent shortfall between what the governments should give public schools and what they do. There is also an accounting trick that cheats public schools out of their full funding from the states, courtesy of the Morrison government. But more about that later.

With Labor now in power in every state of mainland Australia, as well as federally, public education advocates began to hope things might start to get a little fairer, at least as far as the SRS, the calculation for public funding required for each student in a school, was concerned. Henry Rajendra, president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation, said: “With respect to the futures of our students, the nation and our collective prosperity, this is the best opportunity for Anthony Albanese to distinguish himself from the failures of past prime ministers, namely Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.”

Hopes were raised further when the federal education minister, Jason Clare, commissioned the independent expert panel Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System. The panel subsequently authored the “Improving Outcomes for All” report. Sadly, a chilling little sentence on page eight of the report gave warning. “The Panel has not considered issues of funding as this was outside the Terms of Reference for the Review.”

If it wasn’t so tragic, it would almost be laughable that a review into fairness could proceed while explicitly excluding any reference to the rotten core of our absurd and utterly unfair school system. Fortunately, the panel refused to entirely ignore the bleeding obvious. As it noted a little further into the report: “The fact that inequality in funding persists – and is expected to persist in nearly every jurisdiction – is an issue that requires urgent action.”

The first discernible result from the review’s work has been a deal between the Western Australian government and Clare to increase the federal government’s funding to public schools in that state by 2.5 per cent, bringing its share to 22.5 per cent by 2026. The state government will also increase its share to 77.5 per cent, making WA the first state to fully fund student places. It’s a start, I suppose, but it is galling to think that just getting to the barest minimum of funding – the SRS merely measures what each school needs to do its job adequately – is so unusual in this country. Indeed, the other states uniformly rejected the same deal, insisting the federal government should be paying more. By their calculations, the deal being offered by Clare represents about half of the funding increase actually needed.

NSW Premier Chris Minns was unequivocal at a press conference in Queanbeyan the day after the WA deal was announced. “I hope we haven’t hit a brick wall … We need the Commonwealth government to up their contributions to public school funding,” he said. “The full Gonski amount ... needs to be supplied and the reason for that is they have deeper pockets.”

If the Commonwealth government can afford to fund the already overfunded private school sector, surely there is a moral obligation for them to bring the chronically underfunded public sector up to the minimum standard? Surely they should use the country’s tax revenues, of which they levy the majority, to help properly educate young people?

State governments have work to do, too. Thanks to a loophole created by the Morrison government, the states also underfund public schools. According to Trevor Cobbold, national convenor of Save Our Schools, the current amount of money supplied by state governments to state schools is overstated by 4 per cent – and it is still inadequate, even with that miscalculation. Costs such as depreciation and school transport are included in the SRS for public schools but not for private ones. Donations to private schools are not included and nor is the so-called Choice and Affordability Fund of $1.2 billion over 10 years. “Australian schools funding is completely biased against public schools,” Cobbold says.

Correna Haythorpe, federal president of the Australian Education Union, believes “we’re not going to have a genuine funding agreement as long as the 4 per cent remains. It’s a fudging of the books, even if the agreement says 100 per cent.”

The unfairness is so stark and the outcomes so devastating. The “Improving Outcomes for All” report includes a table showing Australia is now second-worst in the OECD for the increasing concentration of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools. Surely the time has come for root and branch reform, not simply more fiddling around the edges. So what is stopping politicians from making what are obvious changes?

First, it is fear of the religious lobby. The church is utterly against changes to schools funding. Once, churches supported their schools. Now, as pews empty and those people registering “no religion” grows exponentially, it is their schools that prop up the churches. They are a big and important business, a key asset for a once powerful institution bent on maintaining its power.

Second is the fear of parents – a group of voters the British author Lee Elliot Major defined as “opportunity hoarders”. These are the sort of parents who stood outside Newington College, clutching placards, decrying the girls who might come through their gates. They are the sort of parents who want to keep things like properly funded educational opportunity for their own children and those like them.

Major also calls them “pointy-elbowed parents” – a vivid description of the parents determined to make sure their children are at the head of any queue, who regard any dollar given to children with actual needs as a dollar taken from their own. This is education as a zero-sum game. It’s a selfish nonsense.

The original Gonski review was meant to deliver a needs-based, sector-blind funding system for Australia’s children, regardless of how lucky or unlucky they had been in the lottery of birth. Thanks to the political influence of the pointy-elbowed, it has resulted in the exact opposite.

When you decide to make the wealthiest school sector majority-funded by the wealthiest level of government, you have decided on a sector-based system. When you make the most underfunded schools dependent on state governments, even when they are struggling with the vast majority of the neediest students, who are the most expensive to teach, you have decided on a needs-blind one.

After all, the poorest states are poor for a reason. They have poorer populations and higher percentages of people, including children, with higher needs. If we are to do anything about generational underprivilege in this country, if we want to improve outcomes for all, the federal government needs to get serious and properly fund schools.

To be fair, everyone has now agreed the Northern Territory faces a unique set of educational issues and a special deal is being struck with it, fingers crossed. However, needy children are needy wherever they happen to live and too many of them, year after year, are being left behind. No country should allow any amount of pointy elbows to push those children and their lifelong educational opportunities to the back of the queue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Simple idea #22.5: Fully fund public schools".

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