Rising inequality in the Australian school system is leading to a drop in the standard of education as the public sector grapples with teacher burnout and a shortage of funding. By Jane Caro.

Underfunded public schools suffer

A teacher wearing a hi-vis vest and a face mask is lowered on one knee as she speaks to a young student.
A teacher welcomes a young pupil to school.
Credit: AAP Image / Bianca De Marchi

In the 23 years since then prime minister John Howard and his Education minister David Kemp decided parental choice should be at the centre of Australia’s publicly subsidised education system, our schools have become increasingly segregated. Middle-class families have flocked to what they see as “desirable” schools and left the rest in their dust. In 2021, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study that compares education systems internationally found 41 per cent of government schools in Australia could be classed as disadvantaged, compared with 3 per cent of Catholic and less than 1 per cent of independent schools.

Professor Barry McGaw, who once headed education at the OECD and is now at the Melbourne University Graduate School of Education, says “Australia is significantly less equitable than the OECD average. We were a high-quality, low-equity performer but our quality is going down and our equity is not improving.”

“What drags (our results) down is we don’t look after the lowest performers.”

Professor Jane Kenway, of Monash University, agrees. “The Australian school system is one of the most privatised in the world and our results are ordinary.”

People who care about public education that is available to all, and paid for by all, are worried. Many public schools are overcrowded, their playgrounds jam-packed with demountable classrooms. Almost all are haemorrhaging teachers, many of whom are leaving the profession they love because they are burnt out, exhausted, angry and demoralised. Too few teachers means too many lost hours of learning, as classes are either minimally supervised, combined or go unsupervised altogether. Casual teachers are almost impossible to find.

Covid has left a generation of traumatised kids and parents but also traumatised teachers. As a profession, they were asked to convert lessons designed for the classroom to online, and then back again, often with hardly any notice. Teachers in many public schools felt thrown under the bus by their employers during the pandemic, forced to return to classrooms with no air filters and a curt instruction to “open the windows”. Little consideration was given to a teacher’s personal vulnerability or if they had vulnerable family members at home.

A study by education economist Adam Rorris revealed that during Covid, the Morrison government gave private schools billions in JobKeeper subsidies and “transitional” funding in a deal that delayed the implementation of cuts recommended under the second Gonski report in 2018. Public schools were underfunded by more than $6.5 billion each year.

Since Covid, mental health issues in classrooms have increased alarmingly. Recently a video of a student from a high-fee Sydney private school attacking a classmate with a table appeared in the media. The principal responded appropriately to the violence, but he also reminded students that videoing in classrooms is not permitted.

This is another double standard we apply to our different school systems. Violent incidents in public schools must be notified to the department and the statistics are released publicly, leading to a field day of negative headlines about chaos in our public schools every year. Unless videoed or leaked, such incidents in private schools can remain private.

Considering the responsibilities they shoulder, teachers and principals in public schools are underpaid and overworked. And every one of the schools they work in, whether they serve a wealthier population or a poorer one, is chronically underfunded. Public schools are meant to be funded 80 per cent by state governments and 20 per cent by the Commonwealth. Private schools receive the reverse, plus fees and tax-deductible donations.

However, if funding continues as it is, virtually no public schools outside the ACT are expected to reach more than 90 per cent of their schooling resource standard (SRS) – the resources a school needs to do its job adequately – in the foreseeable future. By contrast, some private schools are funded at 200 per cent of the SRS.

Given public schools now overwhelmingly educate those students with the highest level of needs – whose numbers are growing – the fact virtually none of them is at their full SRS is horrifying. It is also a major factor in the demoralisation of their teachers. It is soul-destroying to see what needs to be done to help a student and yet know the school cannot afford to do it. Rubbing salt into the wound is the likelihood another publicly subsidised school down the road is resourced beyond dreams of avarice and can expel its difficult kids, to be picked up by the local public one.

Trevor Cobbold, national convenor of Save Our Schools, believes funding systematically favours private schools. He says that despite the increasing concentration of the neediest, and so most expensive to teach, kids in public education, funding for students in private education has increased at three times the rate for public schools over the past decade. Cobbold points the finger not only at neoliberal, choice-driven ideology, or even the lobbying power of the religious schools but at dubious deals that favour the private sector.

“Funding agreements are a massive fraud on public schools,” he says. “All states except WA and SA are funding their schools at less than 75 per cent of the SRS. If this continues, the maximum state share of SRS will have fallen to 71 per cent by 2029.”

As Rorris points out, that state funding is actually inflated, as non-recurrent costs such as capital depreciation, NESA (NSW Education Standards Authority) and even some transport costs are included in the funding given to public schools.

What is to be done about this slow-motion educational disaster? There are some flickers of hope from a few of the states and the federal government. The tone of voice about public schools has changed in NSW, Victoria has removed the exemption from payroll tax for private schools with the highest fees, and in the federal budget there was a commitment to lift all schools in Central Australia – teaching some of the neediest children – to their rightful level of SRS. That is surely the very least the budget could do, given the extraordinary expenditure of $17.4 billion on private schools in the next financial year.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare is also keenly aware of what he calls “the funding gap” and “the education gap”. “Schools with a lot of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, like the schools I went to, are the emergency wards of Australian education,” Clare says. “Emergency wards have a battery of specialists and machines to save lives. This is what I mean when I say funding is critical, but so is what it is spent on.”

Given the dire effect of Covid-19, public schools are no longer able to rely on the dedication and professionalism of their teaching staff to overcome generational disadvantage, the measurable effect of poverty on children’s brains or the explosion of traumatised families since the pandemic. Everyone I spoke to for this article agreed we must go back to the original intention of the Gonski review into school funding when it was first convened, and implement a transparent, needs-based, sector-blind school funding scheme. Other suggestions include removing public funding entirely from schools charging fees above the average cost of educating a child in a public school.

Another proposal, from authors Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor in their book Waiting for Gonski, is that all schools, whoever runs them, should be fully publicly funded and, while they may keep their religious character, must abide by the same rules as public schools regarding enrolments and zoning. This is what happens in both Britain and New Zealand. Schools could opt out but would lose all public funding. Barry McGaw points to the Netherlands as a case in point, where 70 per cent of schools are privately managed but all schools received the same funding, and to Alberta, Canada, where schools receive the same funding, but taxpayers nominate which type of school they want some of their taxes to fund and then must send their own child to them. These are radically different models, with their own share of controversy among both public and private school supporters, but all are currently operating in other countries, with results that are no worse than ours and, arguably, often better.

It is past time for change. As Kevin Bates, federal secretary of the Australian Education Union, says: “An entire generation of students has been let down by governments who knew what was needed and failed to deliver.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Rich school, poor school".

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