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Disabled students in public schools are missing out on $600 million a year, because of onerous and unfair funding arrangements. By Rick Morton.

Exclusive: Private schools win millions in disability funding

The minister for Education, Jason Clare, during question time.
The minister for Education, Jason Clare, during question time.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Disabled students in Australian private schools will receive millions of dollars more in specialist support from governments over the next few years while their peers in the public system are denied $600 million due to a cruel quirk baked into education funding agreements.

As Labor’s Jason Clare prepares to chair his first education ministers meeting this Friday, pressure is building on the new federal government to renegotiate agreements that will ensure almost 400,000 disabled students currently at a loss in the state system are given the money to which they are entitled.

The funding arrangements are an amalgam of Julia Gillard’s Gonski reforms, a Labor promise that no school would “lose a dollar” and Coalition amendments and policy bolt-ons designed to placate an increasingly hostile Catholic and independent schools sector.

The key issue is that the previous Coalition government introduced a cap in its share of funding for public schools – setting it at 20 per cent of overall funding, down from 25 per cent historically – but there is no requirement for state and territory governments to lift their budget share above the original 75 per cent.

Last year, every public school in every state and territory except the ACT received between 80.3 and 93.7 per cent of the baseline Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), which was set at $12,099 per primary school student and $15,204 for secondary pupils.

Meanwhile, both Commonwealth and state governments collectively funded many Catholic and independent schools to more than 100 per cent of the SRS, with payments increasing, for the rest of this decade. At present, there is no plan to increase funding for state schools to bring them to the same benchmark.

This has important implications for disabled students.

Under the school funding reforms, there are three funded loadings for such students, rising in support from “supplementary” through to “substantial” and finally to “extensive”. Each of these is calculated as a percentage of the baseline SRS. Students who have a disability but officially do not require additional funding are included in a fourth category known as “Quality Differentiated Teaching Practice”. In plain language, this means teachers need to accommodate these students in their classrooms without any extra support.

Australian Education Union (AEU) federal president Correna Haythorpe tells The Saturday Paper she believes this zero-dollar category is an artefact of Coalition Education ministers, starting with Christopher Pyne, who were unprepared for the dramatic rise in students classified as disabled.

“After a few years of collecting that data, the numbers of students in the system who were identified with disability were escalating very rapidly and so the way that the Liberals dealt with this was that they changed the way the funding was distributed,” she said.

“They basically said, ‘We understand that there are a couple of hundred thousand more students in the system with huge need but you have to cater for their needs with pretty much the same bucket of money and we’re going to do this by changing the way that the level of adjustment works.’ ”

Almost 200,000 students with disabilities in the state school system are in the unfunded category. For those in the three categories with money attached, the loading is formulated as a percentage of the funding a school receives per student. Underfunding in the baseline measure creates underfunding of the disability loading. The opposite is true for independent and Catholic schools: overfunding there creates higher levels of funding for disabled students.

Data provided to senate estimates and analysed by the AEU reveals that if both levels of government had properly funded the SRS last year to 100 per cent, disabled students in public schools would have received an additional $598 million in funded support. Separate data suggests the above-baseline funding provided to private schools – which excludes lucrative school fees charged to parents – has resulted in proportionately more in disability loadings being allocated to disabled pupils in that sector.

It is not suggested that these students are in receipt of more than their share but the unequal funding arrangements between school sectors at the benchmark level have resulted in self-perpetuating gaps in the way loadings, based on disadvantage and need, are applied.

Department of Education, Skills and Employment deputy secretary Dr Ros Baxter went so far as to volunteer information about how much better the private school sector has been at jumping through the hoops required to collect funding for disabled students.

“To give you an example, we did see in government schools between 2020 and 2021 a decrease of about 1.6 per cent in student numbers. But also, just to take one of the loadings, we saw some very interesting shifts in how schools were responding to disability, for example,” Baxter told a senate estimates hearing in April.

“So, between 2020 and 2021 in the government sector, we saw that government schools were slower to respond to some of the issues for picking up students with disability and providing certain kinds of support for students with disability. So their loading was not increasing as much during that time, whereas, for the non-government sector, we saw quite a strong response to identifying and providing the supports for students with disability.

“That’s just an example of how one loading is quite different between the government and the non-government sector. If you look at the funding there in terms of disability, you see that the non-government sector was responding in 2020 and 2021 with shifts of nine percentage [points] each per annum, in terms of those disability loadings, whereas the government sector was much slower to respond.”

What Baxter identified is another hurdle in the funding process, which is harder to clear for state schools with fewer resources.

In order for a student to be verified under the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) on School Students with Disability – which then qualified them for additional funding – a “school must have evidence that adjustments have been provided for a minimum period of 10 weeks of school education (excluding school holiday periods), in the 12 months preceding the census day”.

To that end, independent schools are able to employ dedicated staff or create part-time teaching roles that focus on supporting students with disabilities and “assessing” them into funded categories.

Recent job advertisements for the Anglican school Shore, where fees for senior students are almost $40,000 a year, show the Sydney school is hiring an education services teacher with “previous exposure to” and awareness of the requirements for assessing and verifying disability support funding. Adventist Schools Victoria advertised for a special needs co-ordinator at its Heritage College to work with existing specialist staff to “facilitate special needs programmes for students who have a disability according to the NCCD student list, including documentation, learning programmes, regulating and monitoring of student development”.

At Georges River Grammar in Sydney, a learning support and enrichment co-ordinator for the K-6 school is required to implement “effective procedures” for the collection of disability data in its primary program. The Riverina Anglican College wants its co-ordinator of students with additional needs to “develop individual plans for students including attendance, transition, learning and educational plans”, which is one of the key requirements for verifying a student as being in need of additional funding.

One senior teacher at a private school in Brisbane told The Saturday Paper the process is “like any bureaucracy, in that the people who can afford to do it are the ones who get to the other side”.

“Most of the time the kids need the help and the support, and I’m glad that we can do that for them, but I know that the same cannot be said for students in the state system, and that bothers me,” the teacher said.

“And it’s not like the solution is for private schools to sit back and say ‘Right, we’ll stop funding our students while we wait for governments to fund state schools properly.’ That is not going to happen. This needs to be addressed at the level of both Commonwealth and state governments.”

A spokesperson for the Independent Schools Association said it would argue the “burden” of implementing the NCCD for funding disabled students “is in fact often greater for independent schools, as they do not have the systemic/centralised administration supports available to them that are available to government and Catholic schools”.

“The SRS funding model is being phased in, which means that currently there are non-government schools being funded above and below their SRS entitlement,” the spokesperson said.

“Looking at the Commonwealth share only, ISA estimates that currently 30 per cent of independent schools are currently funded above their SRS entitlement, 13 per cent are at their SRS entitlement and 57 per cent are below their SRS entitlement.

“Under the legislated funding model, all non-government schools will be on the Commonwealth share of their SRS entitlement by 2029.”

Data tells at least some of the story alluded to by the Department of Education’s Ros Baxter. Between 2015 and 2021, the percentage of independent school students in receipt of a supplementary disability loading (worth an additional $5082 per student if the SRS is funded at 100 per cent) rose from 6.9 per cent to 8.4 per cent in independent schools, and in Catholic schools from 8.6 to 10.5 per cent. Public schools experienced just a slight bump from 8.3 per cent to 9 per cent, however.

Meanwhile, independent schools experienced the lowest growth in students in the zero-funds category, from 7.4 to 8.5 per cent over the same time period.

“A lot of these children in public schools actually sit in that fourth category, and therefore they’re not funded,” the AEU’s Correna Haythorpe says. “The clearest indicator that private schools are able to assess their way out of this is the department’s comments in the senate estimates, which pretty much said exactly that.

“Private schools have the staff in place to do these assessments. They’re able to get students put through [funded] categories. But public schools have great difficulty because you actually need resources to do the appropriate assessments.”

In the foreword to a report on the implementation of the NCCD by Independent Schools Victoria, chief executive Michelle Green said the new framework “has had unintended consequences, imposing an onerous administrative burden on school staff, including in the documentation required, even for those students whose level of disability does not attract funding”. She continued, “It calls on the Australian Government to improve processes, cut red tape and provide better information and resources. It disproves partisan claims that independent schools have deliberately inflated the number of students with disability.”

In a 2018 parliamentary inquiry hearing on the effects of regulatory red tape, Bruce Phillips, a policy director for the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria, said that some education systems were “more diligent with the data collection from day one than some of the other systems”.

The Independent Schools Victoria report noted that “all the schools” it visited for its research on the implementation of the NCCD “found the cost of record keeping for … compliance in terms of personnel, money and time is significant”.

“As a result, some schools are employing administrative assistants to support teachers with their documentation and record keeping. Some schools also reported concerns that the massive administrative burden of the NCCD is actually taking time away from supporting the students.” Haythorpe is not trying to wedge private schools but is attempting to highlight the inequity of the resource requirements.

It is not that some schools are more “diligent”, as suggested by the Catholics, but they are more able.

Haythorpe’s advocacy is focused on what needs to change to prevent public students from being denied funding for which they would otherwise qualify, were it not for the arbitrary conditions of the National School Reform Agreements, signed with each state and territory.

The current reform agreement runs out at the end of next year and negotiations for a new one will begin by November or December. “So,” Haythorpe says, “we believe that the 2023 federal budget should reflect the investment that is needed in order to close that gap with respect to the 100 per cent SRS, and it should set out a very clear time line over the next quadrennial [four years] in terms of achieving that.”

This would put the Commonwealth on the hook for the additional 5 per cent funding share previously dropped by the Coalition. Further, a recent meeting of the union’s national principals committee sketched out a deeper problem with the entire framework for funding disabled students in classrooms.

“This was a huge issue for principals because they said that they don’t believe the NCCD process is working. There is this huge group of students who sit outside of that now because they get categorised in category No.  4, but also departments do not provide enough support,” she says.

“And this is related to resources, again, to have the personnel on the ground to actually be able to assist students. So there’s a huge time lag for students in public schools in terms of getting identified and then in terms of getting the resources in place.

“Their call, and we will write to the Education minister on this, is in the not- too-distant future the NCCD process actually has to be reviewed. And, you know, that must happen in consultation with the teaching profession, not just departments.”

The strain on teaching and school resources at a time in the pandemic when staff shortages are having significant effects on quality learning is not simply theoretical.

Last year, in an AEU survey, 89 per cent of principals who responded said they use funds from other budget areas in the school to cover funding shortfalls for students with disability. On average, they divert more than $100,000 each year at each school.

If these results are extrapolated nationally, the amount of funding diverted is $608 million – an almost exact match to the $598 million shortfall in disability loadings as a result of the SRS underfunding.

“Schools will cater for children. They don’t let these kids miss out on the learning that they need to have,” Haythorpe says.

“But the reality is that funding is coming from different areas of the school budget, so, you know, it has a broader impact.”

Jason Clare’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The National Catholic Education Commissions executive director, Jacinta Collins, says in a statement: “Catholic schools are resourced for students with disability as per the Australian Education Acts funding model. The funding received is used to support the individual needs of students, e.g. a students personalised plan.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Exclusive: Private schools win millions in disability funding".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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