Back in April 2010, when she was Education Minister, Julia Gillard commissioned an enquiry into School Funding in Australia. They are asking for submissions by 31 March, and my friend JV has suggested that I join her in making a submission. I thought I’d post some of my initial thoughts here, to see if my readers have any useful comments to add. These thoughts are pretty rough, but given I’ve promised JV a post for nearly a week now, here they are.
Brief Background to school funding
A brief background for any interested non Australian readers. In Australia, we have three major school systems. We have Government schools, which are secular, and run by the States and Territories. They are funded largely by the States and Territories out of consolidated revenue (and have different curriculums and systems). We have Catholic parish schools, which are funded using a combination of a per student grant from the Federal Government, and fees to parents, and are run as a system by the Catholic Church (largely, there are some exceptions).
And we have private schools, which have a huge range from elite ($20,000 plus fees per year) to small local school that has been started by a group with some particular educational or religious philosophy they want to teach (here is an example, although being in the upper middle class of Sydney it is probably more expensive than average). These are funded school by school basis, by the Federal Government. It is a very complex funding system, which is based around an amount per student depending on the average socio-economic background of the school, ranging from 13.7% of the cost of a government school education to 70% of the cost. However, that isn’t quite the full story. When the system was introduced a few years ago, the formula led to a significant reduction in funding for some of the schools with the richest student backgrounds. So those schools get a guaranteed level of funding which is significantly higher than what they would get given the formula.
We have had a very strong movement from government to private schools in the last few years, from 71% at government schools in 1995 to X% in 2010. This is particularly pronounced in highschool years.
From what I’ve read, we have one of the highest proportions of private schooling around the world, and we also provide some of the strongest support to private schools of anyone. In most other countries that I have read about (and I’d love more data on this) non government schools cannot simultaneously charge fees and receive government funding.
The Enquiry’s emerging issues
The Enquiry has put out an emerging issues paper, in which they have asked for comments on the themes which have emerged from their consultation so far.
Their key themes are:
- Equity of educational outcomes
- Recurrent funding
- Capital funding
- Targeted and needs-based funding
- Support for students with special needs and students with disability
- Governance and leadership
- Community and family engagement
I’m expecting my major comments to be on equity of educational outcomes, and the three funding bullet points.
The first question the enquiry has asked is about equity.
[The panel] … believes that equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. The panel does not intend it to mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes, but rather that they will not be prevented from achieving their maximum potential because of their background or family circumstances.
There is a range of definitions of equity. I must admit I like this one, as it is about the outcome, not the government’s inputs. But the difficulty will lie in deciding how much of “background or family circumstances” should be compensated for. There is a spectrum here. Providing extra resources to compensate for a disability is, in theory, relatively uncontroversial (even if in practice very few governments do it as completely as this definition would suggest). Providing extra money or other resource so that teachers are more likely to teach in unpopular places is also not controversial in theory (at least I don’t think so) but in practice only happens in very remote areas, rather than the poorer areas of our major cities.
But should the educational system should provide extra resource to the child who has no books in the house, compared with the one who does? What about more resource to the child whose parents don’t provide coaching after school compared with the child who has three hours every afternoon? And, most controversially, my read of the enquiry’s definition of equity suggests that there should be no way in which private schools should be able to have access to extra resources compared with public schools (assuming the student body is comparable). So no fees beyond standard costs, no building funds, no extra computer labs, etc.
To me, the logical conclusion is that no private school should be able to charge fees if they get government help. This has always been my view, but it seems to follow logically from the equity definition. Of course, the corollary is that the government provision must be adequate for all. Which is nice in theory, but I know many cases where it has failed in practice.
Philosophically, my strong preference is for government schools to be adequate. There shouldn’t be any need for private schools. It is important for us as a society to education all members of society to their potential. Education is not a consumer good, it is an investment in our society’s future. There is an individual benefit to education, in that on average, the better educated you are, the more likely you are to earn more money over your lifetime. But in most countries, that benefit from a school education is assumed to be repaid by the higher taxes you will pay over your lifetime, and in the general improvement in productivity from the society as a whole (plus, of course the non economic benefits of having an educated population, such as a richer cultural environment).
Education cannot, by itself, fix all the problems in society. But it can avoid making them worse, and, if done well, can provide an opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (of all kinds) to improve their circumstances. But not if the education provided to the most advantaged members of society significantly increases that advantage, by further improving the outcomes of the child.
So I would like to see an outcome from this review
Larvatus Prodeo thread on the review
Jane Caro in the SMH recently
Market mechanisms in education and why they don’t always work
Jon Stewart interviewing Diane Ravitch about her book which is anti standardised testing