Published by The Age, Thursday 16 May
Australia has increased the real resources available to schools by more than $2 billion in a decade, but we spent the extra money on the schools that needed it least.
New Grattan Institute analysis shows that, once wage growth is taken into account, private schools got more than 80 per cent of the extra funding, even though they educate fewer than 20 per cent of Australia’s most disadvantaged students.
The Commonwealth walked the talk: about half of its extra funding went to public schools. But the Commonwealth’s billions were undone by the states, whose funding to public schools shrunk after taking account of teacher wages.
Meanwhile, private schools got big funding boosts despite increasingly educating the haves, while public schools increasingly taught the have-nots.
School-level disadvantage matters. Disadvantaged 15-year-old Australians perform much worse in international tests if their school has lots of other disadvantaged students. Even when they do equally well in the Year 3 NAPLAN tests, students in disadvantaged schools fall two years behind their peers in advantaged schools by Year 9.
But money also matters. Principals at disadvantaged Australian schools say they find it hard to attract staff and lack the materials they need to give their students a high-quality education; principals at advantaged schools not so much. The discrepancy is bigger in Australia than any other OECD country.
The ABC showed last year – and I have independently confirmed – that nearly one in three private schools in Australia now get more taxpayer dollars than the typical public school of similar size and student background. That’s a dramatic jump from about 1 in 20 a decade ago.
This is not because private schools are over-funded – most still get less than their target level of government funding – but because public schools are funded well below their targets.
The recently struck National School Reform Agreement locks in this problem for the foreseeable future. With the blessing of the Commonwealth, states must top up funding for each private school to at least 100 per cent of the target – but they don’t have to do the same for each public school.
Australia should tilt future funding strongly towards disadvantaged schools. These schools need better resources. The more disadvantaged the school, the less students learn. And, despite most disadvantaged students attending public schools, private schools got most of the past decade’s extra funding.
Luckily, we don’t have to take money from private schools to properly fund our public schools. Australia should – and can – boost its overall school funding.
The idea that Australia is a big spender on schools is a myth. Grattan Institute’s Commonwealth Orange Book 2019 showed that, on average in 2015, the OECD countries most similar to Australia spent about 9 per cent more per student than we did, as a percentage of GDP per capita. Excluding private spending, Australian governments spent less per school student than any comparable country.
The claim that we are a big spender is typically made on the basis that Australia spends more of its GDP on school education than the OECD average. It has two fundamental flaws.
First, Australia’s population is younger than most other advanced countries. Second, Australia should not benchmark its education spending against OECD countries such as Turkey and Mexico, whose student results are terrible.
In fact, no OECD country that spends less than Australia consistently outperforms it in international tests. There just doesn’t seem to be a formula for great education on the cheap.
Australia needs to lift school funding to match our international competitors, and we need to tilt the extra dollars strongly in favour of disadvantaged students – most of whom are in public schools.
Whoever wins Saturday’s federal election needs to work with the states to make sure that the next decade of funding increases really do go to the students and schools in most need.