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The Government's school funding plan

What is Gonski 2.0?

On May 2, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham unveiled the Government’s “Quality Schools” reforms, which lay out a 10-year plan to fundamentally change the way the Commonwealth Government funds all Australian schools.

I’ve heard about “Gonski” funding. What does that mean? Was there a Gonski 1.0?

Several years ago, Prime Minister Julia Gillard asked businessman David Gonski AC to lead a review into school funding. Along with a number of other eminent Australians, he considered the views of thousands of people and presented a report to the Government in 2011 that set out a number of principles for how funding could be directed to support the needs of students and schools.

While the report didn’t suggest how much funding should be spent on Australian schools, “Gonski funding” became the catchphrase for funding that would be allocated under the recommendations of the Gonski Review.

Prime Minister Turnbull suggested his Government’s model could be called “Gonski 2.0” because Mr Gonski is leading a review to consider how Commonwealth spending on schools can rely on the most effective teaching and learning strategies.

Minister Birmingham has said he’s planning to reform school education in the way Mr Gonski intended.

Is the Government doing that?

Despite the Minister’s claims that he’s implementing the “Gonski” reforms as Mr Gonski intended, the Minister continues to ignore some of the recommendations and is implementing other reforms that clearly contradict what the Gonski panel suggested.

Like what?

The Gonski panel said that the way the Commonwealth funds non-government schools is not robust. Essentially, the Government tries to determine how much parents can pay in school fees using something called Socio-Economic Status (SES) scores.

That methodology, as the Gonski panel said, is subject to a “potentially large degree of inaccuracy”. The panel said it should be reviewed and replaced. Six years later, several Education Ministers have ignored that recommendation.

The problems with the SES methodology mean that Catholic school parents and many parents of kids in low-fee independent schools are paying more in fees than they should be. And often more than they can afford.

As an example of the SES's inadequacy, under this faulty model a single-income family with four kids renting a house is deemed to have the same ability to pay fees as a two-income family with one child that owns the house next door. We know that's just not true.

What else?

The Gonski panel strongly supported Catholic school systems and said they should be treated like government school systems, because school systems help to ensure education is delivered both effectively and efficiently. This new plan would see Catholic schools treated like a collection of individual schools, rather than an interdependent and interrelated group of communities that work in partnership to support students and families across the state and territory in which they’re located.

Won’t school funding increase in Catholic schools, though?

It is true that for “systemic” Catholic schools, the overall funding that a state or territory receives will be higher -- except for Catholic schools in the ACT. For 14 “independent” Catholic schools that were set up by religious orders, funding will actually be cut.

But for more than 600 systemic Catholic schools, the funding they will be allocated under the Government’s model in 2018 will be lower than it was in 2017. The Minister has said Catholic school systems can conceal those cuts through a process called redistribution.

What is redistribution?

Catholic school systems, like government systems and the small number of independent school systems, are allocated a total amount of funding for all the schools in a state or territory. School systems are then able to direct that funding to schools according to individual needs. Catholic school systems were established to provide that local wisdom because it would be hard for a Canberra bureaucrat to decide how much funding individual schools should get.

Isn’t that a good idea?

It is a good idea. We support that. But the Minister’s new model makes the Canberra bureaucrat’s spreadsheet more important than ever in determining how much funding individual schools should receive. We know, and the Gonski Review knew, that schools and school systems know more about need that a Canberra number-cruncher.

So, will fees have to go up?

In many schools and in many cities, it will be hard to avoid increases in Catholic school fees. The funding allocated to some schools will be cut by more than 60 per cent. The fees in those schools will have to increase dramatically or other Catholic schools will be asked to share some of their funding increases to help support those schools that are seeing their funding allocation decrease.

Will those cuts just be in rich schools?

The 617 Catholic systemic schools that will see their funding allocation cut include schools across all parts of the country and schools from low- and high-SES communities. There are special schools, for students with disability, on the list as well. There are 260,000 students in those schools.

But the Minister says all systemic Catholic schools will get funding increases next year. It says so on his School Funding Estimator website.

The website contains what one Senator calls "fantasy figures". We have looked at the actual Commonwealth funding allocation Catholic schools had this year and the allocation they will receive in 2018 if the Minister's model is introduced. His website creates a fictional figure for 2017, despite the fact 2017 allocations have already been determined.

That seems quite dubious.

It does. Highly dubious. We are comparing apples and apples. The Minister is comparing apples and emus.

What will those cuts mean?

Catholic schools are committed to being accessible and affordable for families. We know that many Catholic school families are already struggling with the cost of school fees and will find it hard to cope with significant increases.

What will happen then?

We know that if parents can’t afford the fees in Catholic schools, their kids will attend their local government school. Many government schools are already struggling to accommodate all their current students, so any shift from Catholic to government schools would add pressure to public schools.

What about students with disability?

The Minister's model will introduce a new way of determining how funding for students with disability is allocated. The Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for students with disability is simply not yet robust enough to be used in this way. The Minister said so just a few months ago. An independent report said the same. It is reckless to use inadequate information to decide how funding for students with disability is determined.

What should be done?

The Senate should vote down the Turnbull Government’s plan because it doesn’t deliver needs-based funding. The Minister should then enter into meaningful consultation with educational leaders to devise a model that will support all students in all schools across all sectors and make Australia’s high-quality education system even better.

What can I do?

The best thing you can do is contact your local Senators urgently -- and before the Senate votes on June 21. Click here to find out who your local Senators are and how to contact them. Tell them that the Government's school funding plan won't deliver needs-based funding because the model doesn't know how to assess need.