School funding review faces an uphill battle
Barely a week goes by without yet another controversy about the funding of schools, most recently over high-fee school profits and school assets.
High-fee schools in particular aren’t excited by the prospect of increased scrutiny of either on the My School website.
But such scrutiny might be delayed for some time and this might ease their discomfort: In the time it takes to get the information correct they’ll be able to flex their considerable lobbying muscles to make sure it doesn’t happen.
And every recurring controversy about school resources adds to the pressure on the current review of school funding to sort it all out. The review team, led by David Gonski, has been handed an almost impossible task: to reform a system which is becoming a significant barrier to educational achievement facing students and facing the whole country.
Rising to this task, the review has signaled that differences in educational outcomes should not be the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. But even under favourable circumstances this would challenge those schools and their lobbies which have been advantaged by decades-long arrangements: differences in wealth and power are now an endemic feature of Australia’s schools.
Even if the review panel can create a better balance it will face the orchestrated wrath of those who even suspect they’ll be dudded – with the fate of its recommendations in the hands of a government under permanent siege – or an Opposition firmly aligned with non-government schools.
Most of the talk about resources for schools focuses on the funding available to schools and how it is used: we have talked forever about rich schools, poor schools and everything in-between. The school funding system certainly needs reforming - but differences in total school income (per student) seem unrelated to student outcomes, at least as measured by student test scores available on My School.
Money still matters, but not in the way we have long thought – and this will be the biggest challenge for the funding review. Money matters because it is linked to another critical resource which is very unevenly distributed between schools. This resource is the students enrolled in each school.
Students bring their own academic and social qualities to school – and these individual qualities contribute to the achievement of schools. But collectively students also contribute to the socio-educational status (SES) of the school. In turn, a school’s SES impacts on the achievement of its students.
In other words, schools and their students gain a double benefit if they enrol students who are advantaged: from the advantaged students both as individuals and as a group. The flipside is that other schools and their students face a double disadvantage. When we divide up this resource of students between schools it amounts to a zero-sum game: some schools and students win, others lose.
We’ve known this from work done by the OECD, we now know it from research conducted in Australia. It is concerning: in Australia the proportion of between-school performance explained by the background of the students attending the school is around 68 per cent, much higher than the OECD average.
To what extent is this resource of students distributed unequally between schools? My School data shows the socio-educational difference, created by enrolments, between schools. We now have an entrenched and linked social and academic hierarchy of schools.
How and why does this resource of students come to be distributed in unequal ways? Firstly, parents with the means to choose - mainly by being able to pay fees - enrol their children in some schools in preference to others. Secondly some schools also choose, either actively or passively, to serve some students/families and not others.
A significant difference between schools lies in who they are obliged (or choose) to enrol. Some schools can access a raft of enrolment discriminators: fees, scholarships, interviews, tests, prior school records, referees, religion etc. Others are obliged or choose to enrol all local students. Most, but not all, the former are private schools - and most, but not all, the latter are public schools.
The importance of money and funding lies not so much in who gets what - but in where it comes from and how this process impacts on schools. When much of a school’s income comes from school fees the school will inevitably enrol from the more advantaged families. They may or may not want this – it just happens.
The argument about money then becomes more complex. Faced with the growing social and academic divides between schools - and the equity challenges this creates – is the role of government to reduce these gaps or to make things worse? How far can we continue to allow private-sourced funding to distort equity? How and where should public funding be directed if we want to create greater equity in student outcomes?
When push comes to shove - which it will at the end of the year – will there be enough commitment to really reform a framework of schools riddled with unequal obligations, various funding models, levels and rationales, uneven rules and accountabilities, varying levels of accessibility - and in many cases unequal amounts of money?
The only certainty is that, if little or nothing is done, current inequities in student outcomes will only increase, along with all the personal, community and national consequences. We have an opportunity for reform - but the prospects for success are very bleak.
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