Opinion: Gonski is about equity, not just funding

Anyone who spends time visiting Australian schools quickly becomes aware of the big gaps in resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

They also become aware that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend schools that are under-resourced, and lack the funding to meet their needs in and out of the classroom.

The shallow analysis that argues funding does not make a difference because our student performance has plateaued during a time when funding has increased is missing the point.

This myth that resources don’t make a difference in schools is dangerous.

It plays into the hands of a Federal Government which wants to scrap needs-based Gonski funding and return to a flawed system which will entrench disadvantage.

The Gonski model was the result of the biggest review of schools funding in a generation and has the support of the education sector. It recognised our priority needed to be addressing disadvantage and inequity in resources in order to lift the results of our school system.

The Gonski reforms are not just about increasing funding for schools. They are about targeting the extra funding to the schools which educate disadvantaged students.

We need to link funding to student need so we can address the biggest problem in Australian schools - the huge gaps in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Not only do critics of needs-based funding exaggerate the extent of recent funding increases, they ignore the fact that in the lead-up to Gonski the biggest increases in combined Government funding went to private schools.

From 2009 to 2014, combined public school funding per student rose by 14.6% (before inflation is taken into account) while government funding to the Catholic and independent sectors rose by 30%.

This is what happens when student need is placed second to political considerations.

Gonski agreements began in 2014, and were expected to run for six years, because that was how long it would take to lift all schools to the minimum resource standard to give all their students a quality education.

Even in States which are implementing Gonski in full, only around 9% of the extra funding had reached schools by the end of 2015.

For example in NSW, out of an overall public schools budget of $11bn a year, the additional Gonski funding given to public schools in 2014 and 2015 was just $200m.

To argue that Gonski funding has failed to lift results is ridiculous. We are in the early days of a shift in funding that is already delivering extra resources to schools.

Gonski means there are students who are getting access to speech pathology, support in the classroom, or extra literacy and numeracy programs that they couldn’t access before.

To say that these students are not benefiting from these programs is to ignore the evidence of hundreds of schools.

 But we know that there is still a huge amount of unmet need in schools across Australia.

To take the most obvious example, the federal government’s own figures show that there are over 250,000 students with disabilities in schools who need funded support but do not get it.

These students are being denied the chance to reach their potential because the funding is not there to offer them the one-to-one support, specialised programs or equipment they need.

Malcolm Turnbull plans to end needs-based funding after 2017 and which means that disadvantaged schools will not get the resources they need.

An analysis of the Coalition’s post-2017 funding plan for schools, by education funding expert Dr Jim McMorrow, shows that 62% of extra federal funding would go to private schools, regardless of their need.

By comparison, not only would the full six years of Gonski deliver an extra $5.28bn to schools between 2016/17 and 2019/20, 80 per cent of the extra funding would go to public schools, which have higher levels of need and educate a higher proportion of disadvantaged students.

All school systems will be worse off under the Coalition’s plan compared with Gonski, but it is public schools which will be hit the hardest, losing over $4.4bn in funding by 2019/20.

In fact, under the Turnbull plan public schools will receive just an extra $183 per student between now and 2019/20 – that would not be enough to pay for one extra full-time teacher in a school of 500 students.

The most glaring evidence of the Turnbull Government’s lack of concern for need is the fact that the Budget Papers actually show federal funding to public schools in the NT and Tasmania dropping after 2017 – despite their high levels of need.

To leave the schools that educate disadvantaged students without the resources they need is to tell those students their education doesn’t matter.

This is incredibly short-sighted because it fails to understand this is not just about equity.

If we can offer early intervention and support to children who need it when they start school, we can lift their performance. If we can ensure that all students leave school with basic skills there will be a huge long-term economic benefit to Australia.

It makes no sense to abandon Gonski just as schools and students are beginning to benefit from the extra resources it is delivering.

Malcolm Turnbull has a serious question to answer. Why is he walking away from properly funding disadvantaged students just as Gonski resources are beginning to make a difference?

It is also imperative that State and Territory Governments stand up for their schools and for needs-based Gonski funding during any negotiations with the federal government. Schools funding is a joint State and Federal responsibility and both sides need to work together to fund them properly.

Governments that fail to deliver anything less than the full Gonski are failing our kids.

Correna Haythorpe is the federal president of the Australian Education Union (AEU).