Private schools taking lion's share of disability support – new data

Private schools taking lion

If the vast majority of young people with disabilities and special needs are enrolled in public schools, why is the lion’s share of government assistance payments going to wealthy private schools that educate significantly fewer of these students?

While this disparity has existed for some time, new data shows this problem may now getting out of control.

An investigation by The Guardian Australia this week reveals that children with disabilities at wealthy fee-paying schools are receiving up to six times the government support funding as those at public schools, widening an already alarming gap.

According to the data, provided by the Department of Education to the Senate, public school students eligible for a disability payment receive an average amount from the commonwealth of $2,941, while more than 100 non-government schools receive, on average, in excess of $10,000 per funded student.

An inequitable system

According to the Federal Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare, an estimated 380,000 (10%) of all Australian students aged 5-18 have a disability, yet research shows that greater in-school supports are needed to accommodate the needs of these students.

While State Governments allocate funds to public schools, their methodology differs from the Federal Government's approach, which provides direct funding to private schools. Unfortunately, this results in very different levels of per-student funding between public and private schools.

In The Guardian Australia article, it was reported that one Melbourne private school receives nearly $16,000 per student from the Federal Government’s Student With Disability (SWD) payments, while the average support per student in NSW is a mere $2,600.

‘The time to act is now’

Matthew Johnson, president of the Australian Special Education Principals Association said that from the perspective of his Association, the disparity between funding for students with disabilities in wealthy private schools and public schools as reported in The Guardian is “a matter of deep concern”.

“ASEPA’S core mission is to advocate for equitable and adequate support for all students with disabilities, regardless of their school's type or location. The findings from The Guardian's investigation underscore a critical issue that affects the educational outcomes and well-being of a significant number of students,” Johnson told The Educator.

“The discrepancy between funding levels for students with disabilities in private and public schools highlights a significant inequity. Wealthy private schools receiving up to six times more funding than public schools for students with similar needs undermines the goal of a fair and inclusive education system.”

Johnson said the inconsistencies between the states and territories in how funding is distributed to public schools – particularly when it comes to supporting students with disabilities – “breeds confusion” and makes it difficult for principals and schools to effectively plan and allocate resources to where they're needed most.

“The fact that a significant number of students in public schools do not receive adequate financial support indicates that more needs to be done at the policy level. For ASEPA, this is a call to action to advocate for more equitable funding mechanisms, ensuring all students with disabilities have the resources necessary for their success,” Johnson said.

“The current system, where each state has its own methodology for distributing funding, results in varying levels of support for students with disabilities.”

ASEPA is calling for the establishment of consistent national standards and additional funding to ensure all students, regardless of their state or type of school, have equitable access to the support they need.

“ASEPA views the findings of this investigation as a clear call for a more equitable and transparent funding system. We advocate for a consistent national approach that adequately supports all students with disabilities, ensuring they receive the resources they need to thrive academically and socially,” he said.

“The time to act is now, for the benefit of the 1 million Australian students reporting a disability and the future of our nation's education system.”

New agreements are needed

Correna Haythorpe, president of the Australian Education Union, said the ramifications of public school underfunding are "enormous" for principals, teachers and students with disability.

“Governments talk a lot about a fully inclusionary education environment, but they haven’t been prepared to fund public schools to provide it," Haythorpe told The Educator. 

“Families with children with disability need to be able to know they can walk through the door of any public school and there will be the teachers and staff with the time, expertise and resources to meet their needs."

Haythorpe said this is why the union has been campaigning for full funding for every public school.

"We need new agreements between the Albanese Government and every state and territory government this year that resource public schools at 100% of the Schooling Resource Standard.”