As Australia gears up for another federal election, schools are becoming a key battleground, and at the centre of the debate, as always, is the issue of school funding, and where that funding should go.
Pitching its pre-election school funding plan, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese announced a $440m grants-based initiative to help students and teachers manage the challenges of the pandemic. The package would include new grant funding for improved air ventilation in classrooms, building upgrades and more mental health services for schools.
“We need to learn from the pandemic. We need to use what the last two years have taught us to build a better future,” Albanese said.
Under Labor’s ‘Schools Upgrade Fund’, principals will be able apply for funding to improve the quality of their air ventilation systems, build more outdoor learning spaces and make repairs.
Labor has also promised funding towards a “wellbeing boost” that offers more counsellors and psychologists to address the growing mental health crisis among young people in Australia.
To highlight its investments toward education, the Federal Government recently pointed to figures from a Productivity Commission report that shows the share of public expenditure on all schools provided by the Australian Government increased from 26.3% in 2012–2013 to 31.7% in 2019–2020.
Acting Minister for Education and Youth, Stuart Robert, said this growth shows the Government is targeting its education funding right with initiatives like the Quality Schools package.
“The report shows that between 2012-13 and 2019-20, Australian Government funding per student for all schools increased significantly in real terms,” Minister Robert said.
“Government schools have been the biggest beneficiary of this growth, with Commonwealth per student funding growing by 64.1 per cent in real terms over the past 10 years compared with 49.8 per cent in non-government schools.”
The Acting Minister went on to say the government has record funding of $315.2bn for all schools between 2018 and 2029 under the Quality Schools package, and that a record $24.8bn will be invested in schools this year, including a further $26.4bn which is expected in 2023.
However, Australia’s peak teachers’ union says that if billions in record funding are flowing into the nation’s schools, it’s certainly not making a meaningful difference to the schools and other educational institutions that are struggling the most – namely public schools and TAFEs.
In its pre-budget submission, the Australian Education Union (AEU) called for an urgent investment in public school funding, which it said “is required now more than ever” to ensure students are not educationally disadvantaged as a result of COVID-19.
AEU Federal President, Correna Haythorpe described the forthcoming Federal Budget as “a critical opportunity” for the Federal Government to ensure all students have the opportunity to overcome any impacts the pandemic may have had on their learning.
“Public school principals, teachers and education support staff are still in urgent need of funding to help alleviate the challenges faced by schools and students during COVID-19,” Haythorpe said.
“The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in education, particularly for students with additional needs. The moment to address those inequalities is now.”
According to the AEU’s 2021 State of our Schools Survey, public school principals, teachers and education support staff need greater support and resources to support students impacted by the pandemic.
The study found that a staggering 80% of all principals said they lacked necessary ongoing funds to support students who need extra help, while 73% said they need additional funds for ICT equipment for students.
There were also some worrying findings about the state of student wellbeing, with 63% of all teachers saying that student wellbeing had declined. Thirty-six per cent said it had “declined significantly”.
Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals' Association (ASPA), said the pandemic has had a profound affect on young people.
“If the pandemic was to cease right now, the challenge of youth mental health will be ongoing for many years. Resources, both physical and human, must be purposed and directed at this complex matter,” Pierpoint told The Educator.
Matthew Johnson is the president of the Australian Special Education Principals Association (ASEPA) agrees, pointing out that leaders must be better supported to provide the type of care and educational opportunity that young people – especially the most disadvantaged – deserve.
“Many people look at resilience programs and the like, but an individual leaders’ resilience is simply not sustainable without concrete supports, sufficient qualified staff and appropriate time and resourcing to do the job.”