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Published on the VCOSS Voice on 23 February 2012.
Guest blog by Dr Kathy Landvogt
What a comprehensive and thoughtful review into education funding David Gonski and his expert panel have conducted for the Federal Government. Now it’s up to Australian governments to embrace its explicit recognition that it is only through a spirit of cooperation and flexibility that we can achieve better educational outcomes for all Australian students.
In our submission to the Gonski Review a year ago, we contended that state government schools were disproportionately bearing both the costs and the shortcomings of the existing funding system.
I am relieved that that the Gonski Review has come to the same conclusion. Its finding, that in order for us to have an education system among the world’s best we ‘must prioritise support for (our) lowest performing students’, affirms everything I have learned as a front line social worker and researcher.
Those of us who work every day in community service organisations have become far too familiar with the effects of poorly organised funding on our most disadvantaged students and their families. So I was pleased to hear Mr Gonski assert that a student’s socioeconomic status should not adversely affect their access to a quality education, and that improving educational outcomes for our most disadvantaged students will have multiple wide-ranging benefits for the country.
David Gonski has suggested that current funding arrangements are ‘unnecessarily complex, lack cohesion and transparency, and involve a duplication of funding efforts in some areas’. In terms of state schools, another problem is that despite the catch cry of ‘free education for all’, local schools are not free and often not local either. Cash-strapped state schools now invoice parents for what they call ‘essential payments’.
Every year organisations like Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service encounter increasing numbers of parents seeking support to pay for camps, calculators and other school costs so their kids can really participate in education and feel like they belong – to not fall behind their better resourced peers.
These ‘essential payments’ have largely replaced the former, euphemistically termed, ‘voluntary contributions’ (which often weren’t voluntary); but they pose similar questions about why parents are paying for ‘essentials’ in a ‘free’ system. The answer is that government schools now rely on parent payments for a significant percentage of their revenue. State schools now blatantly reflect the wealth, or lack of it, of their school community. While some schools can raise a million dollars, others struggle to raise a fewthousand. And it shows. Adequate funding of the government school sector with loadings for disadvantage, as proposed in the Gonski Review would, over time, remove these discrepancies.
Because some parents can choose to bypass the local school in favour of a more well-endowed one a few suburbs away, the divide between successful and struggling schools is further entrenched. The new funding regime is desperately needed to reverse this trend. It was ‘not a level playing field’ when the Senate looked at these questions in 1999 and it is even less of one now. Market-based competition and choice are simply not effective underpinnings for an equitable education system. The resources of many of our government schools, often serving neighbourhoods themselves depleted by unemployment and poverty, must be replenished.
Thankfully, the Gonski Review has addressed these critical issues. Its panel stated that while a significant increase in funding is required across all schooling sectors, ‘the largest part of this increase’ should flow to the government sector. This is due to the ‘significant numbers and greater concentration of disadvantaged students attending government schools’.
The Review has recognised the fundamental principle that funding should go to where the needs are greatest, and that the current funding system is an anachronism, a product of historical, geographic and political forces that is no longer serving the nation as it should.
The rift between the haves and the have-nots of education threatens to split open our society. Research, and even simple observation, tells us that young people lacking the ticket to opportunity can become soured, demoralised and angry by missing out time and again. The kids themselves suffer; as do we as a society.
The Gonski Review has provided us with the opportunity for decisive action: to re-set the course of education as a common good which government holds in trust for the community. Let’s hope it is not an opportunity wasted.
Dr Kathy Landvogt is Manager of the Social Policy and Research Unit at Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service. This blog is an edited version of an article posted on the Good Shepherd website