Data from the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Education at a Glance report highlights the dangerous trajectory on which Australian public education is heading in relation to its OECD counterparts.
The report, internationally respected by educators and policy makers across all political persuasions, has Australia ranked 26 out of a total of 28 countries in terms of direct public expenditure on public schooling.
The appalling statistic becomes all the more unsettling given that improving school funding was a relatively minor issue during the Federal election campaign. Considering how critical a strong public education system is to Australia's future productivity and prosperity, we would expect this issue to receive far greater attention from our political leaders.
While the major parties announced policies seeking to provide performance incentives to teachers, financial support to parents for school uniforms and text-books, as well as support to students with a disability and their families, they failed to address the underlying structural problems in school funding that are recognised by virtually everyone to be flawed, complex and not in this nation’s best interests.
The OECD report also puts Australia fourth highest in the developed world in terms of public funding directed to private educational institutions, pointing to a shameful inequity that exists across Australian schooling in general.
Current funding arrangements for government and non-government schools are complex and divisive. Non-government school funding is regulated by the Schools Assistance Act; government school funding by the National Education Agreement. Non-government schools receive the bulk of their funding from the Commonwealth; government schools from the State. A challenge here is not to discourage choice or penalise any particular school sector, but to provide a clearer, fairer and more transparent system that enables quality education in all schools while preserving the autonomy of schools and school sectors.
Patterns of public resourcing for schools are making it difficult to achieve goals around educational equity and excellence set by our own governments. Enrolment practices in many schools are exclusionary - based on high fees, academic results or sporting ability, for example.
Government schools, which must open their doors to all students, are faced with a growing concentration of students who, for a variety of reasons, do not meet the selective enrolment requirements imposed by many non-government schools. These students may, for example, have particular learning needs or be experiencing behavioural difficulties that require special attention and resourcing. These students are at the most risk of being left behind under the current system of funding.
There are ways of addressing these complex challenges.
Professor Jack Keating, in Resourcing schools in Australia, a proposal released by Education Foundation in July, puts forward an elegant solution to some of the current problems of funding and inequity. He proposes that all registered schools in Australia be funded under a single framework. With a formalised public guarantee, every registered school would be required to deliver the core elements of a national curriculum, and in return, would be guaranteed a minimum level of public funding.
His framework suggests that those schools with low or no private revenue would be compensated with funding from two other public sources: needs-based funding, and the community guarantee fund. The latter would reward schools with open enrolment policies or those working collaboratively with other schools and communities. Special purpose funding would continue to be made available for programs targeting particular challenges, for example, in rural and Indigenous communities, or in lifting levels of literacy and numeracy.
Keating reminds us that the vast majority of all schools in Australia are publicly funded. Only a handful of schools operate without receiving some government funding. A condition of that funding should be that they must open their doors to all students. After all, public funding is by definition collected and distributed to the benefit of all Australians.
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