2014 will be a frustrating year for schools and their communities as the realities of the "Gonski" funding model become apparent. High expectations about additional funding built up through the political process over the past 12 months will be exposed as little more than rhetoric, with the majority of schools to receive nothing like their entitlement calculated under the new funding formula. For many schools, it will be to up to 10 years before their full entitlements are delivered.
The frustrations will be most acutely felt in funding for students with disabilities, an area of chronic under-resourcing for many years. Whilst the Gonski formula provides an entitlement loading equivalent to 186% of the new School Resource Standard (SRS) for each student with a disability, schools will receive far less than this in 2014.
It is little wonder the new Education Minister Christopher Pyne has described the funding situation as "a bit of a mess".
So where to from here, in the context of the Coalition's commitment to work with the States and Territories to secure stable and sustainable school funding into the future?
There are four things Minister Pyne could immediately address.
Firstly, he could accept the SRS as the new benchmark for schools funding. Whilst the calculation is a mystery to most, it does represent a cross-sector benchmark, thus eliminating one of the perceived weaknesses of the currently used benchmark – Average Government School Recurrent Costs.
The use of loadings to target funding to areas of need could also be accepted. Furthermore, some simple changes to the Better Schools funding model could be easily made to ensure transparency and a less complex approach.
The loading for students with disabilities could be removed from the model. These students could be funded on a targeted basis – they deserve a very individual approach, not one driven by high level and one-size-fits all formulas. There is a perfectly acceptable mechanism for targeting such funding already and it should be preserved.
The other loadings for school location and size and for low socio-economic, indigenous and English as a Second Language (ESL) students could be amalgamated into one loading based on the socio-economic status of each school community. This would immediately eliminate much of the complexity of the new model and provide a robust data set to distribute funds to address student and school need. There is a high correlation between the currently used SES measure and educational disadvantage, so this will be a simple and transparent process, unlike what is currently proposed. It would result in predictable and stable funding and provide much needed relief from the uncertainty currently facing schools.
All non-government schools already have a SES score, so it would require the calculation of an SES score for each government school based on the residential addresses of students being linked to ABS Census data. This is not a particularly difficult task and would for the first time provide a consistent measure of disadvantage across all schools and an appropriate methodology of ensuring the efficient and equitable allocation of scarce government resources to address school and student needs.
An urgent and immediate task for the Minister must be to unravel the funding deals done across States and Territories and sectors. It is inconceivable that government funding for schools and students with similar characteristics would be different depending upon which State and/or sector the school is located. Given the Coalition has strongly signalled a more co-operative approach with the State and Territories, the Minister could show leadership to ensure that students are funded consistently and equitably no matter which school they attend or where they are located.
Finally, the new Minister could draw up urgent amendments to the Australian Education Act to end the "command-and-control" regime being imposed by Canberra. A good start would be to enshrine in the Act recognition that schooling is actually delivered by States and Territories and the non-government sectors.
A new framework for school improvement incorporating agreed national priorities could be developed – one driven and implemented at the local level and without the duplication of reporting and compliance at the national level. Schools could be empowered to seek improvements in the local context and this will surely drive better student outcomes for the nation as a whole.
These quick changes give the best hope for many of the worthwhile principles underpinning the "Gonski" funding model to have relevance for schools and their communities. Failure to act swiftly is likely to see the new funding model abandoned in terms of any support from the schooling sectors with a resultant further period of funding uncertainty.
Christopher Pyne has recently said the Prime Minister is leading a stable, methodical, "no excuses" Government – one that promises only what it can do, and will do what it promises. Simple but effective changes to the new funding model can be achieved in this context and would be embraced by independent schools.
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