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June 02nd 2017 print

Kevin Donnelly

Gonski: Forgotten People Forgotten Again

The reason wealthy schools are being overfunded while low-fee non-government schools serving disadvantaged communities miss out is because the Gonski model, contrary to Minister Simon Birmingham's defence of that Labor legacy, is misconceived, flawed and in urgent need of repair

bob menziesLast week celebrated the 75th anniversary of Sir Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People speech in which he excluded “the rich and powerful” from his definition of those most worthy of recognition and support on the basis that the “rich can look after themselves”

Not so with Prime Minister Turnbull’s new Gonski 2.0 funding model that financially rewards wealthy and well resourced independent schools at the expense of needier disadvantaged schools, especially low-fee Catholic and non-denominational schools.

Instead of properly supporting disadvantaged schools and their communities it is clear that Gonski 2.0 does the opposite by delivering additional billions to 95 of Australia’s wealthiest and most privileged independent schools.

Linking data from the government’s School Funding Estimator to the latest Year 9 NAPLAN results (as reported on the My School website) it’s obvious that some of Australia’s strongest performing independent schools representing some of Australia’s wealthiest communities are the real winners in the new funding model.

Forget the spin coming from the minister’s office – based on the government’s own data the new funding model will give already abundantly resourced independent schools an additional $1.03 billion in funding from 2018 to 2027, leading to a total funding of $5.7 billion over the decade to 2027.

Examples include NSW’s Sydney Grammar School, the Ascham School and SCEGGS that will receive additional millions in commonwealth funding as will Victoria’s St Catherine’s, School, Wesley College and Melbourne Grammar School.

Even more bizarre, given the whole point of the original Gonski model is to raise literacy and numeracy standards associated with disadvantaged schools, is that the government’s My School website proves that these independent schools are already among Australia’s highest academic performers.

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Many independent schools charge between $20,000 to $38,000 per year in enrollment fees and by any definition cannot be considered disadvantaged. For these schools, the government’s own funding model indicates that they do not need any public funding to achieve targeted levels of educational achievement.

And the reason why wealthy schools are being overfunded while low-fee non-government schools serving disadvantaged communities miss out is because the Gonski model, unlike what Minister Simon Birmingham claims, is misconceived, flawed and in urgent need of repair.

Central to the Gonski 2.0 model when deciding the quantum of funding allocated to non-government schools is parents’ ‘capacity to pay’ as measured by a school’s socioeconomic status (SES).  The assumption is that the higher the SES the less government funding is required and the more schools and parents must raise locally.

Instead of arriving at a school’s SES by identifying the characteristics of individual student’s families (including occupation, education, family and household income) the government relies on census data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the area in which students live.

As noted by an analysis carried out by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV), the characteristics of a student’s home background “is inferred from the areas in which students reside, not the actual characteristics of each student.”

As a result, and as admitted in the original Gonski report, relying on census data as a proxy for students’ and schools’ SES potentially involves a “large degree of inaccuracy” as “the students attending a particular school are not necessarily representative of the socioeconomic averages of the areas in which they live.”

An obvious example is Geelong Grammar, where the SES is lower than it should be because many students boarding at the school, one of the most expensive in Australia, are not considered privileged as they come from low SES rural and regional areas.

It’s also the case that the weighting given to the four characteristics identified as representing a student’s SES, according to the CECV paper “is more or less arbitrary”.  It should not surprise that Professor Stephen Farish, the expert responsible for developing the SES model when David Kemp was the Education Minister, now argues it “clearly isn’t working”.

As noted in the Sunday Mail of May 28, 2017, Farish is also reported as stating the SES model should be overhauled, as a number of expensive private schools share the same SES as less privileged smaller Catholic schools.

An important reason why the Menzies’ government prevailed for so long was because of the Labor Split, the rise of the Democratic Labor Party and the decision to provide commonwealth funding to Catholic schools.

It’s a lesson that Turnbull and Birmingham ignore at their own risk by implementing a flawed and corrupted school funding model that privileges wealthy and well resourced private schools instead of low-fee paying Catholic schools serving many of Menzies’ forgotten people.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down.