Needs-based funding key to reducing inequality

Published on Thu 30 November 2017 4:29pm

I know from experience, and I see in my community, that schools are at the heart of community life and the way in which school education shapes the lives and opportunities of young people. The proper funding of schools is essential because school education builds on the foundation of early childhood education, and in so doing it is the great determinant of full social and economic participation in Australia.

Mr Wilson (4:29pm) — This debate is on a matter of national importance and it is close to my heart. I have three kids in school. My oldest, my son Oscar, is mad into chemistry. In fact, he was trying to get me to help him with some titration the other day. I am now going to draw on the member for Dobell for some expertise in that space.

I know from experience, and I see in my community, that schools are at the heart of community life and the way in which school education shapes the lives and opportunities of young people. The proper funding of schools is essential because school education builds on the foundation of early childhood education, and in so doing it is the great determinant of full social and economic participation in Australia. It should be the mechanism for delivering equal opportunity and for reducing inequality but it has not been. That is why the former Labor government pioneered a new approach to school funding, a model that was based on evidence and rigorous analysis through the work of the Gonski review panel, a model that would see increased school funding and funding allocated according to need. That is important, because the task of properly funding schools is both a matter of how much and how. This government, sadly, is failing on both fronts.

Labor’s historic needs-based funding reforms are based on the recognition that certain schools and certain students need more funding. Dr Carmen Lawrence, one of my predecessors and a member of the Gonski review panel, explored the connection between education and inequality—the way in which poor education leads to lower outcomes in terms of employment and other general measures of wellbeing and the way that children from disadvantaged backgrounds perform less well at school.

In 2009, the OECD noted that the correlation between a student’s socioeconomic background and their educational attainment was stronger than in other comparable nations, and that is a shame. The fact is that Australia is becoming more unequal, less egalitarian, and this is reflected in our education system. As Dr Lawrence has pointed out:

As economic inequality has risen, so has educational inequality; each feeds off the other in a cycle of ever-decreasing social mobility. It’s no accident that the most unequal developed nations spend less on education, and have the most segregated education systems and the poorest educational results.

It is a vicious circle. It should not be. It does not need to be. That is the driving imperative behind needs-based funding. It can take us closer to the point where education delivers both a real equality of opportunity, which is far from the case now, and, as a consequence, it can reverse the trend of rising inequality.

But the Abbott-Turnbull government is undermining and winding back that work and those reforms, and it is felt sharply in my state of Western Australia. Western Australia receives the lowest average federal funds per school, at $694,000, and the lowest funding as a percentage of the per-school Gonski funding benchmark. That inadequacy is compounded by the approach of the WA Barnett government. Analysis released in September—which I encourage all members to go and look at, because it is based on the federal government’s own My School data—shows that between 2009 and 2014 the WA government slashed funding to public schools by 10.6 per cent and failed to pass on Gonski funding. Funding to Catholic schools rose eight per cent and for independent schools it was 12 per cent. Whereas enrolments in public schools across that period between 2009 and 2015 grew by 22 per cent, as Western Australia grew, full-time equivalent staff only increased by 14 per cent. It is public schools that do the lion’s share of work in this area.

Next week I will attend the graduation ceremony at Aubin Grove Primary School. It is the largest in Western Australia. It has 900 students. Though it has only been open for six years, this week Aubin Grove was recognised as the WA primary school of the year and its principal, Frank Pansini, was named as the WA principal of the year. I congratulate Aubin Grove.

I also acknowledge and pay tribute to Port School, whose graduation I will attend in the following week. Port School’s entire focus is on kids trying to finish high school against a background of profound disadvantage, including homelessness, substance abuse and family trauma.

All these public schools need greater and better funding. That is what Labor’s needs-based funding reforms were created to achieve. That is the only way to ensure we provide equality of opportunity and reduce inequality, especially for those who face the greatest disadvantage, and that is precisely why this government is failing.

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