A couple of weeks ago I wrote that school education was taking a back seat in the election campaign. With just a few days to go not much has changed: the various protagonists are making more noise, while managing to avoid the mounting wicked problems that beset school education. The coalition has stuck to business as usual without really understanding what the business is delivering; Labor knows more, but its otherwise courageous policy development has not touched education.
So what we are left with is furious agreement about not much at all and to little effect. Everyone believes in needs-based school funding, but it isn’t happening. Federal Minister Dan Teehan wants to lean on the states to provide more, as does Tanya Plibersek. As the Mitchell Institute’s Kate Noble illustrates, both major parties want a national evidence institute, whatever they envisage it to be. In a stunning initiative to achieve a major breakthrough, Dan Teehan also wants to, wait for it, ban mobile phones in schools. Mercifully we have been spared a matching initiative from Labor.
What it really means is that in education we now rely on the policy work being done in various think tanks and peak groups. Well before the election the Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss outlined the priorities that should be addressed in school funding. The school resourcing standard won’t be equitably funded under current arrangements. Tanya Plibersek will take a second look at some recent special deals for private schools and has pledged to restore public school funding – but it won’t amount to much unless she does the hard work on the structural issues.
It is readily apparent that the unresolved issues, such as those highlighted in The Guardian, won’t go away – confirmed by the front page treatment of school funding issues in the Sydney Morning Herald three days out from the election. As Bernie Shepherd and I revealed years ago, the rate of funding increases for private schools continue to far outstrip those for government schools.
As the SMH reported, public school funding grew by just $155 a student over the [last] decade after accounting for student numbers and teacher wage growth, while private school students each received $1429. As Grattan’s Peter Goss puts it:
“This whole time we’ve been talking about needs-based funding, we have been heading in the wrong direction … we have failed to live up to what we have promised ourselves. It’s occurred under both Coalition and Labor federal governments.
Both indeed! And both might be able to avoid this particular elephant charging into the room at this penultimate hour. They have turned such avoidance into an art form.
Can this go on forever? In the midst of the election campaign I’ve been crunching the data just released on the My School website – or maybe I’m doing all this to avoid the election. The ten consistent and concerning trends I wrote about two weeks ago have continued, unchanged, for yet another year. Ten years of data now show what is fundamentally wrong with our framework of schools.
In a couple of days we’ll no longer have to endure this election. But we’ll likely have to endure another ten years of regression and inequity in school education. In this policy area the outcome of the current election night may not matter all that much.
Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.