Birmingham's funding claims just don't stack up

As students, teachers and school leaders return to school for 2017, the issue of school funding remains unresolved.

Unfortunately for the whole education community, the funding of schools in this country remains a contested space politically, and as a result progress has been difficult. The Turnbull government seems both unwilling and unable to accept the methodology of the Gonski needs-based funding model, which aims to deliver a guaranteed educational resource standard for all schools and additional needs-based resourcing based on the student population of each school.

But without bi-partisanship in the education policy space, our profession and the students we teach will continue to be disadvantaged by outdated, complex and most of all unfair and flawed funding arrangements across school systems, states, territories and the Commonwealth.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham recently commented that money is not the major driver of educational performance, particularly given that results in international tests (such as PISA and TIMSS) have slipped. Birmingham and others continue to run a line that it is teacher quality and school and principal autonomy that will drive improved student performance.

But as Alan Reid, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia, commented in an opinion piece published recently in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Treating the results of two international tests as an objective truth about the standard of education in a country is a dangerous path to follow. We surely need more sophisticated ways to measure educational standards than simply reading off international league tables.”

Professor Reid also outlined in detail a range of factors surrounding the conduct of international testing regimes and their narrow scope that should make any educator or policy maker doubt the claim that our performance in these tests represents some sort of crisis.

When it comes to Birmingham’s claims that international test results prove increased funding doesn’t work, educators know that this simply doesn’t stack up. Quality teaching and professional autonomy are important, but they do not outweigh the impact that providing resources to schools on a needs-basis can have on outcomes for students. This should not be an either/or equation. Without adequate resources delivered on a needs basis, we as a nation will continue to see the giant chasm between the most disadvantaged students and their peers widen, both here and internationally. The economic consequences of such an outcome could be catastrophic.

Let’s also look at the facts around funding. Overinflated claims by the Minister suggest that funding has increased by 50 per cent since 2013, while our international tests scores have declined over the same period. But Trevor Cobbold, in his paper “Birmingham is Wrong Again on School Funding and Outcomes” published by Save Our Schools in January, notes: “The actual increase in total government funding (from Commonwealth and state/territory sources) per student, adjusted for inflation, for the nine years from 2004-05 to 2013-14 was only 4.5 per cent, some eleven times less than the Minister’s claim. This increase amounts to an increase of only 0.5 per cent per year. The increase in dollar terms was a mere $472 per student for the whole period, or a miniscule $52 a year. Not surprisingly, this has had little impact on school outcomes.”

We need our politicians to view education funding as an investment and not something that can be cut or dished out in one-off programs for political advantage. School leaders and teachers don’t head to school each day wanting their work or the outcomes for their students to be mediocre. They want the best outcomes for every child, no matter what their background or family circumstances. As a nation, we need the final elements of the Gonski funding model - the future prosperity of our nation depends upon it.

Brendan Crotty                                                                                                               Deputy General Secretary (Member Organising)

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 1, 10 February 2017, p13