Spend more wisely on education

27 May 2016

I’ve lost count of how often I’ve heard arguments about how much funding schools and education systems need.  There are claims of government schools being underfunded, of non-government schools getting more government funding than they need or deserve, of government schools getting more government funding overall than non-government schools, and so on.  Trying to explain how it all works is confusing.

Over recent years, many people have narrowed the education debate down to a funding review by a bloke named David Gonski.  He proposed funding arrangements for schools in some manner different from how they’ve been funded over time.  From this comes the assertion on whether or not you “give a Gonski”.

There have been arguments that you don’t “give a Gonski” if you question or doubt the need for spending on schools, as per the Gonski arrangements.  This has been used, often hysterically, to silence critics.

But I find the argument about whether or not you “give a Gonski” to be dishonest.  We seem to throw billions of dollars at education and schools every year, yet children seem to be increasingly finishing their schooling with poor literacy and numeracy.  Clearly this funding isn’t doing as good as job as it’s purported to be doing, and this needs to change, especially with the Australian economy deeply in deficit and savings needing to be made in government spending.

We’ve got to make better use of existing spending.  And regardless of whether government schools are well-funded or not, there are plenty of them making good use of their resources and attracting parents to them.  We need to understand why these public schools are getting good results, to the point where parents really want to send their kids to them.

Over the past year I’ve seen stories of comprehensive public schools right across the Sydney region causing property prices to rise in their surrounds.  There’s some sort of requirement that parents have to live within a certain distance of a public school – known as a catchment area – if they want to send their kids to it.  As such, the prices of homes around these schools have been rising quickly, because people have been buying homes in the catchment areas of these schools in order to be allowed to send their kids to them.

I’ve also read of parents queuing up to get their kids into at least one public high school in Sydney’s south-west, where much social disadvantage exists.  The school reportedly was once struggling due to truancy and local crime.  But despite being the same school, something of note happened there some time ago, and it’s now attracting parents, even to the point where they’re turning down rare offers of places for their kids in selective schools.  There’s huge demand for selective schools, and kids need to sit tests to be eligible for places in them.  Yet this comprehensive public school is proving more attractive to parents than selective schools.

When you consider that government schools are perceived as having less flexibility and freedom than non-government schools, in terms of how kids are educated and how they learn, it seems hard to imagine government schools actually proving more attractive to parents and their kids than non-government schools.  Yet Sydney has comprehensive public schools driving up property prices, and proving more attractive than selective schools.  I dare say that other major cities across Australia have similar situations with public schools, and if you look closely you’ll find many public schools with waiting lists.

We need to understand how these public schools are managing to attract parents and kids more successfully than others.  Are they getting good results in terms of education and learning because of their teachers or principals, or their facilities?  Could their achievements be emulated elsewhere?  Could other public schools be as successful with perhaps a one-off investment in something?

At the moment, Australia needs to reduce public spending, and the Gonski stuff seems to be used to justify simply throwing more money at schools, without much attention paid to what the money goes into.  Can this be changed?

We need to spend more wisely on education, rather than just spend more.  Smarter spending could deliver savings, without resorting to expenditure cuts or costly rises.

 

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