David Collis on building equity among Australian schools

November 2012, no. 346

David Collis on building equity among Australian schools

November 2012, no. 346
I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought ‘that’s not fair’ … I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think ‘that’s a great example’.
Julia Gillard

If Julia Gillard were to drive past the main campus of the Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC), a big independent school in the inner-eastern Melbourne suburb of Kew, she would undoubtedly remark that MLC is a ‘great example’ of educational excellence. Despite recent controversies, the school still has top-class facilities, quality teachers, and high-performing students, many of whom will move into influential positions within society.

If I were sitting alongside Julia Gillard, I would challenge her recent description of wealthy private schools as ‘great examples’. MLC’s opulence represents the extremes of wealth and power that are straining our schooling system. Year 12 students at MLC pay top fees of $23,490, which is out of the range of most parents. Its former principal Rosa Storelli was paid more than half a million dollars per annum, which is more than the prime minister’s salary; and Storelli’s personal assistant was paid $115,000 per year, which is more than many government school principals receive. It is a remarkable thing for a Labor prime minister uncritically to affirm such inequity within the schooling system.

MLC’s student profile data shows that the school’s success comes at a cost to broader society: namely, the loss of diversity and literal disintegration of society as strong students are drawn away from the rest of the population. The following table from the federal government’s My School website shows the background of MLC students in terms of their rating on the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA).

Bottom quarter

Middle quarters

Top quarter





These figures show a staggering degree of cherry-picking: ninety-eight out of every hundred MLC students come from backgrounds constituting the top half of educational advantage, and almost four out of every five students are taken from the top quarter of the ICSEA scale. Student profiles like this are common among élite private schools.

By contrast, government schools, which, unlike private schools, are obliged to take all students, take the overwhelming majority of students from socio-economically and academically disadvantaged backgrounds. Government schools educate a total sixty-six per cent of the general population; and yet they educate eighty-five per cent of Indigenous students, seventy-eight per cent of students with a disability, eighty-three per cent of students in remote areas, and seventy-nine per cent of students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. Put simply: government schools do the heavy lifting in Australia.

Government schools also provide the highest-quality education, something that may appear counter-intuitive among the noisy claims of NAPLAN test scores. As the Nous Group, an educational research unit based at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, puts it: ‘Once we take account of the student quality and the other resources of the school, government schools do as well or better than private schools.’ Government and other low-fee schools prove their quality by working with a diversity of students, a challenge that élite private schools tend to avoid.

If the Prime Minister is looking for great examples, then perhaps she could also remark that Australia’s government schools are the ‘truly great example’ of Australian schooling.

Equity matters

The best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students.
Programme for International Student Assessment Report, 2009

Equity is at the heart of the world’s most successful schooling systems. The most recent report of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the most comprehensive international education statistics available, shows that effective school systems, such as those in Finland, Canada, and Hong Kong, almost all have relatively equitable student profiles. With rising gaps in schooling resources, Australia is the one exception; not surprisingly, our overall performance is declining.

‘MLC’s opulence represents the extremes of wealth and power that are straining our schooling system’

The reason why equity leads to high performance can be understood in terms of good investment strategies. Money invested in areas of high need tends to reap a good return in terms of lifting student performance; this is the low-hanging fruit of an education system. By contrast, investment in already well-resourced schools makes less of a difference, in accordance with the ‘law of diminishing marginal returns’, where the fruit is higher in the tree.

This makes intuitive sense: a million dollars spent on Greensborough Secondary College, a Melbourne government school that recently changed its school uniform policy to allow students to bring rugs to school in order to keep warm, will make a huge difference. It will allow the school to fix its heating system, so that students can concentrate in winter. The same million dollars spent on a school such as MLC is unlikely to make a big difference, because the school already has adequate facilities. Needs-based spending is the most rational educational investment.

This poses an inconvenient truth for Australian policy-makers. Public money spent on overfunded schools is a poor investment; it is less effective than spending the same money in areas of greater educational need. Put differently: the most efficient way for Australia to lift its educational performance is to do what other successful countries do – target funding towards schools that work with the most disadvantaged students.

This inconvenient truth has a hard time finding acceptance within Australia’s reactive and divisive education debate. Any suggestion of funding redistribution from overfunded to underfunded schools is generally dismissed in persecutory terms as an attack. Yet policies that build equity in schools are the best policies for the well-being of students.

Asking Peter to share with Paul

In pursuit of this fairness and equity, [we] may need to take a little away from Peter to pay Paul.’
Susan Ryan

Australia’s volatile recent history of schooling reform has left multiple political leaders bruised by the roadside. In 1984 Susan Ryan, the education minister in the Hawke government, attempted to redistribute funding from forty-one of the wealthiest private schools in order to spend it in under-resourced schools. In her words, she attempted to ‘take a little away from Peter to pay Paul’. Ryan was unprepared for the ferocity of the response: ‘well-heeled parents … hissed, booed, spat, and generally expressed their criticism of our policies.’ Prime Minister Bob Hawke stepped in, distanced himself from the proposed policy, and smoothed over relations with the Catholic Church leadership. But the legacy remained; the Ryan ‘schools hit list’ entered the parlance as a spectre to haunt later attempts at reform.

Twenty years later, in 2004, Mark Latham, the Labor leader, made a similar attempt to redistribute education funds, this time away from sixty-seven of the wealthiest private schools. Catholic Archbishop George Pell led the charge against the policy, and talkback radio was flooded with accusations of another ‘schools hit list’. Latham’s aggression helped his opponents to frame this debate; this was not simply an education reform, it was an attack on schools by a guy who had once broken a taxi driver’s arm.

The noise and colour of the 2004 election led most people to overlook one crucial fact: Latham’s policy to redistribute money from wealthy to underfunded schools was very popular. Newspoll surveys found that support for the redistribution had risen from fifty-five per cent in late 2003 to sixty-six per cent a few weeks after the November 2004 election. In spite of Latham’s unpopularity, the policy enjoyed growing support.

Today’s political leaders have internalised an unfortunate message: never risk asking Peter to share with Paul. Nonetheless, this policy is exactly what the majority of the population wants to see implemented.

Gonski’s equitable needs-based funding model

The panel has defined equity in schooling as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions … [D]emography must not equal destiny.
Gonski Review

The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling is the finest work of federal education policy ever penned in this country. Its recommendations for schools funding are truly radical in the scope of what they aim to achieve – a universally well-resourced schooling system. If implemented, the Gonski recommendations will ensure that every student in Australia has access to high-quality schooling.

At the heart of the Gonski funding model is the idea of a ‘Schooling Resource Standard’ (SRS). This is an empirically based estimate of per student funding required to educate students successfully. It takes into account the extra costs that schools face to educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The SRS therefore has a base ‘per student’ amount, plus ‘loadings’ for disadvantage.

‘Government schools do the heavy lifting within Australia’

Gonski estimates the base per student amount to be around $8000 for every child in primary school, and $10,500 for every student in secondary school. The loadings factor applies to five areas of social disadvantage – low socio-economic background, indigeneity, poor English language proficiency, disability, and the size and location of the school. The SRS formula – base amount plus loadings – is a common-sense way of overcoming disadvantage to ensure that all students have an equal chance of success.

Gonski’s needs-based funding model represents an artful integration of the viewpoints of the two major poles of Australian politics with the principle of equity. To those on the right of politics, the idea of base per student payments affirms equity in the liberal sense of schooling choice. To those on the left, the loadings promote equity by addressing the structural features of social disadvantage. By defining equity in terms of student outcomes, Gonski develops, perhaps for the first time, a definition of equity that is inclusive of viewpoints across the political spectrum.

In keeping with this inclusive approach, Gonski also affirms from the outset the claims of the various schooling sectors. Within the Gonski model, all private schools have an in-principle right to funding, formally closing the ‘state aid to schools’ debate. Within the same model, all public schools are entitled to a level of resourcing that will allow them to address disadvantage and end the neglect of government schools.

In the bigger historical picture, the Gonski funding model can be seen as a grand gesture of political conciliation by bringing all sectors within a common funding system. Just as the universal healthcare system, represented by Medicare, was heartily embraced by the Australian population, so the universal schools funding system that Gonski proposes could be a ‘Medicare moment’ within education – a policy that changes political orthodoxies and reaffirms equity as a core Australian value.

The will to equity

It is real time for leadership … It’s not a time for old divisions to come out. It’s not a time for people to play politics. It’s a time for unity in terms of the future of education for all our kids. And Gonski has gone a long way to overcoming a lot of those issues from the past.
Tony Windsor

The path to schooling equity in Australia runs via Gonski. Although political compromise may be necessary to secure its passage through parliament, Gonski’s model is the most feasible way to place equity as the central principle of schools funding.

Within the federal parliament, the ALP government, the Greens Party, and key crossbenchers in the House of Representatives – Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, and Adam Bandt – have voiced support for the Gonski reforms. These numbers will be sufficient to pass the bill, and the federal government has pledged to legislate a new schools funding model by the end of this year.

There are spot fires of resistance to the Gonski reforms from within the private school system. Cardinal Pell has described the Gonski model as ‘a dud’; despite this, many Catholics see it as an opportunity to secure funding for low-fee Catholic schools, the majority of whom will be better off under Gonski’s SRS funding model. Some independent schools have also described Gonski’s reforms as another ‘schools hit list’, but this opposition is not unanimous.

‘The path to schooling equity in Australia runs via Gonski’

As in Latham’s time, a clear majority of the public supports equitable school funding reform. An Essential poll from July this year showed that sixty-eight per cent of people are in favour of implementing the Gonski funding model, with only thirteen per cent opposed. When asked about the priority for education reform among competing priorities, sixty-one per cent of Australians believe that it is more important to implement the Gonski reforms than to achieve a budget surplus, with twenty-four per cent opposed. ‘Legislate the Gonski funding model now’ is the popular will.

This support for the Gonski reforms is rooted in an enduring belief in educational equity. A recent Auspoll survey found that forty-six per cent of respondents believe that private schools receive too much funding, while only eleven per cent believe they receive too little. In terms of funding priorities, sixty-three per cent said the largest increase should go to public schools; while only two per cent said the largest increase should go to private schools.

With clear public support, all that remains is the question of political will. The current debate gives us an opportunity to recalibrate our national values. All we need now is for political leadership to confidently apply the ‘E’ word – equity – to the Australian educational system; to implement the Gonski reforms, and to set Australia on the path again to being the land of the fair go.

All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Melbourne or of Trinity College.


Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Review of Funding for Schooling Paper on Commissioned Research and Research Reports (August 2011)
The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling (Final Report, December 2011)
'The corporate clique ruling Australia’s private schools', Andrew Crook, Crikey, 5 September 2012
'Famous alumni on Latham’s hit list', Crikey, 30 March 2005

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