Build new public schools?
That's a capital idea

Maurie Mulheron

The overwhelming evidence provided to the Gonski Review showed that it is public education that has been seriously under-funded for decades even though our system enrols those students with the greatest need. By now we are all aware of the recurrent funding model that was devised to address this growing educational inequality.

The profile of enrolments shows government schools are doing the heavy lifting. The evidence from the My School website is that the non-government sector, including Catholic systemic schools, is not enrolling students with greater needs in anywhere near the numbers that public schools do. Q1 and Q2 are the lowest SES quartiles. The “Q” figures were national but the NSW story is virtually the same.

  • In 2012, total recurrent income per student for government school students stood at: $12,190.24 to teach 82 per cent of Q1 and 68 per cent of Q2 students.
  • In 2012, total recurrent income per student for Catholic school students stood at: $119,60.21 to teach 12 per cent of Q1 and 21 per cent of Q2 students.
  • In 2012, total recurrent income per student for independent school students stood at: $18,784.33 to teach 6 per cent of Q1 and 11 per cent of Q2 students.

Eighty two per cent, 12 per cent and 6 per cent. Remember those figures next time someone wants to argue that the local Catholic or Anglican school also enrols “poor children”. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of low SES Catholic children are enrolled in public schools.

However, one area that was not addressed in any detail by the Gonski Review panel, as it was effectively outside the terms of reference, was the issue of capital: the buildings, the bricks and mortar. It did, however, recognise that the issue of capital funding of public schools was unfinished business.

So, what exactly did the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling say about capital funding for schools?

  • “Many schools, particularly those in the government sector, are suffering from a lack of capital investment.”
  • “The My School website has provided, for the first time, information on capital expenditure in schools. These data confirm community opinion that there is an uneven investment in capital and infrastructure in schools, and that this is particularly apparent when the total capital expenditure of the three schooling sectors is compared. It is also clear that, on average, the facilities and infrastructure within some government schools are not of a comparable standard, and this is impacting on the attitudes and morale of students and staff, as well as on school enrolments.”
  • Recommendation 31: “The Australian Government should provide an additional amount of funding to support major works and infrastructure in existing government schools in each state and territory.”
  • “The panel is convinced that government schools need additional funding, and better planning to bring their infrastructure up to a quality that at the very least enables them to effectively compete with some non-government schools. Rather than short-term initiatives, the Australian Government can best support this by extending the Capital Grants Program to the government sector. This should be accompanied by at least maintenance of current effort by state and territory governments.”
  • “It is the panel’s view that the funding amount currently provided to non-government schools under the Capital Grants Program is appropriate and should be retained. Over and above this, the panel considers that the Australian Government should provide an additional amount of funding for government schools at a level equivalent to that provided to the non-government sector, adjusted to account for the larger enrolment share in the government sector. The provision of funding from the Australian Government should be conditional on maintenance of at least existing levels of state and territory government capital expenditure.”
  • 2009 figures: “Even with additional government funding from the Building the Education Revolution National Partnership, only 49 per cent of the total expenditure on school infrastructure was in government schools, a far lower percentage than the government sector’s enrolment share of 66 per cent.”

At the state level there has been a serious under-investment in capital works programs to such an extent that a NSW Auditor-General’s recent Report to Parliament (Volume Thirteen 2014) warned, “The Department has an estimated maintenance backlog of $548 million. The Department should work with NSW Treasury to establish an appropriate response to backlog maintenance.”

A report by Infrastructure NSW, First things first: The State Infrastructure Strategy 2012–2032, highlighted the crisis in public school accommodation with many areas of the state already suffering from a lack of public schools.

Trevor Cobbold, convenor of Save Our Schools, has gathered data on capital funding from the My School website. What he reveals is that, “capital expenditure per student in NSW private schools is much higher than in government schools.

“In 2012 (the latest year for which data is available), capital expenditure per student in Independent schools was three times higher than in government schools — $2390 per student compared to $748 per student in government schools. Capital expenditure in Catholic schools was 35 per cent higher than in government schools — $1007 per student compared to $748 per student.”

While it has been important to campaign for additional recurrent funding so as to develop the teaching resources needed to improve the learning outcomes of our students, the next battleground will be to secure a massive increase in capital works funding in order to build new public schools and to refurbish the existing ones.