A Better Education System for All

It’s easy to use statistics to score points in the debate over school funding. It’s much harder to have a considered discussion about improving the education system, says Mr Simon Gipson, Head of St Michael’s Grammar School.

Last year, I picked up a copy of A Short History of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream. It’s an anthology of essays by Bernard Keane and Helen Razer that critiques the deteriorating quality of public debate and the dwindling common sense in media, politics and culture.

One of the essays by Keane, entitled ‘Political arithmetic, or, slack hacks lack facts when flacks stack the stats’, focuses on the use and abuse of scientific and mathematical evidence to mislead and misinform public debate.

As Keane argues, the origins of statistics and their use to justify arguments and causes goes back 300 years, and their provenance and accuracy have been disputed almost from their inception. It is worth noting that the original name for statistics was ‘political arithmetic’. Hence, statistics were always about power and politics. According to Keane, the term ‘statistics’ did not catch on until an enterprising Scotsman, John Sinclair, described ‘“political arithmetic” using a German term for qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) descriptions of the characteristics of states’; that is, ‘state-istics’.

I recalled Keane’s essay in the light of The Age’s front page story, ‘Rich schools get richer, poor schools get poorer’ on 15 February 2016. The article polemically describes the conclusions of a report by the lobby group Save Our Schools (SOS) that purported to show that funding increases from 2009-2013 to non-government schools far outstripped those to government schools.

A fundamental flaw in the SOS document in that it is based on problematic and disingenuous methodology, in particular its crude use of percentage increases in government funding. These percentages are then employed to suggest government funding favours non-government schools over disadvantaged government schools.

A few points in response:

  • The government schools mentioned in the SOS report unequivocally receive substantially more government funding per student than non-government schools.
  • All of the ‘elite’ non-government schools mentioned in the report are among the lowest government-funded schools in Victoria.
  • Mathematically, it is much easier to generate a larger percentage growth rate from a lower base.
  • Quite often the lower percentage growth in the funding for the government schools is associated with a higher absolute increase in funding over the same period.
  • For instance, a 16 per cent funding increase to a selected government school is $1554 per student, while a 38 per cent increase to a selected Independent school is $938 per student.

The funding allocated to government and non-government schools measures the needs of the school population. So, the percentage change in a school’s funding is a function of the change in the relative need of the school population between the start and the end of the measurement period.

In the SOS analysis, the reference to ‘elite’ and ‘disadvantaged’ schools pretends these concepts remain static. Yet a non-government school might be enrolling more educationally disadvantaged students compared to previous years, and/or a government school might be enrolling fewer disadvantaged students.

It is worth noting, too, that the SOS report contains a crucial caveat buried on page 7:

This is not to say that all disadvantaged public schools in Victoria and NSW received smaller funding increases than elite private schools. Funding increases for many disadvantaged schools have matched those for the selected elite private schools and, in many cases, have exceeded them. On the other hand, many elite schools have received smaller increases than their counterparts selected here. 

Any assessment of the SOS report needs to take this caveat into account.

All Australian schools in all sectors deserve adequate funding, for the good of our children and advancement of society. Discussion about school funding is not helped by the simplistic exploitation of statistics (political arithmetic) to make ideological points.

Without question, Independent schools receive substantially less government funding than government schools. Nationally, in 2013-14, Independent schools received, on average, an estimated $8,121 per student in total government funding compared to $16,177 for a student in a government school. The most recent Productivity Commission data shows that in 2013-2014, the Australian and Victorian governments provided combined funding of $7.8 billion to Victorian government schools, compared to an estimated $900 million to Victorian Independent schools (and $1.9 billion to Victorian Catholic schools).

In 2012, Victorian Independent schools received, on average, 33.8 per cent of their income from the Victorian and Australian governments – the rest was provided by parents. In 2015, my school, St Michael’s Grammar School, received 12.8 per cent of its income from Victorian and Australian governments.

In the face of The Age’s article, it is worth reflecting on the case being heard in the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) focusing on the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training and the botched IT network Ultranet. The cost of this project was estimated to be $240 million. There are a number of other cases of misappropriated, misdirected or squandered funds that have already been heard by IBAC.

While The Age broke the story originally and has continued to report prominently on IBAC, there has been limited discussion on the potential financial impact on government schools, or on the opportunity costs of their decisions on schools across all sectors.

According to The Age, last year’s State budget allocated $325 million to upgrade and renovate more than 60 schools and $111 million for 10 new schools. The estimated $240 million spent on Ultranet would have paid for nearly 22 new schools, or two thirds of the budget to upgrade and renovate more than 60 schools. And $240 million would also provide St Michael’s Grammar School with its Victorian Government recurrent funding for 240 years.

In short, the cost of decisions made within the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training on this one matter alone has potentially had significant material impact on the financial capacity of the government to adequately provide for all sectors of education.

But, of course, it is much easier to employ political arithmetic to pursue an ideological issue and perpetuate old myths on funding that pit government against non-government schools. It is far harder to pursue a more balanced view and argue for a better education system for all that will genuinely prepare young people for their futures in the 21st century.

Photo: Courtesy of St Michael’s Grammar School