When it comes to Education Commentary, let the Reader Beware

By Michelle Green, Chief Executive, Independent Schools Victoria

The phrase caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – applies to commercial transactions. It tells the buyer to know what they’re getting before they part with their money. A variation of the principle applies to consumers of information. Hence the phrase ‘you can’t believe everything you read in the papers’. There’s another principle that sceptical readers might also want to apply – ‘check the source’.

So when a respected economics commentator, Peter Martin in The Age, argues that government education funding is unfairly weighted to non-government schools, a reader might reasonably ask: where did you get the data you’ve based your argument on?

In this case, the argument was partly based on data from the My School website. The data is used to point out that four Victorian Catholic schools receive more government funding than four government schools that are said to be comparable.

I make no comment on the circumstances of the individual schools the article cites. And I stress that he’s referring to Catholic schools, not Independent schools.

What I will say, however, is that the data might not give a full account of any individual school’s particular needs. The assumption that the schools cited are ‘roughly the same’ does not necessarily hold.

There is a range of loadings within the Victorian and Australian funding models for different types of need, so you can’t simply assume that two schools in the same area have the same level of need. There’s the number of students with disability, for example.

You also have to take into account the fact that the funding models for government and Catholic schools re-distribute funding between schools according to two additional, different methods. This further dilutes the idea that the schools being compared are ‘roughly the same’.

This does not mean that I question the validity of the My School data. What it means is that the data has limitations, which call for caution in drawing comparisons between one school and another, let alone between one education sector and another.

What readers should be told and a media commentator should know is that My School has a significant caveat on its data, one that’s openly available on its website.

It says: ‘The financial resources available to schools are directly influenced by the characteristics of the school (such as its location and student profile), its programs and operations. Caution should be taken in using this information to make direct funding comparisons between schools.’

In other words, let the reader – and the media commentator – beware.

There’s another and perhaps more significant problem with the argument put forward when this sort of commentary strays from analysis into opinion.

In making projections about future school funding levels, this commentary assumes that historic and even current patterns of funding will continue.

The fact is that in 2014 the Australian Government changed the way it funds schools.

The transition arrangements under the ‘Gonski’ model mean that changes take time to flow through to individual sectors and individual schools. These changes mean that all schools will benefit from increases in funding over time, particularly government schools.

Federal and state government funding arrangements for all schools – government, Independent and Catholic – are overly complex, and lack the consistency and commitment that schools need for long-term planning. Just ask any principal or school administrator in any sector of our school education system.

But simplistic responses that ascribe problems with the system to a binary argument between the government and non-government sectors are not solutions.

In this case, there’s something not quite right with media commentary that refers to students in government schools as the ‘government’s own students’.

All students, regardless of school, deserve government funding that meets their needs.