Two former school principals Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd have said private schools are rapidly becoming public schools, based on the amount of public funding they receive.
Bonnor and Shepherd, authors of a school funding analysis Uneven Playing Field – the state of Australia’s schools, said the argument that subsidising private schools to save public funds was questionable.
Writing in Guardian Australia, Bonnor and Shepherd have said that for all but the wealthiest schools, fees are now the “icing on the cake”.
“The public funding of private schools has risen to the level where the running costs of most private schools are now substantially met by combined state and federal funding,” Bonnor and Shepherd write.
“If a private school is defined by who pays, then they are rapidly becoming public. They still collect fees, a hangover from when they needed the money to match the investment in public schools.
“But for all but the wealthiest schools the fee income seems to be icing on the cake. When we realise that schools enrolling similar students churn out similar results, it becomes harder to justify the icing – especially when governments are such big partners.”
The federal government has yet to reveal a school funding plan for what was to have been years five and six of Gonski funding plan, after Tony Abbott broke a promise to fund schools at the same level as Labor.
The education minister, Simon Birmingham, has committed to have a school funding plan ready for the April Council of Australian Governments (Coag) meeting.
While Birmingham has committed the government to the concept of needs-based funding at the heart of the Gonski reforms, he has also said that more funding would not solve the decline in educational standards in Australian schools.
On Sunday the minister announced a panel of principals, teachers, speech specialists, academics and researchers to implement the year 1 national phonics and numeracy checks – announced before the last election.
The panel will advise the Coalition on a pilot assessment and determine the frequency, timing and core skills to be tested.
“This panel will also consider existing examples from Australia and overseas, such as the year 1 phonics check used in England that involves children verbally identifying letters and sounds in both real words and made up words to show a child’s understanding of how language works,” Birmingham said.
Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, said the new phonics testing would not make up for the cuts to the Gonski progam.
“The simple fact is that the Liberals are saying they want a new test to identify kids who are falling behind, but they don’t want to properly fund the one-on-one teaching that would help those kids catch up,” Plibersek said.
The president of the Australian Education Union, Correna Haythorpe, said the minister’s announcement was a distraction from the real issue of the funding agreement, which needed to be completed in the first half of the year.
Australian schools require the funding to be finalised for the 2018 school year.
Haythorpe said the Coalition’s announcement suggested schools were not already identifying phonics gaps, nor teaching phonics.
“Phonics are already amongst a range of programs used by teachers,” Haythorpe said. “We must remember children have individual learning needs and for the minister to re-announce plans to test six-year-olds in absence of committing to fund schools is walking away from the fundamental issue.”
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The Queensland education minister, Kate Jones, said the lack of details about the year 1 test was troubling.
“All Simon Birmingham had to do is do his homework and he would know that phonics is part of the Australian curriculum,” Jones said.
“[Phonics] is being taught in our schools and I’m confident that our teachers are doing it well.”
One of the biggest critics of the federal Coalition’s reversal on Gonski schools funding, Adrian Piccoli, was dumped as education minister in the NSW premier Glady Berejiklian’s cabinet reshuffle on Sunday.
Piccoli drew widespread praise for his six years as minister after the reshuffle.