Opinion: Victorian government schools short changed on funds

by Henry Grossek05 Jul 2016

The Age newspaper is on the money, with its recent reporting on the financial plight facing an increasing number of Victorian government schools.

With banner headlines such as ‘Schools battling to balance books’ (11/06), ‘Broke schools forced to hire out teachers’ (17/06), and most recently, ‘Schools cutting classes, breaking rules for money’ (21/6), The Age is confirming what everyone in our government system knows – our school funding model is bankrupt!
Disturbingly, that’s only the half of it.

That Victoria remains at the bottom of the table for per capita spending per student in our government schools in Australia, itself is a disgrace – all the more so when the state government proudly trumpets Victoria as being the Education State.

The parlous financial state in which our state schools increasingly find themselves has its roots in the Schools of the Future program, brought in by the Kennett state government in the early 1990s. Under the banner of autonomy, school principals were given more power over the expenditure side of their budgets and in the selection of staff and leadership positions. Before he could go any further, the Victorian electorate threw Kennett out. The incoming Bracks government chose to do what Kennett did not have time to do – transfer the actual cost of staff directly to school principals.

From the early 2000s the actual cost of all school staff has been born by schools in their annual budgets. The impact has been profound when coupled with rising costs not met by commensurate increases in schools annual budgets provided by the Victorian Department of Education (DET).

One of the cruellest examples of rising costs to schools has been the incremental and significant increase over years of meeting the educational needs of children with a range of learning disabilities. Not only has the administrative paperwork grown exponentially, but most importantly, the bar to qualification by schools for additional government funding to meet the needs of these children has risen significantly over the years.

Frustration and despair is rampant in many of our schools and it is little wonder that we read headlines as those cited. Good people are being driven to desperate measures and we shouldn’t be surprised to hear of alarming statistics regarding the health of our teachers and principals.

School maintenance is an ever increasing challenge for every school with every passing year. Again, increases by the (DET) to school budgets to offset rising maintenance costs are in the main, hopelessly inadequate. Schools generally have to be in a critical financial state in the first place to qualify for extra funds for school maintenance.

The digital age has brought with it exciting changes to the way we teach and that’s great. The sting, sadly, comes with the all too early obsolescence of digital devices and the spiralling technical costs. Schools are simply not provided with anywhere near enough funds to adequately meet the challenges of the digital age in education.

The single most powerful way to ‘create’ more cash for a school is to employ graduate teachers. Principals can save approximately $25,000 per teacher on their budget by employing graduate teachers rather than experienced teachers.  Employ the maximum allowable of four graduates per year and there’s an extra $100,000 in the school coffers.

It’s as simple and tempting as that for cash strapped schools. Of course that only works for so long as you have vacancies to fill. For those schools in which  enrolments are stable or dropping and have a highly experienced team of teachers in ongoing employment, their only realistic option is to go into deficit, sack teachers if they can’t find employment elsewhere within a year, cut programs, cannibalise leadership positions or engage in the strategies revealed by The Age.

The consequences speak for themselves and they paint an ugly picture. We now have a profession like no other. Experience increasingly counts against teachers, not for them. After as little as ten years employment teachers can almost kiss goodbye their chances of transferring to another school. They cost too much for schools at financial breaking point. Then we have Leading Teacher positions, the only true merit based promotion positions in Teacher Class. These are being sacrificed by principals in the search for desperately needed funds. It could be argued that not only is our school funding model broken, but so too is the career structure for our teaching staff.

Disturbingly, the temptation to use long overdue Gonski money to plug holes caused by the hopelessly flawed and inadequate funding model for our state schools, rather than being directed to the equity needs of students for which it is intended, will prove increasingly irresistible to schools in such financial stress. Worse still, that will only temporarily camouflage the dire straits in which an increasing number of Victorian state schools are finding themselves. How so? Enshrined in the Gonski funding model is the concept of loadings for low socioeconomic; disabled; indigenous; those who don’t have English as their first language and those who live in remote areas covered what we saw as the areas of need and where we believed improvement could be made if money was available.

Gonski funds were never intended to patch over the problems caused by the broken and skin flint Victorian state schools funding model. It’s then a moot point as to how much of the Gonski money will end up being specifically directed at these needs in Victorian government schools.

Little wonder then that many principals are in a state of utter despair upon hearing the advice concerned parents may receive from the DET if they complain, that they should go and speak with their principal who is in charge of the budget.
 

Henry Grossek is the principal of Berwick Lodge Primary School.