It’s time for the Victorian government through the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) to decide whether it wants to support the government senior secondary school model it has created. For many years the government has funded these schools in such a way that they are able to spend less per senior school student than every other school in the state. With a review of school funding underway now is the time to address this inequity.
Victoria has ten senior secondary schools. The first was created over 30 years ago and others have been created over time with the most recent being established within the last few years. The schools are either Year 10-12 or Year 11-12. All are comprehensive and inclusive providers, offering a wide range of VCE, VCAL and VET programs. In regional Victoria and in the west of Melbourne the provision model around these schools includes a series of Year 7-9 or 7-10 schools.
By virtue of their focus on the senior years of schooling all the senior secondary schools develop a range of expertise and programs designed to meet the needs of students as they approach the transition from school to higher education or the workforce. The schools engage in some sharing of practice including an annual forum which supports the exchange of ideas and practice between staff.
Government schools in Victoria are funded on a per student basis with certain loadings for small school size, rurality and disadvantage. The core fund-in rate per student is the same at all year levels. A decade ago there was an evidence based funding model which recognised that schools spent more on students in the final two years of schooling than at other year levels. The key reason for this is the provision of curriculum breadth and the maintenance of pathways in areas such as languages and technology even when student numbers decline in these areas. If a school offers German, for example, in Years 7-10 it can hardly withdraw this subject for the relatively small number of students who wish to continue with it in the VCE. Likewise for technology subjects where schools may start a Year 11 program and then lose students to apprenticeships.
The consequence of this is that class sizes tend to be smaller at Year 11 and 12 and therefore delivery at these year levels costs more. This is borne out each time the government commissions an evaluation of its funding model. Other costs vary between year levels – student management, wellbeing, careers counselling etc – but these tend to balance out. Senior school delivery is still more expensive. Principals make decisions within their budgets to meet this need. They effectively transfer funding from lower year levels to the senior years to cover their costs. The small number of senior secondary schools don’t have that option.
Here the government faces a dilemma. There is evidence to suggest that a greater investment in the lower school levels bears fruit in terms of results further up the school and that schools should plan accordingly. The unfortunate fact is that this flies in the face of what schools actually do. So the government has adopted an approach whereby it funds students in all year levels at the same rate and allows schools to decide how to spend that money. The evidence says they continue to spend more on the senior years. The last time I saw the data the loading of real spending to the senior years was around 3% (in previous evaluations it had been higher).
What does this mean in real terms? It means that if you are the parent of a student in a Victorian senior secondary school your child is receiving, in real terms, less funding than students in other schools. Now 3% may not sound like much. But for each student this means around $250 less funding (government schools receive a core fund in rate of around $7500 per student). So a school with a student population of 1000 students is missing around $250,000 per year. And this has been going on for many years.
As reviews of funding have been undertaken and new models developed there has been acknowledgement from other schools that this is demonstrably unfair. But the response of other principals can be summarised like this “I know this is unfair, but if we support you it means we’ll get less because there’s less to spread around”. The response of government is that we are often large schools, that we should be able to cope and that in any case schools should be spending their money more evenly across the year levels. So apparently not only is there additional funding for small schools but there’s a penalty for being a large senior secondary school.
It’s time to start dealing in reality. All schools spend more on their senior years than our schools do. Our students are clearly being disadvantaged. The funding model for Victorian government schools recognises the particular needs of students with disabilities, from refugee backgrounds, from low SES backgrounds, from rural schools and from small schools. As the funding model is reviewed in 2014 and as the distribution of Gonski funding is being contemplated it’s time to recognise the needs of students in the state’s senior secondary schools. The key principle underpinning Gonski is equity and here’s an opportunity to fix an equity problem of the state’s own making. I expect many senior secondary schools and their communities will be having conversations along these lines with their local politicians leading up to this year’s state election.
Categories: School Funding