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A Balancing Act

In the last week of this school term Victorian public schools will receive their 2016 budgets. Before then it appears the government may announce key initiatives to be funded over and above an expected increase in school budgets.

There have been a number of parallel consultations going on. The education community has been engaged in a wide ranging series of consultations about how to make Victoria the Education State. Simultaneously Steve Bracks has headed a review into the Student Resource Package (SR) which is the mechanism used to deliver funding to schools. There will have been advice coming from within the education department itself about both these matters and of course the government will have its own ideas.

The school budget issue is potentially a tricky one for government. By highlighting the previous government’s failure to pass on ‘Gonski’ funding to schools and making a commitment to increase recurrent funding for at least the next two years the government has created a sense of expectation in schools that may not measure up to the actual increase in funding that is delivered. It’s been a smart move to carry out the Bracks review; at the very least government can claim independent advice has been used to inform its decisions.

The challenge for the Bracks review and for government is how widely to spread the available additional funding. What balance can be struck between increasing the base level of funding for all schools and targeting more equity funding at high needs students and schools? Should the focus be on supporting high level needs in some schools or supporting all schools to do more? Is the quantum of funding available sufficient to keep everyone happy? Should all the additional funding be directed into school budgets or should some be used for statewide initiatives?

On the latter question it’s likely some additional funding will be directed into the bureaucracy to ramp up the level of support available to schools through regional offices. This makes good sense provided that schools see the value of this compared to what happens to their own budgets. Again, it’s a balancing act for government.

It’s also possible the government may make announcements of statewide initiatives. The best indication of where these may lie is in the literature distributed by government to support the Education State consultations. We may see initiatives focused on things such as regional completion rates, Maths and Science, scaling up of local programs of excellence, middle years engagement, specialisation and alternative settings. Again there is a balance to be found between top down initiatives and those that come from the bottom up based on what is currently working in schools. There will be no shortage of ideas but what can and should be funded is another question.

In a broad sense the government seems intent on taking a more active role in the school improvement agenda than their predecessors in government. At the same time they’ll be mindful of criticisms that when last in government things became a bit too ‘top down’. When the last two changes of state government occurred it took at least two years before we saw any real action, here we’re seeing movement within the first year of government. How this plays out over coming weeks will be interesting to watch.

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