07/08/2014 - 18:46

High stakes on school funding

07/08/2014 - 18:46


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Education Minister Peter Collier has embarked on a bold strategy aimed at reallocating his $4.6 billion budget among the state’s 700 secondary and primary schools. It is a move fraught with political risk.

Peter Kennedy.

Neither side of state politics can afford to lose the argument over the government’s plan to reallocate its education spend.

Education Minister Peter Collier has embarked on a bold strategy aimed at reallocating his $4.6 billion budget among the state’s 700 secondary and primary schools. It is a move fraught with political risk.

The strategy is the latest in several significant shakeups to the school system, starting with big cuts in the number of teachers aides, especially in primary schools.

Under the new Collier plan – the so-called student-centred funding model – every government school will get a standard amount per student, depending on their grade. There will be extra for students deemed to require more support, including from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, Aboriginal students and those with disabilities.

Whenever there is a reallocation of money there are winners and losers. In this case, Mr Collier says that 70 per cent of schools will be better off as a result of the changes phased in over the next five years. That means 30 per cent will lose out.

What is surprising here is that many of the schools suffering a hit are in lower socio economic areas, which tend to coincide with traditional Labor Party strongholds; but Mr Collier rejects any suggestion they have been singled out. Based on the new formula, all schools will get what they deserve, according to the minister.

These changes follow closely on the decision to reallocate $45 million from high to primary schools over the next five years. Traditionally, high schools have absorbed the lion’s share of the budget, including with senior teachers being eligible for a salary loading.

However, the new approach is based on a report by Richard Teese from Melbourne University, and is aimed at removing ‘existing unfairness and anomalies in funding allocations’.

Mr Collier told Business News that WA high school students were funded 38 per cent more generously than their primary counterparts.

“This is the biggest disparity in primary-secondary funding in Australia,” Mr Collier said.

“By comparison the disparity in South Australia is only 14 per cent. Student-centred funding will reduce that gap and ensure more funding for the early years where research shows it’s needed the most.”

If Mr Collier and his colleagues are able to prosecute that message successfully, the risks of a political downside from the changes will be much reduced.

The challenge for both the minister and Premier Colin Barnett is to convince parents with children at government schools that overall benefits will flow from the changes. And they will have to overcome the lingering suspicion that Liberals are more interested in private, rather than government, schools.

Changing the public’s perception on this issue won’t be easy, certainly among those who recall the senior minister in Richard Court’s government, who said that parents who could afford it should educate their children in private schools.

Government schools should pick up the rest, it was asserted. This opinion gained little traction.

The other major change this year has been the cut of 350 teacher aides positions. Their numbers had grown rapidly – from 4,455 in 2004-5 to 7,709 in 2013-14 – a big increase the government judged to be unsustainable. The educational significance of the job losses has yet to be assessed.

With parliament about to resume for the spring session, debate will now move into the political arena. Labor, which has seen itself as the champion of public education, will take up the cause of high schools generally, but especially those facing budget cuts.

 It should be fertile ground, but will test the political skills of opposition leader Mark McGowan – a former education minister – and his education spokesperson, Sue Ellery.

Expect unions representing teachers and teacher aides to get involved as well.

It is a contest neither side can afford to lose.

Hello China, it’s Mark

LABOR’S Mark McGowan will make his first official overseas trip as opposition leader in late August when he embarks on an eight-day visit to China, which is Western Australia's biggest trading partner.

While the details of his itinerary are still being finalised, Mr McGowan has been preparing by consulting businessmen such as Fortescue Metals Group’s Andrew Forrest, and WA firms with strong Chinese links, such as Westrac.

During the trip, which will include Beijing and Shanghai, Mr McGowan will visit a range of Chinese businesses and government agencies with significant involvement in WA. The trading enterprises on his calling list will have involvement in engineering, steel and iron ore, oil and gas, mining and other resources, agriculture and food.

Mr McGowan will also be consulting Chinese government economic and development agencies. In addition to trade possibilities, the level of Chinese investment in WA is likely to be discussed.

Visits to WA’s key trading partners have often produced a bipartisan approach. Before Geoff Gallop made his first trip to China as Labor premier in 2001, he received a briefing from his Liberal predecessor, Richard Court, who put political differences aside in the interests of the state.






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