Private donations help many schools, just not the ones who need the money

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As Australians, we often focus too much on trying to cut down tall poppies, rather than wondering where the next crop is coming from.

A few years ago, I hopped on a bus to a remote place called Yalgoo, a Western Australian desert town with a population of 300, to tutor literacy and numeracy to primary school aged children.

Public schools are often underfunded and also miss out on philanthropic generosity.Credit: Quentin Jones

We’ve all heard statistics about educational disadvantage, like the fact low-income students are, on average, three years behind high-income students, and this hit home to me when I stepped into a school five hours drive from Perth. Something was seriously wrong.

I came from a good public school in Perth’s inner suburbs, but here, I was working with students who were struggling, through no fault of their own.

I know this because in just a week of one-on-one tutoring, they were guzzling information and mastering concepts with the same enthusiasm and delight as students I’ve worked with in some of the wealthiest suburbs of Perth. With a bit of support, kids pick things up and build confidence in the blink of an eye.

Getting the funding right is important, but it’s not the only critical step to improving our education system across the board. It’s not the wealthiest countries, or the ones where students study overtime, that score A plus when it comes to educational outcomes.

School is the one place we can make sure every child gets a “fair go” and we’re falling short by letting inequality run rampant.

Finland and Estonia have taken out the top spot in the Program for International Student Assessment, a standardised maths, reading and science test, in recent years.

One practice, used in Finland, is looping: where students stay with the same teacher over multiple years. Teachers get to know their students better, helping them to tailor their teaching approach and learn what works best for their students. It costs nothing, has the biggest benefit for lower-achieving students and – for those worried about kids getting stuck with “bad” teachers – actually has the most upside for less effective teachers. So, what are we waiting for?

Some effective educational solutions like this cost little or nothing, but we also need to talk about the elephant in the classroom: why our public schools, which support some of the most disadvantaged students, aren’t getting the funding they need.

Most private schools in Australia are funded above the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs, while most public schools are funded below it.

This needs to change. Socio-economic background is one of the key factors when it comes to better educational outcomes. A high-income family can, and often does, pay for additional support. If public schools, which educate 80 per cent of disadvantaged kids, are underfunded, it means these students, who often face the most challenges, and whose families cannot afford extra support, are not even getting a fully resourced education during school hours.

Illustration by Andrew DysonCredit:

School is the one place we can make sure every child gets a “fair go” and we’re falling short by letting inequality run rampant in broad daylight.

Low socio-economic schools often have to cover the shortfall in voluntary school contributions from parents with the government funding they receive. But that can mean cutting back on student services, and support staff, which assist the most vulnerable and struggling students. That has knock-on effects on classroom behaviour, teacher burnout and individual student outcomes.

Our funding model needs to change. We can make small non-financial changes, but without enough water, even the best poppies will die.

Some are sceptical about increasing taxes or government spending, but are more amenable to individuals giving directly to those in need on their own terms. In that case, we need to think about our tall poppy syndrome differently.

Speaking at a summit last month, the architect of Australia’s best-known education reforms, David Gonski, rightly pointed out there’s a great opportunity in this country for philanthropy because of our egalitarian traits.

But it’s also our squeamish attitude towards talking about wealth that lets us down. “In many places, New York for example, they talk about their philanthropy openly and often,” Gonski said. “The fact of the matter is, they talk about it, not to show off, but to get others talking.”

It may not meaningfully fix the under-resourcing of schools, but talking more openly about philanthropy is a start in terms of establishing a greater culture of giving.

David Gonski was the architect of Australia’s best-known education reforms.Credit: Eamon Gallagher

Private donations are heavily skewed towards the schools that need support the least.

According to analysis conducted by Save Our Schools national convenor Trevor Cobbold based on data from the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), 50 private schools accumulated $461 million in donations between 2017 and 2021. And based on My School data, he found the Victorian public school system, in 2020, received just $279 per student in privately sourced “other income” compared to, for example, more than $5000 a student at Melbourne Grammar (which has tuition fees of up to $42,940 per annum).

In NSW, it was a similar story: $154 per student in public schools compared with roughly $4500 for Shore School (fees of up to $39,900 per annum).

Often, donations are funnelled from wealthy ex-students to their alma mater which, more often than not, tends to be a private school. If we are providing tax concessions to some of the most wealthy people, it comes at the cost of its alternative: more public funding for our underfunded schools.

Melbourne Grammar School, like many high-fee charging institutions, receives many donations.Credit: Joe Armao

These donors are probably sensible people trying to do a good thing, but we need to think about where the money is needed most and how to grow the entire field of poppies.

We know education is one of the most powerful ways to lift people out of disadvantage and make everyone better off, so why aren’t we digging into our pockets and sowing the seeds?

Millie Muroi is an economics reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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