Regional and remote schools funding review should not be ignored

By Scott Prasser
December 6 2023 - 5:30am

Parents, teachers and students in regional and remote areas should be concerned that most of the key recommendations of a review of their school funding have been ignored.

The National School Resourcing Board is the government's own, independent, expert body given oversight of federal school funding.

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It was asked to review the size and location loadings that provide extra funding to regional and remote schools to cover the extra costs to deliver services in these areas, and the extra resources needed to assist disadvantaged students.

These loadings provided $988 million of the $6 billion of 2023 federal funding to regional and remote schools - which more than 27 per cent of Australia's students attend.

Although the board's then-chair Michael Chaney briefed the Minister of Education in January, it took the government six months to release the report along with its responses to the recommendations.

The board was highly critical of key elements of the loadings, and - while not calling for extra funding - found there was a lack of transparency in how funding was distributed across school systems, vital data was withheld by the states, and key funding measures were based on out-of-date information.

The board noted a "challenge of conducting meaningful analysis" because of "the complexity of the way Australian schools are funded" and "the absence of full transparency" because the states refused to provide the requested information on how they allocate federal funding to their regional and remote schools.

Problems identified included the lack of consistency in the criteria used across the different school systems to determine whether a school is remote. Picture Shutterstock
Problems identified included the lack of consistency in the criteria used across the different school systems to determine whether a school is remote. Picture Shutterstock

The board found that, regardless of how much the legislated federal funding model may have allocated to each school, actual funding received by individual schools in the state and Catholic systems was decided by their respective governing authorities - and varied considerably from the model.

The board concluded that "additional transparency and data are required to enable effective assessment" of how federal funding was really allocated to regional and remote schools by the different school systems.

Only independent, non-systemic schools receive exactly what the funding model stipulates.

Other problems identified included the lack of consistency in the criteria used across the different school systems to determine whether a school is remote, and what meets a size threshold warranting extra funding support.

Alarmingly, the board found that data measuring remoteness uses a formula based on the out-of-date 2011 census. Consequently, the board recommended the Albanese government "work with the states and territories to develop a specific and better tailored measure of remoteness" based on the "the most recently available data".

While the board accepted that "there is no clear evidence that the current funding levels are not sufficient to meet the additional costs associated with location" it found "state allocations were considerably lower than those calculated by the schooling resource standard formula". In other words, the states have not been pulling their weight in their funding to regional and remote schools.

Sadly, the government has ignored or sidelined most of the board's recommendations.

Three recommendations were handballed for further work to the temporary Expert Panel Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System, whose report has yet to be published. Whether it had the time or expertise to assess such complex issues is unclear.

Surely, as the legislated expert body, the board should perform these tasks including its proposal to assess the additional costs of operating regional schools with different characteristics - which the board was eager to do.

Three recommendations were rejected outright while another three were just "noted" or under "further consideration".

While the government said it was "accelerating its work" to improve data for students with disability, no deadline was set.

Understandably, one recommendation is being delayed because of COVID impacts.

The board originally had eight members, but due to expiry of terms currently only has four members, is without a chair, lacks a quorum and seemingly cannot meet its legislated membership requirements or perform its designated duties.

The federal government's inaction about the board and its report indicates a worrying lack of concern about out-of-date data, lack of transparency about how funding is allocated across school systems, and the states' refusal to provide data that would assist regional and remote students receive the funding they need for services they deserve.

Australia's schools, and their students, teachers and parents, deserve better.

  • Scott Prasser is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.