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Proposed Education Bill could be disastrous for disadvantaged children

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says that if passed, the Education (Social Investment Funding and Abolition of Decile System) Amendment Bill could put schools serving income poor and materially deprived communities at risk of losing funding they desperately need, and their students at increased risk of bias and stigma.

Erica Stanford, the National MP championing the member’s Bill which was drawn from the ballot this week, said that "by scrapping the decile system, we will remove a blunt instrument and replace it with a fairer school funding system that better reflects the needs of children and young people."

Education researcher and former MP Dr Liz Gordon stated in her blog on Friday that the proposed changes would replace a simple system with a "complex one fraught with issues of privacy", and would be very unlikely to reduce stigmatisation of schools, as proclaimed by Stanford.

Deciles take into consideration the neighbourhood demographics and socio-economic characteristics, but they are, "not a reflection of school quality," says Gordon.

Parents will continue to rely on ERO reports to determine the ‘quality’ of a school; there is a risk that without the contextual information that deciles provide, schools may fail to achieve roll numbers they need to thrive.

Professor John O’Neill, CPAG education spokesperson, says that the Bill is less about achieving equitable educational outcomes for all, and more about replacing equity funding for the many with risk funding for the few.

"The fact is that the indicators of family and community disadvantage used in the decile system are closely correlated with poor educational outcomes," says O’Neill.

"The Bill’s sponsor appears to be confusing the social stigma and bias that have become attached to low decile schools over the last twenty years, with the significant additional funding needed to help these schools address the multiple educational challenges they face."

Targeted at-risk funding (TARF), that aligns with the principles of the former Government’s Social Investment strategy provides an amount of funding for children based on their meeting a specific set of life experience-related criteria. This defines them as being potentially vulnerable or ‘at risk’ of poor outcomes. More targeted funding would be allocated when a child meets multiple risk factors. Income poverty and material hardship are strong predictors of poor outcomes for children, but poverty and material hardship are not included in the ‘social investment’ risk factors. Many of the children who meet the life experience criteria may not actually have poor educational outcomes.

"The Bill is based on a fundamentally flawed view of what disadvantaged children need to succeed in education," says Professor O’Neill. "The previous government wanted to fund all children at exactly the same base rate unless they had special educational needs or their families were at risk. This approach ignores the reality that children cannot leave their everyday household and community life experiences outside the classroom door."

Dr Gordon says social investment is "about individual funding, and in particular providing a voucher that expresses the dollar value of each person according to their educational needs." The expectation that money would follow a child through their education, would create substantial extra administration when an ‘at-risk’ child moved schools, and may delay funding when it is needed.

There is a huge risk of exposing children to judgement and stigma despite any attempts to make the profiles of the children private, as the schools will likely know which children are more at risk.

CPAG is concerned that without substantial additional guaranteed funding that recognises the ongoing challenges of teaching and learning in communities where many or all children are from low-income, high-hardship households, schools could stand to lose most of the equity funding allocated under the current decile rating system.

"The only way this proposal could possibly work would be to set the base funding rate for all children at such a high level that any additional funding is then simply icing on the cake," says Professor O’Neill.

"At present, given the disgraceful numbers of children living in poverty and hardship, many low decile schools must feel like they are getting crumbs, not cake."