Schools start to stand up

Until now, criticism of the Government by principals has been confined to irregular grumbling.

The bill I received from our local high school this year for my son in Year 11 (Form 5) was $624. It comprised $75 for sport/cultural activities; $60 for woodwork materials; $75 for NCEA exams; $64 for curriculum books and $350 for the family donation (I have two boys at the school).

Aside from these costs, there is an incessant stream of requests for money for all sorts of things from stationery to photocopying to school trips. Every parent with children at school faces the same drain on the wallet each year to take part in compulsory education.

With this in mind, what a pleasure it has been in the last couple of weeks to see school principals finally standing up strongly on the side of parents against government underfunding of education.

It’s taken a long time. Until now, criticism of the Government by principals has been confined to irregular grumbling. Schools have preferred to use parents as a soft touch to bring in the money needed to breach the chasm between government funding and the amount needed to provide high-quality education.

It started with a group of schools on Auckland’s North Shore and has spread through principals’ associations, teacher groups, school trustees and parent organisations. The result is a concerted chorus of disapproval towards Minister of Education Chris Carter’s assertions that schools should be grateful for the 5 per cent increase in operations grant funding they received in the Budget.

Schools had hoped the Budget would be a circuit-breaker. After years of funding increases which hovered around the rate of inflation, schools were hoping for a significant increase. The 5% announcement was a letdown. Inflation to March 2008 was 3.7% and is expected to already have risen above 4% on an annual basis. Labour, however, preferred to put $10 billion into a tax-cut package than make a significant difference to critical social services.

Carter defended the small increase and pointed to the big increases in education spending since Labour took power in 1999 but once the spin is removed, actual operations-grant funding for schools has struggled to keep pace with inflation.

The problem arises because the Government does not fund the actual needs of schools but provides a single sum of money, a bulk fund, for schools to spend on their day-to-day operating expenses. If there is a shortfall, the Government simply says the school must re-prioritise its funding to provide education and stay within its budget.

This has been a growing problem. Does a school pay for a new paint job on the peeling gymnasium or provide a teacher aide to help kids with special needs successfully integrate into a mainstream classroom? Crude choices such as these are at the heart of so-called school self-management.

It is no surprise the failure to fund education properly is felt most keenly at schools in low-income areas where the educational needs are greatest. The Government uses increased funding to low-decile schools to help but it is not much more than a sop.

Through foreign fee-paying students and requests for large parent donations, schools in high-income areas, ironically the ones who have led the recent charge, make up the shortfall in government funding more easily.

To gain extra government funding, schools can apply to various Ministry of Education contestable funds – there were over 30 the last time I checked. These give the illusion of extra funding but each produces only a small number of winner schools while the majority languish.

National’s education spokesperson Anne Tolley got a warmer reception than Carter at a recent meeting of principals when she said a National Party government would cut bureaucracy in education and return this money to schools.

Cutting red tape and compliance costs is always popular, but on past performance National is even more wedded to bulk funding than Labour.

The harsh truth is that both parties would increase education costs for parents. User pays and creeping privatisation are endemic in their policies.

We need a radical new approach to funding schools according to their actual needs and abandon the ludicrous system whereby each of our nearly 3000 schools have to reinvent the wheel themselves 3000 times over in a multitude of ways every day of the year.

A good start would be for the Government to pay directly the salaries of school support staff, teacher aides, admin staff and caretakers etc.

Funding for the educational needs of schools would also mean we could ban schools from soliciting donations from parents and put the free back into free education.