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31 August 2016

Student-centred funding model - simpler and fairer

Mums and dads are seeing first-hand how a new way of funding public schools is helping their kids.

“You’d be amazed at what we can do for these kids now that we have control over our school’s finances.”

The principal of Comet Bay Primary School in Perth’s southern suburbs is eager to describe a new funding model to me. I expect to be befogged by data. But Matt Osborne has a knack for simplifying numbers.

“The beauty of this new funding model is that at last, schools are being empowered,” Matt says.

“The Department of Education is saying to us: ‘We trust that you will direct your resources where they’ll do the most good. You know best what your students need.’”

It’s not just school books and staff he has in mind.

“I want to convert Comet Bay to solar power,” he tells me. “Our power bills are $80,000 a year. If we’re smart, we could reduce that to zero. Solar panels are expensive but they should pay for themselves in five years.”

Imagine!” he says. “That’s $80,000 a year I could pour into more support for students – it might pay for a literacy coach, a maths specialist or our own school psychologist.”

Until recently, principals like Matt Osborne would never have been able to forward-plan this way.

Matt Osborne

Matt Osborne and students who are benefiting from the new funding model

Their budgets were fixed centrally through rigid and complex formulas. They were allocated staff, teaching programs and a small pool of cash for expenditure. Many principals were frustrated that they couldn’t allocate resources where they were needed most.

In 2015, a whole new approach to the way schools were funded – and the new model has students at its very heart.

Instead of allocating funds based on school type, the new model is based on the types of students enrolled and their educational needs.

Control is now at the school level. Principals make decisions about where and how to use funds. They determine how much of their budget is spent on salaries and how much is spent on the programs and services their students need.

Matt Osborne became the foundation principal of Comet Bay Primary when it opened in 2007. He now leads a school of 900 students.

“A quarter of our students are the children of British migrants,” he says. “We also have a number of kids whose parents are navy personnel on Garden Island.”

“My community may be diverse but our Mums and Dads want to know that we’re spending our money on educating their children right now, this term, this week. We’re not in the business of stockpiling money for the future.

“If I want to employ a transition officer to help settle the families coming out from England, I can prioritise that. If I need education assistants for my navy kids, I hire them.”

He has also employed an enrolment officer to determine the educational requirements of incoming students.

“Up front, I need to know who my kids are, where they come from and what they need. If I don’t get that right, I’m not doing my job,” Matt says.

Mother-of-six Leah Rees has experienced first-hand how the funding model has benefited her family.

This year, her eight-year-old son Asher, a twin, was diagnosed with ADHD and severe anxiety.

“He always struggled in class and his teachers find his behaviour hard to manage,” Leah tells me.

At the start of the year, Comet Bay Primary brought in an education assistant for Asher’s Year 3 class.

“The school wasn’t prepared to let Asher fall behind,” Leah says.

“The principal allocated the funds needed for a teaching specialist and she’s absolutely marvellous. Asher adores her. He’s become much more focused. He’s settled down in class. The improvement in his schoolwork has been dramatic – there’s no other word for it.”

School funding is now weighted towards the youngest students. Matt Osborne has embraced this opportunity to give Kindergarten, Pre-primary and Year 1 students a head start.

“I want to catch kids at risk early. I know parents who can’t afford private health cover have to wait 12 months to have their child assessed. So we’ve contracted a speech pathologist and an occupation therapist who can pick up speech delays and developmental issues before they slow these kids down. We can intervene early. It’s brilliant to see the results we’re getting at ground level.”

Cass with daughter Ruby and son Jasper

Cass with daughter Ruby and son Jasper

Cass Levitzke also sees how the funding model is helping her children. A Comet Bay parent, she’s mum to Ruby, 8, and Jasper, 6. She's also the P&C president and a member of the school board.

“We’ve been at Comet Bay since Ruby was in Kindergarten,” Cass says. “People always assume that education funding is continually being cut. But the more school funding is directed where it’s needed, the more parents see the results.”

Cass points out that it’s not just disadvantaged children who benefit from the new funding model.

“Our daughter Ruby was selected for Comet Bay’s learning extension program,” she tells me.

“The school has a really nice balance – it works with the bottom end of learners and still keeps the top end motivated and engaged. No-one misses out.”

In country schools, the funding model is equally powerful.

Until recently, John Burke was principal of Hedland Senior High School. Of his 800 students, 40 percent were Aboriginal. 15 percent were Cocos-Malay. There could be 60 different nationalities at school on any given day.

“Our diversity was our greatest challenge,” John tells me. “But it was also our greatest strength. During my five years in Hedland, we made sure we got the message out to parents that no child would be excluded from our school. We wanted every kid to have the same opportunities.

“Now we have control of our budget, it helps us honour that commitment. We can be much more responsive to the needs of our kids. We knew we’d be allocated extra funding to look after each of our aboriginal students, our kids from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who didn’t speak English at home, kids with a disability.

“In the past, if I’d needed a teacher, I’d have had to ring up head office in Perth and they’d have sent me the first available.

“Whether that teacher suited our kids or our teaching agenda, it didn’t matter: you got who you got.

“But no longer. I filled the school with teachers who are passionate about rural education. What’s more, they’re staying for three to five years to prove it.

“We set up a ‘School House Project’ for those kids who weren’t ‘school ready’ - young people who’d experienced things in their lives we wouldn’t want any kids to experience,” John says.

“We employed a youth worker and allocated resources to get these kids to and from school.

“We invested in a special classroom for those who weren’t ready to make the transition to high school, with its multiple teachers and multiple subjects.

“And we got results. Attendance for these students went up and suspension fell.”

Principals like Matt Osborne says the student-centred funding model and one-line school budgets have been transformative.

“There isn’t a moment when I’m not thinking about how I can scrutinise my resources to get more for my students,” he says.

But the last word should go to secondary school principal John Burke: “Parents should know that now they can ask the hard questions of their principals and expect accountability: ‘Why is my child behind on his literacy?’ for example.

“We’re here to serve our communities. The bottom line is: are we meeting the needs of your children?”

Find out more

Visit the Department of Education website for more information on the student-centred funding model as well as a report and video on the review of school funding by Professor Teese.

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