School and early childhood education

Budget Review 2020–21 Index

Dr Shannon Clark

In the 2020–21 Budget, funding for school education continues to be a major area of Australian Government expenditure, with national support for non-government schools and government schools both included in the Government’s top 20 programs by expenses in 2020–21 (12th and 15th respectively, p. 6-10).

The Budget includes some support for students in relation to the impact of COVID-19. However, despite concerns about the effect of the pandemic on school education and student wellbeing, the Budget contains relatively few new measures in these areas.

School education

State and territory governments have primary responsibility for school education in their jurisdictions and are the majority funders of government schools. The Australian Government is the majority funder of non-government schools. Australian Government school education funding is provided to states and territories to support education services. As set out in Federal Financial Relations: Budget Paper No. 3: 2020–21 (p. 31), this includes:

According to Budget Strategy and Outlook Budget Paper No. 1: 2020–21, the Australian Government’s recurrent annual funding for government and non-government schools in 2020 is $21.8 billion, having grown by 58 per cent from $13.8 billion since 2014 (pp. 1-28). By 2030, it is projected to grow to $34 billion (pp. 1-29).

Parliamentary Library analysis in Figure 1 shows Australian Government expenditure on government and non-government schools is projected to continue to grow in real terms over the forward estimates. Funding fluctuations between 2019–20 and 2020–21 reflect the COVID-19 response measures announced in the Economic and Fiscal Update July 2020, discussed below.

Funding growth is largely due to Quality Schools funding arrangements and funding to support the implementation of changes to the methodology for calculating parents’/carers’ capacity to contribute to the cost of schooling in non-government schools in response to the Review of the Socio-Economic Status Score Methodology. Funding for the capacity to contribute changes comprises $3.2 billion over 11 years from 2019–20, announced in the Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2018–19 (p. 170), and $41.2 million over five years from 2019–20 for non-government schools, announced in the Economic and Fiscal Update July 2020 (p. 127).

Figure 1: Australian Government expenditure on school education sub-function—government and non-government schools (June 2020 dollars, $m)

Sources: Australian Government, Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2020-21, p. 6-50; Australian Government, Final budget outcome, various years.


1. Real funding has been calculated by the Parliamentary Library by deflating the nominal expenditure figure by the June quarter CPI, this methodology may be different to that presented in the Budget papers. Figures are in 2019–20 dollars, the last available year of actual figures.
2. Real funding growth from 2019–20 onwards incorporates enrolment projection as at 2020–21 Budget. If the enrolment projection changes, funding growth will change accordingly.

COVID-19 measures and Student Support Package

The new school education measures outlined in Budget Measures: Budget Paper No. 2: 2020–21 (pp. 81–2) are primarily contained in a Student Support Package, which provides $146.3 million over five years to improve education outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students and students impacted by COVID-19, and to contribute to social cohesion.

Background—COVID-19 and school education

The COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread disruption to school education in Australia and across the world. In March 2020, arrangements were implemented across Australia to enable students to learn from home, despite the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee’s (AHPPC) advice that schools were a relatively low risk environment for the transmission of coronavirus and should remain open.

Alongside the vastly different pandemic trajectories experienced by states and territories, the length of time students spent learning from home also varied widely. Students in Melbourne have experienced the longest period of learning remotely.

School closures and remote learning differentially affected students, with disadvantaged students likely to experience greater learning losses. There are concerns that these learning losses may have long-term impacts, with the OECD stating that ‘students in grades 1–12 affected by the closures might expect some 3 per cent lower income over their entire lifetimes’ and nations could expect ‘an average of 1.5 per cent lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century’ (p. 3). The OECD argued losses would be permanent unless schools return to better performance levels than in 2019.

The Grattan Institute’s report, COVID Catch up: Helping Disadvantaged Students Close the Equity Gap, advocated for governments to invest $1.25 billion in small-group tutoring over six months to help around one million disadvantaged students recover lost learning. They argued the investment would outweigh the costs, stimulating the economy in the short-term by hiring tutors, as well as producing longer-term economic benefits from future income.

July Update and school education measures in response to COVID-19

The July Update included measures for non-government schools in relation to COVID-19 (p. 118). The COVID-19 Response Package—support for non-government schools brought forward $1.0 billion in non-government schools’ recurrent payments from July 2020 to May or June 2020. This change was to encourage non-government schools to return to classroom-based learning and was subject to conditions: schools needed to be open for on-campus learning for Term 2, with a plan to fully re-open and have half of students attending face-to-face learning by 1 June 2020. Non-government schools that did not meet these conditions or did not choose to bring forward their funding received their payment in July 2020 as scheduled.

The Government also provided $10.0 million for hygiene measures for non-government schools, also on the condition that schools planned to have half their students back in the classroom by 1 June (July Update, p. 118). Schools could use the additional funding to purchase soap, hand sanitiser, or extra-cleaning, with the measure’s cost to be offset from existing resources. In a media release on 28 May 2020, Minister for Education Dan Tehan called the measure a success, saying that 96 per cent of non-government schools had signed up and 2,738 schools would share in $9.3 million.

Non-government schools may have been eligible for other Australian Government COVID-19 support measures—including cash flow assistance for small and medium sized businesses and not-for-profit organisations and JobKeeper.

In April 2020, the Australian Government announced $50.0 million via NBN Co to assist low-income families with school-aged children to access the internet for educational purposes.

School closures and school funding were contentious areas in relations between state and territory governments and the Australian Government. Peak bodies representing independent schools and Catholic schools welcomed the measures bringing forward recurrent funding and hygiene measures announced in the July Update. However, the Australian Government’s efforts to reopen schools were criticised by some. For example, an article in The Age reported Victorian non-government school principals’ frustration at differences between state and Australian Government advice on ending remote learning, with one expressing that they were ‘being pulled in both directions’ which was ‘absolutely not helpful’.

State and territory governments have also implemented relief measures for government schools, including hygiene measures, internet and technology connectivity measures, and more recently, a $250 million tutoring package in Victoria to support students in 2021 and a $3.6 million maths tutoring pilot program in South Australian government schools.

Student Support Package measures

The Student Support Package comprises a number of diverse initiatives from 2020–21, including ‘$25.0 million over five years from 2020–21 to establish a fund to enable the Government to respond flexibly and quickly to emerging priorities and educational challenges presented by COVID-19’ (Budget Paper No. 2, p. 82). In the context of the quantum of school funding, and in comparison to the investment advocated by the Grattan Institute, this measure will have limited scope.

The Student Support Package also includes:

  • $39.8 million over four years for the Clontarf Foundation to expand its existing program supporting young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men
  • $38.2 million over four years for The Smith Family to support disadvantaged young people to complete Year 12 and continue onto work, training or further study
  • $5.8 million over four years for Good to Great Schools Australia to expand their Direct Instruction program—Indigenous affairs measures are discussed elsewhere in this Budget Review and
  • $27.3 million over five years from 2020-21 to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills of young people through a range of initiatives—other STEM measures are discussed elsewhere in this Budget Review.

Other school education measures

Other school-related measures included in the Budget are:

  • $2.4 million over two years from 2020–21 for the continued delivery of the School Pathways Program in South Australia and Western Australia, with the cost to be met from the Department of Defence’s existing resources (Budget Paper No. 2, p. 72). The program aims to help reduce skills shortages in the defence industry and build STEM capabilities. This extension follows a three year continuation announced on 13 February 2018.
  • $39.6 million over two years from 2020–21 for the Australian Sports Commission to provide Building an Active Australia—implementing Sport 2030—continuing the Sporting Schools program (Budget Paper No. 2, p. 92). This measure builds on Implementing Sport 2030 in the 2019–20 Budget and provides an additional calendar year of funding for the Sporting Schools program—other sport-related measures are discussed elsewhere in this Budget Review.

Stakeholder response

The school education Budget announcements have not attracted a great deal of response from stakeholders.

The Australian Education Union criticised the Budget for ignoring government schools, stating that ‘[t]here should have been an immediate injection of funding for extra support’ for students who had fallen behind during remote learning: ‘Public schools would have been able to employ more teachers for smaller class sizes and more one-on-one support for every student’.

The Australian Council of State School Organisations described the budget as ‘big spending but little investment or vision for our future workforce’ and criticised the continued expenditure on school chaplains, calling instead for greater access to mental health professionals: ‘What is needed in every public school is access to quality psychological support’.

Early Childhood Education

The Australian Government also provides funding to the states and territories to increase participation in preschool (also known as kindergarten) through the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education (NP-UAECE).

In April 2020 the Government announced an extension of funding for the NP-UAECE for the 2021 calendar year. This measure was included in July Update. With the extension, the Government provided $458.3 million over two years from 2020–21 to support 15 hours of preschool each week (600 hours per year) for children in the year before school.

The extension continued the Government’s practice since 2015 of yearly extensions of the NP-UAECE. As has been noted in previous Budget Reviews and by stakeholders, this creates considerable uncertainty in the sector. Early Childhood Australia noted its concern that the Budget failed to provide funding certainty for the NP-UAECE beyond December 2021 and highlighted findings of reviews calling for a secure, long-term funding commitment.

A review of the NP-UAECE (March 2020) by the Nous Group for the COAG Education Council noted that ‘The uncertainty associated with short-term agreements and performance-based payments has compromised the ability to plan and invest for the long term’ (p. 1). The report recommended that governments enter into a new five-year NP-UAECE from 2021 to 2025 and then transition to a National Agreement from 2026.

The Education Council will consider advice to assist with future planning for early childhood education at its second meeting of 2021.


All online articles accessed October 2020

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