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On The Left - The Carter Columns - Bulk Funding

On The Left: Bulk funding has to go.

by Jordan Carter.

Besides tertiary education, the most controversial educational policy difference between Labour and National at this election is bulk funding. The debate on Saturday night on TV 1 showed the usual mishmash of fact and opinion (as well as Donna Awatere Huata's outrageous lie that a BA attracts $50,000 of state funding, comparing with the factual amount of $13,340 for non-study right students), but also raised the most unpleasant site of Nick Smith misleading the public about Labour's policy. Again.

What's more, the parties of the Right are also misleading the public on why schools take up bulk funding. It's not good enough.

First, the flexibility argument. Schools take up bulk funding because of the flexibility it gives them - and that flexibility comes, purely and simply, from the additional funds the scheme delivers. I would dearly love to see a tabulation that showed which schools have taken up and have not taken up the fully funded option, against the amount of cash they have gained. I would be fairly willing to be that it's the money that drives the change. Flexibility comes from money.

Why on earth would anyone want to remove that flexibility? Additional money is always useful, especially after National froze operating grants for some years in the early 1990's. And the money will remain at the discretion of schools to use, no matter who forms the next Government. Exciting plans such as staff sabbaticals, additional professional development, additional staffing will all remain possible.

Labour's quibble is with the staffing system that bulk funding creates. The policy is to get rid of the staffing system, while giving all schools the funds to use flexibly - as they choose and outlined above - to do with what they will. There is no intention to go back to the bad old days of, as my former Principal put it on a National propaganda broadcast (National's Insight spot on National Radio), having to use money given for purposes specified in Wellington.

A quote from Labour's policy relevant to bulk funding follows at the bottom of this column.

The key point is that the money will go to schools, but a central staffing scheme will be retained. Why does Labour want to retain a central staffing scheme?

* to avoid the effect of bulk funding which is that schools can increase their disposable funds by hiring cheaper teachers. Costs of teachers should not be a factor when hiring them; experience and ability should. If you put poorer schools especially in a situation where they can gain tens of thousands of dollars (or more) by hiring inexperienced teachers, then that's not a choice. That's a disaster for the kids, and for the schools too.

* to ensure that schools have a minimum standard across the country. Every student should get a quality education in a public school, and the most important thing for good education is good teachers. Experience should count for someone, not against them, when it comes to teaching. Bulk funding stacks things against older and more experienced teachers by making them "expensive" for schools to hire. The centralised staffing scheme removes that problem entirely.

* to retain a united, national career structure in teaching, as opposed to staffing, contracts and so on becoming fragmented and subject to site contract. Conditions becoming fragmented in this way would only benefit wealthy, urban schools, and would work to the disadvantage of schools in the provinces and poorer schools who could not afford to pay teachers more. While schools will retain the flexibility with the operations grants to do what they like, the retention of a core minimum standard through the standard contract is critical to maintaining a viable national education system. [nb - this concern to maintain the national system ties in with other policies to improve teacher quality, introduce a professional body to improve teacher standards and take stronger action against incompetent teachers.]

The end point of Labour's policy is a desire to retain the good points of the current system - it's flexibility, additional resources, and choices for schools - while removing the terrible incentives the scheme gives to poorer schools. According to Trevor Mallard, Labour's education spokesperson, 80% of schools or more will be better off under the proposed policy. Only the very top winner schools will do any worse than they do under bulk funding. While it would be ideal to have no loser schools at all, resources are limited and this isn't possible.

Schools will retain the flexibility to do what they like with the additional funding - hire more staff, more professional development and so on. They will not be forced into some 1940's' nightmare bureaucracy. And that's the most damaging lie of National's that needs to be challenged. One can only speculate about their motives (other than running a fear campaign against the Labour Party, and trying desperately to win the election, of course) in trying (and failing) to portray Labour's policies as something out of the past.

One also has to wonder what would happen under a returned National/ACT coalition. Compulsory bulk funding is on the cards, as a prelude to vouchers. If anybody needs an example of what compulsory bulk funding does in an education system, look at tertiary fees over the past ten years.

Doesn't sound attractive to me.

Next week, something on ACT's racist campaign.

Jordan Carter
carters@ihug.co.nz

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