Rhetoric rules in Gillard Gonski announcement

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Gonski report coverSaying so doesn't make it so. This was my initial reaction to the Prime Minister's announcement of the Government's formal response to the Gonski Report. I was struck by the prevalence of rhetoric and lack of detail in response to a detailed report that was presented more than eight months ago.

A central thrust of Gonski was that additional funds need to be directed towards students who experience disadvantage. The Government accepts that schools with students who face additional challenges would be entitled to additional funding. New money would be directed to pay for teachers' aides, specialist literacy and numeracy coaches and new resources. There would be continuity and certainty to such funding.

These additional funds and loadings would fund every student identified as being at disadvantage, irrespective of the school the student attends.

It is difficult to disagree with the principle behind this. The how and to what effect will be the critical points.

The question of where the extra money will be found is largely ducked by the Prime Minister. A purported $6.5 billion is to be phased in, from after the next election until 2020. Many commentators argue that this figure is significantly understated, if all promises are to be kept.

State governments provide almost 75 per cent of funding for education, yet rather extraordinarily the PM said 'We will now start discussions with state and territory governments, and Catholic and independent schools, over the details of our plan' (emphasis mine).

The credibility of the Prime Minister in announcing a policy response in such a critical area before reaching agreement with the states may also be questioned. Without the states coming on board, and finding their share of the money, the implementation of Gonski is impossible.

This point was illustrated graphically when the Catholic and independent schools sectors were informed by the NSW Government that their funding would be cut significantly from 2013, leading to fee rises of up to $500 per student. State schools were also to suffer undisclosed cuts.

To what extent these cuts, made without any consultation or warning — and after next year's budgets have been determined in many schools, are the result of over-stretched state budgets or are part of the clearing of decks before negotiations commence between state and federal authorities over implementing Gonski, is uncertain.

True, the projected cuts may not occur, as a firestorm of objections from parents and schools has led to rumours of a backdown (current at the time of writing). But the fact that such a cut in education in Australia's largest state could be seriously contemplated demonstrates the grave concerns about the feasibility of fully funding the Government's response to Gonski.

With regard to non-government schools, we are assured 'Every school would see its funding rise every year'. Yet the modelling mechanism that will determine the funding for each school has not been released; one suspects, because any model that attempts to follow Gonski and honour the Government's promise will not add up.

Modelling attempts by various state governments and the Catholic system show many anomalies. Many schools, including state schools, would lose funds, while some modelling based on the recommendation that every school receive a base grant for each student means The Kings School would get an extra $2 million per annum.

Similarly the mechanism that would reflect the idea 'that the government funding provided to non-government schools would be adjusted based on parents' capacity to contribute' is not detailed. Nor is the rate of the indexation of funding each year. (The educational inflation rate is considerably higher than the inflation rate due to the costs of teachers' salaries and new technology.)

A key assumption underlying the Government's approach is that increased funding equals improved standards. There is no necessary causal relationship between funding and educational outcomes. By the Government's own measure of standards of our relative ranking in world academic testing such as PISA, our results have dropped despite increases in funding over the last ten years.

At the time of Gonski's release, the Grattan Institute launched its report 'Lessons from high-performing systems in East Asia'. It highlighted the success, as measured by international testing, of schools in Shanghai, Korea and Singapore, which the Prime Minister now sets as a goal for Australian schools by 2025. Gonski too highlighted a perceived fall in competitiveness of Australian students as a rationale for challenging the status quo.

Ironically, most of the factors cited in the Grattan report do not relate to the allocation of resources. In the education systems of places such as Korea, Singapore and Shanghai you will find often narrow and high focused curriculums, early streaming of students into vocational and academic streams, parental expectations and a cultural approach to education that is quite distinct from what most Australians might believe in.

Research identifies the single most important measure in lifting student classroom performance as teaching standards. Reflecting this, the Prime Minister also focused on teacher training and appraisal. Her plan calls for, among other factors, 'higher entry standards — entrants to the teaching profession will be in the top 30 per cent of literacy and numeracy results'.

This is most problematic. There is already a teacher shortage in some areas, and most universities are adamant that it is impossible to train enough teachers if entrants must be from the top 30 per cent. Moreover, it may be that such an arbitrary limit will prevent some fine teachers being recruited — sometimes those who have struggled in their own education prove to be excellent teachers.

Insofar as there is a problem with teacher quality, I suspect it has more to do with industrial restraint than university entry. Achieving appropriate pay of teachers, especially in the years when they are in their prime, and in a way that can discriminate between those who are effective and those who are less so, while respecting the collegiate nature of the profession, is no easy task. It certainly can't occur in an overly rigid bureaucratic system.


Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius College, Milson's Point, in Sydney. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Gonzagan, the school's weekly newsletter. Fr Middleton was awarded for Best Education Coverage at the 2012 Australasian Catholic Press Association Awards for his article 'Gonski's reductionist view of education' published in Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Chris Middleton, Gonski, catholic education, St Aloysius


 

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What has happened in the last couple of weeks could be a plot out of Yes Minister. The govt. goes to its bureaucracy demanding budget cuts. The bureaucracy responds with a proposal that cuts front-line services and hence inflicts the maximum political pain, leading to the inevitable backdown. Govt. bureaucracies are untouchable and keep on growing forever, but why should this be? In the private sector, a business whose overheads are as bloated as those of the upper echelons of the public sector will feel the chill winds of market forces. They will cut, or fail. Have you ever spent any time in big government departments as a "fly on the wall"? I have, and here's my advice for what it's worth. Conduct an independent analysis of what the department of education does, and outsource the whole lot, from the Director-General down. Divest managerial decisions to the schools. Spend the savings on our kids and at the same time cut the budget deficit. Why won't this happen? A lack of political courage - no "intestinal fortitude".
ian | 12 September 2012


Ah, yes, written for the school newsletter of an expensive school at Milson's Point. Can we also read what principals in Catholic or state schools in western suburbs think about Middleton's idea of funding not making any difference to educational outcomes?
AURELIUS | 12 September 2012


I find the logic in this article bizarre. Gillard is criticised (which is required) on the one hand for acting without consultation, and on the other, for saying she wanted to consult about funding rather than present a fait accompli. Wouldn't it be nice, if only for a change, if the Prime Minister received some affirmation? The endless negativity, or damning with faint praise as is this article, is as boring as Question Time
PHILIP NEWMAN | 12 September 2012


"Moreover, it may be that such an arbitrary limit will prevent some fine teachers being recruited — sometimes those who have struggled in their own education prove to be excellent teachers."

Spot on, Fr Chris. Thankfully, I was taught maths for most of my secondary years by a teacher who was not by any means a mathematician, but a simply superb - and humble - teacher, who knew his weaknesses and strengths. Fellow students of mine in the same school had a brilliant mathematician as a teacher, but who was pretty average pedagogically, except for the very creme de la creme (no offence to an otherwise wonderful person).

I also had some very average teachers...God bless them.

It strikes me that much of educational policy these days is being decided by those who don't have the vaguest notion as to what makes for an authentic learning experience in the classroom. Pathetically, "Throw more dollops of taxpayers' money at it" seems to be the universal panacea.
HH | 13 September 2012


In dealing with students, my hope is that Fr Chris is a little more sympathetic to them and their circumstances than he is to Julia! The milieu in which Julia finds herself is that she needs to navigate through both houses of Federal Parliament and then deal with the States. My experience is that, unless you hold a lay-down misere, playing your cards one at a time and observing how the game unfolds is a better way to go than showing everyone your hand. No doubt she could have delayed the government's response to Gonski until the horses were all in the stable but the imperatives of politics would seem to preclude that. Both the remuneration of teachers and increasing their social status and qualifications I suspect are on the Government's agenda. Having spent time in China recently, my impression is that, if we do not get smarter and more energetic, there is a multitude that will seize the opportunities we overlook.
Kim Chen | 15 September 2012