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Audit Commission's Gonski landmines

Dean Ashenden |  05 May 2014

Christopher Pyne points at a blackboard with the word 'Gonski' crossed outThe Commission of Audit has planted so many landmines across the political landscape that two have been scarcely noticed. One is planted directly under Gonski, the other under the federal role in schooling. 

Of the many issues tackled by the Commission, school funding is one of the few about which the Government has to do something, soon. The Government has gone along with the remnants of the Gonski scheme, but only until 2016. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has already announced that after that, all bets are off. What the Commission suggests in this area is therefore of immediate interest.

The Commission finds that present school funding arrangements waste time and resources, and frustrate efforts at educational improvement. No surprises there. That is why the Rudd Government appointed Gonski in 2010, and that is what Gonski's report describes in detail.

Two levels of government, federal and state/territory, give money to non-government schools. The Federal Government also subsidises government schools, and runs special programs which come and go, targeting everything from computers to school chaplaincies, in all three schools sectors.

It is not surprising that Australia finds difficulty in getting any traction in educational reform or, as the Commission and others have noted, that spending has gone up much faster than detectable 'performance'.

The Commission doesn't like Gonski's proposed fix and, since some states signed up for Gonski and some didn't, it likes the upshot even less.

Saying that it's a mess was the easy part of the Commission's job. Figuring out what to do next is not so simple, although the Commission seems to have thought that it is. It has proposed two measures.

First, the Federal Government should give its schools allocations to the states. They, in turn, should do the distributing they currently do, but with more money (although not as much more as Labor promised). Rather than head toward a funding formula common to all states/territories and all three sectors, as suggested by Gonski, the Commission wants to head in the opposite direction.

Second, the Federal Government should set national ground rules — a national curriculum, national reporting on outcomes, and national disclosure by the states of how they do their distributing.

This could be workable, had the Commission gone about its task in the right spirit. But it has focused on getting an 'efficient' funding system, which is just one part of the puzzle.

Another, put front and centre by Gonski, is 'need'. The Commission says that it supports needs-based funding and that the states should report on how they do it. But it doesn't recognise need in its own proposals. It wants federal money to be handed to the states and territories in proportion to the number of students enrolled, as if there was no more need in Tasmania than in WA, or in the Northern Territory than the ACT.

Worse, it proposes to flick to each of the states and territories the task of solving or reducing yet another of the problems which preoccupied Gonski. 'Residualisation' has seen the best-resourced, best-positioned schools take students and families from the worst-off, giving Australia a high and rising degree of social segmentation in schooling and fanning conflict between sectors and social groups. Gonski proposed to put all schools on the same footing, thereby evening-up the playing field and dampening down chronic political conflict.

It would be open to each of the states and territories to adopt Gonski-like measures, as NSW has done. But what about the others? Will we get seven local battles over funding shares instead of just one national one?

One way of tackling these and other problems is through national reporting. The Commission is in favour of that, but only for 'outcomes'. Has the Commission bowed to objections by the independent schools to current requirements that they also report 'inputs' (income and expenditure) on the MySchool website?

Moreover, as just about any educationist of any ideological orientation will point out, data on outcomes alone are worse than useless. They are misleading. The real question is how much difference each school (or school system) makes, taking into account the difficulty of its educational job, and the resources to hand. The answer can only be found with data on inputs and social context as well as outcomes.

Nor do outcomes define everything that schools produce, or that parents (and governments) care about. What do current students, parents, and teachers report about the character and quality of life at their school, for example? It is all very well to say that these will be matters for each jurisdiction, but if there is a case for a national curriculum, or indeed national reporting on outcomes, why not on other crucial matters also?

These and other shortcomings could be remedied within a devolved system, but only by a much more considered framework of requirement and reporting than the Commission's narrow field of vision permits.

There is little reason to hope that the Government will see things differently. The Coalition in opposition, urged on by independent sector lobbies, opposed the Gonski solution from day one. It sought to frustrate governments, such as the O'Farrell Government in NSW, that supported Gonski, and encouraged the waverers and hold-outs such as WA and Queensland to resist.

After 18 months of playing the spoiler, the now Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Abbott announced an 11-hour conversion to Gonski, only to try to ditch it again within weeks of taking office. The Commission's proposals are inevitably tainted with the odour of bad faith.

Pyne's brazen effort to get rid of Gonski served only to show that he is not to be trusted and that Gonski enjoys widespread popular support. Abbott must be wondering whether this minister — or any minister — could carry the day with the kind of scheme recommended by the Commission.

Abbott no doubt also realises that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten would be happy to go to the next election as leader of the Gonski party and worry later about how to implement it.

In the meantime, the hottest ticket in town will be for Gonski's first major statement since the release of his report two years ago, scheduled for 21 May at the University of Melbourne. He has promised to give his views on the extent to which stakeholders have comprehended and implemented what he and his panel proposed.

Dean Ashenden headshotDean Ashenden was Ministerial Consultant (1983–86) to the Federal Minister for Education, Senator Susan Ryan, and has been a frequent commentator on the Gonski process.



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Submitted comments

Dean, how can you say that Pyne cant be trusted? Next you will say that the new levy is not a tax and that we need to spend eleventy billion on new fighters or tanks

John 05 May 2014

This will be a one-term govt. Australians are fed up already with Abbott's slipperiness and deceit and war on the poor. Stay calm and fair, Bill Shorten, and you will be PM in 2.5 years.

Tony kevin 06 May 2014

"What do current students, parents, and teachers report about the character and quality of life at their school, for example?" you ask Dean. In other words what about the "hidden curriculum"? Do students conclude they are special, elite, stupid or a special class or how is their political allegiance incubated? But what always gets me about the conservatives is that as capitalists they do not recognize the quintessential importance of intellectual capital which drives all the material capital and so by funding education, developing intellectual capital and as a result all other produced means of production. Oh no, "Ignorance is Power" with this mob.

Michael D. Breen 06 May 2014

In mathematics, certain kinds of mistaken proof are often exhibited, and sometimes collected, as illustrations of a concept of mathematical fallacy. There is a distinction between a simple mistake and a mathematical fallacy in a proof: a mistake in a proof leads to an invalid proof just in the same way, but in the best-known examples of mathematical fallacies, there is some concealment in the presentation of the proof. http://mothercusser.com/Portals/0//EasyDNNnews/82/82ET.jpg

Annoying Orange 06 May 2014

What most Eureka Street readers don't realise is that in general, public education and provision of public health services outside our major metropolises (State capital cities) is poor, and steadily deteriorating. It's no surprise my fellow readers don't realise this, because the majority of them reside in or near those State capitals. So long as State governments are chronically underfunded, there'll be political drivers to cut services back, and it's politically best to do this where the majority of punters (voters) don't experience it. Education and health expenditure by Australians isn't subject to GST - yet States are obliged to fund health and education out of their shares of GST? I don't understand the logic in this, no wonder States are struggling to deliver adequate health and education services. Overall, it sounds like a very good case for States to be relieved of all responsibility for Education and Health Services, and instead operated by the Commonwealth - perhaps via a small administration in each metropolitan centre (State capital) for that metropolitan centre, and with regional offices for the rest of the country. That means you, Mr Pyne.

David Arthur 06 May 2014

Why am I not surprised at the Coalition's vehement desire to extinguish any Labor initiative? They have succeeded in mesmerising the electorate into believing that they're the only ones that can manage our economy. It is the Coalition's goal to make sure that Labor's brand is dead and buried. Abbott has indeed given to Caesar what is Caesar's but not to his God what is God's.

Alex Njoo 06 May 2014

When more money is put into training quality teachers and providing them with sufficient skills to handle classrooms of very difficult children, education may start getting on the right track. No amount of Gonski or any other such named funding will cover the failures in delivering competent teachers into so many difficult schools across Australia. Money does not fix all things!!!! Competency does!!!

Jacki 06 May 2014

@jacki - it is obvious you have never taught anyone. You try taking on 30 kids, half of whom haven't slept or eaten the night before and are regularly sexually abused. All this when you are young inexperienced and living away from home in an isoloated community. Trotting out trite phrases may seem nice but solve nothing

John 06 May 2014

As expected, Ashenden's analyses of Gonski and its aftermath have been riveting. He has recently demonstrated this in a remarkable essay on Gonski's Jean Blackburn Memorial Oration at Melbourne University ('Mr Gonski and the social contract' in 'On Line Opinion'). One question arises whenever I read him, which I would dearly like to have answered. Ashenden was Ministerial Consultant to the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan. He must have been aware then of some of the policy shortfalls inherent in the tripartite systemic school-funding model that Peter Karmel proposed and the Whitlam government enacted. Enroute to that enactment, there was some discussion about introducing a New Zealand-style fully-funded public sector-integrated school model for those Australian school systems, principally Catholic, that would mitigate against the negative social-inequality effects of the tripartite school-funding model that is at the heart of the problem he now identifies. Put simply, such a model would have put paid to an ever-burgeoning publicly-subsidised private sector, which would have logically remained unfunded. Where was Dean Ashenden's persuasive policy voice when Minister Ryan was deliberating on this question, which, if properly considered, would surely have resulted in a much less inequitable set of funding-policy outcomes than we currently confront?

Michael Furtado 24 May 2014