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Best of 2012: Gonski's reductionist view of education


The Gonski Report is ambitious. It focuses on addressing educational disadvantage in Australian schools through an additional $5 billion dollar increase in funding. This recommendation is popular with advocates of state schools because the vast majority (75 per cent) will be directed to the state system, which educates the majority of disadvantaged students.

The non-government sector is also happy because it has argued that the focus should be on increasing the size of the cake, rather than on the state versus private debate.

Hopefully all agree that there are pockets of disadvantage — Indigenous children, children in remote and country Australia, children with physical and mental disabilities, and children from poor backgrounds — where an injection of resources is needed.

Moreover, the report appears to encourage the non-government sector to assist more in this area. This was a theme of many submissions made to Gonski and the panel from private schools.

There is, however, an important caveat to this. It presumes that a $5 billion injection is possible.

The detail that is passed over is that only 30 per cent would come from the Federal Government, with the rest coming from the states. This seems to vindicate those who have argued that state schools are primarily responsible for funding state schools, whereas from the 1960s the Federal Government has taken responsibility for providing some state aid to the non-government sector.

The AEU and others talk of non-government schools receiving more government funding than state schools. They conveniently ignore the fact that state schools receive most of their funding (88 per cent) from state governments. If you combine federal and state funding, only 20 per cent of all funding goes to non-government schools, which educate 32 per cent of Australian students.

Gonski appears to suggest that the bulk of underfunding of state schools is the responsibility of the states. State governments have allowed the state school systems to be increasingly under-resourced, especially in the area of maintenance, while the bureaucracies ever expand. It could be argued that the AEU itself has been an obstacle to reform in this area.

Australia spends a lower proportion of its GDP on education than many countries. It also has the biggest non-government sector in the developed world.

My concern about the Gonski Report, in this respect, is that for the authors to have as a central feature a spending target that is undeliverable raises unrealistic expectations.

Moreover, the timing of the report and the Government's decision to give more time for consultation makes it unlikely that its main recommendations will ever be implemented.

There appears to have been little consultation with the states, who will be expected to find much more money for education; the Federal Government seems unlikely to commit to such an increase because of its commitment to a budget surplus; and by time the consultations are completed there are likely to be four non-Labor states. Already the Federal Opposition has opposed the report.

A Federal election is due before the next funding arrangements in 2014. It is hard to see anything like the model of funding suggested by Gonski being in place by then.

The second key feature of the report is the recommendation to establish a school resource standard as a basic measure for funding students in all schools. It is proposed to represent the efficient cost of education, so as to determine base funding for all schools.

Such a cost would be worked out in identifying a school resource standard. Government schools would receive this payment in full; additional funds for needs, such as students with disability, would be provided. Exactly what this school resource standard would be is not specified, though it estimates $8000 for primary students and $10,500 for secondary students.

One concern is that such a figure may not take into account other variables that can affect the cost of schooling, apart from disadvantage. The cost of schooling in Sydney may differ from that in Adelaide. How to take into account specialised schools such as the Conservatorium? Or performing arts high schools or sports academies?

It might lead to the lowest common denominator approach to determining what is an efficient education, and thus reflect a reductionist view of education, in both government and non-government schools. Creativity, diversity and experimentation may be hindered in such a regime.

This may be even more the case with the non-government sector, of which diversity lies at the heart. Schools with large co-curricular programs, for example, have quite a different cost per student. Such schools also have to include capacity for capital works in their fee structure.

The report also proposes government funding to non-government schools be based on each school's capacity to raise income from parents through a measure similar to SES (socioeconomic status ). Two positives in this are that non-government schools with students with needs will be eligible for extra funding, and it respects the principle that each student has a right to some funding.

The report suggests a minimum payment to schools with a high SES at 20–25 per cent of the schooling resource standard. For some very high fee paying schools this might preserve the status quo. For schools in areas that attract a high SES , but have tried to contain fees to a more modest level, such a proposal may well represent a significant financial loss.

The problem rests in determining the amounts for each school. The SES model itself has flaws in determining what schools are eligible for.

The devil will be in the detail. Will it be flexible enough and discriminatory to deal with the particular school and its circumstances? Will it penalise schools that work harder at fundraising?

There are a significant number of Catholic schools that might fall into that category, losing $1–3000 per student in funding. They would face the unpalatable choice of hiking fees. Some modelling done in Victoria by the Catholic system warns that Catholic primary school fees could rise between 92 and 131 per cent by 2016, forcing out lower socioeconomic status students.

The issue could be raised as to why one sector is means-tested and another is not. If the size of payments to schools is to be determined on a needs basis, it seems reasonable to ask why the child of a millionaire, attending James Ruse High, with the longest waiting list in Sydney, should attract to that school the full payment rather than be means-tested.

The majority of families earning income over $104,000 send their children to government schools.

An important area in all this is the distinction between funding as entitlement and as welfare. Medicare is not means-tested, because its proponents saw the universality of the scheme as an important aspect of social policy. I'd argue similarly that a basic payment is the right of each student, and that additional payments to disadvantaged students/schools are then made on a needs basis.

Nearly 32 per cent of Australian students attend non-government schools. In capital cities this climbs to 50 per cent in years 11 and 12. Non-government schools are already funded according to a sliding scale of need, between 13.7 and 70 per cent of the cost of educating a child in the state system.

Prior to the release of the Gonski Report there were a number of stories on the Grattan Institute's report, 'Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia'. It highlights the success, as measured by international testing, of schools in Shanghai, Korea and Singapore.

Where Gonski highlights a perceived fall in competitiveness of Australian students as a rationale for challenging the status quo, most of the factors cited in the Grattan report do not relate to the allocation of resources, but to the nature of teacher training and the atmosphere in the classroom.

Some of this can be explained in cultural terms, and sometimes these reports, by focusing simply on narrow academic results, do not necessarily report on the quality of education. They also don't explain how pervasive coaching schools and outside tutoring are in the system.

But it seems to me that the measure by which Gonski may base funding will be the cost of an 'efficient' education. This carries real dangers for the quality of Australian schools.

Debates over education tend to focus on the issue of funding of non-government schools. This avoids dealing with real issues that pertain specifically to public education: the autonomy of a local school within a sometimes stifling government bureaucracy, the power of the teachers union in determining standards and accountability; the relationship between selective and comprehensive schools; and the failure of state governments to effectively support and maintain state schools.

I'm not sure the Gonski Report will shift that focus to what can really improve schools. The mandate of the report related to a review of funding, but perhaps an argument could be made that it claims too much for funding in terms of curing the ills of Australian education.

There is no causal relationship between funding and good educational outcomes. Professor Scott Prasser of the Australian Catholic University, writing in Eureka Street, observes that:

The link between education performance and either the quantum of resources or the allocative mechanism is generally considered at least indirect, and by most researchers weak. A strong focus on elements of schooling such as teacher and principal quality, early intervention, targeted programs with proven success at overcoming educational disadvantage, choice, autonomy and accountability is where differences in performance can really be addressed.

I suspect the Gonski Report has little to offer in terms of ways to improve the system in a broad sense. Insofar as it seeks to offer a way forward for government funding of schools, in finding a balance between public and private, and valuing choice and diversity, I suspect it will prove not to be the way forward, either in principle or politically.

In addressing the issue of disadvantage in Australian schooling, I believe it does establish the need for greater funding, most of which should go to government schools. It makes the case for the non-government sector to assume a greater share of the burden in assisting the disadvantaged.

Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius College, Milson's Point, in Sydney.

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, Gonski, education



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Existing comments

Thank you for an excellent article...well worth re-reading. In both health and education our challenge is how to spend the current national resource in these areas better and more equitably, rather than just allocate more public money (which is going to be increasingly in short supply). Indeed, money is not the problem. We are not short of money in these area, but we are of political intelligence and courage to undertake meaningful reform in how we deliver. A core issue is to take back the control of the agenda from highly entitled professionals... it needs to be much more about the "client" and outcomes, and considerably less about the interests of the deliverers of these services.

Eugene | 07 January 2013  

I found this a very interesting and enlightening article. There are a number of comments that are not being addressed in this debate. Teacher training is key as is support for classroom teachers who often expire under the weight of administrative mumbo jumbo. The registration bodies in the two states I have worked in need a serious overhaul. In my experience they have done little to nothing in improving standards or supporting quality teaching. The system has become bogged down in bureaucracy in the quest for greater accoutability and ignores the facts as presented by quality research.

Genevieve O'Reilly | 24 January 2013  

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