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Gonski process leaves schools in limbo


A two year process of research, consultation, public input and expert consideration and analysis is a reasonable route to follow for a government-appointed independent inquiry into a major policy issue, and there is no question that school funding is such a major issue.

But when that lengthy and costly process leads directly into a further protracted process of consultation, public input and bureaucratic consideration, the value of the initial inquiry is open to question.

When Julia Gillard, as Education Minister, appointed the Gonski review of school funding in April 2010, it was with a promise that an objective and balanced assessment of the claims and counter-claims in this highly politicised area would lay to rest the long-running acrimonious debate about school funding arrangements and provide expert advice as a foundation for government action.

Instead, the Gonski panel has recommended a complete overhaul of funding, involving readjustment of entrenched Commonwealth-state responsibilities, the estabishment of new bureaucratic structures in each jurisdiction, and ongoing uncertainty for schools.

While the full 250 page Gonski report released at 1pm on 20 February 2012 warrants a more detailed examination than has yet been possible and may well reveal a strong rationale for its proposed revolution in funding, at face value the main proposals and the government's response to them hold little promise for school funding to become more effective and equitable in the near future.

The main recommendations of the review are for a comprehensive approach to funding which would entail a realignment of current Commonwealth and state roles, the payment of a base grant for every student, the provision of additional funding according to need and the introduction of a schooling resource standard.

The purpose of this overhaul is to bring greater coherence and consistency to the current complex funding arrangements, in the expectation that this will raise education achievement and increasing equity. The aim of greater coherence and consistency is commendable, but may well have been achieved by reform of the present arrangements rather than a complete revolution.

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.

The concept of a base grant for each student and funding according to need are necessary components of any funding system, including the present Commonwealth Government system for funding for non-government schools, in theory although not in practice for all schools.

The idea of a schooling resource standard is not new, and presents many challenges in its detailed design if it is to be robust, based on sound data and implementable. The construction of an acceptable standard will need considerable work and careful collaboration. It is not likely to be a speedy process.

Even less speedy is the proposal to pass the burden of further investigation to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the cumbersome machinery of Commonwealth-state bureaucracy hardly renowned for its capacity for effective policy-making in the public interest.

While the bureaucratic processes crank up to establish working groups, engage with stakeholders, consider options and model new funding arrangements, the Gillard Government is launching a new public relations campaign to discuss school funding with the wider community, a repeat of the public inquiry process itself. In the meantime, schools are left in limbo about their future funding.


Scott PrasserScott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy at the Australian Catholic University and Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute based in Canberra. 

Topic tags: Scott Prasser, Australian Catholic University, Gonski review, education



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Existing comments

Any money spent at any level on Australian education is sending good money after bad.This will be the case while a significant portion of our school population remains unteachable because their education is severely prejudiced by their dysfunctional home backgrounds. Our high divorce rate, our irresponsible attitude to marriage and our loss of the solidity of family life result in an annual school intake of children many of whom are undisciplined to a degree that not only prejudices their own learning but that of their peers. This is not to blame parents who find themselves in difficult circumstances, often being the innocent victims. My point is that such social problems do affect pupils to an extent that money cannot address . As a nation we seem to want to ignore this sorry plight and think a Gonski Report and its resultant funding plan will solve our problems. It has not and it won't. When our young people's education is complemented by stable famiies, governments can spend knowing the money can be wisely used. For the last twent years, at least, that has not been the case.

grebo | 21 February 2012  

Nice piece. Whether COAG is a blockage or the long but most effective way to change needs to be debated. On education the passions rise early and stay up late. A publicly conducted intergovernmental negotiation may look to be a waste of time. On the other hand it may also be the only way to lock in critical support.

RFI Smith | 21 February 2012  

I haven't had a chance to read the Gonski report, but I notice that all the published material associated with it in the media deals with questions of money – and of course unfavourable comparisons between our outcomes and those of other cultures. But one of our biggest problems is cultural, not fiscal. Confucian cultures have respected learning and teaching for countless generations. Our media is dominated by sport and celebrity trivia. We celebrate money, not brains. Even in universities teaching staff are the poor cousins of the research staff, and those teachers who guide children through their first fumbling steps to literacy and numeracy are at the bottom of the education hierarchy, when they should be seen as its foundation. Bob Carr, when Premier of NSW, tried to reverse this with the Premier's Spelling competition and honouring HSC high achievers, but that was only a baby step. So much needs to be done – with more than money.

Joanna Mendelssohn | 21 February 2012  

I agree with Scott. If the expert panel has read its 7000 submissions, read lots of solid data and consulted widely, and as Julia Gillard virtually puts it, education is the second "greatest moral challenge" of our time (!), why procrastinate further?. However, predictably, there will be respondents like Grebo who want immediately to blame the victim rather than acknowledge that the social dysfunction he describes does require extra educational funding. It is true that as Prof Basil Bernstein said in 1970 "Education cannot compensate for society" but the evidence is that well-resourced teaching (including differential staff/student ratios according to level of disadvantage and a policy of mentoring and teacher initiated research) can make a difference. Finally, if self-esteem and achievement in non-academic fields can promote school attendance, reduce depression and help learning, give me the non-government musical instruments, swimming pools, rowing facilities, acres of sports fields and legions of grounds staff and offer them to all public schools.

Bill Hampel | 21 February 2012  

As a former senior bureaucrat in both the Commonweath & Victorian Public Services, I enjoy the entertainment provided by eminent scholars when they emulate Ministers who want to do something & do it now! How?? Perhaps we need a coup d'etat & the Generals could do it all by tomorrow morning if not sooner?

Graham Holmes | 21 February 2012  

Bill Hampel, I specifically wrote I wish to blame no one. I want a social reality recognised which may be the beginning of trying to do something about it.

grebo | 21 February 2012  

It would be nice to see academics such as Scott genuinely acknowledge, first and foremost, that the Commonwealth's first priority is to a well resourced, world-class public education system, which affords equality of access and educational opportunity across the socioeconomic board. Once all politicans start sending their kids to the "state school" we'll know we're getting somewhere in terms of social justice in education.

Michelle Goldsmith | 21 February 2012  

Oh, touche, Graham Holmes! The wonder of it all is that Scott Prasser isn't just an eminent scholar but a professor of public policy at a Catholic university, whose position was advertised with particular reference to promoting various aspects of Church teaching that impact on the public policy realm. Now, granted that the Church itself has those in high office whose affinity for democracy is somewhat tenuous, and that Catholics might legitimately differ on matters of public policy preference, one might at least expect Professor Prasser to write insightfully on various aspects of refugee and other policy agenda that Catholics and likeminded others might wish to bring to the fore. That he has, to my knowledge, never done this is hardly more than a sin of omission; no worse, indeed, than several of my own. However, when he perorates, as he arguably does here, toeing a line that is indistinguishable from that of the standard approach to school funding and improvement of political conservatives, he does his readership in a Jesuit publication something of a disservice. Gonski and Gillard, for all their faults, have so far toed a line that eschews class warfare while highlighting disadvantage. What's wrong with that?

Michael Furtado | 21 February 2012  

This Gonski review of government school funding is long overdue and Julia Gillard should be given most of the credit. The education of children in government schools in some areas of Victoria has deteriorated since the early 1990's because of the policy of the Kennett government to close schools and cut funding. The Latrobe University political scientist, Dennis Altman, wrote an article for the 'Age' newspaper on this subject a few years ago. The Bracks, Brumby and Bailleau governments have done little to rectify this lack of funding. People should not blame parents in so called dysfunctional homes, because these parents often have not had a good education and good parental role models. Better funding provides better teachers and facilities. Teachers have told me that the attitude of a lot of current day teachers is to spend most of their time facilitating learning to motivated children and neglecting children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Apparently, teaching skills have deteriorated. The most disadvantaged children in Australia are Aboriginal children who do not have good schools and especially good libraries and computer technology.

Mark Doyle | 23 February 2012  

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