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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

Many words doth not sound argument make, Chris! One has to ask where Gonski's proposed funding increases to low-SES and other disadvantaged schools feature in this piece, particularly in terms of Jesuit 'sponsorship' of a low-SES Ignatian school in Mt Druitt, or are we arguing a case for funding leniency on behalf of private schools engaged in middle-class morality? And how might you justify the well-to-do receiving public money when equivalent Jesuit schools in the UK and France, such as Stonyhurst, La Flèche and Le Causou, don't get a sou? Where, indeed, is the preferential option for the poor or is the Society so split on the question that it's agreed to bury it for trucial convenience? And while I'm talking Jesuit educational 'justice', might 'reductionism' not be stretched to its limit in reflecting on the big fuss once made of an Afghan refugee at Athelston, when Unley High next door took 36 of them? Finally, Professor Prasser's notion of research - though he at least has the excuse of not being an ACU Education Studies scholar - excludes the socio-cultural contributions of Freire, McLaren, Willis, Giroux and several others, who clearly demonstrate the link between poverty and education performance.

Michael Furtado | 24 February 2012  

This article reflects the narrow, self-focused interests of private schooling. Needs-based funding from government (at whatever tier) should be mandatory. I use "should" because the claim is morally normative. The needs in question are those arising from economic and social disadvantage. Private schooling exists principally because of privilege and from a desire to perpetrate privilege. It is not, and has never been, about inclusion, but exclusion of those without the capacity to pay high or very high fees or, more to the point, any fees at all. It isn't principally about choice and diversity, but exclusion and a kind of middle class sameness.

Rodney Stinson | 24 February 2012  

Chris, you make some good points here, especially about the PISA results. Our supposed slide is probably as much due to the involvement in the tests of the new economies (Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong) as any other reason. Our results in Science have been exactly the same since 2000 but our place has "slipped" because these new economies have come on board. The other factor, as you say, is that PISA results are hardly an indicator of the quality of education. I refer anyone interested to http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703766704576008692493038646.html Michael Furtado: I think your argument comes across as ad hominem ("ad Jesuit"?). I don't see the connection between the first part of your second sentence and the pejorative comment about the school in Mt Druitt. Nor does Chris say that there is no connection between poverty and education outcomes. Most of the research I have read indicates quite clearly that it's the quality of the teacher that is the biggest difference between a good education and a poor one. Maybe that's where the focus should actually be. It might also help if we had a good definition of what "good education" actually is.

ErikH | 24 February 2012  

My criticism, mainly of ES, is this. By retaining the three separate systems we perpetuate the inherent injustice of the Australian dual-education system.

Chris's (and Gonski's) better response could have been that existing for many decades in several OECD countries are low-fee faith schools that are fully-funded and integrated into the public sector.

No fees are charged on pain of losing all public funding. Their curriculum is comprehensive/non-selective and they are accessible to all.

The current situation where the (still predominantly Catholic-school) middle-class systems isolate their children in low-cost private schools is a scandal, and, if overseas precedents were introduced, would disintegrate until most fully-funded school demographics were of a similar 'catch-all' SES.

The cultural benefits of educating middle-class families in all public schools would be immediate and a system that covered 98% of the population (as in Finland or NZ) would ensure pressure to keep the system well-funded and performing.

Resistance from middle-class parents (to segregate their children from working-class students) would ensue. However, those who love justice and hate inequality would insist on this.

Elitist schools would accordingly lose their funding as well as enrolments to integrated schools. I expected a Jesuit educator to develop such an argument.

Michael Furtado | 25 February 2012  

Michael, I was at Ignatius in Adelaide at the time. We had at first not one Afghan as you suggest, but 13 or 14 (including the two Bakhtyaris), with a number of others following later. They were all unaccompanied minors, so we were declared an authorized detention centre (!), with myself classified as a delegated detenttion officer (!!) permit their coming to school without a "carer". I often wondered what impact our letterhead and envelopes might have made had we conveyed that item on them...

I'm not sure whether Unley High was permitted to accept unaccompanied minors back then; the State schools originally could only accept children who had adults associated with them (except for the Woodville language school). I think I am correct in that point for that time - I am sure, however, that Unley is not next door to Athelstone, unless you take a 25 minute car drive across the suburbs to mean "next door".

Gregory O'Kelly SJ | 25 February 2012  

Just a few random rflections on the responses to my article.

I did not go into the whole issue of State aid. per se. I believe a compelling case on the grounds of justice, equity and history can be made - one that can apply to students from any socio-economic background, and one that is in line with Catholic social teaching. If it is to be treated as an issue of middle class welfare then I would simply ask why should not a similar standard apply to State schools.

My more fundamental point is that tying educational funding predominantly to funding (as the debate has tended to do) ignores very important issues about the quality of Australian education. This was not really in the terms of reference of the Gonski report, but the report itself does links the question of performance and funding.

I think Gregory O'Kelly SJ has responded to Michael's comment about Afghan refugees and Athelstone. I was there at the time too. It is worth noting that that school had a similar record in accepting Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and 80s. My own school here in Sydney is sponsoring the start of a new school at Redfern, aimed at indigenous kids who are falling through the cracks of the system. From the Class of 2011 we also have nine boys working for 6 months or a year in remote villages in Vietnam and two working for a year in a small school in Micronesia.

chris middleton | 26 February 2012  

Greg and Chris, your niceness and my politicism shouldn't clash here. Granted that we are called to be charitable as well as just, my determination is that the issues in Gonski are political, rather than about graciousness and kindness, which as a Jesuit school alumnus myself, I unreservedly acknowledge and commend (even if I sometimes get the particulars of events, proximity and spelling of place-names in Adelaide wrong!)

I recognise too that Chris does an excellent job in assessing the difficulties of consultation and implementation that the Review Report now faces, and my research shows that if we are to continue to have a dual-system, which I detest, it makes sense to means-test state-school families.

My view, however, is that trousers, nomatter how wrinked, are better worn than none at all (or swapped with shorts for some and formal dresswear for others), so that what people of goodwill now need is to bring out the policy ironing-board.

Since, therefore, it was the Bishops who scuttled Minister Ryan's integrated school idea in 1983, thereby leading to the appalling inequity and unsettled status-quo we have now, why dont you reinstate that proposal at NCEC, Greg? Results on all fronts will automatically improve.

Michael Furtado | 26 February 2012  

Reflecting a bit more on what Bp Greg & Fr Chris said, I think that the main point of difference here is our constructions of social justice. Some years ago, for my Master's degree, I interviewed four Catholic-school Principals, one of them from an Ignatian school, about the curriculum their school offered and the pedagogic adjustments they might make to accommodate the needs of Vietnamese and East Timorese refugee students then arriving in substantial numbers in Australia. Her concept, she explained, was to turn out the first Vietnamese and Timorese doctors and lawyers in her city and she saw no possibility of adjusting the curriculum in order to accommodate the needs of students unsuited to it. Some years later the Principal obtained a PhD in feminist studies, so I assume that she was by then more conscious of various ways in which schools cater for cultures of class, gender and ethnicity and that concepts of justice in education are hardly absolute or satisfied by good deeds but part of a highly contestable and anti-reproductive discourse. Granted that the Jesuits have a proud record of resisting their schools becoming the Lane Cove Country Club, equity requires much more to be done.

Michael Furtado | 28 February 2012  

Michael Furtado summarises the situation precisly. Catholic schools are used by the middle class in suburburban and regional areas as a convienient low cost way of seperating their children from their poorer neighbours. Incorporation into the state system with the non charging of fees is the only way of breaking down this injust system. I ask Catholic parents about this and get responses ranging from guilty agreement to anger. This is a very long way from what Christ taught.

Paul Devereux | 08 March 2012  

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