Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Pyne's Gonski shambles


In 'Gonski' by Christ Johnston, Christopher Pyne, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and others undermine a heroic 'Gonski' statue with shovelsFederal Education Minister Christopher Pyne is correct in saying that the Gonski scheme is a mess, but culpably wrong to use that fact to ditch the whole idea. The Gonski mess shows few of the actors concerned in a good light, and some, including Pyne himself, in a very poor one. It also reveals fundamental problems in the governance as well as the funding of Australian schooling.

Heading the list of those responsible for the mess is the person who also deserves most credit for coming up with the Gonski review in the first place, and for driving it to the brink of success: former education minister and prime minister Julia Gillard.

Gillard must surely regret her loss of faith midway through the process. Even though the review was her creation, and even though it came up with well-argued and widely-supported proposals, Gillard gave the report a lukewarm, even chilly reception. We'll have to see if the money is there, she said, before launching Gonski on the treacherous waters of 'further consultation', the extensive consultations already undertaken by the review notwithstanding.

Another six months on, Gillard changed tack again, declaring a national education 'crusade' with Gonski as its centrepiece, but by then it was too late. Gillard's mid-stream hesitation was fatal. The 'consultations' effectively eviscerated Gonski.

The first of several key components to go was a 'national school funding body'. As Gonski panel member Ken Boston pointed out recently, that concession to the states and non-government sectors meant that no agency or government was in a position to do the complicated arithmetic required by Gonski's 'needs-based sector-blind' funding model. Hence the technical mess that gives Pyne a spurious causus belli.

Pyne's contribution to this debacle was to act as spoiler from the day the Gonski report was released. In that role he has so far adopted no less than four positions: any Labor legislation of Gonski would be repealed by a Coalition government in favour of the existing funding system; an Abbott government would go with Gonski only if all states and territories signed up; the Coalition was on a 'unity ticket' with Labor and would implement Gonski even though some states and territories had not signed up; and now, after only ten weeks in government, Gonski is ditched.

This deviousness owes much to the then-Opposition's strategy of denying legitimacy to the Gillard Government. It arises also from a bedrock belief in subsidising 'choice' rather than reducing the need for it. And there's the money problem. Although the position is not yet clear, it seems likely that the Abbott Government is proposing to spend less than both it and Labor promised before the election.

Pyne's fourth and current position on Gonski may not be his last. He has bought a serious fight with powerful adversaries. The New South Wales Government, a strong supporter of Gonski from the outset, is livid. Other states, both those who signed up for Gonski and those that didn't (WA, Queensland and NT) will want the money even if they don't want Gonski's needs-based way of distributing it. The Catholic system has been circumspect so far, but it will no doubt mobilise if need be. Tony Abbott's assurances of yesterday, following Pyne's provocations of the day before, suggest that the Prime Minister is more aware of the danger than is his minister

Behind the political and administrative debacle lie fundamental problems of the structure and governance. First is Australia's unique sector system, which sees three different sectors in receipt of government funding in three different mixes, and two of them charging fees while the third does not. It is an inherently divisive and unstable arrangement, and the source of political grief extending back well into the 19th century.

Second, these complications are compounded by the involvement of both federal and state/territory governments in all three sectors. The system is inherently wasteful and ineffectual as well as unstable and divisive.

Third, the drawn-out saga of Gonski has made clear that the machinery of federal-state cooperation through COAG set up by Labor to handle the first and second problems has failed. A different division of funding labour between governments now seems inevitable. One of several options would be to give the states the money for government schools while Canberra takes the non-government sectors.

Last, arguments used to justify school funding since the 1950s are in serious, perhaps terminal trouble. Treasury warnings last year that government spending was rising faster than government income are now echoed across the ideological spectrum. Whatever the upshot of the current political tussle we are headed for hard budgetary times. How will schooling justify its demand for more?

For more than 50 years the claim has been that more funding would allow smaller classes and a more professional teaching profession, and that would in turn bring better and more equal schooling. It has not worked out that way. Per student per year real-terms funding has multiplied at least two and a half times since the mid 1960s. The salaries and status of teachers are no better than they were half a century ago.

While much has improved in schooling there is no evidence to suggest better outcomes or more equality in key areas of learning, and certainly none commensurate with either funding increases or class size reductions.

Gonski encouraged attention to where and how the money is spent, but also maintained a long tradition by insisting that money would be better used only if there was more of it. The question now on the agenda for all concerned, including Gonski's legion of supporters, is whether more can in fact be done with the same, or less.

Dean Ashenden headshotDean Ashenden was Ministerial Consultant (1983–86) to federal education minister Susan Ryan, and has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Christopher Pyne, Gonski, education



submit a comment

Existing comments

POODLE PYNE'S NEW BITE with his new set of canines the reconstructed poodle has savaged a  strongly declared  bipartisan article of faith "a vote for us is a vote for Gonski!" "not a cigarette paper between us!" he declared to a receptive vote-pondering nation  with a classical political "truth" that is more than half lie the poodle's mind now turned  is not for further turning he will not be confused by the facts he can hide comfortably  behind the excuses of all  ultra-partisan  politicians "its THEIR fault" "the pussy ate the cream before  THEY lost Government and now the cupboard is bare" this meally-mouthed name-caller (without the flare of a Keating)  couldn't care a Gonski! going going Gonski! black comedy indeed! BarryO from down on the coast bares his teeth in return with bristling fur he declares a dog-fight in session he will fight for his promised largess Abbott's honeymoon is well and truly  over once  more into the trenches dear friends for the next two years  and how many long days?

John Cranmer | 27 November 2013  

Will we now see the shock jocks shouting 'Christopherliar'? Don't hold your breath waiting.

Ginger Meggs | 27 November 2013  

I'm delighted to hear Gonski might be on the skids, but I'm afraid this Abbott regime seems to lack the spine to do push it over the cliff. I don't share the view that big government models of education are the only ones that work. Where's the empirical evidence? Impoverished African Americans in the 19th century were discouraged, where they weren't outright forbidden, from being educated. Their enthusiasm for literacy must seem to us astonishing, as reflected in the rates: 30 percent at least and in some circumstances much more - I think the education reformer John Holt cited 90 percent in some areas. What could explain this? Well, they had a ferocious desire to learn. A northern Black teacher, Charlotte Forten, was so impressed that a people (southern Blacks) "so crushed to the earth can have such a desire for knowledge." So why are so many children struggling to learn to read in wealth Australia today, groaning as it is with government money and the latest scientific theories - a far cry from the conditions confronting 19th century Black Americans? I'm by no means a genius, but apparently I taught myself to read (I have only the vaguest memory of this): funnily enough, it was during a year when I was NOT at primary school! I was mostly alone and bedridden, due to a perfect storm of measles, chicken pox, mumps and glandular fever. So we don't need a sticky beak government to ensure we can read and write. And if (sorry) Big Nose can't look after the 'pence' of basic literacy, why should we trust it with the 'pounds' of higher educational pursuits?

HH | 29 November 2013  

Christopher and Tony, when you tell us to leave behind the class warfare, is it because you went to exclusive private schools where the status quo seemed to work very well for everyone there? What is it about the Jesuits in Australia? Has their failure to follow Christ now reaping what was sown? They were only interested in teaching sons of the rich, and they weren't going to rock that boat by impressing upon their charges the Church's mission to the poor. The inequity in education funding in Australia is a disgrace that will continue to leave us all the poorer.

David Payne | 29 November 2013  

'We will honour the agreements that Labor entered into. We will guarantee the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure no school is worse off.' (Tony Abbott, 2 Aug 2013, at St Andrews Christian College in Wantirna South, Victoria).

Ginger Meggs | 30 November 2013  

Gillard's Gonski scheme used the shambolic methods of the failed pink batt, cash for clunkers, grocerty watch and the Malaysia asylum seekers scheme. It took money from existing educations schemes and funnelled them into untrialed proposals. It was rushed, ill thought out and did not address the essential problem - what constitutes good teaching and a sound curriculum - carpets in libraries just does not swing it. I am very familiar with the state system having worked in it a long time. Gonski is a 'cash for clunkers' type education scheme that needs to be evaluated and reshaped before it can be implemented.

Skye | 01 December 2013  

The article does not address the core conclusion of Gonski which is not so much about how much money has been spent, but where it is spent. The rich schools have been the beneficiaries the poor schools the losers. This is discriminatory and has Gonski revealed means that a pool of education is lost. This is reason why the poor schools need a bigger share of the funding pie.. It is a proposal that meets the economic, the education agenda and, importantly the right of every child to a good start in life. Minister Pyne assures us that the money will still flow but it is the proposed model that he opposes. He has been accused of not reading the Gonski report I would suggest as a catholic he should also read the gospel according Pope Francis who also says something about the poor getting a fair go

Name | 01 December 2013  

Extensive and differing views on what's needed. I would like to see a bipartisan approach to education taking it out of politics and grounding it in "education". Then we could get a continuity as well as some consensus on what's needed. Christopher Pyne has no idea as indicated by his rant on phonics in the Q and A debate

Judy George | 01 December 2013  

Thanks, Dean. Clear and thoughtful.

Michael Cosby | 01 December 2013  

"It is not a Gonski, it is a Conski". Christopher Pyne's logic and wit are often mysterious, but it seems that before the election he was foreseeing his own and Tony Abbott's future refinement of Howard's "core promises" to promises "that some people thought we made". Ah, the voting public, whom the Coalition have held, for at least the last three years, to have the collective intelligence of a herd of sheep, do mishear things so completely, don't we! No wonder three-word slogans are the only things they truly trust us with. Look what happens with statements such as, "As far as school funding is concerned, Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket." And there were other such long statements that clearly only confused us. See, sixteen words - too many for us dummies to cope with! Stop the words!

Paul | 01 December 2013  

It seems like a good time for the cartoonists to start giving Abbott and Pyne some really long Pinocchio noses.

Ginger Meggs | 01 December 2013  

While the flaws in the Gonski model are obvious to many, to have a minister as limited as Pyne shower it with his short-sighted, ignorant and ideological perspective leaves any genuine reform of our education system in tatters. He says that he wants a national approach and then contradicts himself by advocating more control for the states. It is his ideological drive where less is to be given to the public sector, who in fact carry the load of educating the disadvantaged, doesn't augur well for a more egalitarian society. To think that we have Pyne, Abbott and Hockey for the next three years presents us with a nightmare. It has always been said that a people deserves the government that it elects. And God help us all.

john hill | 01 December 2013  

The column and comments seem to be about political point scoring and money. Please could the govt look at curriculum, up the standards and think about the welfare of the children who leave school often barely articulate. Teacher training is the other area needing an upgrade - yes I've worked in the area and am frequently shocked by the lack of intellectual rigour. I'd like to see a little good will and courtesy as well as positive constructive criticism.

Jane | 01 December 2013  

Would everyone please stop ranting about politicians ,electoral promises, duplicity and incompetence. Let's talk about long term proposals that enhance teacher performance . and improve student learning. It's quite simple . Let educationalists plan ,implement and evaluate programs that actually make the difference for all Australian children and young adults and especially those from impoverished backgrounds. AND give them the financial support they carefully and honestly say can help them achieve their goals.

Celia from Richmond | 01 December 2013  

"I'm by no means a genius, but apparently I taught myself to read .... So we don't need a sticky beak government to ensure we can read and write." Of course not HH, because everybody has the same ability and advantages as you. This is very disappointing HH, here I was expecting you to reply to Jane's comment about teacher training but you didn't. But I know what you would have said: this is a demand and supply problem and if only we would pay teachers a lot more then we could demand better teachers. We would attract better candidates than the ones who score lowest in the tertiary entrance exams! In the olden days (I'm sure you remember them HH) I also learned to read before attending school - but then there was no TV! Books were the best way to escape into adventure - now parents think buying every video game for their kids is being a good parent. Apart from the nuns and brothers (generally hopeless teachers) we had some good female teachers - why? - because women couldn't enter most professions, so the most talented went into teaching. We got the cream of half the population for peanuts. But that doesn't happen now. If we want the students now going into law or whatever to go into teaching we'll need to pay them more like $150,000 and treat them like professionals.

Russell | 01 December 2013  

Well we took it the wrong way . We didn't understand what they were saying, I'm still in a state of bewilderment. When Tony said "There is no difference between the coalition and the labor concept of education funding >" What he really meant is ???????. What did he mean? There's an old Indian saying that probably applies , "White man speaks with a forked tongue."

David | 02 December 2013  

I agree Russell. Throw out the TVs and other entertainment gadgets and many kids would benefit greatly, not only in literacy but spiritually. You and I were lucky. And you're right: pay peanuts and you tend to get monkeys. Which is why I think regulations mandating awards is so benighted. I had good teachers (nuns, brothers, priests and lay) and bad teachers (same) in my primary, secondary and tertiary education (lay only - some shockers in ANU Law, amazingly). Why pay the same rate for a bad school teacher as a good one? Any more so than for a bad vs. good singing teacher...or lawyer? Seems absurd. As you say, a good teacher is easily worth upwards of $100,000. Luckily these days the market is opening up, with good private tutors earning a name for themselves commanding superior fees based on their performance. Then, to dispel any anti-technology attributes implied by my comments above, there's the internet, where you can get yourself a good education in a plethora of subjects for zilch via such amazing sites as the Khan Academy. The market is ineluctably making our stilted state-dictated education system history.

HH | 02 December 2013  

It is amusing how ES attracts so many contributors who are critical of Tony Abbott, when the majority of Australians support and voted for Tony Abbott. The coalition government secured a national agreement on school funding. Labor and former education Minister Bill Shorten left shool funding in a mess.

Ron Cini | 02 December 2013  

I don't know whether it's amusing or not Ron, but it's interesting how all the usually conservative, right-wing, and highly moralistic respondents to this article, like yourself, have limited their comments to the virtues or otherwise of the various deals and have ignored completely the ethics and morality of Abbott's and Pyne's behaviour. If it wasn't straight out lying, then surely you must admit an intention to deceive. Let me remind you again 'We will honour the agreements that Labor entered into. We will guarantee the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure no school is worse off.' Had Gillard said that, and then recanted as Abbott and Pyne did, you, I suspect, would have been among the first to point the finger. Why do you accept different (lower) standards of behaviour for your side of politics?

Ginger Meggs | 02 December 2013  

Adequate funding for school education should be a given, but the structural problem in Australian governance is that at least some of the money is allocated by people (Federal Ministers) who don't have responsibility for educational outcomes (State Ministers). The solution is to either return taxing powers to the States, getting the Commonwealth out of education altogether, or to transfer stewardship of school education to the Commonwealth. I prefer the latter option, because leaving education in the hands of State governments will guarantee ongoing neglect of education in remote and regional Australia (out of sight, out of mind).

David Arthur | 05 December 2013