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Shorten should handle Gonski gift with care

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David Gonski stands beside Australian flagAmong the many gifts to Labor in the Coalition's Budget is Gonski. The Government doesn't want it, and Bill Shorten does. He can go to the next election with uncontested ownership of one of the most widely supported proposals of recent times.

Moreover, he can do it with the backing of David Gonski himself. In his first substantial statement since the release of his report more than two years ago, Gonski stood his ground. Even better from Labor's point of view, Gonski attacked a rival plan proposed by the Government's Commission of Audit.

It looks like a political windfall. But is it? The risk is, as Yogi Berra put it, déjà vu, all over again.

In 1973 the Karmel committee was asked to fix a school system divided by sector, state, class, and religion. It proposed a 'national' approach, in the social sense as well as political and geographic, and laid out an elaborate design for its implementation. The resulting mess is what, 40 years later, Gonski was asked to deal with.

But Gonski, like Karmel before him, simply wasn't allowed or able to propose solutions anywhere near as big as the problems the review uncovered. It is entirely possible that in 40 years' time someone will be reviewing Gonski on much the same basis as he reviewed Karmel.

The Gonski plan suggested a funding floor but no ceiling. It paid much more attention to the distribution of funds than to their effective use. It assumed that parents would contribute substantially to funding in two school sectors, but not the third.

The 'residualisation' process which Gonski mapped in close detail, and which is giving us gated educational communities at one end and educational slums at the other, is much more than a funding problem. It is also about rules, conventions, and understandings, particularly to do with cherry-picking and excluding students. These were not included in Gonski's brief.

The bullet that neither Karmel nor Gonski were permitted to bite is this: if you want a fully national approach to schooling, one that will reduce rather than entrench social division and that really does make opportunity more equal, then you can't also have three sectors that are funded, governed and regulated in different ways; two levels of government involved in all three sectors in all eight state/territories; and governments on three-year election cycles conducting reform that needs decades of steady pursuit.

Our peculiarly dysfunctional schooling structure has been with us for so long, and is so heavily defended, that it is taken for granted. It is so familiar that it has become invisible. Let me raise for inspection five assumptions shared by the governments which commissioned Karmel and Gonski and by the Oppositions that opposed them.

First, it is assumed that the sectors are immutable. It seems to have occurred to no-one in either the Whitlam or the Rudd/Gillard governments to ask for a sober assessment of the pros and cons of the sector system. Both Karmel and Gonski were required to find ways to bend the sector system to national purposes. Both failed.

A second assumption is that 'government' schools are 'public' schools and, by implication, others are not. In fact all schools are public in several senses, including being recipients of public funds. They could be more so, in ways that would serve the interests of almost all concerned.

Hasn't the sectarianism of the 19th century, which gave us the sectors, faded to the point where the churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, could accept in Australia guarantees of the right to religion-based public schooling of the kind it has accepted elsewhere, including just across the Tasman? And isn't it clear enough now to supporters of government schools that the right to religion-based schooling is now beyond revocation? That a school need not stop becoming 'public' merely because it is not secular?

A third assumption is that some parents don't pay for schooling and some do, and should. This is surely the source of more wheel-spinning immobility than any other issue. One side says: if you don't like what you can have for free then you can go elsewhere and pay for it. The other side says: it's our right to choose, we pay taxes, so why do we have to pay when others don't? It is a futile argument, and massively distracting from real educational problems and proposals, including Gonski's. It will continue as long some pay and some don't.

In any event, the system is unfair. Either all should be eligible to pay (or to be provided with additional support) on the same means-tested basis, or none should pay — or, at least, none who patronise a school willing to play on a levelled-up playing field by broadly common rules.

A fourth assumption, apparently very similar to the second, but not, is that a 'public' school should be run by the government and other schools shouldn't be. Really, no school should be run by a government. Governments have a three-year horizon at best. Making more socially and educationally productive schools is a march of decades. Governments can't provide that. Arm's length statutory agencies can, particularly if schools aren't 'run' in the sense of being told what to do and how to do it.

Schools should run themselves, but within a framework of requirements and expectations that includes a common national core. They should be responsible for making the best possible use of needs-based resources, and for reporting on their work in agreed ways, including countables.

Which brings us to a fifth assumption, which is at the heart of the present political problem: that a national approach is a big-role-for-the-federal-government approach.

This assumption has been sustained by governments of all stripes since Whitlam. Gonski tried to push things further in the same direction, toward an agreement between the federal government and eight state/territory governments about how they would jointly fund schools. Just as Karmel's grand Schools Commission was killed off by the resentful states, so was Gonski's proposal. Governments simply couldn't or wouldn't agree.

But do they have to? A big direct federal involvement was necessary in the 1970s, but it isn't now. Can a national approach be pursued by devolving responsibility within a national framework? The framework suggested by the Commission was lamentably weak, but it doesn't have to be. It could be much stronger in requiring and tracking needs-based funding and in monitoring what schools do and produce.

That kind of national approach would have at least as much chance of delivering on Gonski's educational and social ends as the means he proposed, and more chance of being implemented.

It would get one of the three big structural problems of Australian schooling — the direct involvement of two levels of government in every school jurisdiction — off the agenda.

It would leave the federal government free to lead on other structural and educational problems through ideas and evidence rather than via fruitless pushing and prodding with money.

It would also, however, leave Shorten with a political problem. It would ask him to stick with Gonski's goal, but not with Gonski's plan. More difficult still, it would adopt instead key parts of the Commission of Audit's plan.

That is a very big political ask. We can only hope that Shorten ponders the implications of the alternative.

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.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Christopher Pyne, Gonski, education, Budget 2014



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The original Gonski should be restored and may win Labor votes if it was. But so would the withdrawal of other Labor education policies, including NAPLAN. Gilliard was convinced to introduce NAPLAN in 2008 by Joel Klein, New York’s education head who had launched a similar scheme there. Klein though had to resign in disgrace in 2010 when it was found his department had cooked test results to make his neo-con education policies look successful. (Klein now works for Murdoch marketing educational products for him) NAPLAN – designed to measure student progress - sounds fine in theory but has proven highly stressful for students since its introduction in 2008 and is very unpopular in Australia. It also encourages teachers to “teach the test” and to narrow curriculums to only cover what NAPLAN assesses, to maximize student scores. Such standardized testing schemes have been widely used elsewhere, especially in the US where they have found to ‘dumb down” education there. US schools and teachers “game” these schemes to push up scores to ensure their own and their schools survival. Poor scores mean teachers get sacked and schools closed under the performance-based accountability systems established under America’s No Child Left Behind (2001) and the Race to the Top (2009) schemes. The same is happening in Australia with the teacher evaluation schemes that both Coalition and Labor governments have started introducing. Get rid of NAPLAN Shorten!

dennis | 01 June 2014  

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