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Shorten should handle Gonski gift with care

  • 28 May 2014

Among 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