Villains of Australian education funding


'Labor's education equality' by Fiona KatauskasThe past seven days have seen the Gonski proposals trigger exactly the kind of childish squabbling between political parties, school sectors, and interest groups that they are intended to prevent.

The first stone was cast by the Independent Schools Council when it reported modelling to show that some of its member schools would be worse off under Gonski.

Next came Prime Minister Julia Gillard, addressing the national conference of that same council. She was spooked, apparently: having previously promised that no school would be worse off, she now promised that every independent school would be better off.

Next up to the podium was Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott. He declared that non-government schools were hard done-by because they got only 21 per cent of government funding but had 34 per cent of students.

Meanwhile the Australian Education Union (AEU) planted 6000 'I give a Gonski' placards — one for each government school — on the lawns in front of Parliament House, and predicted a dire future for the sector under and Abbott government

The week ended with Opposition education shadow, Christopher Pyne, accusing the government of having a Gonski 'schools hit list', and promising to repeal any Gonski legislation in favour of the very system Gonski found to be haphazard, inequitable and counter-productive.

Thus the week ended with even greater uncertainty as to the funding of Australian schools than it began with.

The Opposition insists its policy is straightforward and definite. But does that square with its promised budgetary austerity? And what storms would face a government trying to repeal Gonski, should it be there to be repealed?

The Government, for its part, clearly wants to get Gonski up, but it has to get the states to pay their share. This is no easy matter when the four biggest states are in hostile political hands. Moreover, it faces its own deepening budgetary problems, and is rightly worried that Gonski will be good money after bad.

Gonski is commonsense itself: every school, irrespective of sector, should be funded according to the size of the educational job it is asked to do. All government funding, federal and state, should go through a single national body charged with working out the size of each school's job and apportioning funds accordingly.

The idea is simple, but its implementation is not. Pyne claims, probably correctly, that the government has again delayed announcing its response to Gonski because the calculation of need is proving to be so complicated.

More worrying to the Government is that Gonski promises much but guarantees nothing. Will the money end up in the schools for which it is intended? If it does, will they know what to do with it? And will they be allowed to?

The reflex of many, including the AEU, is to spend yet more money on still smaller classes, evidence as to its negligible effect and very high cost notwithstanding. Gillard wants each school to prepare a performance improvement plan. Whether that is naïve or desperate is hard to tell.

Another entire cluster of difficulties derives from the fact that while Gonski proposes a sector-blind system of funding he leaves intact a system divided into three sectors, each in receipt of different mixes of funding, and requiring some parents to pay while others do not.

These are some of the consequences.

First, Gonski provides a funding floor but is unable to impose a ceiling, leaving many independent schools free to do what they have been doing ever since Karmel provided them with government subsidies back in 1973, spending yet more money to put yet more daylight between themselves and the rest.

Second, the system is inherently competitive, as between systems, schools, and parents. Australia now has the most marketised system in the OECD, and hence the highest concentrations of the educationally-advantaged at one end of the scale and the disadvantaged at the other, with predictable educational consequences.

Third, parents patronising non-government schools are hard done-by, just as Abbott contends, although he fails to chase the point to its logical conclusion. Why should some parents pay heaps when others who can afford to pay nothing at all? More troubling: why should many in low-fee Catholic schools pay fees they can't really afford when their govvie-school neighbours do not?

The old answer is: because parents who put their kids in non-government schools have 'opted out' of the government system, and because different schools play by different rules.

As a secular person of sternly Protestant upbringing, I should disclose that I hanker after the idea of a common and secular schooling. But the irreversible reality is that since the Karmel/Whitlam reforms delivered government subsidies to all, the proportion 'opting out' has risen from 22 per cent to 34 per cent and counting. People don't opt out any more. For better or for worse, they choose.

Moreover, non-government schools, and particularly Catholic systemic schools, increasingly play by rules shared with the government sector and, conversely, many government schools are acquiring the prerogatives of non-government schools. The great majority of schools are moving within reach of a common regulatory regime.

The root cause of, and therefore the solution to, many social, political and educational problems is not in funding, in who gets how much from whom compared to whomever else. It's the system, stupid!

There is no one villain.

Teacher organisations have been advocates for one sector rather than opponents of the whole structure. Catholic bishops since Whitlam's time have insisted on public subsidies for avowedly 'elite' or 'exclusive' schools in pursuit of a guarantee, the private 'right' to public funding. These 'elite' schools and their clienteles have engaged in vigorous class formation, consolidating dominant groups in their schools, and dividing them further from others.

State and federal governments of both stripes have adopted policies which have supported and entrenched an educationally and socially counter-productive organisation of a major public institution. Parents have done what they think best, often with severe misgivings, in the face of a system not of their making.

The blame could be chased all the way back to the settlement of the 'free, compulsory and secular' settlement of the 1880s and no doubt well beyond that. But the point is: how many more generations has this scheme of things got left to run?

Gonski is a glimpse of what a school system ought to look like, one that protects the choice of secular or religious schooling, single-sex or co-ed, but after that, all parents on the same basis, all schools ditto.

Hard to imagine? No need. Just get on a plane and go to just about any other country in the OECD. Not the UK or the US, I concede. Finland for preference.

Dean AshendenDean Ashenden has been a consultant to state and national education agencies and ministers of education. He has written on a range of education issues in academic, professional and the mass media.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Gonski, education, Catholic schools



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Existing comments

"Sending good money after bad," comes closest to summarising governmental approaches to our national education crisis. The school problem is not so much an educational one as a social malaise. Our teachers,in both public and private institutions, are trying to deal with a significant nmmber of dysfunctional children from dysfunctional homes. Society's changed attitude to marriage and sexual relationships has consequences that result in a number of unteachable pupils entering school, holding back their own progress and that of their peers. School staffrooms abound in disaffected teachers, both the raw and the experienced, frustrated, physically sick and mentally exhausted as they try to cope with this societal problem that this same society wants to ignore. Our permissive mores have consequences, but we try to wish these away. Any statistical analysis of our academic performance in the last twenty years is a troublesome reminder that money is the easier but ineffective political response. We need a basic change in values so that the self evident right of children to a stable family environment is recognised. Any government that can help affect this will be doing good from many points of view, not the least, educationally.
Grebo | 24 August 2012

Excellent analysis. Our Australian health and educational systems share some remarkable characteristics,which embarrassingly reflect some realities of Australian society itself. They are both inequitable systems, distorted by powerful pressure groups that represent a whole matrix of self-interest, arbitrary but entrenched ideas of group "entitlement", rorts and rent-seeking. Most political initiatives are populist and make things worse; no party has the guts or indeed will to tackle the underlying dysfunctions, essentially because they reflect our core culture, for better or worse, and too many powerful and privileged people will be upset if there is real reform. Fortunately, both systems work "OK", but neither function as well as they should for the public money being spent, and in both there are lots of innocent losers. More money is not he answer, especially if not spent strategically for the common good, which it won`t be!. As a catholic I find it embarrassing that my Church is up to its neck in this mess, and is not much more that just another partisan "player" among many.
Eugene | 24 August 2012

What a mess educational funding has become. This article with its clarification of Gonski’s report does much to untangle it. The argument for a single national body to determine the degree of difficulty each school has, and then apportion appropriate funding from state and federal sources would appear to be irrefutable. It that system works elsewhere why not here? It first needs to be recognised that the current system as it applies to educating all Catholic students in Catholic schools has collapsed. Catholic schooling , especially at secondary level, has become the preserve of a wealthier middle class. Poorer Catholic parents do not now have the choice of schooling that Gonski would give them. However, while the present system remains and those parents through financial necessity or for other reasons must send their children to state schools, they are unlikely to have a visit by the parish priest- as my own parents did many years ago- threatening hellfire and damnation for having one of their children taught in the ‘secular Godless environment’ of a local state school. Bring on Gonski.
Brian | 24 August 2012

The Gonski report does not say that “every school, irrespective of sector, should be funded according to the size of the educational job it is asked to do”. It says that we should continue with the Howard government’s SES system, under which schools are funded according to the wealth of the people who live near the children who go to the school, though it wants a smaller area for those neighbours. That is why the Gonski SES model produces so many losing schools, just as the Howard government SES model did. Neither version of the SES model takes any notice of school fees. The Howard government had to compensate half the private schools in the country for the inadequacies of its SES model. The Gillard government will have to do the same thing or change the Gonski SES model to one like Labor’s old education resources index model.

The evidence in support of smaller classes is clear. It is very sad to see people associated with the Labor Party opposing decent working conditions for teachers. Every extra student means extra correction. In fact, the average Victorian secondary class size, while an improvement from 22.7 students it was in 1999, is, at 21.4 students in 2011, behind the 20 students it was in 1992.

The Gonski report does not “impose a ceiling” on fees because advocates basing funding on “parents’ capacity to pay”. It is designed to push school fees up and thus will have the effect of increasing social segregation in our schools.

Many aspects of the Gonksi report are excellent, but the flaws are serious and were pointed out the day the report was released in an unpublished letter I submitted to the editor of The Age:

‘The Gonski report is, overall, a magnificent and meticulous plan for the future funding our schools (“A historic chance to fix education funding”, 21/2), but it contains two daggers – one pointing at the hearts of all our teachers and one pointing at the hearts of low-fee private schools.

‘To determine the school resource standard by looking at what so-called “high-performing” reference schools cost is both bizarre and dangerous. It is bizarre because some differences in expenditure have nothing do with education (e.g., the different WorkCover levies in different states) and nothing meaningful is to be learnt by averaging out the costs of a $30,000-fee private school and a $10,000-a head public school that just happen to have the same student results. It is dangerous because it adopts the “inputs don’t matter” philosophy that so damaged Victorian schools in the 1990s.

‘To ignore school resources and determine funding for private schools based on the capacity of parents to pay is both discriminatory and inequitable. It is discriminatory because there is no suggestion that public schools be funded in the same way - though this recommendation will give impetus to that idea. It is inequitable because it will force the most inclusive private schools to put up their fees and thus become more exclusive.

‘More than 80 per cent of the recurrent costs of a school are teacher employment, and there is little scope for variation in the remaining less than 20 per cent. The AEU, the IEU and the low-fee private school authorities ought to combine to pressure the government into adopting an explicit staffing formula as the basis for the school resource standard and the schools’ own resources as the basis for the funding phase-down. The model adopted by the Victorian Labor government in 2005 is conceptually rational though financially inadequate.’

Six months later, one of the flaws I warned about is getting some coverage. The other still is not.

There is a much longer discussion of the implications of the Gonski report and links to lots of material at

Chris Curtis | 25 August 2012

‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.’ - a commonsense motto that would benefit society and a principle that should be applied to tertiary education. Then we would have the most able and suitable people in professions that need high skills and natural ability.
Bob Corcoran | 28 August 2012

For Chris Curtis: (1) Any way of estimating the size of the educational job each school is asked to do must use indicators, or 'surrogates', of course. Gonski suggests continuing with SES as ONE of those measures, for the time being, but urges also the development of better indicators and sets out in some detail what these might be. Those interested can find the detail in Gonski's report pages 255-260, and other passages referred to in those pages. (2) The evidence on class sizes is indeed clear, in fact overwhelming: class size reductions are in almost all circumstances, including those now obtaining in Australia, very much less effective than other educational interventions and very much more expensive. Those interested in the detail should consult John Hattie, 'Visible Learning: a digest of more than 800 meta-studies to do with performance' (2009). See also a more recent (2011) study
Dean Ashenden | 28 August 2012


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