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Feb 25, 2013

Gonski's education revolution demolished in a weekend

Within a single weekend a long debate over education reform took a dramatic and probably doomed turn. States have revolted on David Gonski's plan, bouyed a likely Coalition government in Canberra.

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Gonski had a bad weekend.

The most recent in a long series of backward steps came on Friday when the Prime Minister announced the reform plan drafted by David Gonski — once scheduled for full implementation this year — will be phased in over five years from 2014. The next day Victorian Premier Baillieu announced Victoria has a better, cheaper alternative to Gonski and will go with that. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman promptly declared himself very attracted to the Victorian plan.

Then Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, a week out from an election win, went on camera to make clear there will be no federal takeover of Western Australian schools while he is Premier. And to cap it off, federal opposition spokesman on education Christopher Pyne told the media on Sunday that “the states run government schools, not the Commonwealth. School funding policy should originate from them, not the other way around.”

Perhaps all this is just manoeuvring in the run-up to the Council of Australian Governments meeting in April, when three years of reviewing, researching, consulting and intense pressure from the states and the non-government schools is supposed to culminate in a decision.

Perhaps. But the states know anything they agree to at COAG will be null and void after the election anyway. And the Prime Minister knows she will have to stump up most of the money because she needs a plan to take to the election, and she would be delighted to actually face the problem of paying for it.

It now seems almost certain there is very little left of Gonski’s widely acclaimed plan to distribute all government funding to schools according to the size of the educational task they confront, irrespective of school sector.

This dismal story has many morals. Here are three of the more important of them.

First, money. Money wasn’t the only sticking point, but it was a big one. Gonski wanted $6.5 billion on top of an annual state and federal government spend on schools of around $40 billion.

But over the long year since Gonski’s proposal went public the states have been cutting education spending, and federal budget projections have gone from bad to worse. The latest phase-in plan is yet another attempt to reconcile election spending with the appearance of budgetary responsibility.

The days of spending yet more on schooling are over. Per pupil funding rose two-and-a-half times in the 50 years to 2003 and may well have risen further since. There is no evidence to suggest any commensurate improvement in performance and some reason to believe that in key areas performance has declined.

New money won’t be found unless it is used to free up money already in the system. A fundamental flaw in Gonski, and one of several blunders by the government, is in the failure to use the promise of new money as a lever for re-allocating expenditure, including requiring employers and unions to phase out wasteful and ineffective maximum class size limits.

Second, for the first time ever Australian school systems are under the common external pressure of international comparisons, highlighted by the Prime Minister’s “top five by 2025” target, but they lack a common way to respond. The Australian “system” is divided into three sectors in each of the six states and two territories. Each sector has its own mix of funding from three different sources. And the whole set-up is over-politicised by close government involvement and incessant electoral cycles.

Gough Whitlam’s Schools Commission was supposed to fix the problem, but it was beaten within a decade. Gillard’s “national partnerships” have failed also. She succeeded in reviving the national curriculum and in introducing the MySchool website with its nationally consistent data on the circumstances, revenues and performance of every school in the country.

But Gonski was the biggest and by far the most important attempt at a “national” approach. It has consumed three years of that scarcest of resources, political oxygen, three years of effort and hope spent with very little to show for it. In prosperous times a federal government might succeed in subduing the states, or the non-government sector, but not both, and both is what we’re stuck with.

An Abbott government will almost certainly move away from both a big national role and big schools funding. There will be few if any gains for the schools that try to provide for half-a-million or so kids currently in the system who, by Gonski’s estimate, will leave without the most basic literacy and numeracy.

The third moral of the Gonski story is that competition between schools and sectors — badly regulated, highly unequal, and fuelled by public money — is now beyond public control.

Gonski presented strong evidence to show government as well as non-government schools with the easiest educational job get the best resourcing as well as feeding off the rest, taking capable students, families and teachers from where they are needed to where they are rewarded. Those schools have won.

“Residualisation” is moving us toward a system of educational slums and gated communities. There is no point in blaming the schools or any one of the sectors. All are doing what the system rewards them for doing. Much of the problem descends from the Whitlam/Karmel policy of providing public funds without matching public control. By bitter irony, it has thereby contributed to the fall of a Labor successor.

*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies and was ministerial consultant to federal education minister Susan Ryan

Dean Ashenden —

Dean Ashenden

Education consultant and commentator

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11 thoughts on “Gonski’s education revolution demolished in a weekend

  1. Damien

    I agree that Abbott is unlikely to want to move away from the Howard era SES private school funding model. But I disagree that there have been no demonstrable impacts of additional school funding over the last 50 years. It completely ignores the growth in digital literacy which was non-existent back then. The point is that the additional funding was mainly spent on hardware such as computer infrastructure, laptops and similar resources which is really capital and not program expenditure.

    Similarly, evidence about the inefficiency of small class sizes is contested. It seems self-evident, however, that a junior primary class of 20 is going to have more success with basic literacy than a class of 35. See today’s SMH article with Chris Richardson’s critique of the Government’s short-term analysis of literacy results. Taken over a 10 year period, results have improved. PISA is also a dodgy indicator, really not fit for the international comparison purpose.

    Also, the Coalition, like all Federal governments since Whitlam, does want to exert more control over school administration including forcing adoption of ideologically driven changes, such as more principal autonomy. The states will, as usual, bargain and receive additional funds in return. It will also have an impact on Catholic systemic schools – by far the largest provider of private schooling in the country. These schools didn’t fare as well as the independents under the Howard SES funding formula and would like change. The bishops are unlikely to agree to significant loss of centralised control over the 25 per cent of school they run without an enormous sweetener in the form of significant additional cash up front- and even then they might not take the extra funds.

    Finally, Dr Ashenden is correct. Susan Ryan found that the only way to implement any type of education funding reform was on a “no losers” basis. The problem is that the Howard SES formula so outrageously favoured the independent school sector that they produced ridiculous, well documented inequities between public funding of elite schools and the rest. Further changes on a no losers basis will simply lock those inequities in for all time. He won’t do Gonski, but the pressure will remain on the next government to do something.

  2. Dean Ashenden

    For Damien: Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I’d like to respond on the significance of just one of them: your point that a class of 20 will be more effective in literacy learning than a class of 35. Yes, to some degree. But the real question, rarely noticed by people who work in and around schooling is this: would other ways of spending the amount needed to reduce classes from 35 to 20 produce better results? The answer is that peer- and cross-age tutoring (for example) would produce very much greater gains for the same spend. Fixed class sizes limits add another obstacle to getting the biggest possible educational bang for the buck. Each school should be able to do a mini-Gonski, using smaller groups/classes where need is greatest, larger ones elsewhere, but industrial agreements on fixed maximum class sizes make that impossible. The same kind of thinking about opportunity costs needs to be done at the macro level too. One recent US calculation, for example, is that putting just five more students in each class (and remember that most classes are smaller the allowable maximum size) would fund a 34% increase in the salary of every teacher. Other evidence suggests that better teacher pay attracts more able people into the profession who in turn make much more effective teachers in the classroom. My point, made a bit cryptically I agree, is that hard thinking about alternatives both within schools and across systems would allow schools to make a lot more of what they’ve got.

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