Last night I entertained myself by rewriting sections of the Gonski review of schools funding. Where it referred to schools or education, I substituted health. The results suggest that health and education reformers might be able to save a small fortune (at least in the production of reports) by pooling their efforts in future.

For example, the tweaked Gonski review says:

“Australia lacks a logical, consistent and publicly transparent approach to funding healthcare.

“The Australian Government and the states and territories, in consultation with the non-government health sector, should make reducing health disadvantage a high priority in a new funding model. This will require resourcing to be targeted towards supporting the most disadvantaged populations.

“New funding arrangements for health should aim to ensure that: differences in health outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions; all Australians have access to a health-promoting environment and a high standard of healthcare regardless of their background or circumstances.”

It’s not surprising that the issues identified by the Gonski review as important for education are so similar to those that matter in health. As the report points out, the health and education of individuals and communities are closely related.

It says: “As many researchers have found, higher levels of education are associated with almost every positive life outcome — not only improved employment and earnings, but also health, longevity, successful parenting, civic participation and social cohesion. Countries that have significant numbers of people without adequate skills to participate socially and economically in society endure higher social costs for security, health, income support and child welfare.”

But the real take-home message — from the tweaked Gonski report, anyway — is that the people and communities who are suffering educational disadvantage are also more likely to suffer worse health.

The “five factors of disadvantage” that Gonski and co say are affecting educational outcomes are also important for health: socioeconomic status, indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability, and location in a remote area.

At the same time, health and education policies often end up cementing that disadvantage. Those who are most likely to suffer poor health often have worse access to health care than better educated, healthier, wealthier people (who are more likely to have attended private schools).

While in an ideal world we might have equity-based funding for health and education, this only ever going to be part of the solution. The education portfolio is not the only powerbroker when it comes to addressing education inequities — just as the health portfolio cannot be expected to solve inequities in health.

The solutions also lie elsewhere, including in the broader social and economic environment, and in community development. They also lie with us, the electorate and whether we understand or care that inequities in health and education matter, for society as a whole, as well as for those who are not currently getting a fair deal.

It is therefore disappointing that the Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Education Minister Peter Garrett have been framing the Gonski discussion as a matter for schools.

Garrett, in inviting the public to participate in a discussion this morning (using Twitter hashtags #schoolsfunding and #gonski), wrote: “We’re starting the nation’s biggest schools conversation. We want to hear from everyone involved in schools. We want to know what people think about the Gonski report, schools funding and the future of Australia’s schools.”

On a similar note, the Prime Minister tweeted on Monday: “We want to know what everyone involved in schools thinks about #Gonski’s recommendations”.

The Gonski report could instead be used to start a conversation about what sort of society we want: a fair one where all children have a chance to achieve their potential, or one where children growing in some places are likely to end up with poorer educational opportunities, worse health, and shorter lives.

These are not only moral concerns; more equitable societies are likely to do better in many ways.

This recent article in The Atlantic, extolling Finland’s equity-focused school system, noted the benefits for the economy and wider society. Perhaps one day, federal cabinet will combine with state and territory leaders to run a Twitter chat discussion under the hashtag #fairsociety …

Peter Fray

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