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Australia

Apr 18, 2013

Gonski? What Gonski? Slaying a mythical giant

The Gonski education reforms are not what you might think they are -- certainly not what Julia Gillard has adopted. Now the government has raised unrealistic hopes of real reform.

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“Gonski” has become a mythical creature, an artefact of high-speed journalism, political spin and misplaced hope.

Australian Education Union leader Anglo Gavrielatos believes the significance of Gonski “cannot be overstated”. A state school principal is quoted as celebrating the government’s “absolutely brilliant” announcement.  The Australian‘s Dennis Shanahan suggests the government has unveiled a “huge” proposal. Independent MP Rob Oakshott says that in Gonski the 43rd Parliament will face its “most important decision”. The Australian Financial Review talks about a funding bonanza, “an additional $14.5 billion in funding for school education”.

None of these claims is correct. What Gonski wanted and the government’s “Gonski” are two very different things.

Gonski did indeed recommend additional funding, more than $5 billion of it (later raised to $6.5 billion), per year. What the government now proposes is a total of $14.5 billion over six years. The annual amount scales up over the six-year phase-in, but is still well below what Gonski wanted, even if it were new money, which it is not.

Most of the federal government’s share of the $14.5 billion total — $9.7 billion — is not “additional” at all. Infamously, some of the $9.7 billion — about a quarter of the total — comes from elsewhere in the education budget, but most of the rest is already going into schools in the form of special programs on literacy, numeracy and the like. In other words, it is already going into the kind of schools slated to get the “new” money.

It is at least possible that when the numbers have been crunched the spending now projected will be seen to fall below the growth trendline of the past decade or so. It is also possible that this explains why Christopher Pyne has announced that a Coalition government will keep any scheme agreed to by the states: it would be cheaper than his previously-promised six per cent per annum.

The fraction of the foreshadowed $14.7 billion going into “loadings” for schools with high proportions of kids from disadvantaged background is likewise modest, a mere 17% of the total. It will be spread much more thinly than Gonski wanted, over one half of all schools rather than a quarter.

The standard funding for a secondary school with no “loadings” is expected to be $12,193 per student. If that student were to transfer to Redlandsin harbour-side Cremorne, the Financial Review calculates they would have $28,900 spent on them. Even a school with totally Aboriginal enrolment, and therefore entitled to very substantial loadings, wouldn’t quite get to the Redlands spending levels.

The government’s plan may be even less redistributive by June 30, the (new) last-gasp deadline for a deal with the states. Money will have to be found to entice the recalcitrant Western Australians into the scheme, and to help South Australia out of a formula that the local Labor government is finding hard to sell.

The proposal going to COAG is a mere shadow of what Gonski recommended. But it also needs to be remembered that while Gonski’s recommendations represented a very important step in the right direction, they were never more than that. Gonski’s plan left largely intact two fundamental and malign features of Australian schooling: the sector-system and a particularly inflexible and ineffective way of using resources.

“The government deserves credit for tackling the mess that is the funding, structure and governance of Australian schooling …”

Gonski made no recommendation about the first of these, because his terms of reference did not permit it, but he had plenty to say about it. Drawing on a detailed analysis by the Nous consulting group Gonski showed that Australia’s unique system of three sectors — funded from the same three sources, in three different ways, and playing by three different sets of rules — has generated the highest degree of competition between schools in the OECD.

Competition for better provision and performance would be a very positive thing, but competition in a zero-sum game for students, funding and prestige is not. In Gonski’s analysis it is the main driver of increasing social segregation and inequality in schooling, and of a situation in which many students (about half a million currently in the system, by Gonski’s estimate) leave school lacking even the most basic literacy and numeracy. What the government now proposes will not even cause this “residualisation” dynamic to break stride.

A second fundamental limitation in Gonski’s plan was that it did not address ways in which the $40 billion currently spent on schools each year could be better directed toward need.

School principals have appeared in the media in the last two or three days talking excitedly about the extra literacy or numeracy teacher they will be able to hire with the money soon coming their way. What no one has said is that the schools could have done that long ago, if they were allowed to, but they’re not.

Agreements between school systems and teacher organisations specify in close detail how schools will spend their resources, per medium of fixed maximum class sizes and teacher contact hours. That makes it impossible for each school to do its own mini-Gonksi, to shift teacher time and effort toward the kids who are falling behind.

It is a great shame Gonski did not realise, or say anyway, that the real power of new money is not in putting icing on the same old cake but in freeing up the old money. The promise of extra money should have been used to push employers and unions toward a system in which all funding can be deployed to meet need.

The government deserves credit for tackling the mess that is the funding, structure and governance of Australian schooling, and (COAG willing) for a scheme that will cheer up some of the schools doing the hardest yards and go some way toward lifting morale in the public sector. Much of the blame, if blame is the right word, for such small gains from such a massive political effort belongs to sector-based interest groups and the state governments, and the history that has given them so much obstructive power.

But the federal government must also wear its share, for waiting so long to get a review of funding under way, for raising quite unrealistic hopes and expectations, for political timidity and bungling, and for an upshot which, even if all goes well from here, can be made to look good only by comparison with the alternative.

*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to state and national education agencies and was ministerial consultant (1983-85) to federal education minister Susan Ryan

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