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.

Dean Ashenden

Education consultant and commentator

"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

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

9 thoughts on “Gonski? What Gonski? Slaying a mythical giant

  1. Warren Joffe

    Can an expert with his knowledge of relevant facts and figures say how much extra money can be spent on school education in a short time frame without wasting money?

    It is not difficult to think of plenty of ways the money might be spent in apparent good conscience without achieving anything.

    Since the resources and time devoted to every child’s education are vastly greater than they were in the distant past when kids capable of literacy and elementary numeracy were all got up to the mark even if in classes of 60 run by a single nun or the slightly better resourced state schools, what is the real problem now?

    As just a little contribution to clear thinking should we not consider how the growth of something approaching meritocracy since the 1940s has stratified society so that it is not really surprising that a disproportionate number of the poor performers at school are from poor families and/or poor SES districts? To be brutally frank: on average, and please note the emphasis on mere statistical probability, materially unsuccessful people will have children who do worse at school and are on average dimmer than those from areas where the materially successful usually tend to set up house and those whose parents are conscientious enough and/or prosperous enough to send them to fee-paying schools.

    Are those unfortunate facts going to be dealt with adequately by the proposed loadings for disadvantage of various kinds – or is that wishful thinking and the endorsement of old ideas which will just go on wasting money which could be better spent (maybe on those families and those children, and maybe not)?

  2. cnewt27

    As a former teacher in state schools I never thought “Gonski” was any great deal. It was set up to institutionalise forever public funding of private schools. Check out Gonski’s school background. Nothing done by Rudd-Gillard is as shameful as the maintenance for year after year of Howard’s appalling schools funding formulas ( a different one for each system, all aimed at screwing state schools and perpetuating a raft of private schools dependent on public funding. Labor kept it in place for years and then asked a bunch of non-MPs to tell it how to fund schools. What are these Labor MPs doing being in parliament if they can;t work out how schools ought to be funded? Clue: it shouldn’t be how Howard did it. I have asked a Labor senator, now a minister, why this was so and was told that “Latham tried to reform school funding and lost the 2004 election so what can we do?” Well, it occurred to me, you could consider getting another job if you don’t feel you can sell fair funding of schools to the great majority of Australians who send their kids to state schools. Shameful stuff.Remember Julia in the 2010 debate being asked for her proudest moment? She nominated standing up to teachers’ unions! That’s right, those dreadful bullying teachers she’s been bashing since 2007.

  3. Warren Joffe

    @ cnew127

    What’s wrong with saying that there should be an equal amount of public funding for each child’s education up to the age of 16 or whatever school leaving age is fixed at plus loadings for special needs? Or equal amounts for that part of education which represents the public interest in having everyone equipped to be smart-country taxpayers and citizens?

    It would be absurd, would it not, to make the choice of non-government education the test of whether a family with young children is made less able to have more children by reason of government imposed financial stringency? Or are you saying that people like that should feel constrained instead to move to a smaller house or a cheaper neighbourhood so they have enough money for their children’s education? It is their choice, but it is one the government will have forced on them and is therefore responsible for justifying, is it not?

    If I may say so you sound like a propagandist because you share the usual propagandist’s unwillingness to admit that the school funding mix is mostly a state matter and that non-government schools get, in total, a lot less than the schools in the state systems per capita.

    Would it not help to give up referring to rich schools and the funding of schools as if the basic principle was not to ensure each child receives the basics for citizenship and earning a living. And would you not agree that it is long past time to leave the bureaucratic model inherited from the 19th century behind and make most schools autonomous attempts to find and follow the best models?

    Let’s not forget that Australia’s model is different from all others for historical reasons and needs to be built on rather than fantasised about as though revolution of any kind is either possible or desirable.

  4. CML

    @ Warren Joffe – What a load of cr+p! You are just another apologist for the privileged. I am fed up to the back teeth with people who already have an advantage in life wanting to take everything from those who do not.
    The major problem with our school system is that it fosters division. Why can’t we be civilised and have a system like the USA or Canada, where private schools are just that – and funded by those who wish to use them. The best thing the yanks ever did for education is to forbid the funding of private/religious schools in their constitution.
    If only we had been so smart. How do you explain that Australia is very near the top of the list in OECD countries that fund private education? And therefore, have a much higher percentage of children in this type of school. Or is this a case of Australia = right, everyone else = wrong? What arrogance – typical of people like you who support this rort.

  5. Warren Joffe

    @ CML

    Can *you* explain why you just carry on with the usual boring rant while ignoring what is said by others such as my drawing attention to our different model based on history and my pointing out that it is fantasy (or folly I might have added) to think of revolution. You carried on as though you were saying something relevant when you implied that I had said our system was best. I didn’t do anything of the kind.

    I would ask how you think we could get to the Finnish situation from where we are but I wouldn’t expect a worthwhile or even pertinent answer.

    As to the US – have you no idea what a disastrous condition there schools “system” is in?

  6. CML

    How do we get to the “Finnish model”? Simple. Stop all funding to private schools as soon as possible. If nothing else it will start the revolution of which you speak.
    Bring it on!!
    The US school education system is “disastrous” for different, but similar reasons to our own. As I understand it, there are very large discrepancies between the way schools are funded. Sound familiar? The privileged always win it seems. That is the fault of the political system. Also, there is the US cultural differences – more drugs, crime and gun violence than we can imagine.
    Take a look at Canada, where I lived for a number of years. Totally different outcomes, and they also don’t fund private schools from the public purse. It can, and should, be this way in Australia. What we have currently is middle and upper class welfare in education on a super grand scale! Disgusting!!

  7. Gavin Moodie

    An additional benefit of the Australian Government’s ‘Gonski’ funding agreement with the States is that it requires the States to increase their funding of schools, reversing cuts which they have been making over the last few years.

  8. Tom Greenwell

    Thanks for the interesting article. The point is well made that Gonski (neither the report nor the response) addresses what is fundamentally rotten about the structure of education provision in Australia. While public funds contribute to the resource advantage of private schools, there is no associated obligation to enrol young Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thus private schools enjoy relatively privileged student populations in addition to their resource advantage. As the then Cardinal Pell said in 2006 “Catholic schools are not educating most of our poor, especially at the primary level. 72% of Catholic students from families with lowest third of family income attend Government infant/primary schools and only 19% attend Catholic schools. At secondary level 63% of the “poorest” Catholics attend Government secondary schools and 22% attend Catholic secondary schools.” ( The importance of the profile of a student’s peers to their performance is both common sense and has been demonstrated by, amongst others, Chris Bonnor (

    Contrary to Ashenden, it’s not altogether clear to me that the Gonski Review couldn’t have addressed this issue, at least partially. After all, its proposal that private schools receive a proportion of the Schools Resource Standard according to the school community’s ‘ability to pay’ has been adopted. Surely, elements could have been built into this principle that imposed certain obligations on recipients of public funding and reduced and/or eliminated public funding once private fees reach exorbitant levels?

    Ashenden makes a wonderful point that as long as schools compete on the basis of advantages in the resources and student populations they have, choice and competition won’t drive improvements in actual productivity. As things stand, competition doesn’t incentivise schools to do the hard yards with struggling students but to pass them off to somebody else. In reality, it is our public schools that are always there for every young Australian no matter what hardships they’ve been born into. It’s to be expected that somebody as disingenuous as Christopher Pyne would not acknowledge the point Ashenden makes here. But it’s notable and disappointing that a Labor parliamentarian like Andrew Leigh, deeply devoted to choice and competition but apparently lukewarm about better funding, seems to pay so little heed to this fairly straightforward point.

    It appears Ashenden believes that, to help kids who need special attention, a necessary approach is to increase the size of the classes other kids are in. As well as implying that removing maximum class sizes and maximum contact hours would improve student outcomes, he also implies that it’s unreasonable for teachers to negotiate an upper limit on their workload. Some basis for accepting these positions would have been great. Additionally, it would have been nice to see some acknowledgment that, for instance, the National Numeracy and Literacy Partnerships, which have been effectively rolled into Gonski, have succeeded without doing this.

    Another problem with Ashenden’s rather sweeping claims here is that they don’t really attend to the reality on the ground. For instance, he says that at present it’s “impossible for each school to do its own mini-Gonksi, to shift teacher time and effort toward the kids who are falling behind.” In the jurisdiction I teach in, the ACT, a new position was negotiated in our last EBA for an Executive Teacher (Professional Practice). Teachers in this position will spend some of their time in the classroom and some time working with and supporting other teachers. Guess where they’ll generally be placed? In schools where there are a number of kids falling behind.

    @cnewt27 – Good point about Labor’s timidity in terms of reigning in the Howard largesse to high-fee privates et al. Labor MPs who use the excuse that Latham tried and failed in 2004 should address the evidence that his proposals were popular – .

  9. Warren Joffe

    @ CML

    You make my point for me. “Simple, stop all funding of private schools…” Of course it is not going to happen. It’s not even worth anyone’s wasting their time on. Unless you want a brillian career on the Left like Bill Hartley and some of his hardline contemporaries who stayed pure but got nowhere.

    So, as I was saying….. What about starting with Australia’s actual model and improving it or even extending and adapting it to meet overall objectives?

    What would be wrong with system in which it was recognised that we had advanced beyond 1870 and “we must educate our masters” to the point where the realistic emphasis should be on the much greater complexity of an education system, and its ingredients, in 2013 than in the days when “free, compulsory and secular” was the foundation. Emphasis too, in consequence, on the improbability of government, which rarely does anything better when it is complicated that big companies which often make big mistakes, providing a service which meets the needs and desires of all, or even nearly all.

    The model might be based on 80 per cent of students going to private or quasi-private independent government schools, and all the governments efforts being concentrated on getting its share of the task right. That would be to make sure schools in disadvantaged areas were good, perhaps on the model of the better old church run schools which did not reject the dim or difficult (as would be the case these days too especially in the Jewish, Muslim and newer church schools) as well as provision for the truly disadvantaged individual children and the bright ones who weren’t going to get the chance their talents deserved.

    There could be scholarships, beyond those offered by the schools already, so that kids and schools could be matched where it might do good but couldn’t otherwise be afforded. In making that sort of judgment the provision of swimming pools and other luxuries should be regarded as the trivia it is. You wouldn’t be one of those that parrots the glib and inaccurate description “rich schools” would you? Even the slightest real inquiry would show that, unlike well endowed American and some English schools Australian private schools have practically no income earning assets and, indeed, the better they look the bigger their maintenance costs as a rule.

    Why the great song and dance about the old private schools? Shouldn’t we be pleased that they have provided so many people that Australians have voted to represent them. On the Labor side alone, ones who come to mind are John Cain, Bill Shorten, Richard Marles, Clyde Holding, Rob Hulls, Don Dunstan, John Brumby, Steve Bracks, Joan Kirner, John Thwaites. On behalf of the average Australian voter I have to apologise too for all those votes for private school alumni on the non-Labor side…


Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details