The problem with the Gonski Review into education, Kevin Rudd told his former speechwriter in March, was that the vast majority of voters had no idea what “Gonski” means. In the manner of modern Labor governments, a commitment to increased funding for education — which has the support of three-quarters of the Australian population — had somehow become swaddled in the language of the “independent review” necessary to justify it.
Nevertheless, today the Prime Minister will announce her intention to plough forward with the government’s promises on Gonski, worth an extra $14.5 billion in federal and state funding, despite a $12 billion collapse in revenue since MYEFO.
The Gonski promise sets a “resource standard” for primary students of $9271 per child and $12,193 for their secondary counterparts. The $6.5 billion in extra funding per year would be divided between federal and state governments, with states increasing their education spend by 3% a year to receive a concomitant 4.7% rise in federal funding.
When the Gonski nitty gritty was released two weeks ago, the Prime Minister reiterated, as part of her National Plan for School Improvement, a related promise to make Australian schools in the top five globally in reading, science and mathematics by 2025. This aims to reverse a damaging trend: in 2000, only one country outperformed Australia in reading and science and only two countries outperformed Australia in mathematics. By 2009, six countries outperformed Australia in reading and science and 12 countries outperformed Australia in mathematics.
A major sticking point remains the states — a do-nothing Council of Australian Governments meeting 10 days ago has left public servants in Victoria and South Australia scrambling behind the scenes to reach agreement before the June 30 deadline. With New South Wales signed on, the two major conservative holdouts are Western Australian and the Northern Territory.
Controversially, Labor has decided to partly fund Gonski by ripping $2.3 billion out of higher education. Peak lobby group Universities Australia has now ratcheted up its media campaign, releasing TVCs of sullen graduates frowning into the camera. Despite School Education Minister Peter Garrett spruiking graphs of real increases to higher edover the last decade, funding per student has flatlined.
The Gonski legislation is currently before Parliament but the full reforms won’t be phased in until 2014-20, when Labor is likely to be firmly entrenched in opposition. Garrett has promised the Gonski legislation will be debated before Parliament rises for the election on June 27.
After the Gonski numbers were released, Tony Abbott said that while he supports the reforms “in principle”, he will reject the government’s proposals, arguing in favour of “fine-tuning the existing system rather than trying to turn the whole thing on its head”.
While its official policy has yet to be released, shadow education minister Christopher Pyne has been keen to emphasise long-held positions like greater autonomy for principals and reductions in state bureaucracies. Education should be about “values” and “more traditional” teaching methods, not money, Pyne reckons.
Under the current system that expires at the end of 2013, funding for schools is shared between state and federal governments. This is supplemented, to varying degrees, by private sources. Federal funding mainly occurs through National Partnerships. These are individual programs negotiated between states and the federal government which target particular needs such as disadvantaged schools or technical training. A review of these arrangements occurred in June 2011 and makes interesting reading.
Some clues to the Coalition’s approach are contained in its 2010 platform, that included a number of reforms including a “better teaching reward fund” and a voucher system for students with a disability worth up to $20,000. More will become clear in the weeks after the May 14 federal budget when the Coalition has promised to release its full costings after they’re assessed by the new Parliamentary Budget Office.
While the Greens also support Gonski’s principles, they are critical of the federal government’s current education “underspend” that will result in an increase of $1 billion in funding this year, calling for increased cash “urgently”. They claim the full Gonski reforms can be fully funded by closing the loopholes in the failed mining tax, which raised just $126 million in its first six months.
The party is also critical of the timeframe of the National Plan for School Improvement, which will not see the Gonski reforms fully implemented until 2020. They have previously announced five principles by which they will judge the plan:
A new needs-based funding model that promotes equity and high standards
Significant investment by the Federal government in public schools, with the $5 billion Gonski figure as a minimum
A new funding model that directs new funding to public schools
An education system that meets the needs of all students, particularly those with special needs
All non-government schools that receive government funding should comply to high standards of transparency, accountability and community standards.