Another Gonski deadline has come and gone, and yet another has been set. What is it with this Gonski business? Here is everything you wanted to know about Gonski but were too fed up to ask …

How long has this soap been running?

Since April 2010 when then-education minister Julia Gillard announced a review into school funding, to be chaired by the ubiquitous businessman and philanthropist David Gonski.

Terms of reference were finalised in July 2010. In December the review panel published an issues paper, and then got down to serious work. Some 5700 submissions, 39 school visits, 71 formal consultations and four commissioned papers later the final report went to the federal government in December 2011. In February 2012, then-prime minister Gillard released the report, provided a lukewarm endorsement, and announced yet more consultations.

Six months on, the government’s worries about its electoral prospects had deepened. Gonski would be its salvation. An “education crusade” was declared, and in December Gonski was encased in “the most important legislation of 2012”.

In the absence of any agreement with any of the eight state and territory governments or the Catholic and independent sectors, the legislation was entirely contentless. The detail would be finalised and agreed at a COAG meeting. In fact that meeting produced only acrimony. The deadline was extended again, to June 30.

Come June 26, only New South Wales, South Australia and the ACT had signed, although the Catholic and independent sectors were said to be on-side. The Australian Education Act, now with content, albiet incomplete, passed through the Senate within hours of Gillard losing her job. Two days later her successor announced to a startled press gallery that he was a reasonable man, and so another fortnight would be OK.

What is “Gonski”, now?

Not what it was. Gonski wanted: a “national schools resourcing body” to disburse all public funds, state and federal, to all schools, irrespective of sector. Schools would get a base amount plus loadings according to size, location and how many poor, Aboriginal and non-English-speaking students they enrolled.

The loadings would be tightly concentrated on just one in four schools, most (but not all) of them in the government sector. It would cost around $5 billion (later raised to $6.5 billion) on top of the current annual government spend of around $40 billion and the often-forgotten $7 billion or so from non-government-sector parents. Some of the new money would come from the federal government, some from the states.

What we now have: no national body; separate deals on offer to each government and sector; a promise that each system in each state will decide how to use its money; agreement that the money will be spread much more thinly (over half of all schools rather than one quarter), and loadings, by one calculation, to comprise just 17% of the total; a promise that every independent school will be better off; very little money for the first two years, and two more years before full flow; and a new requirement that every school (all 9500 of them) would have to prepare “development plans”.

We still have five hold-outs, two of them (Western Australia and Queensland) seriously stroppy, and a possible future Abbott government saying (in its third policy iteration) that unless every system signs up it will stick with the old funding scheme, for the short-term at least.

In sum, what was proposed as a serious national assault on educational poverty has been turned into a familiar brawl among nine governments and three sectors over who gets how much of the pie.

Will it happen?

Even in the event of a Rudd miracle, and in the event of all states and sectors getting on board, and even in its now-attenuated form, Gonski will face serious obstacles. By 2016, when the real money is proposed to flow, budgets may be even tighter than they now are. If so, ways will be found to re-schedule, to trim, and to steal from Peter to pay Paul.

A Coalition government would go further. Tony Abbott has claimed the present system is “not broken”, Gonski’s scathing evaluation of it notwithstanding. Abbott shares with his entire party room a belief in making “choice” more “widely available” through subsidies to non-government schools rather then levelling the playing field. That would have to be balanced against public support for Gonski, and endorsement of it by one or more conservative state governments.

If all states sign up, an Abbott government would have two years before real money is required in which to nip and tuck, duck and weave. If one or two states do hold out (as Abbott is urging them to do), the political task would be so much the easier.

Will/would it make any difference?

Yes, no, maybe, and no again. Yes, it would cheer up the schools doing the hardest yards and the government sector generally, for a while anyway. More importantly it would reinforce two important principles: that all schools, and not just the govvies, serve public purposes; and that public effort should be deployed to reduce the impact on kids of huge differences in what their families can provide.

No, it would make little difference to the steady flow of “aspirational” families into schools catering to families just like them. Any Gonski money would be nowhere near enough to change massive differences in schools’ social, political, cultural and educational capital, the last of these provided mainly by students, to each other.

Maybe “Gonski”, taken together with other developments including more public information about schools’ performance, and pressure on performance (from the OECD’s international comparisons particularly), would see at least some improvement in some curriculum areas, among some groups of students and schools.

No, it will not get Australia into the top five by ’25, not least because other systems will improve more quickly than ours can.

Should it be supported?

In my opinion, yes, strongly — but conditionally. The principles involved are fundamental, and however disappointing the specifics may be when compared with what Gonski wanted, Gonski-lite is very much better than the alternative. The money involved is not huge; indeed, it seems likely to fall below the growth trend of recent years, around 6%.

The key condition: further progress should only be made by doing what Gonski unfortunately failed to suggest: using “new” money to loosen the iron grip held on “old” money by industrial agreements centred on class sizes and other factors.

What are the morals of the story?

Two matter most. First, Australian schooling is badly in need of re-engineering. Current talk is all about good schools, but what we need is a good school system.

Gonski had the right idea: all schools should be funded according to the difficulty of the educational job they do. That idea needs substantial extension, however; all schools should enjoy a similar kind and degree of “autonomy”, and all should play by the same rules, including how much money per student they are allowed to spend. All families should pay (or not) on the same basis, irrespective of the kind of school their children attend.

Second, the machinery of reform needs reform. Again, Gonski had the right idea: national (which does not mean “federal government”) control of key decisions, made at arm’s length from all governments and from the sector-based and industrial lobby groups which, in the present scheme of things, defend their own interests, and in doing so thwart reforms that would see just about everyone better off.

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

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