Anyone remotely committed to excellence with equity in our schools will feel the urge to break out the champagne this week. After six years a conservative prime minister is not only using the language of Gonski, he had the man standing next to him while he re-booted the Gonski Review. Politics was swept aside: this new initiative would give Australian students the quality education they deserve – with more funding, fair, needs-based and transparent; so the narrative went.
But hold the champagne. That’s what they all said last time – but Gonski 1.0 didn’t happen as intended. It became a victim of Labor’s mismanagement, the Coalition’s ignorance, toxic federalism and endless meddling by self-interested players. Despite Malcolm Turnbull’s road to Damascus experience this time around, why would Gonski 2.0 be much different?
If anything, David Gonski will now face a much tougher task, and analysis of the My School website data reveals its extent. The problems he clearly identified six years ago have worsened, and new challenges have emerged which probably won’t be on his agenda. Even if we start the journey, the road to excellence with equity will be much longer than anyone imagines – and it certainly won’t be smooth.
One thing Gonski did achieve last time was to inject school equity into our conversations. Everyone accepted the idea of funding schools on need. The Gillard Government’s 2013 Education Act seemed to embody this belief. But too many of the old deals were left in place and the increases in funding ended up favouring the advantaged over the disadvantaged. Schools captured by the ‘no losers’ mantra became big winners. Will Gonski 2.0 be different?
The reality is that we didn’t provide an extra funding boost for the most needy. In fact, we have continued to pour millions into schools where students are already doing quite well. At last count, this amounted to $5 billion in annual recurrent funding from both governments and parents. How can we wring our hands about underachievement at one end of the schools’ spectrum while over-investing at the other? Trimming a couple of dozen wealthy schools might make us feel better, but won’t solve the problem. According to Tuesday’s announcement, there appears to be more money available, but there are no actual mechanisms yet to ensure that it will be sufficient or will be directed to the right places.
All the while, parents daily see the schools which are well-resourced and apparently doing well, regardless of sector. On average across Australia our less advantaged schools are shrinking and the blessed are booming in a startlingly segregated system. The strugglers end up literally in a class of their own and the task of lifting their achievement is much harder.
In the past, we’ve blamed the struggling schools and their students, but the big task is to turn around low-achieving schools, not only by targeted and properly funded reform, but by making them the places which enjoy the confidence of their community. Will this be on Gonski’s new agenda and can we achieve it? The Prime Minister said that funding equity could be achieved in ten years. But evidence shows this problem is far more urgent and a key to lifting overall student achievement. Just ask the Canadians and the Finns.
Another big problem facing Gonski is the need to coordinate funding coming from state and federal governments. He had a solution last time, a Schools Resourcing Body that was, alas, quickly consigned to the too-hard basket. In the absence of this coordination, the different levels of government have basically played games with funding – at the expense of our children. We wrote about this last year, comparing schools, for example, on either side of the Murray River. Anyone can use My School to do the same, but be prepared for a few shocks. However, there seems to be more determination to get it right this time, a determination that might even last beyond the next COAG meeting.
Amongst the newer problems is the convergence of the amounts of public funding going to government and non-government schools enrolling similar students. While the funding converges, the public obligations and responsibilities that should go with public funding are far from equally shared. It is a problem with all the ingredients for reigniting the sector wars unless we tackle it head on. It won’t be on the agenda handed to Gonski; in fact it isn’t even on the radar of any political party.
And that will always be an issue. Governments deal with the problems they can solve more easily with the levers they can pull, and avoid the rest. Let’s hope that Gonski 2.0 draws from recent history and that governments come together to make it work.
Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd are fellows of the Centre for Policy Development. Their most recent analysis Losing the Game – the state of our schools in 2017 will be published next month.