CHRIS BONNOR and BERNIE SHEPHERD. Will we really get Gonski?

So the election is in full swing and the word ‘Gonski’ is once more up there in lights. You have to feel a bit sorry for David Gonski. His achievements are indeed stellar but his name has become a proxy for just one: a major review into schools.

Actually it has become a proxy for school funding – and even more narrowly, a proxy for school dollars going this way or that. After Bill Shorten announced extra school funding, electorate by electorate, we now know how many Gonskis will flow and who gets them. Under Labor it seems everyone will get a Gonski.

The reality is that few people really ‘get Gonski’. People who have actually read the Review’s findings and recommendations, would have to shake their heads with dismay. It was a landmark investigation. Its recommendations, if implemented, would have solved decades of brewing problems and set our schools on a course to achieve the Holy Grail of excellence and equity.

But we didn’t get Gonski; we just got the leftovers after Labor took to it with the pruning snips – leaving us with something better than the Coalition’s alternative – but falling well short of what was needed.

Everyone gets excited about the money, so let’s start with that. The price tag on Gonski’s recommendations was high because Labor told him no school was to lose a dollar – no hit lists, please. So achieving the panel’s recommendations required a better distribution of … more dollars. Gonski was scathing about the way schools were funded and the Review made two key recommendations: establish an evidence-based Schooling Resource Standard, and achieve far better co-ordination of funding through a National Schools Resourcing Body.

It makes sense: know where you want to go and ensure that the money gets you there. But both recommendations were ignored – and we now have ample evidence of the debacle that has unfolded as a part consequence.

For a newly-released report for the Centre for Policy Development we have looked at evidence provided by the data behind the My School website. In a nutshell, the Gonski panel got it right – but since 2012 Australia has got it wrong. What Gonski found to be bad, we now find to be worse.

It is an unhappy story. Student outcomes, even for our advantaged students, are at best underwhelming – and the gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged are widening. Many others are now pointing to this fundamental problem, but the fact that this can be measured over just five years is startling.

On the equity front – the extent to which schools overcome disadvantage created by poor family circumstances – we are falling behind. The family you are born into matters more than it should, and more than it did just a few years ago.

We have schools which are advantaged and they are getting bigger – because people think they are better. And we have schools which are disadvantaged and getting smaller, avoided by those with the resources to exercise choice. Some of our best teaching happens in these schools, but we have condemned them, their teachers and their kids, to struggle.

Our schools form a social hierarchy from top to bottom. Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s not about quality. Our framework of schools has become so distorted that only a third of them resemble the socio-economic profile of the community in which they are located. The differences which our older generation witnessed within schools are increasingly played out between them.

There are inexplicable differences in the funding roles – and amounts – between State and Commonwealth governments. The distribution, and rate of increase, of school funding by the different jurisdictions varies in ways that defy logic – other than the logic imposed by the electoral cycle. New South Wales, in relative terms, is a beacon of light in this opaque world.

Almost everyone agrees that the resourcing of schools should reflect the extent of their challenge to improve student outcomes. But some schools with a lesser challenge want, and get, more. The way we’ve increased funding doesn’t distinguish between the needy and the greedy. For public schools, funding has just kept pace with inflation – fine if we just want our schools to tread water, but not enough to kick-start the improvements we need.

The Review had a sector-blind solution. Without it we now have a sector-driven muddle. Public recurrent funding to private schools has risen so much that they are increasingly funded at higher levels than similar government schools. But students in the most advantaged of these schools don’t do better than their lower-funded peers. At the advantaged end more money doesn’t pay dividends. At the other end it certainly does, if and when it is properly targeted.

We had a chance to solve these problems. The question now to ask is will even Gonski’s solutions be enough? If the required funding can’t be found then should we redistribute existing school dollars? Given that many private schools are now – in funding terms – government schools, shouldn’t we even out the playing field on which the two sectors currently compete? The obligations and operation of all publicly-funded schools needs to reflect their public funding.

And we must lift the profile, performance and appeal of the schools, regardless of sector, that people and governments are leaving behind. If we don’t lift these schools we’ll fail to lift the country.

 

Chris Bonnor AM and Bernie Shepherd AM are joint authors of Uneven playing field: the state of Australian schools, just out from the Centre for Policy Development. http://cpd.org.au/

 

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