CHRIS BONNOR AND BERNIE SHEPHERD. PART ONE: Losing the game? Do we now have another chance to lift school equity and achievement?

Jun 22, 2017


Amidst this week’s flurry of activity over the ‘Gonski’ legislation we seem to have forgotten serious problems, both old and new. In this first of two parts Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd consider the problems we still need to solve. In the second part they’ll indicate the new emerging problems we don’t even recognize. Losing the Game, their new publication with the Centre for Policy Development, has just been released.  

Part one: The problems we haven’t solved

With the Turnbull Government’s recent initiatives, including the Gonski 2.0 Review it seems we have reached another point where we could make breakthrough decisions about schooling – or yet again walk away yet from increasingly difficult problems. We’ve walked away many times in the past; will it be any different this time around?

If Gonski 1.0 is any guide there seems to be cycle in such reviews. It begins when existing policy and practice doesn’t deliver and starts to fall apart. A decade ago the accumulated school funding deals of the Howard era became quite obviously unsustainable. The eventual Gonski 1.0 review was tasked to improve school outcomes through equitable and efficient funding, as long as no school would lose out on the deal.

Just as in previous years, this ‘no loser’ albatross hung around the necks of the Gonski panel. They had to recommend more money for all in the hope that more would go to those in need. The no loser schools eventually became even bigger winners, creating a situation which is once again increasingly unsustainable.

Politics went on to plague the rest of Gonski 1.0: the co-ordination of funding didn’t happen and now we have to try again, the funding agreements either didn’t happen or fell apart and it is back to the drawing board. And the Labor government reframed the whole exercise: shaking up schools and beating Shanghai seemed to be the purpose of the game. On top of that, sectional interests nibbled away at Gonski’s plan.

And so we are back to the beginning of another cycle, as defined by the Gonski 2.0 terms of reference and the Turnbull Government’s contentious legislation. Again we have a familiar problems, a list of things to achieve, another review process (albeit shorter) and the hope of good things to come. The government has needed to bargain its way through the political minefield, but just like Labor, it has already tailored Gonski’s task to suit its needs.

This time around it is about efficiency and effectiveness – in Gonski’s new brief the other ‘e’ word (equity) is only there by implication, lower down in priority. The new urgency is to solve an even longer term apparent problem: government funding has doubled since 1988 while student performance has declined – a claim that is widely contested.

But there are already two big categories of problems which will undermine even the best of current intentions.

The first is the problems we know about but haven’t solved. Current proposed changes assume that the findings and recommendations of Gonski 1.0 are now somehow historic and don’t need further work. But the problems which led to Gonski 1.0, and others identified by that review, have seriously worsened –yet don’t seem to be on the radar of Gonski 2.0. Amongst these is the continuing residualisation of low SES schools.

The second category include the mainly new challenges which are emerging as a consequence of mistakes in the past, – but which in the main won’t be addressed by Gonski 2.0. Among these is the unresolved relationship between public and private schools, especially over the quite different obligations of each sector – a difference which stands at odds with their increasingly similar levels of public funding.

In short, in heading into Gonski 2.0 we are in danger of forgetting history, failing to tackle the problems we acknowledge and ignoring those we don’t. The evidence shows that past expectations and promises have not been realized – and current plans are already contested. We have been analyzing My School data for over five years: finding out what it shows about our schools and about changes in our wider framework of schools. More recently we wanted to see if Australia was on track to create the hoped-for improvements arising out of the first Gonski Review. We weren’t on track then and we may not be now.

Our findings each year are starting to resemble a slow-moving unfolding disaster. It’s not like other disasters: no cataclysmic event and not much that can be summed up in 60 second news grabs. Few headlines can be created from incremental shifts from year to year, but the consistency of the trends tell a disturbing story. We told this story last year in Uneven Playing Field, we have just updated our findings in Losing the Game – both published by the Centre for Policy Development.

In the wake of Gonski 1.0 we confidently expected that we would see school funding begin to provide an additional and essential boost to those students and schools most in need. With some exceptions we are no more ‘funding the need’ than we did six years ago. Along with almost all players in education we welcomed the idea of sector-blindness in school funding, but the money trail to date has continued to reflect the sector games of old.

A boost to the more needy schools has always been needed to lift student achievement. Just as important, this boost – along with other improvements – is essential to help these schools gain and retain the confidence of parents and communities. But enrolment shift is clearly seeing families who can, seek enrolment in schools up the socio-educational ladder. It’s not about blaming parents, it is just what happens.

On average across Australia our advantaged schools are booming – while our less advantaged schools are shrinking. Six years ago the enrolment gap between them was around 120 students; within the next six years this gap is on track to double. Each year the less advantaged schools are ending up with an increasing share of the strugglers. It’s hard to believe that we are allowing this to happen when we know that compounding disadvantage in this way acts as a drag on individual and national student achievement.

It’s not just a crisis about who chooses to go where to school. My School shows the results of students in advantaged schools drifting higher, the results of those in disadvantaged schools drifting lower. Nothing dramatic but it just keeps happening.  Professor John Hattie has argued that the former schools actually cruise because their job is getting easier, while the latter struggle because their job is getting harder. The net result is no improvement. We’ve spent well over a decade blaming and reforming the strugglers: doing the same things over and over, and expecting different results. The gaps just keep growing.

There are concerning implications, for schools and communities, of the flight to advantage. In a broad sense we are adding to social class hierarchies amongst our schools and students. The school sectors are enrolling an overlapping but measurably different student clientele – and there are socio-educational hierarchies within each sector. For two-thirds of our schools the local community is increasingly not the community of the local school. In practical terms it plays havoc with the efforts of planners to know where to build schools and, when constructed, whether they will fill and how soon might they empty.

Such developments represent another consequence of school choice, Australian style, and another dimension of our divided schools. The social diversity which previous generations witnessed within schools is increasingly evident between them. There is much more to explore and reveal about this, including the extent to which there is a regional, a religious, a racial or ethnic dimension to our divided schools – and what it implies within communities and across Australia.

In the second part we’ll consider the emerging challenges, most of which we don’t even know about.

Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd are fellows of the Centre for Policy Development

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