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

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 2: The emerging challenges

 The increasing gaps between schools, and between schools and communities, are evidence of problems which could have been reduced after Gonski 1.0. But there are other problems which are compounding or arising, in part, because we ignored much of what came out of that Review. We especially had the chance to consign debates about school funding to an unhappy history – but we now have to face new challenges.

The first is probably not so new, but we have to be convinced it will be resolved: namely, the lack of coordination and dysfunction in Australian and state/territory funding of schools. As we demonstrate in Losing the Game, the consequences of our inaction has reached quite risible proportions. Schools facing each other across State boundaries are supported at substantially different levels. Individual school funding, both within and between sectors, too often defies logic. The Turnbull Government has only recently committed to Gonski’s original recommendation to establish a National Schools Resourcing body – it is far too early to know how this will be implemented and be supported by the States. If it doesn’t happen we’ll just repeat the debacle of early 2014 when the States were told to do as they wish.

Another emerging dilemma has been created by the convergence of the public funding levels of government and non-government schools. Averages aside, most Catholic schools are now funded at over 90%, and most Independent schools at over 80% of the public funding going to government schools. But the public and private sectors continue to have quite different obligations to the taxpayer who increasingly pays the bill. It is now more than reasonable to challenge the right of private schools to remain private, especially over such matters as enrolment and ‘disenrolment’ of students.

The response to this dilemma has been disbelief – in defiance of the data – and a reluctance to search for solutions. The do nothing solution won’t solve anything, and will persist until the realities seep through to the public debate about funding. Then it will simmer along until a solution is found – and it is nowhere to be found on the list of things for Gonski 2.0 to try to solve.

But the terms of reference for Gonski 2.0 suggest that it could, if allowed, address a related matter, namely the effective and efficient use of funding to improve student outcomes. While attention will focus on practice within schools it could and should give attention to the way we provide and resource schools. In the interest of furthering choice we have substantially duplicated, and are now publicly funding, our provision of schools. To date we have believed that funding non-government alongside government schools creates a saving on the public purse. In Losing the Game we show that in recurrent funding terms those savings have all but vanished. We need to know how much this duplication adds to the oft-lamented high expenditure on schools.

Finally, in the category of unseen problems, we have pointed to one which must be on the agenda of any review of the efficiency and effectiveness of school funding. There are always examples of schools where additional funding doesn’t deliver, the unavoidable and legitimate costs of some schools just keep rising. Additional funding always has to be accompanied by better targeting and accountability for learning outcomes. But a larger scale problem seems to be in advantaged schools in the non-government sector where large increases are not associated with better outcomes.

In Losing the Game we ask if this amounts to a $5 billion black hole. Will it be considered as part of the Gonski 2.0 agenda? Shouldn’t any rigorous effectiveness and efficiency test be applied to such expenditure? If not, will Gonski 2.0 broaden what constitutes student outcomes and how these should be measured, in some cases if at all? We wish them luck on that one. But regardless of the measure, isn’t it reasonable that public funds should be redirected to where they make the greatest difference. The choice is stark: we either invest to lift the disadvantaged or we continue to top up the advantaged. We cannot do both.

 But there is more

 While it is less related to our work with My School data there is another big issue that needs to be resolved by Gonski’s forthcoming second review. In Uneven Playing Field we discussed the features, limitations and fate of various school reform agendas. Even the My School website, from which we derive our data, has failed to live up to its promise to improve student outcomes through the twin market strategies of competition and choice. The availability of national measures of student achievement, school by school, was supposed to send school principals off in search of the most effective teaching and learning strategies so they could lift their own school.

The data alone about measurable school achievement tells us that this strategy was ineffective – and that the unforeseen outcomes include a narrowing of the curriculum and the very purpose of schooling, along with no improvement in the interest and engagement of young people in learning, without which there is little chance of improving levels of achievement. Not only is measured achievement mediocre there is well documented evidence of disconnect between the schools we are creating and the young people who often just endure such places until they can leave.

Will Gonski 2.0 create anything better? In the absence of further information the terms of reference just read like a manic determination to improve what is measurable – and shows up well in the numbers – perhaps combined with a need to cater for all students and improve the transition from school to work. All quite important, but not at the expense of what a good school does: authentically engage students in learning for personal achievement, for a sustainable livelihood and an enduring contribution to society. When a school is properly supported to do all that, the good numbers just happen.

Gonski 2.0 will almost certainly come up with new strategies on how schools can do better, but this new review will also need to think outside the square. The reviewers will need to listen to the critics who point to the deficiencies in how we do school. Schools should not be just about cycling students through a production line process, studying disconnected subjects in separate classrooms, jumping through externally imposed curriculum and assessment hoops to come up with numbers that will put them on the next rung of the ladder and ease the anxiety of the people hovering around them, from teachers to governments. And this is just the students who are prepared to play the game. Don’t go to a school and ask what the others think; they have already left. And don’t blame the schools; they are just doing what we have trained them to do.

The message to Gonski is: don’t tell us what we already know and how to do better what we already do. There is a school reform industry of people who do this every day. Instead, the new review should revisit the very way schools ‘do school’ and how they can be supported to do it differently so that all students have a chance to succeed – in a widened vision of what constitutes success.

Looking for a way forward    

Gonski 1.0 produced solutions that could have worked if they had been adopted. Unless the new review revisits those solutions, considers all the new challenges and thinks outside the square, then Gonski 2.0 will just go the way of its predecessor.

This new window for long-term education reform is too important to fail. It should build on the findings and recommendations of Gonski 1.0, while addressing new and increasingly evident problems. We propose that, after delivering on the terms of reference, the Second Gonski Review conduct a further investigation on barriers in our current schools framework that risk preventing the implementation of  both Gonski reviews. This should include barriers such as:

  • ongoing inefficiencies in the way Australian schools are provided and resourced,
  • inconsistencies in the obligations on all schools that are substantially publicly funded; and
  • limited visions of what constitutes an effective school in the 21st Century

The Second Gonski Review should develop a further set of recommendations aimed at removing such barriers.

We also propose that a task force be established to monitor progress being made against the recommendations of both Gonski Reviews and the commitments of federal and state governments, and reports publically on them at regular intervals.

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

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