CHRIS BONNOR. Has the Gonski dust settled?

Jun 29, 2017

Many claims have been made about the Turnbull Government’s Gonski breakthrough. It seemed to grant the wishes of advocates for greater equity and efficacy in the funding of schools – so much so that I had to re-cast the recommendations in the recent CPD report, Losing the Game, written with Bernie Shepherd. We had always stressed an urgency to support the most needy schools and the importance of a Schooling Resourcing body. At the penultimate hour both priorities were thrown into the legislation.

But the legislation is far from perfect and is destined for future refinement. It’s just a first step; the dust isn’t settled. And as Bernie and I demonstrated, the data about schools showed that the high hopes following the first Gonski review were simply not realized across Australia. Will it will be different this time around?

There is an immediate second step. Most reporting has referred to the whole package as Gonski 2.0 – but Gonski’s actual second review is just now getting under way, and it must be completed in the next six months. While the terms of reference have been established we have no idea of the relationship between the review (and its possible recommendations) and the recent legislation. While the focus of the review seems to be on getting better school education delivery for the dollar, it will inevitably touch on decisions already made. The efficiency and effectiveness of school education is about far more than what goes on in classrooms. Losing the Game raises many of these issues, including a $5 billion annual spend which delivers very little.

But for the moment, here are snapshot responses to some of what seems to have been achieved, as reported in the media after last week:

The Australian government will fund non-government schools to 80%, and government schools to 20%, of their Schooling Resource Standard – the reverse obligation lies with the states. Aside from the criticisms, including by Save our Schools, of this irrational division it almost certainly won’t work. The states are supposed to fund non-government schools to 20% of their SRS. But on average across Australia state governments already (2015 figures) provide most Catholic schools with over 23% of their public funding. In some States it is much higher. In the light of recent politics can anyone see the state governments (especially Labor) reducing their funding to non-government schools?

Then the States need to fund government schools to 80% of their SRS. Their recent track record is dismal. The last time they were faced with such obligations the then (2013) Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne effectively told them they could do what they like. Will it be different this time around? The Federal Government seems armed with sanctions to make this happen, but there are many ways in which this might fall apart. After all, this 80:20/20:80 division hasn’t been developed through any consultation. Gonski’s original School Resourcing Body might have carried such an agreement – it’s too early to know what the new form of this body will achieve.

There is much more to tell about last week’s achievements. Much as we might wish otherwise, not enough has been resolved.

Now to some related matters. There has been much complaint about the special deal of around $50m done for systemic schools. There is nothing new about that, we’ve been doing such deals since the Goulburn Catholic strike in 1962. Let’s keep this $50m in proportion. The difference between Catholic and Independent school funding tells the real story about special deals. In 2015 for example, per student government funding for Catholic schools, just in the 1000-1099 ICSEA range was $10 362. This was $403 more than paid for each Independent school student. The total dollar difference was over $200 million, for just one sample of schools in just one year. No wonder the Independent schools were quite at ease with this year’s ‘deal’.

Other matters just haven’t gone away. The amount of public funding going to the two private sectors (and Catholic schools ARE private schools) has been converging and will further converge in the coming years, as the effect of winding back the special deals is felt. But what will be more interesting is the extent to which governments fund the two private sectors compared to amounts going to government schools. The existing situation is explained in Losing the Game. It is highly likely that both private sectors will remain funded in the 85-100% (or even more) range which means we’ll essentially continue with two publicly-funded sectors, one with far more obligations than the other, for similar dollars. Welcome to what deserves to be the next big debate.

As to the future, Losing the Game proposes that, after delivering on its terms of reference, the second Gonski Review conduct a further investigation into barriers in our current school system that impede implementation of both Gonski Reviews. This should include barriers such as:

  • ongoing inefficiencies in the way schools are provided and resourced; and
  • inconsistencies in the obligations on all schools that are substantially publicly funded.

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 report publicly on them at regular intervals. These initiatives are crucial to ensure that this second opportunity to establish consistent needs-based funding is not squandered, and that our policymakers truly deliver on the promise of a more equitable and effective future for Australia’s school system.

Finally, and regardless of its flaws, I must say Simon Birmingham deserves credit for the way he steered last week’s legislation through the media and especially through the Senate. He made herding cats look easy. In contrast, Catholic school authorities (especially in Victoria) and Federal Labor lost much of whatever moral ground they once held. Winding back the special deals and neutralizing their future impact was a real achievement. Last week may not have been the end, but it does point to a new beginning.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development

P.S.  I really appreciate the comments made in support of the late Bernie Shepherd’s pioneering work in analyzing Australia’s schools.


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