Chris Bonnor. Labor goes back to the Gonski future.

The ALP’s commitment to funding Gonski for the full six years has created interest and even excitement, being welcomed by the three main school sectors, but panned by the Coalition.

So why do I just feel that we’ve been here before?

It could be because everyone welcomed Gonski’s findings and recommendations in 2012, but what followed was one disappointment after the other. Key players in the the non-government school sector soon disappeared behind closed doors to argue the details, especially the weighting given to student needs. It was probably academic: after the 2013 election the Coalition abandoned Gonski funding plans for the vital last two years of the six year period.

But let’s share the blame around. As education minister and as prime minister Julia Gillard dragged her heels in setting up the Gonski review and then in acting on its findings. When the 2013 election loomed Labor created and jumped into a trench, ready to do battle with Abbott around school equity and Gonski funding. Abbott and Pyne then declared a ‘unity ticket’ on funding and Gonski disappeared as a significant election issue.

Fast forward and we have another ALP leader facing an election from well behind a reinvigorated Coalition. Malcolm Turnbull and Simon Birmingham have nailed their colors to the masthead, having recently abandoned any idea of funding Gonski for the full six years. A door has opened for Bill Shorten.

Like Gillard, Shorten is keen to get on the front foot in anything which will define a difference with the Coalition. When Abbott was around the ALP showed little inclination to talk about Gonski funding. Their conversations about school education policy seemed to focus on anything but. Now Shorten is on fire, taking a leaf from Gillard’s 2013 strategy – and on current form, heading for the same outcome.

Labor’s announcement included separate funding for students with a disability, even though no one seems to know how many students have a disability and where they go to school. Years ago Gonski recommended that we find out. Disability funding has created a few headlines recently and both sides of politics want to be seen to be responding.

Shorten also mentioned that the distribution of future funding would be “sector neutral”. Whatever that means, it sounds new – but was more likely a misuse of words. Gonski’s distribution was to be sector-blind, in effect funding on need without school sector being a consideration. Sector neutral suggest making sure everyone gets a slice of the funding pie, regardless of need.

Meanwhile the lofty goals of yesteryear have been dragged out again. Gillard wanted Australian kids to be ahead of Shanghai by 2025. Shorten wants something along those lines and a 95% retention to Year 12. This time around Labor has stressed that there will be strings attached to the money – as indeed there should be. Kate Ellis has  stipulated the need for a strong evidence base to where the funding is to go. Another good move.

Simon Birmingham has predictably responded by complaining that spending more money doesn’t improve results. He needs to revisit this script: it seems that the best evidence to support this assertion comes not from struggling schools but from high-fee non-government schools. NSW Minister Adrian Piccoli guardedly welcomed Labor’s new commitment. From opposite sides of the fence the AEU and the Independent Schools Council of Australia seem happy – as they were in 2012.

Here we go again, maybe.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the centre for Policy Development and a Director of Big Picture Education Australia

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