A couple of reports out on schools this week are urging policy shifts, but in different directions. The latest offering from the money-doesn’t-matter brigade comes from the Productivity Commission in its draft report Lifting the bonnet on Australia’s schools. Meanwhile Jim McMorrow has completed an analysis which shows that when it comes to money, public schools and disadvantaged schools generally face a lean future.
The Commission wasn’t crudely asked to investigate the alleged non-link between money and results – but it was happy to throw around a few generalisations – and the media reports certainly focused on this issue.
The Australian Government (specifically Scott Morrison) asked the Commission to investigate the further development of a national education evidence base for use in informing policy development and improving education outcomes in early childhood and school education.
From the outset the report pays homage to the money-doesn’t-matter brigade without offering anything new on the matter. Indeed the very strategy in setting it up is to create more distance between the federal Coalition and Gonski funding. The draft report received a hostile reception from NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli. “I hope no one paid for this report”, he is quoted as saying, “(because) it tells us nothing that we didn’t know four years ago”.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh. It did dismiss some rusted-on beliefs. Monitoring outcomes, performance benchmarking and competition between schools is now deemed to be insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. It is certainly refreshing to see such crowning glories of neoliberal “reforms” in education at least partially despatched in this way (can we invite their designers back to explain themselves?).
And it is hard to disagree with many broad findings and recommendations. It pointed to deficiencies in the evaluation of policies, programs and teaching practices in Australian schools.
But to fix this problem it proposed that Governments should assign an institution – accountable to, and funded by, all governments – to be responsible for the implementation of the evaluative research framework. Sorry, the Gonski review recommended a similar strategy in relation to school funding, and it didn’t happen. Interestingly, Gonski’s proposed Schools Resourcing Body was also going to be responsible for ongoing research, analysis and data improvement to ensure continuous improvement within the schooling sector.
But that’s about all that Lifting the Bonnet has in common with Gonski. There are almost no references to equity in the draft document. Despite the obvious productivity gains to be made by reducing disadvantage the only reference to it seems to be in the context of gathering evidence. And, as Piccoli points out, it is nonsense for reports such as this to draw conclusions about Gonski funding after just a short time.
The federal Coalition certainly needs a distraction from its school funding plans. Jim McMorrow’s report The Precarious State of Schools Funding in Australia following the 2016 Federal Election is his latest in a long line of reports on school funding over many years. His expertise and accuracy is well-known, his conclusions concerning. Not only will the Commonwealth abandon needs-based funding but its strange indexation of funding is to be influenced by increases in private school fees – as a direct measure of inflation in schools. Once again Coalition policy on school funding has been steered by private school lobbies. The public sector, to which needs-based funding should be directed, won’t fare as well.
In other words, as Bernie Shepherd and I have pointed out: the way in which we provide and resource schools will continued to compound disadvantage in schools which are not sufficiently supported to lift their achievement.
The Productivity Commission’s Lifting the Bonnet won’t make Gonski’s findings go away, but it will certainly contribute to the anything-but-Gonski push. “Lifting the bonnet” says it all. Let’s have yet another look at how the school vehicle works and how it can be improved. With new findings about effectiveness we can go on tinkering under the bonnet forever, just as we have done in the past.
With a bit of luck it might just tick along with far less fuel in the tank. Maybe it will run on water?
Chris Bonnor AM is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development