CHRIS BONNOR. School funding: Grattan’s timely circuit breaker

Nov 29, 2016

Chris Bonnor contends that the Grattan Institute report has resurrected the missing link in the sporadic implementation of Gonski. 

Just when it seemed we’d forgotten about improving school equity along comes a timely breakthrough proposed by the Grattan Institute. It is timely because the next education Ministerial Council is meeting in December and they frankly can’t agree on the way forward for equitable funding for schools. It is a possible breakthrough because it shows how equity can be achieved without breaking the bank.

And it’s not before time: we are otherwise on the brink of embedding current inequities in concrete for decades to come. Not only that, as Bernie Shepherd and I have indicated, our current inequitable framework of schools is beginning to exhibit all the signs of impending crisis on a number of levels.

To cut a long story short, Grattan’s Circuit breaker – a new compact on school funding argues that funding increases currently projected for Australia’s schools are indexed at too high a level. The indexation should be reduced in line with education wages growth and the savings directed to help every school reach 95% of its Schools Resource Standard (SRS) by 2023.

Inevitably this new direction of funding would see different amounts going to schools. Highly over-funded schools would be cut back, a move which will put wind under the kite that Simon Birmingham flew a couple of months ago when he conceded that some schools were over-funded. The under-funded schools would receive annual increases of up to 3.6%.

Clearly some of the States would have to pay their share, something that most have managed to avoid in recent years. Under the Grattan proposals this would be much better co-ordinated by the establishment of an independent body “to oversee school funding, including advising on the SRS formula and loadings, regularly reviewing indexation rates, and publicly reporting on funding outcomes.”

In other words, Grattan has resurrected the missing link in the sporadic implementation of what passes for ‘Gonski’ to date. Just as Gonski proposed, Grattan’s independent body would also review the funding base rate and loadings and make the whole process more transparent.

Even if the funding still falls short, implementing this recommendation will make the work put in by Peter Goss, Julie Sonnermann and Kate Griffiths a significant breakthrough. So many people, including the Gonski architects, point to the current lack of such a body as a pivotal problem. Establishing such a level of co-ordination was even proposed by the Productivity Commission in its Lifting the bonnet on Australia’s schools. 

Of course, the Grattan proposals have a long way to go. It is timely to remember, as Jim McMorrow pointed out, that the higher ‘education sector specific’ index included school fees (as a measure of inflation, no less!) – so there are no prizes for guessing the direction from which any push-back against the Grattan proposals might come. In other words, here we (will almost certainly) go again!

My only reservation at this stage about the Grattan paper is their third recommendation, to “Establish new Master Teacher and Instructional Leader roles, with responsibility for driving improvement in teaching and learning”. At the risk of sounding like a retired school principal we have been there and done that – and in NSW at least we didn’t do it all that well. There are better interventions (including recently in NSW) with more runs on the board.

Not only that, there are fledgling but significantly different ways of doing school than the quite conventional structures suggested by roles such as master teachers and instructional leaders. These are found in both the public and private sectors and focus on learning designs which have student engagement at the core. Big Picture schools are an excellent example. They are achieving notable success.

Education reform has to embrace what works – and sometimes this is found well outside the mainstream. So please, Grattan, don’t let any view of what you think a school should look like get in the way of your fine work.

All that side, full marks to the Grattan Institute. Advocates for schools have long been categorised as belonging to one of two camps: those who believe that reform is something carried on inside the school gate (most governments fall into this category) and those who believe that you won’t improve our schools unless we also address the structural and framework issues including how we provide and resource schools. Grattan now does both and in the process has created a better balance.

Grattan report

Chris Bonnor is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a director of Big Picture Education Australia.

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