Prime ministers come and go but the timing of nasty announcements doesn’t change. And so it was with the dumping of Gonski funding beyond 2017, announced in the traditional period of national lethargy between Christmas and New Year. It came despite earlier rumours which suggested Turnbull would pull a rabbit out of the hat – but the December MYEFO showed an increasing deficit of fiscal rabbits.
Aside from a very few, the reaction was one of dismay, including from NSW. Amongst the few was Jennifer Buckingham who joined the usual ‘more money doesn’t deliver’ chorus, drawing attention to recent findings which suggested funding makes little difference to student achievement. But the full report on the impact of National Partnership funding in NSW shows that, with certain programs and practices in place, targeted funding is certainly effective.
Alas it seems that the solution is now to simply cap the funding rather than focus on support and accountability to ensure such programs are indeed in place. And of course, with no continuity of funding the successful programs will fade and new and better ways of doing school will disappear off the agenda. The trickle of Gonski funding to date won’t mean much long term. It somewhat reminds me of the laggards who exist in every school who would respond to new ideas with ‘we tried that but it didn’t work’. Governments have thrown a few dollars at equity programs and gee, NAPLAN scores didn’t go through the roof. What’s the point!
With the Gonski deck now clear Education Minister Birmingham will just revert to the toolbox of useless school fixes paraded by his predecessors on both sides of politics. There will inevitably be some attention to equity, accompanied by high rhetoric and low dollars. And, as Buckingham implies, extra funding will be presumably accompanied by pressure for assured tangible benefits, by itself not a bad thing.
But the pressure to show these benefits will be placed on the struggling schools, even though much of existing expenditure is poorly distributed and not particularly effective. My School shows that private schools in Australia spend $4 billion more on their students than do similar government schools – but with almost no difference in measurable student results. At the moment the government share of this unproductive investment is around $1.5 billion. A nice little amount to divert to low SES schools.
The abandonment of Gonski has much wider implications and is going to multiply the range of problems identified by Gonski, problems which have worsened in recent years. Here are a few which have emerged from my work with Bernie Shepherd and reported in Gonski, My School and the Education Market.
- Socio-educational gradients (SEGs) – key measures of school equity – have worsened. For all Australian schools the gradient shifted from 32% to 37% between 2010 and 2014. SEGs for some schools, for example secondary schools, have steepened even more than 5%.
- Student performance varies between states and sectors, but the most significant and under-reported trend is a flat-lining of achievement in higher socio-educational advantage (SEA) schools and a noticeable decline in lower SEA schools.
- The SEA difference in student enrolment in the different sectors continues, but the rate of recurrent funding increases per student have favoured sectors enrolling the most advantaged.
- The funding differences between the sectors has reached the point where, if current trends continue, the level of public recurrent funding of students in non-government schools will exceed the level of funding of students in similar government schools. Regardless of possible future trends, the current operation of all the school sectors must be reviewed.
- There are stark examples, within and especially between sectors, of a disproportionately high public and privately sourced expenditure on some schools which is not yielding a return in measurable student achievement.
- My School data reveals a significant difference between the level of SEA of schools and the equivalent measure of the communities in which schools are located. Recent research shows that this extends to the ethnic composition of school enrolments.
As I repeat rather too often, at some stage we’ll feel the need to have a review of the mounting unsustainability of our framework of schools. In the meantime, buckle up for a ride back to the future.