LYNDSAY CONNORS, JIM McMORROW. Gonski Will Still Feature on the Federal Election Menu.

Dec 13, 2018

Labor and the Coalition both appear to be poised to go to next year’s federal election brandishing their contrasting versions of ‘Gonski’. Key features of the original 2011 Gonski model for funding the nation’s schools generated broad consensus. Given that it relates to an issue that has been persistently fraught in Australian politics, this should not be dismissed lightly. 

These key features included an explicit resource standard, linked to the characteristics of each school according to its workload of meeting student needs and costs of delivery, and regardless of whether the school was public or private. Also included was the determination of a timeline for the transition from a school’s current resource level to the achievement of its appropriate resource standard.

The original Gonski report also recognised the need for a better balance in the shared responsibility of Commonwealth and State governments for funding public and private schools.

Labor and the Coalition between them have each achieved only partial implementation of the original Gonski model and it now stands riddled with compromises. These developments are documented on this blog by Bonnor, Cobbold, Connors, Rowlands, Zyngier and the Grattan Institute.

But the Gonski saga has yet to run its full course. The likelihood is that the approaching federal election will see the Coalition defending its Gonski 2.0, cementing in the public funding of private schools as the high point of the Commonwealth’s investment in education (or its “Gonski 2.1”, if you take account of the additional $4.6 billion funding deal for private schools to defuse sectarian tensions over a change to the measure for assessing the private contribution to those schools).

Meanwhile Labor, while keeping a careful eye on the Catholic vote, will be putting up its “Gonski 3.0”, giving greater emphasis to the needs of public schools. 

The ALP has a far stronger affinity than the Coalition with one fundamental tenet of the original Gonski report –equality of educational opportunity. At the heart of the original Gonski report was the democratic principle that the quality of students’ education should not be limited by where they live, their family income, the school they attend or their personal circumstances. A recognition that all children in all schools share an equal entitlement to receive the support they need to achieve their personal best is a thread running through Labor policy from the 1970s Karmel Report and it was enshrined in the preamble to Labor’s 2013 Education Act. 

Difficult as this ideal has proven to achieve in practice, the 

ALP will be going to its National Conference this coming weekend with a Draft Platform that re-asserts this principle and that acknowledges the centrality of high quality public schools in putting it into practice. 

By contrast, the Turnbull Government’s 2017 amendments to the 2013 Act removed this democratic principle in the course of introducing its own ‘Gonski 2.0’ policy. Without that principle there is no basis for the school resources standard and, therefore, no real anchor for the Coalition’s funding policy. It is possible that the Coalition will use the forthcoming mid-year economic fiscal outlook (MYEFO) to clarify its funding intentions in the lead-up to the 2019 Budget and election. 

By comparison with the Howard Government’s preceding flawed school funding framework, the 2011 Gonski review was a step in the right direction. Rather than attempt a radical funding change in the short term, an incoming government should give schools some certainty and stability by building on the admittedly partial progress that has been made to date. This would combine elements of both Labor and Coalition commitments.

By restoring the previous equity principle in the Australian Education Act, consistent with its draft platform, a Labor government would signal its commitment to repair the broken link with the nation’s egalitarian tradition. It is now clear both nationally and internationally that policies which stimulate market forces and competition among parents and schools have led to gross inequalities. Our national model – combining public subsidies to private schools with uncapped private fees – is a prime example. 

Also in the interests of equity, there is a need to shorten the Coalition’s decade-long timeline for schools to reach their resource standard. This is currently one of the key differences between the major parties, with Labor recognising that most of the students currently in schools will have left before then.

The Coalition Government’s decision to set in legislation its preference for private over public schooling through a commitment to fund 80 per cent of the public funding needed for private schools to achieve their SRS while capping the corresponding amount for public schools at 20 per cent was a repudiation of the original Gonski report’s advice. Labor will need to amend this Coalition change to the Education Act if it is to maintain its own funding promises to public schools. It is clear that any government that adopts a needs principle will be obliged to increase significantly the Commonwealth’s contribution to public schools.

In the light of past history, it would be wise for voters to demand from any incoming government a commitment that its agreed formulae will be applied to all schools without fear or favour, so that policy is not routinely contaminated by special deals.

The immediate response of former PM, Julia Gillard, on receipt of the Gonski report, was to reject without explanation the recommendation for a national schools resourcing body to bring greater rigour to schools funding decisions and to reduce the scope for politicisation. Reluctantly and under pressure from the cross-bench, the Coalition subsequently established its own National Schools Resourcing Board. An incoming government should maintain and strengthen this body, preferably as a more independent and proactive advisory body reporting to Commonwealth and state governments, and with an expanded role in monitoring, accountability and maintaining transparency. 

These are immediate steps that are needed for all schools to achieve their appropriate resource standards within the next term of an incoming Commonwealth government. 

It would be prudent for the next Commonwealth government to start to prepare immediately for the decade beyond, where Australia faces an urgent challenge to provide equality of access to teachers.

Sustainable and equitable schools funding arrangements for the longer term should build on the strengths of the Gonski model through making more direct and explicit the link between public investment and the goal of providing all students with effective teaching. Achieving that goal requires an adequate supply and distribution of well-educated and supported teachers, with ongoing provision for their professional development. And that depends, in turn, on concerted action by governments to make teaching an attractive and rewarding career for well-qualified entrants. 

Lyndsay Connors AO and Jim McMorrow are authors of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

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