A review of “Waiting for Gonski”

Jul 25, 2022
Illustration of school students
Image: iStock/Nadzeya_Dzivakova

The book Waiting for Gonski was published earlier this year on the 10th anniversary of the Gonski Report on school funding. It is a well-researched and well-written account of the history of the Gonski funding model, its flawed implementation including many special deals for private schools and its destruction by successive Coalition governments. It should be read by anyone concerned about the state of school funding and inequity in education.

The book’s central message is that Gonski failed. Apart from the implementation failures, it says that the Report failed to confront a longstanding structural contraction between a free, publicly funded system and publicly funded private schools that can charge fees and select enrolments which resulted in a huge funding advantage for them.

The authors’ solution to this structural contradiction is that governments fully fund private schools on condition they do not charge fees, are open to all students and meet curriculum and transparency requirements. In return, schools would be allowed to preserve their “special ethos” such as compulsory religious teaching and observances and discrimination in hiring only staff who support their faith.

As justification, the authors argue this no more or no less than private schools do at present. However, they miss a crucial issue. At present, parents pay fees to access the special ethos of private schools such as religious education and discrimination in hiring staff. The proposal means that governments will do this in future. It jettisons two fundamental principles of public education – it is secular and non-discriminatory.

It would introduce a different structural contradiction: some fully funded schools would be secular and others absolutely non-secular; some schools would be prohibited from discrimination in hiring staff while others would be allowed to discriminate. Parents, not governments, must pay for the special ethos of religious instruction and having their children taught only by teachers who support their faith.

The argument that government funding of private schools currently supports discrimination and a religious curriculum and values may be valid, even likely because of over-funding. But this is not a reason to extend government funding of such practices. It is a reason to look for an alternative method of funding private schools.

The proposal is also highly unrealistic. Catholic and Independent schools are massively over-funded and will remain so for the rest of the decade. It is inconceivable they would take up the offer of full public funding conditional on not charging fees because it would involve a substantial reduction in income per student under a fully needs-based model.

The authors also have unwarranted faith that fully funding private schools will increase student achievement. This faith is not supported by extensive Australian and overseas research evidence which shows that after allowing for differences in student background, private schools do no better than public schools. Moreover, recent declines in Australia’s PISA results have largely occurred in private schools. 

In the rush to condemn Gonski as a failure, the book ignores major achievements of the Report. It completely changed the terms of public debate about school funding. It put equity in education front and centre and displaced the previous focus on choice. It adopted far reaching national equity goals and needs-based funding models were introduced by the Commonwealth and the states. These achievements endure today and provide the foundation to build a fully needs-based model.

On these achievements, Gonski didn’t fail; it was governments that failed Gonski. The model was compromised from the start by Julia Gillard’s edict that ‘no school would lose a dollar of funding’ and her later edict that every school would get an increase irrespective of need. This was compounded by special deals negotiated with the Catholic Church and private school organisations that further undermined the principle of needs-based funding.

Then followed the destruction of key features of the model by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments. The Abbott Government didn’t dare amend the Gonski principles contained in legislation because they had widespread community support. However, it sabotaged their implementation by stopping the $7.5 billion increase in funding planned for last two years of the six year phase-in. It also released the states from their commitment that they would also increase their funding over the six years. This was followed by the Turnbull Government’s arbitrary restriction of the Commonwealth role in funding public schools and more special deals for private schools. The Morrison Government then embarked on a multi-billion dollar spending spree on private schools.

The result was massive over-funding of private schools and a widening of the resources gap between private schools and public schools, which do the heavy lifting in educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If that over-funding had been devoted to increased funding strictly for public schools then Australia might have made some real progress in improving equity.

Waiting for Gonski misunderstands the fundamental causes of this resource disparity. One is the false presumption that all private schools, including the wealthiest and most exclusive, are entitled to government funding. The other is that the financial needs of schools should be assessed by the capacity of families to contribute financially to schools rather than the income of schools.

Another limitation of the book is that the evidence on its claim that that fully funding religious schools will boost student achievement and reduce achievement gaps is unconvincing. It relies on the example of Canada which has higher PISA results and greater equity in outcomes than Australia. However, Canada’s superior performance is more likely due to other factors such as higher socio-economic status (SES) of families, much larger increases in funding and higher exclusion of students from PISA than in Australia.

Socio-economic background exerts a strong influence on student achievement in Canadas and its average SES index score is significantly higher than Australia’s, especially in Alberta and Ontario which are two of only three provinces where Catholic schools are fully funded by government. Funding per student adjusted for inflation in Canadian schools increased by three times that in Australian public schools between 2001-02 and 2016-17 and by four times in the three provinces where Catholic schools are fully funded. Canada also had a much higher student exclusion rate in PISA and lower coverage of eligible students than Australia.

Other countries such as New Zealand and Netherlands that fully fund religious schools also perform worse than Canada and no better than Australia in terms of average results and equity. Indeed, they perform worse than Australia on some measures.

Waiting for Gonski claims that needs-based funding is “practically impossible” in a system where government funds both fee-paying private schools and free public schools. However, the authors fail to consider how the current model could be reformed. There is an alternative to their proposal. It is a Gonski Plus model.

A Gonski Plus model would be designed to achieve clear equity goals – ensure that all students complete Year 12 or its equivalent and that students from different social groups achieve similar outcomes. This is fundamental to any funding system. If we don’t know where we want to go, there is no path that will take us there.

A Gonski-Plus model of funding would resolve the contradiction between the free public education sector and the government-funded fee paying private sector by strictly limiting government funding of the latter to filling the gap between a schooling resource standard and income from private sources. Schools whose private income exceed the resource standard would not receive government funding. A Gonski Plus model would also include much higher funding loadings for disadvantaged students and schools to support greater equity in education.

Increased funding of public schools and elimination of the massive over-funding of private schools would better achieve a central goal of Waiting for Gonski, namely, reduction of social segregation in schools. It would result in more advantaged students being enrolled in public schools because private schools would have to increase fees to compensate for their loss of over-funding. This is a much preferred way to reduce social segregation than enticing more disadvantaged students into private schools by fully funding them. It also avoids governments fully funding religious instruction and discrimination in hiring staff that would occur by allowing schools to hold to their “special ethos”.

This article is a summary of a review essay published by Save Our Schools. Trevor Cobbold is national convenor of Save Our Schools.

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