Saturday, February 25, 2017
The con was that the funding changes Gillard put into law in 2013 – which Labor and the teacher unions christened "Gonski" and have virtuously defended from Coalition attack ever since – bore only a vague resemblance to what leading company director David Gonski's panel recommended in its report to the government in 2011.
In a speech last week, Dr Ken Boston, a member of the panel and former NSW Education Department director-general, argued that much of what people think they know about "Gonski" is wrong. He listed four common beliefs that are mistaken.
First, many people believe the Gonski report said additional funding was the key to improving education.
Wrong. "The Gonski report did not see additional funding as the key to improving Australian education. It's most critical recommendations were about the redistribution of existing funding to individual schools on the basis of measured need," Boston said.
"The report envisaged the amount allocated to independent schools being based on the measured need of each individual school, and the amounts allocated to Catholic and government systems being determined by the sum of the measured needs of the individual schools within each system – a process of building funding up from the bottom."
This was in sharp contrast to the process of the last 40 years: top-down political negotiation by the federal government with state governments, independent school organisations, church leaders, teacher unions and others, he said.
The outcome had been that the funding allocations to the three sectors – independent, Catholic systemic and government – were arrived at without any agreed and common system of assessing real need at the level of each individual school.
School funding has been "essentially based on a political settlement, sector-based and largely needs-blind", whereas the Gonski report proposed that it be determined on an educational, not political basis, be sector-blind and entirely needs-based, as well as being bottom up, not top down.
But Gillard rejected Gonski's recommendations and stuck with the old, religion-based arrangements.
"We concluded that an additional $5 billion might be needed on top of the $39 billion being spent annually by the state and federal governments, because of the commitment given by the federal government [Gillard], after the review had started, that no school would lose a dollar as a result of the review.
"This was an albatross around our necks," Boston said.
The second common misunderstanding was that the Gillard and second Rudd governments, having adopted Gonski's approach, then reached "Gonski agreements" with the states, promising additional "Gonski funding" over six years.
Nothing Gonski about it. Gonski recommended that the loading for non-government schools as a proportion of "average government school recurrent costs" – a biased formula that meant public funding for new places for children in disadvantaged government schools automatically increased the federal government grants to non-government schools, without any consideration of disadvantage – should cease.
Gillard, supposedly that great champion of needs-based funding, kept the biased formula alive.
Gonski recommended that the basis for general recurrent funding for all students in all sectors be a "schooling resource standard" for each school, set at a level comparable with schools with minimal educational disadvantage.
To this should be added loadings for schools according to their social disadvantage – low socioeconomic status, English language proficiency, school size and location, and indigeneity.
Calculation of the resource standard and the size of the loadings should be done by a "national schools resourcing body", similar to the former Schools Commission. Gillard wouldn't touch it.
"Like the Coalition government, Labor has ducked the fundamental issue of the relationship between aggregated social disadvantage and poor educational outcomes, and has turned its back on the development of an enduring funding system that is fair, transparent, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all Australian students," Boston said.
The third misunderstanding – which Boston labels "the Fairfax view" (not this time, Ken) – is that most of the problems facing Australian education would be solved if we got the last two years of "Gonski funding".
It's true that, so as to disguise the true cost of Labor's politically gutless, bastardised version of Gonski, it was to be phased in over six calendar years, with the bulk of the cost loaded into the last two years, 2018 and 2019.
This was $4.5 billion, which the Turnbull government has cut to $1.2 billion over the four years to 2021.
Even so, "providing the so-called 'last two years of Gonski funding' will not deal with the fundamental problem facing Australian education. Neither side of politics is talking about the strategic redistribution of available funding to the things that matter in the schools that need it, on the basis of measuring the need of each individual school," Boston said.
The fourth common misconception is that the two sides of politics are poles apart. At one level, yes. What they have in common, however, is that neither is genuinely interested in moving to needs-based funding.
"The government and opposition are fluffing around the margins of the issue, and neither appears to understand the magnitude of the reform that is needed, or – if they do – to have the capacity to tackle it," Boston said.
"Equity and school outcomes have both deteriorated sharply since we wrote the Gonski report. Some stark realities now shape the context in which governments – state and federal – must make decisions two months from now about how Australian education might recover from its long-term continuing decline.
"The present quasi-market system of schooling, the contours of which were shaped by the Hawke and Howard governments, has comprehensively failed.
"We are on a path to nowhere. The issue is profoundly deeper than argument about the last two years of 'Gonski funding'," he concluded.