Gonski

‘School funding on a budget’ paper (a justification for dumping Gonski) is nonsense, here’s why

The Centre for Independent Studies is an Australian free market think tank that produced a policy discussion paper School funding on a budget in the lead up to the first Coalition federal budget in April, 2014. The paper was part of the think tank’s campaign to get the Australian Government to reduce spending.

The paper got substantial media coverage in the lead-up to the Abbott/Hockey budget that reduced funding to states and territories by $80 billion. This is significant because the paper provided a justification for the government’s failure to implement Gonski and helped push an agenda for further privatisation of Australian schooling.

As these policies have implications for all Australians I decided to have a closer look at what the paper said, how it was said and the evidence used to justify its stance.

School Funding on a Budget (SFoB)

SFoB is an exemplar of the think tank report genre. It is written in plain language, by author Jennifer Buckingham, and purports to be a research report, with this claim affected through some academic accoutrements (such as tables, footnotes and appendices). It has the user in mind and is readymade for mainstream media. Even the campaign name, TARGET30 (all in upper case) has the feel of an advertising slogan about it. The length of the paper is 27 pages; long enough for policy makers, politicians and journalists to take seriously, but not too long to put them off reading it.

There are eight tables, nine figures, 60 footnotes, and two appendices. In the footnotes, there is cross-referencing to other CIS reports and those of other think tanks, the work of a conservative free choice US Foundation that promotes the use of school vouchers, and to the reports of consultancy firms such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers. These references are granted equivalence with academic research by influential Australian education academics such as Steve Dinham and John Hattie and to analyses by the OECD in PISA reports and in Education at a Glance.

Something of the political framing is indicated in the section of the report outlining why government spending on schools has to be reviewed – because of the supposed need to reduce government expenditure and to enhance ‘productivity’ in schooling. This is an economistic construction of the work of teachers and their achievements.

The argument goes that increased funding does not result in better outcomes for students, therefore funding should be linked to improvements in outcomes. To do this, tight controls should to be in place.

Please go to my full paper (link at the end of this blog) for more detail about my thoughts on all of this.

Here, I want to take serious issue with the argument categorically stated in SFoB that there is no relationship between increased funding and improved student outcomes.

The OECD demonstrates quite unequivocally that schooling systems with the most equitable funding approaches are those that achieved the best PISA outcomes, that is, higher quality and more equitable outcomes. Beyond a threshold level of funding, what matters is the equitable targeting of additional funds. This is the Gonski approach to school funding – targeting those most in need. It is also important to acknowledge that across the time since the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, the strength of socio-economic correlations with performance in the 34 member countries has grown.

Additionally, across this period there has been a decline in the percentage of resilient students in all OECD countries, that is, students in the bottom socioeconomic quartile who perform in the top two categories (poor students who achieve top results.) For Australia, this figure was 8% in 2003 and 6 % in 2012. This is the period of school reforms supported by the CIS and that the SFoB seeks to strengthen even further. It is also the period of growing inequality, a reality not acknowledged in SFoB.

SFoB speaks of the decline in Australia’s PISA performance. On one reading this is correct. However the performance of different states and territories are added together to depict a crisis. The substantial differences between school systems are hidden. If it is broken down we see a vastly different, but more informative picture: Western Australia and the ACT, for example, perform very well indeed, while Queensland is at the overall average for both quality and equity. It is the very poor comparative performance of the Northern Territory and Tasmania that contributes most to the picture of declining Australian PISA performance.

This evidence about the Northern Territory tells us more about structural poverty in remote Indigenous communities and high levels of youth unemployment in Tasmania, along with a lower level socio-economic community in total. I would stress that the pressing educational policy issue in contemporary Australian schooling is equity. This is silently denied by SFoB.

The report gives Eight ‘Tips’ for reducing government expenditure on schools

Here are the ‘tips’ and my responses. (I see the use of ‘tip’ rather than recommendation is another way this report seeks particular media attention.)

Tip 1 is to ‘revise the federal government funding model’

The Coalition government has been forced to do this, given its rejection of the Gonski model.

Tip 2 is ‘abolish the federal Department of education’

Any remaining programs, it is suggested, could be run through other federal departments or agencies. It is also argued that 90% of federal recurrent and capital funding for schools could be funded and overseen through Treasury. In assessing, and rejecting, this recommendation, we need to think about the Whitlam government’s reasons for federal involvement in schooling. It was to ensure that all young Australians, no matter where they lived, their socio-economic background or which schools they attended, had the same educational opportunities as all others. Back then it was mainly about giving more funding to poor Catholic schools.

This was an equity framing of federal involvement in schooling and it is one still needed. This is why we need a federal department, redistributive funding as articulated by Gonski and targeted federal programs such as the Rudd/Gillard government’s National Partnerships, which were abolished by the Abbott government.

Tip 3 is ‘reduce the cost of state and territory bureaucracy’.

This amounts to reduction of ‘out of school’ costs compared with ‘in school costs’. It is linked to more devolution of education policy and funding directly to schools. Interestingly, in research I have conducted recently with a group of schools in regional Queensland, the major criticism proffered by the principals has been that they are now responsible for everything, without systemic support.

Tip 4 is to remove ‘mandatory class size minimums and eschew further class size reductions’

This is a covert criticism of the teacher unions, who have lobbied hard and long for class size reductions. It is also seen as a straightforward way to rein in expenditure. Here SFoB also links class size reduction to the employment of more teachers, pointing out that in most OECD countries the ‘major commitment of education expenditure is teaching staff’. Interestingly, the evidence on class size relationships with student achievement and other kinds of outcomes is equivocal, and it suggests the biggest impact is in early years and for disadvantaged students. Class size is an equity issue, but not recognised as such by SFoB.

SFoB also argues class size reductions have negatively affected both teacher salaries and teacher quality because of the growth in teacher numbers. The evidence provided in SFoB for rejecting any relationship between class size and student performance is think tank reports, including from the CIS itself and the Grattan Institute.

Tip 5 is ‘Education Bursaries for low-income students to use at non-government schools’

SFoB argues that such bursaries would save money, as there is more government money expended on government schools than on independent schools. SFoB states, ‘Low-income students could be offered an education bursary valued above the average per student expenditure on non-government schools but below the average cost of attending a government school (say $10,000)’. This is choice at the extreme, and destabilising of the democratic and social justice purposes and qualities of government schooling.

TIP 6 is ‘charge high-income families to attend government schools’

The specific charge mentioned is $1000, a small amount, but which would be the ‘thin edge of the wedge,’ so to speak. It is noted that there are half a million ‘students in government schools from families with a household income that might be considered high’. Reflecting the ideological bent of CIS, this call is argued to be equitable because the schools these high earning parents attend received $15,000 per student of government funding, at the same time as some low income families pay for their children to attend non-government schools with less government support. This is a perverted reconstruction of equity.

Tip 7 is ‘reduce the oversupply of teachers by elevating entry standards to teaching degrees’

I have some sympathy for this ‘tip’. We see here the tension between state intervention and market driven approach to university enrolments. This ‘tip’ is represented as a supply and demand question and one of economic efficiency at one level. It is interesting that the recent Review of teacher education commissioned by the previous federal minister rejected such a call for minimum entrance standards to teaching degrees. The Australian Education Union supports a minimum entrance score.

Tip 8 is ‘decentralise teacher employment and make it easier for principals to dismiss ineffective teachers

This is also part of devolution that is supported by CIS. Historically Australian schooling systems have had centralised staffing because of the difficulty of staffing schools in remote communities and in very disadvantaged urban communities. There is also an issue of social justice and equity.

Conclusion

SFoB is about agenda setting and ideas for policy in the context of a down-sized state and fast policy making. It sought to use a political moment to drive an agenda that, in my opinion, would further entrench inequalities in Australian schooling.

The Abbott government appointed Professor Steven Schwartz, currently an academic advisor for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), to chair the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority ( ACARA) and Dr Jennifer Buckingham, author of the SFoB paper, to the Board of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership ( AITSL).

I won’t be alone in wondering if CIS will be as influential with the Turnbull government as it was with the Abbott government.

 

SBS-017Bob Lingard is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, where he researches in the sociology of education. His most recent books include: Globalizing Educational Accountabilities (Routledge, 2016), co-authored with Wayne Martino, Goli Rezai-Rashti and Sam Sellar,  National Testing in Schools (Routledge, 2016) (The first book in the AARE series Local/Global Issues in Education),co-edited with Greg Thompson and Sam Sellar, and The Handbook of Global Education Policy (Wiley, 2016), co-edited with Karen Mundy, Andy Green and Antonio Verger. Bob is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and Co- Editor of the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.  You can follow him on Twitter  @boblingard86

The paper  Think Tanks, “policy experts’ and ‘ideas for’ education policy making in Australia can be found here

The ‘right’ to government subsidised choice of schools is another wasteful snout-in-the-trough entitlement

Parents who choose a private school for their child have a ‘right’ to expect governments to help with the costs because they are taxpayers; so the argument goes in Australia. Certainly chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria, Michelle Green, makes such an argument.

But where does this so-called ‘right’ come from? Neither Michelle Green nor anyone else making a similar claim has an adequate answer.

We pay our taxes so that our governments can provide public services such as public hospitals, public transport, the armed forces, the ABC and so on. These are services that private industry cannot or should not provide. Just because someone chooses not to use public transport does not entitle them to claim a public subsidy for their car costs! Emergency medical treatment at casualty is free at public hospitals but costs $500 at a private hospital. We pay our taxes for public security provided by the police. If we want additional private security for any reason we pay that ourselves and don’t expect a subsidy from our neighbours.

There is a choice. But choice is only available for those who have the wherewithal to make that choice.

We have heard about the end of the age of entitlement. However, when a person on the basic wage of $35,000 a year pays his or her taxes, that person should not expect their taxes to help someone who is on a salary of $150,000 or more per annum to exercise school choice. Any notion of choice in this case is bogus.

The reason for the strong enrolments in private schools in the growth corridor suburbs in major cities in Australia, mentioned by Green as evidence of people exercising their ‘choice’, is due in part to the lack of public infrastructure and planning. At the same time, government funding for capital expenditure by private school systems and independent schools has become incredibly generous, another reason new schools are proliferating.

Governments inspired by ‘providing choice’ will always find it easier and more ideologically satisfying to get private systems to build those extra new schools, than to go to the trouble of providing the schools themselves.

Green mentions so-called “low-fee” private schools. However these can be up to 85% publicly funded. As to her claim about the wonderful multicultural make up of private schools, she does not give us details. Some children who were born overseas, or whose parents speak languages other than English at home, come from very socially or educationally advantaged families. There are clear divisions of such advantage across different ethnic backgrounds. I point out the Gonski Review found that 80% of all disadvantaged children are in the public system.

More than 40% of Australian secondary children now attend private schools, either so-called independent or faith-based systemic schools. Australia has one of the most privatised school systems in the OECD since Chile withdrew all public funding to private schools in 2014.

Prior to the late 1960’s private schools in Australia received little government funding. When such funding was introduced, it was to help bridge gaps for very poor Catholic schools, the sentiment was egalitarian not entitlement. What has grown since then is unique in the world, and not in a good way.

While most OECD countries have private schools, very few of them receive public funding as it occurs here. Take England for example, the home of the elite private school, and the exclusive private schools in the USA: not one cent of taxpayer’s money goes into their budgets.

The purpose of an excellent, appropriately funded public education system is to help ameliorate the inevitable inequalities that result from the lottery of birth. No better mechanism for creating a well-educated general population has so far been discovered.

The importance of choice for parents has been promoted at the expense of equity for students. The choice model promoted by federal and state governments has contributed to the decline in enrolments in public schools nationally.

Stephen Dinham of University of Melbourne and the president of the Australian College of Educators wrote:

It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance that will provide the proponents of change with further “evidence” to support their position and for even more far-reaching change.

Funding for private schools in Victoria, for example, increased by 18.5% per student, or eight times that of public schools between 2009-2014. The Australian average increase for private schools was $1,181 per student compared to only $247 for public schools.

However the savings to governments for shifting the responsibility of schooling to private institutions and systems is illusionary.

The most comprehensive review of school funding  since Gonski by Lindsay Connors and Jim McMorrow argued that state and federal governments would have saved $2 billion annually over the past four decades had they educated private school students in the public school system.

Increased public investment in non-government schools between 1973 and 2012 has increased the overall costs to governments rather than producing overall savings.

Recent trends in school recurrent funding analysed  by Bernie Shepherd and Chris Bonnor  strongly suggest that over forty per cent of students in Catholic schools in 2016 will average as much, if not more, public funding than students in similar government schools. By 2018 an additional forty per cent will most likely join them. Half the students in Independent schools are on track to get as much, if not more, than government school students by the end of the decade.

This finding emerges as one of the most significant to date from analysis of My School data. School funding in recent years has done little for student achievement and nothing for equity, including the $3 billion over-investment in better-off students, without any measurable gain in their achievement.

On current trajectories State and Federal governments, within four years, will be funding the vast majority of private school students at levels higher than students in similar government schools.

Concerns about funding equity should now be joined by concerns about effectiveness and efficiency in how we provide and fund schools.

Each private school pupil now receives, on average, a non-means-tested public subsidy of over $8000 per year and yes I believe this is indeed at the of expense of the less privileged public school student.

The focus of our investment in education should urgently be in public education systems not in providing ‘choice’ for some families.

And so much for all the talk about the end of the age of entitlement.

 

David-Zyngier copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

History tells us we need the Gonski reforms

Does the Australian Government want to give all Australian children every opportunity to get the best education?

There is only one answer to that question and it was the guiding principle of the 2011 Review of Funding for Schools.

The review panel, led by David Gonski, sought to cut through the political impasse that has long dogged federal schools policy and deliver long overdue funding reforms.

There is a history to this battle.

Gonski is not the only one who has had a go at trying to change things so that every Australian child has an equal chance at a good education.

A century ago the Victorian director-general of education, Frank Tate, fought hard and long against the political might of private school interests to establish public secondary schooling to matriculation level in Victoria. Even the final 1913 settlement required that no public secondary school could be located where it might competitively disadvantage a private school.

In the early 1970s the Interim Committee of the Schools Commission (Karmel Committee) recommended a needs-based funding regime for public and private schools in response to the Whitlam government’s request to examine the financial needs of schools. The committee cautioned:

‘There is a point beyond which it is not possible to consider policies relating to the private sector without taking into account their possible effects on the public sector whose strength and representativeness should not be diluted . . . As public aid for non-government schools rises, the possibility and even the inevitability of a changed relationship between government and non-government schooling presents itself.’

The senate at the time was hostile to the principles of equity underlying the Karmel report, and so, too, was subsequent the Fraser Government. This led to escalating funding for private schools and consequential residualisation of public schools – dynamics that became ever more difficult to turn around. The evidence for these two intimately connected trends, foreseen by the Karmel Committee, includes facts of funding and indicators of residualisation.

The Karmel Committee recommended that 70% of federal schools funding go to public schools, with those schools receiving on a per student basis around 70% that received by private schools, which took account of existing state and private levels of funding. The actual initial allocation to private schools was increased as the bills passed through Parliament, and over the following four decades the per student differential in funding has increased.

For the 2013-14 financial year, federal funding for each private school student averages more than three and a half times the amount allocated for each public school student.

Changes in enrolment share and the social background of students provide stark evidence for the underlying process of the residualisation of public schools.

From 1976 to 2013, the share of all school enrolments in public schools fell from 79% to 64%, and thus the share in private schools rose from 21% to 36%. Over the same period the concentration of low SES students increased in public schools and declined in private schools.

Through the 1970s and 1980s the proportions of low SES and high SES students were much the same in the public and private sectors (though there were, and remain, differences within sectors, largely based on location and academic selectivity in the public sector, and fee levels in the private sector).

This initial similarity between public and private sectors in overall social mix progressively changed over the decades.

In 2011 there were twice as many low SES students as high SES students in public schools, and around twice as many high SES students as low SES students in private schools.

Schools attended by low SES students (now overwhelmingly public schools) face many problems.

Some are documented by the OECD in its detailed analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data. For example, in Australia, more than any other OECD country, teacher shortages are concentrated in schools with a large proportion of low SES students. The disadvantages of the schools compound the disadvantages of the individual low SES students.

David Gonski and his fellow reviewers sought to cut through the intractable barriers to equity in schooling by recommending a largely ‘sector-blind’ funding system that coordinated federal and state funding for both public and private schools and targeted substantial extra funding at low SES and other schools with demonstrable needs – schools where extra funding would make a great difference.

Under the Gonski reforms no school would lose funding.

The reviewers, like the OECD recognised that improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students benefits not only them and their communities, but the whole society – well into the future.

Two of the OECD’s five recommendations for tackling system level policies that hinder equity in education are especially relevant to Australia:

‘Manage school choice to avoid segregation and increased inequities’

‘Make funding strategies responsive to students’ and schools’ needs’

While managing school choice has been difficult for Australian governments since the 1970s, funding that is responsive to students’ and schools’ needs is more politically viable, if fiscally difficult. Thus both Labor and the Coalition committed to the implementation of funding based on the Gonski recommendations at the 2013 election.

The Coalition’s commitment has been shaky, both before and since the election, and it has made no commitment beyond the first four years, when the significant funds that will make a difference would start to flow. Even for those first four years, it appears to be walking away from a commitment to direct additional funds to the schools that need it. As Jim McMorrow put it in January this year:

Failure to implement the comprehensive reforms put forward by the Gonski panel and embedded in the architecture of the Australian Education Act will …  mean missing the once in a generation opportunity provided by the Gonski review to settle one of the country’s most intractable and divisive areas of public policy.

If the Australian Government truly does want to give all Australian children every opportunity to get the best education it should fully implement the Gonski reforms.

BarbPreston-BW-PhotoBarbara Preston is an independent researcher and policy consultant, currently undertaking doctoral studies at the University of Canberra on supply and demand forecasting for the teaching and nursing professions. She has been researching a wide range of education matters since the 1970s – as a teacher union research officer, public servant, and, since the early 1990s, consultant to the Australian Council of Deans of Education and many other organisations. Her research interests include teacher attraction and retention, the nature of the teaching profession, the professional practice of teaching, and schools policy and social justice.

Barbara Preston’s website