Everything you never knew you wanted to know about school funding

By Sally Larsen

Book review: Waiting For Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor

With the 2022 federal election now in the rear-view mirror and a new Labor government taking office, discussions about the Education portfolio have already begun. As journalists and media commentators noted, education did not figure largely in the election campaign, notwithstanding the understandable public interest in this area. One of the enduring topics of education debates –  and the key theme of Waiting For Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor – is school funding.

It is easy, and common, to view the school funding debate as a partisan issue. Inequities in school funding are often presumed to be an extension of conservative government policies going back to the Howard government. Waiting for Gonski shows how inaccurate this perception is, and how far governments of any political persuasion have to go before true reform is achieved. 

The first part of the book is an analysis of the context that gave rise to the Review of Funding for Schooling in 2011, commonly known as the Gonski Report. Greenwell and Bonnor devote their first chapter to an overview of the policy arguments and reforms that consumed much of the 20th century, leading to the Gillard government establishing the review. This history is written in a compelling, detailed and interesting way, and contains many eye-opening revelations. For example, the parallels between the 1973 Karmel report and the 2011 Gonski version are somewhat demoralizing for those who feel that school funding reform should be attainable in our lifetimes. Secondly, the integral role that Catholic church authorities have played in the structure of funding distributions that continue to the present day is, I think, a piece of 20th century history that is very little known. Julia Gillard’s establishment of the first Gonski review is thus situated as part of a longer narrative that is as much a part of Australia’s cultural legacy as are questions around national holidays, or whether or not Australia should become a republic.

Several subsequent chapters detail the findings of the 2011 Gonski review, its reception by governments, lobby groups, and the public, and the immediate rush to build in exceptions when interest groups (particularly independent and catholic school bodies) saw they would “lose money”. The extent to which federal Labor governments are equally responsible for the inequitable state of school funding is made more and more apparent in the first half of the book. Greenwell and Bonnor sought far and wide for comments and recollections from many of the major players in this process, including politicians of both colours, commentators, lobbyists, and members of the review panel itself. This certainly shows in the rich detail and description of this section.

Rather than representing a true champion of equity and fairness, the Gonski report is painted as one built on flawed assumptions, burdened with legacies that were not properly unpacked, and marred by a multitude of compromises, designed to appease the loudest proponents of public funding for private and catholic schools. The second Gonski review, officially titled, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, is given less emphasis perhaps because this second review was less about equity and funding and more about teacher quality and instructional reform – a book-length subject in itself.

Waiting for Gonski is most certainly an intriguing and entertaining read (a considerable achievement, given its fairly dry subject matter), and is highly relevant for those of us working towards educational improvements of any description in Australia. My main criticism of the book is that it tends to drag a little in the middle third. While the details of machinations between political leaders and catholic and independent school lobbyists are certainly interesting, the arguments in these middle chapters are generally repetitions from earlier chapters, with reiterated examples of specific funding inequities between schools. 

A second concern I have is the uncritical focus on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data to support claims of widespread student academic failure. While it’s true that PISA shows long-term average declines in achievement amongst Australian school students, these assessments are not the only standardized tests of student achievement in this country. The National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is briefly touched upon in Chapter 8, but not emphasized. The reality is that while average student achievement on NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests have not increased – after their initial boost between 2008 and 2009 – nor have students’ results suffered large scale declines. Figure 1 demonstrates this graphically, showing the mean scores for all cohorts who have completed four NAPLAN assessments (up until 2019).

Figure 1. Mean NAPLAN reading achievement for six cohorts in all Australian states and territories. Calendar years indicate Year 3. (Data sourced from the National Assessment Program: Results website) 

It seems somewhat disingenuous to focus so wholeheartedly on one standardized assessment regime at the expense of another to support claims that schools and students are ‘failing’. For example, in Chapter 3 the authors argue that,

 “…the second unlevel playing field [i.e. the uneven power of Australian schools to attract high performing students] is a major cause of negative peer effects and, therefore, the decline in the educational outcomes of young Australians witnessed over the course of the 21st century” (p.93) 

In my view, claims such as these are over-reach, not least because arguments of a decline in educational outcomes rely solely on PISA results. Furthermore, the notion that the scale and influence of peer effects are established facts is also not necessarily supported by the research literature. Other claims made about student achievement growth are similarly unsupported by longitudinal research. In this latter case, not because claims overinterpret existing research, rather because there is very little truly longitudinal research in Australia on patterns of basic skills development – despite the fact that NAPLAN is a tool capable of tracking achievement over time. 

Using hyperbole to reinforce a point is not a crime, of course, however the endless repetition of similar claims in the public sphere in Australia tends to reify ideas that are not always supported by empirical evidence. While these may simply be stylistic criticisms, they also throw into sharp relief the research gaps in the Australian context that could do with addressing from several angles (not just reports produced by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], which are liberally cited throughout).

I hope that the overabundance of detail, and the somewhat repetitive nature of the examples in this middle section of the book, don’t deter readers from the final chapter: Leveling the playing field. To the credit of Greenwell and Bonnor, rather than outline all the problems leaving readers with a sense of despair, the final chapter spells out several compelling policy options for future reform. While structures of education funding in Australia may seem intractable, the suggestions give concrete and seemingly-achievable options which would work presuming all players are equally interested in educational equity. The authors also tackle the issue of religious schools with sensitivity and candour. It is true that some parents want their children to attend religious schools. How policy can ensure that these schools don’t move further and further along the path of excluding the poorest and most disadvantaged – arguably those whom churches have the greatest mission to help – should be fully considered, without commentators tying themselves in knots over the fact that a proportion of Australia’s citizens have religious convictions.

Questions around school funding, school choice and educational outcomes are perennial topics in public debate in Australia. However, claims about funding reform should be underpinned by a good understanding of how the system actually works, and why it is like this in the first place. This is the great achievement of Greenwell and Bonnor in Waiting for Gonski. The way schools obtain government funding are obscure, to say the least, and there is a perception that private schools are not funded to the same extent as public schools. Waiting for Gonski clearly shows how wrong this idea is. As the book so powerfully argues, what Australia’s school funding system essentially does is allow children from already economically advantaged families to have access to additional educational resources via the school fee contributions these families are able to make. The book is a call to action to all of us to advocate for a rethink of the system.

Education is at the heart of public policy in many nations, not least in Australia. Waiting for Gonski is as much a cautionary tale for other nations as it is a comprehensive and insightful evaluation of what’s gone wrong in Australia, and how we might go about fixing it. 

Waiting for Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools by Tom Greenwell & Chris Bonnor. 367pp. UNSW Press. RRP $39.99

Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27

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