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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

Decisions about teaching methods should be made by educators not politicians

Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia

One of the chilling features of the Federal Government’s education policy is its obvious intention to tell teachers how they should teach.

Until now governments have stopped short of dictating how teachers should teach, on the assumption that these are professional decisions that are best made by educators armed with the technical expertise, and knowledge of their students and their learning context.

No longer. It is clear that this government wants to follow teachers into the classroom and direct their practice. How so?

Let’s start with one of what Minister Pyne calls his ‘four policy pillars’ – quality teachers. On the surface this would appear to be a reasonable policy goal. Who could disagree that all our students deserve quality teachers?  But scratch beneath the surface and you will find some worrying policy intentions.

The first is the rationale behind the call for ‘quality teachers’. One of the features of the education debate over the past few years has been commentators and politicians confidently pronouncing on educational matters about which they have little knowledge or understanding. This is usually preceded by a recitation of the bleeding obvious, the most well-known being the platitude that ‘research demonstrates that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor which promotes student learning’. If you say that seriously enough, it can sound quite profound.

Of course, once you have established this earth shattering revelation it is but a small step to making a number of other claims. The most prominent of these is to take the quality of the teacher as an independent variable, and then dismiss as irrelevant such matters as class size, teaching resources and factors of educational disadvantage.

Once this is done it is possible to claim that all the money spent on these peripheral matters has resulted in reduced learning outcomes, and hey-presto, you have an educational justification for reducing expenditure.  It is not surprising that Minister Pyne finds this an attractive thesis.

The problem is that it is nonsense. It is the interrelationship of the variables in the context of the learning which is important. They cannot sensibly be separated out in this way.

But having isolated teacher quality, the government is able to focus on those strategies which it claims will enhance it. This demands a view of what good teaching looks like – something Minister Pyne has not been shy to articulate.

In an interview with the Minister on November 28 last year, Alan Jones asked:

… Now you’ve got kids and you know that the way they’re being taught in the classroom is not the way you were taught and it’s not better than the way you were taught,

to which Minister Pyne replied: Well we’ve said all along Alan that we want to return to more orthodox teaching methods….

Then, after being sworn in as Minister he reflected that:

My instincts tell me that a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what parents feel comfortable about.

In these examples we have a lawyer, turned politician, suggesting that education policy should take us back to an earlier era on the basis of his intuition, the comfort level of parents, and how he was taught many years ago.

Since then, the Minister has fleshed out his vision. It involves going back to teacher-centred methods of teaching with an emphasis on ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ instruction – both models based on the theory that learning is telling children things, getting them to remember things, and then having them reproduce what they have been told. This fits with his narrow view of curriculum as being largely about facts.

Now if this was just a personal view I guess there would be no harm done. But unfortunately there are signs that Minister Pyne wants to ensure that such approaches to teaching become the norm in Australian education.

A favourite target has been teacher education, and it is clear that the current review into teacher education is one of the vehicles selected to carry his version of how teachers should teach.

My view is that directive approaches to teaching have a place in any classroom, but they should not be dominant. If the curriculum aims to develop young people to be critical, creative, empathetic and inquiring, then there is an important, indeed central, place for process models of teaching which foster the capacity of students to learn how to learn.

With any single cohort of students, teachers will use a number of teaching models ranging from teacher-centred to student centred  as they are needed. Teachers must have the capacity to adjust programs to suit the needs and interests of their students, to assess student learning outcomes, and work with their peers to investigate issues, problems and dilemmas in their teaching.

And yet the Minister’s excursions into teaching practice never mention this. He and his acolytes focus solely on direct and explicit teaching methods, and ignore the fact that it is the professional responsibility of the teacher to select the balance of teaching approaches needed for the students in her/his care.

If we want to prepare students for the challenges of this century, education policy should focus on providing the conditions within which quality teaching can flourish, not seek to tell teachers how to teach.

An approach which values teachers and enables them to professionally develop throughout their careers is far more likely to result in quality teaching than one which demeans their professionalism.

Educators don’t need their Minister to be making decisions for them about how they should teach, any more than surgeons need the Health Minister to be telling them how they should operate.


alanreid-1 copyProfessor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.