Gonski

Everything you never knew you wanted to know about school funding

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

How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

In the final part in our series of what the next government should do to save Australian education, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie and Katrina MacDonald ask: What is the problem of schooling in Australia and how can we fix it?

Education has been politicised over the last three decades, yet it has not been a key feature of the current election campaign. To be sure, we have heard public statements from Federal Education Minister (acting) Stuart Robert about ‘dud’ teachers in our public education system as well as his approval of increasing student demand for private sector schooling. Amid both parties’ support for parental choice in education and concerns about Australia’s under-performance on standardised international and national tests such as PISA and NAPLAN, the focus in this election campaign has largely been on how teacher quality might be improved through attracting and retaining better teachers. While quality teaching is important, this focus misrecognises the ‘problems’ of Australian education in a number of ways.

First, the yardstick of a successful education cannot be measured by student performance on standardised tests. These are highly narrow indicators of school success but continue to be put forth as evidence that our teachers and schools are effective/ineffective. For decades, education policy and practice has mandated the multiple purposes of education (academic and social). It is more important than ever before as we witness the social and economic costs of rising global and local conflict and the continued degradation of our environment that schools develop students’ critical, social and relational capacities as future active citizens to change a world on the brink of destruction. Although, it is promising to see the inclusion of sexual consent education in the Australian Curriculum as well as efforts to better recognise and integrate Indigenous perspectives and learning, it seems that politicians remain focused on narrow academic outcomes as the indicator of school success. Decades of research has told us that the testing culture in schools continues to degrade quality teaching and learning. Standardised testing of literacy, numeracy and science is not the problem. The problem is the way it has been weaponised to blame schools, teachers and students within a marketized and competitive education systems where under-performance on these tests is equated with bad teachers and schools (Smyth, 2011). How might this be different? Some have suggested that testing a randomised sample of schools to represent the diversity of schools in Australia might be a good way of gauging school performance on these markers.  Many countries reject standardised assessment, and have adopted this practice, such as New Zealand did in 2018.

Second, the emphasis on teacher quality in current political arguments tends to focus on teachers as individuals rather than as part of a feminised and (now) marketised profession that continues to be maligned publicly including by our elected representatives in government (Barnes, 2021). Raising the status of the teaching profession is a laudable goal amongst Labor’s education policy promises. Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. They are overworked, confronted with increasing violence from students and parents, and they are operating in marketized systems where they must prioritise improvements on the measures that count (i.e., narrow academic outputs) lest their school becomes labelled as failing. In this pressurised environment, teachers are exhausted by increasingly untenable amounts of administration, accountability checklists and external demands (Heffernan, Bright, Kim, Longmuir, & Magyar, 2022). Teaching is therefore no longer attractive to many and even those who become teachers are disenchanted and exit because of the conditions of work and lack of professional autonomy. Both major parties have a commitment to attract high academic performing students into the profession through various programs and incentives. These initiatives may raise the status of teaching to some extent for some schools but they will do little to change the devaluing of the profession as feminised or the marketized system that has de-professionalised teachers.

Third, improving Initial Teacher Education is another policy focus for both major parties. Again, as it is situated within a competitive marketized system, Initial Teacher Education has been damaged as a consequence of JobReady policies. Federal funding to Education faculties has declined at the same time as they are expected to teach more students. This has led to a degrading of teacher education courses. Competitive market and education policy pressures have led to a burgeoning of shorter courses provided by multiple providers and intensified measures of accountability. Teaching is a complex profession that will not be mastered through short university courses. Teacher quality that leads to creating active, informed and critical citizens who can change the world for the better requires degree courses that foster deep, critical and broad learning about this complex job.

Fourth, both parties are silent on the gross funding inequality within and between our education system. In 2020, the total gross income available (including state and federal recurrent funding, equity loadings, fees and charges) per student was $16,020 for public schools, $17,057 for Catholic schools and $22,081 for independent schools (Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority). The reality is that public schools are chronically underfunded according to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) (less than 1% of public schools will receive the minimum funding by 2023). In addition, the Catholic Education Office and ‘Independent’ schools have fewer accountability requirements. These schools are, of course, selective in who they accept (on the basis of ability to pay but also other factors such as religion and gender) which segregates children and fortifies inequality. Public schools, on the other hand, are left to support the most disadvantaged students with less resources. 

Fifth, both major parties support the right for parents to shop around and select the ‘best’ school for their children. What politicians don’t divulge is how this practice has been highly damaging for school equality. School choice policies over decades have encouraged competition, stratification and residualisation within and between education sectors assisted by the public availability of standardised testing data (MySchool) where schools are ranked on their performance. This has increased inequality between schools, students, communities, families and teachers – the ‘good’ schools get more students and more funds while ’bad’ schools get less students and less funds. What politicians don’t say is how school choice privileges already privileged parents and students who have the capacity and resources to select schools (including moving house to be close to ‘better’ schools). 

State governments are ostensibly responsible for public schooling in Australia, however federal governments can do a lot to improve education. If political parties are serious in this endeavour, the following (at least) needs to occur:

  • Remove standardised testing of narrow academic performance of all schools to testing of a random representative sample of schools
  • Improve the work conditions of teachers and school principals through greater pay, less intensive workloads, greater access to specialist support, greater time for professional development and planning, and greater security of employment (e.g. reducing casualisation)
  • Stop blaming teachers especially those in the public sector for problems that the system and society have created (schools cannot cure the ills of neoliberal, capitalist societies)
  • Implement the Gonski funding recommendations fully and immediately as they intended. This means equitable and fair redistribution of resources on the basis of need. This will mean recalibrating federal and state funding models to reduce or remove funding to ‘independent’ schools that do not need this funding.

From left to right: Jill Blackmore AM Ph D FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia and Vice-President  of the Australian Association of University Professors.  She researches from a feminist perspective education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; leadership, and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; and teachers’ and academics’ work. Recent projects have focused on school autonomy reform and international students’ mobility, identity, belonging and connectedness. Her latest publication is Disrupting Leadership in the Entrepreneurial University: Disengagement and Diversity (2022, Bloomsbury). Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie. Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Strategic Research Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI). Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, spatiality, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina’s qualitative research has focused on principal’s social justice understandings and practices, and the impact of school reform policies on the provision of just public schooling. She tweets at @drfeersumenjin

Who stands to benefit? We all need to know

Some of the richest and most powerful individuals and corporations in Australia are involved in educational philanthropy – giving money to public schools via foundations. Education philanthropy represents a powerful network from diverse sectors including political, business, corporations and media. 

This is framed to the public as charitable acts, and wanting to ‘give back’. But we need to ask questions: who stands to benefit? Who has the power to direct large-scale policy? What are the implications for democracy, social justice and equity? 

Philanthropy in education presents clear ramifications for transparent democracy and government, in addition to the funding of public schools, and the commercialisation of schools. As a public, do we welcome corporate funders in our public school sector, and what are the wider implications of this? 

This is venture philanthropy, wanting something in return. It is strategic and organised; partnering rather than giving. 

“Corporate welfare” designed by Rowe and Holme.

This could be policy influence, tax minimisation or the generation of profit for your business. This is what Bill Gates described as ‘creative capitalism’—a third-way approach ‘where governments, businesses and non-profits work together’. Venture philanthropy is investing, not simply granting. It aims to be entrepreneurial, high-impact and high-engagement.

Venture philanthropists aim for two primary strategies: first, to act as a type of ‘boundary spanner’, linking together a range of actors from NGOs, governments, corporations, intergovernmental agencies and business. Second, establish ‘knowledge brokers’ or ‘evidence brokers’ to leverage authority with the public and achieve large-scale reform.

How is this happening in education? Venture philanthropy is wide-spread in the US and the UK.  It rests on claims of altruism, whilst simultaneously generating profits and significant influence in education reform (surveys with educators show that the majority believe, for example, that the Gates Foundation is more powerful than the US government when it comes to education reform, and in their successful backing of numerous policy agendas, such as charter schools or the Common Core Initiative- they would be right).

We have to ask ourselves—is corporate-backed education reform a good thing? Do we want corporations to be more transparent in how they are driving large-scale policy and directing education reform? These large-scale reforms, as enabled by ‘big money’, are often enacted through ‘foundations’ which claim they are motivated by improving equity in education. In other words, the influence and the money trail is often not very easy to trace as they hide under subsidiaries or ultimate holding companies.

This is a short post which will only provide a brief introduction (the fuller length version is published in a peer-reviewed journal). Let’s consider just one example: the emergence of Australian Schools Plus, the first nation-wide charity with Deductible Gift Recipient Status, that enables corporations, businesses and high-net wealth individuals to give to public schools and receive a tax-deduction.

 Venture philanthropy

 Philanthropy in disadvantaged public schools was first recommended (in a significant way) in the Federal Review of Funding for Schooling (recommendation 41). The Gonski Review called for reform that would emulate models from the UK and the US, where academy schools and charter schools partner with philanthropists to lead ‘systemic improvements’. This recommendation was driven by venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia and supported by others (e.g. The Ian Potter Foundation, Origin Foundation – Origin Energy). 

The Report colloquially became known as the Gonski Review, in light of the chairman of the report – the ‘most well-networked business man in Australia’, corporate consultant David Gonski. Gonski is a well-known and long-term political advocate of corporate philanthropy, having sat on senior advisory boards for the Howard Government in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gonski was highly influential in ushering in high-level reform in this area. He is also the co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services ((according to current ASIC records, APS is a subsidiary of venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia– a central lobbyist for education reform. Please note that SVA stipulate that this relationship ended in 2017).

In the review’s advocacy for increased funding for disadvantaged students, the policy document became well-known and the broader public came to associate Gonski with educational equity (e.g. #igiveagonski). 

But one of the most enduring policies Gonski 1.0 has implemented is the introduction of corporate-backed funding of public schools, unclear money trails and questionable policy influence by ‘big money’. The following is a timeline which shows the key stages:

 Table 1. A timeline of key events.

2010Gonski is invited to Chair the Federal Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling – via a personal call on his mobile from Julia Gillard, then federal minister for Education (Gonski was on holidays at the time with his family). He was ‘taken aback’ by the invitation, considering his prior lack of experience in this sector. Gillard is a well-known advocate of philanthropy in education, as styled on the US-system. 
2011The Gonski Review is released. A major recommendation of the report is to create a fund to promote philanthropy in disadvantaged schools.
2012Eight leading not-for-profit organisations meet to discuss the foundation of a national charity to promote structured philanthropy in education.
2012The Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC) Act 2012 passed by the Australian Government in order to reduce ‘red tape’ for charities.
2013The Australian Government provides $5 million seed funding (of public money) for the establishment of Australian Schools Plus Ltd.
July 2013Australian Schools Plus Ltd registered as a charity via Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
2014/2015Federal Parliament passes legislation granting Australian Schools Plus Ltd Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR1) status (Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 5) Bill 2014). Corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals are encouraged to give money to public schools in order to receive a tax-deduction.
2016Schools Plus launch online crowdfunding platform for public schools, called ‘Fundraise Yourself’.
2016‘Pioneers in Philanthropy’ is launched (hereby referred to as PIP). PIP is not a registered charity. PIP partners with banks and large media groups (e.g. Fairfax Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Bank).
2016Schools Plus includes board members from News Corp Australia, Foxtel, ABN AMRO Bank, and AFL Football. Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Toyota, Google, Origin Foundation, Harvey Norman and many more.
2018UNSW Gonski Institute of Education is launched, funded by philanthropy including donations from David Gonski. The sources of the donations are not publicly available. UNSW stands for University of New South Wales. The Chair of the Advisory Board is an extension of Gonski’s network and the Schools Plus network: the chairman is the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank; committee members include the Chief Executive of the State Library of NSW (Gonski was the former board director); the general manager of the Paul Ramsay Foundation (donor to Schools Plus and the largest donor for Teach for Australia); and the CEO of the Centre for Social Impact (financially established by Gonski and three of his colleagues).

The federal legislation- which set an historical precedent – received very little media coverage, and none that was critical, questioning or investigating. It is overwhelmingly regarded positively that corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals can give to public schools. Arguably, giving to public schools is positive–but what is the price? It is important to note formidable influences in modern education policy in Australia.

Big money, big influence? 

Philanthropic organisations such as Schools Plus host a wide range of hybrid market-state actors across corporate and not-for-profit organisations, including board members from News Corp Australia and Foxtel (as part of the Murdoch empire), a former CEO from Deloitte and elite sporting groups (an AFL Football Club). Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Google, Toyota, Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Origin Foundation (from Origin Energy), retail giants (Harvey Norman) and many more (note, this lists 2020 funders).

The following visual endeavours to illustrate just some of the donors:

A picture of Schools Plus and a snapshot of their high-profile donors, representing the wealthiest in Australian society.  

Effectively, each node represents a high-level of power from corporate, philanthropy or the government sector. The networks are characterised via reproductive values; and relational patterns and replications are evident across the network. Gonski’s professional and personal network is reproduced throughout the Schools Plus network; this includes banking giants, media oligarchs, and the wealthiest identities. For example, Gonski’s mentee Catherine Brenner, the former Chair of the AMP Bank, occupies a board role for Schools Plus. Major power-brokers are represented in the network: Roger Massy-Greene, ex-Bank of America and Rio Tinto CEO, political party donor, married to Belinda Hutchinson (co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services and long-term funder of Social Ventures Australia), is part of the Pioneers in Philanthropy (and a newly formed member of the ‘expert board’, and Director of AERO). Kim Williams is a former executive from Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel and News Corp. The CEO of Schools Plus is a former corporate consultant from Deloitte (one of the big four).

The majority of board members represent financier or consultancy networks, rather than any experience or knowledge within the classroom, as teachers, school leaders or principals.

Schools Plus is closely aligned with Social Ventures Australia (a venture philanthropic organisation). Their first CEO was Michael Traill, the CEO from SVA. Their prior registered address was SVA’s address. SVA were described as the ‘driving force’ behind setting up Schools Plus. There are similar people who hold roles. For instance, former board member of Schools Plus (Lisa Paul AO) is also the former director from SVA (this is common, including the newly formed AERO– many of the directors are former/current SVA directors). The face of these organisations tends to be far different to the engine (money) that is driving it. The big-name donors are also common throughout this network. This includes Google, Origin, or Commonwealth Bank (all donors to Schools Plus and SVA).

As an organisation, SVA have pushed forward major education reform, including Schools Plus, Bright Spots Schools Connection, the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), and Evidence for Learning (a subsidiary of SVA). There is a capacity to influence high-level reform, including federal legislation. But, this is coupled with a lack of formal responsibilities or bureaucratic transparencies. It is undemocratic. There is a concentration of power within particular institutional affiliations.

It is important to note that the median tax that corporations pay in Australia is 1.64% (when analysing data from 2014 to 2019). This is because corporations offset their taxable income by giving to a range of foundations such as this– rather than paying tax to the government (which would then be distributed to public services). It is a win-win for corporations – they get to choose where their funds go – get ‘free’ company branding – win contracts from the government – get their product into schools and classrooms – and can claim corporate social responsibility as well!

Final note

This post is a preliminary and does not pretend to answer all the questions. I would encourage more scrutiny of organisations and foundations that influence public schools and public schooling policy. They will influence how public schools are funded, what kinds of products will be included in the public school classroom, and are influencing policy in schools, at state and federal level.

Emma Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Deakin University and 2020 Fulbright Scholar. Emma is a recipient of the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Grant (DECRA) 2021-2024. Emma’s work examines educational reform and education policy, with an interest in  school choice, privatization and marketisation. Emma’s work has held a long-term interest in the reform of public schooling across OECD countries. 

This was written with the support of an ARC DECRA

Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong

Much has been said about David Gonski’s second review of school funding in Australia. It is a document made up 46,327 words aimed at advising the Australian Government on how school funding can be used to improve student achievement and school performance.

Within those 46,327 words in the 150-page document, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, the term ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘ is only used 10 times. This is less than 0.1% of the total focus within the entire document.

Deficit discourse

It gets worse. When reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is used in the document, it is predominantly based on ‘deficit discourse’, that is discussion that represents people or groups in terms of deficiency, absence, lack or failure. And it sets up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be considered different to the dominant norm.  For example:

“This holds regardless of a student’s circumstances, whether they are students with disability, students in rural or remote locations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,those from non-English speaking backgrounds, low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, or any combination of these” (p. x, emphasis added);

“The review Panel heard from a range of stakeholders that there are common fundamentals needed to support all students – those in capital cities and territories, those in rural or remote locations, students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, academically advanced or less-advanced students, or any combination of these” (p. 4, emphasis added); and

“The strategy seeks to lift students’ foundational skills in STEM learning areas, improve Australia’s STEM performance in international comparative assessments, reverse the declining number of skilled graduates in STEM-related subjects, and address the under-representation in STEM of girls, of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and of students from non-metropolitan areas (p. 37, emphasis added).

By consistently listing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander uniqueness as a deficit, it maintains the dominant norm and perpetuates stereotypes.  The use of “or any combination of these” is also an interesting clause.  It seems a blasé term of reference acting to minimise the varying forms of inequity that peoples face and in turn, dismisses the lack of focus on addressing inequity.

Representation

Another mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the report includes an explicit mention of the need to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher representation.  As I see it, this limits the expectations of Indigenous peoples. They are seen as teachers not also as principals or educational leaders.

In the same way the document lacks promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within educational decision-making, even though this is advocated within numerous current policies.  Instead, the reasoning given for increasing representation is that “it promotes student creativity, motivation, deeper learning and problem-solving skills” (p. 73).

The reasoning seems very lack lustre when considering that an entire chapter within the document is focused on “Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators” (Chapter 3 pp. 56-81). This chapter draws on the work of Professors Jo Lampert and Bruce Burnett and their project, National Exceptional Teaching in Disadvantaged Schools programwhich seeks to address disadvantage by seeking exceptional pre-service teachers to fill ‘hard to place’ schools’ staffing issues. Little mention is made of the clientele of these schools or the reason for the schools being deemed ‘hard to place’ except for a mention of low socio-economic status schools.

Missed opportunities for positive acknowledgement

Yet, aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational research is used to emphasise the importance of classroom teachers and their role in education as well as the involvement of parents and community within the classroom setting.  For example, the Families as First teachers programis mentioned to illustrate the important role of parents supporting cognitive development. This program grew from a project within Kuranda to build parents capacity to assist their children in early childhood.

The omission of recognition of this being an Indigenous-led project now adapted within schools nationally, further silences the achievements and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Further to this, the notion of mentoring is also discussed.  While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not explicitly mentioned, the Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students report (OECD, 2017) was used as the substantiating evidence for mentoring.

The needs based funding loading specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is omitted from the actual report but needs based funding is championed as “levelling the playing field” (p.6).

The Review Panel was established “to examine evidence and make recommendations on how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes”, so these omissions are interesting.

One mention only of Cross-Curriculum Priorities

There are three cross curriculum priorities of the Australian National Curriculum. These are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. The cross curriculum priorities are part of the national curriculum, which is made up of three dimensions: specific disciplinary knowledge (such as English, science, maths), general capabilities (such as creative thinking, social and emotional skills) and the three cross curriculum priorities (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability).

Mention of the cross curriculum priorities is limited to one occasion within the report. And on that one occasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures is omitted.  That is, when describing the Australian Curriculum, the report states,

“The Australian Curriculum can be depicted as a cube of three dimensions: disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding in learning areas such as English, mathematics and science; general capabilities such as personal and social capability; and cross-curriculum priorities such as Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” (p. 38).

Why the omission?

I believe the omission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures may have been intentional. Previous reviews and reports commissioned by the Liberal Government by the likes of Kevin Donnelly have argued (paywalled) that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures within the curriculum is “hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that makes this nation unique”.

So is the omission purposeful; to align with the Liberal agenda of shifting focus? At least the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as the lone cross-curriculum priority is interesting. Considering the Liberal’s stance on climate change it is probably not surprising that Sustainability, the other cross-curriculum priority is also omitted.

In its defence, the report does acknowledge the numerous reviews undertaken addressing rural and remote education and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and that it “has sought to complement them, rather than go over the same ground. [Stating that,] our specific focus has been on improving school education outcomes for all students across Australia” (p. 14).

However if the review panel’s focus was on improving student outcomes and school performance, how can the needs of specific groups that are identified within governmental data sets as struggling to meet national minimum standards be so readily dismissed and silenced?

 

 

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.

 

Turnbull’s $1.2 billion “additional funding” for schools is not additional at all, here’s why

The Turnbull Government budget announced an additional spend of $1.2 billion on schooling between 2018 and 2020. It was billed as part of a $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan.

At first I found the latter figure bewildering because the $73.6 billion did not seem to fit with the Commonwealth expenditure on schools of $14 billion per year, or the combined state, territory and Commonwealth expenditure on schools of $52.42 billion for 2013-14. (These are the most recent years for which comparable data is available).

So I went searching for where it came from. You might be interested to know I discovered this “additional” funding package would be better described as a partial restoration of the funding cuts of the 2014 budget. It is not new funding at all.

The key was buried on page 14 of the Quality Schooling, Quality Outcomes report by the Commonwealth Education Department, which itself was quietly uploaded on Sunday last week after the announcements.

In the Department’s own words:

“Consequently, as a result of using this index*, the Australian Government will provide an additional $1.2 billion over four years from 2017–18.

This additional investment in schooling will bring the Australian Government’s total funding commitment for school education to a record $73.6 billion over the Budget and Forward Estimates period.”

[*Italics are mine]

In other words, the “new” money is just the result of ditching the paltry CPI index rate in favour of a slightly higher “education specific indexation rate of 3.56%” which is still below the higher indexation rates (up to 4.7%) that the Coalition removed in its 2014 budget.

This partial restoration of funding comes with conditions

But wait, there’s more. This funding comes with extensive conditions on specific reforms the states and nongovernment school system authorities must undertake. These include standardised tests for Year 1 students, minimum standards for Year 12, performance pay for teachers, and use of explicit instruction for the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

I doubt the Commonwealth government has the capacity to implement or enforce any of these “requirements” given it neither runs schools nor employs teachers.

Furthermore, most of these measures are already in place at state or school level. The Commonwealth entering the fray with its own versions and conditions could further blur responsibilities in the already contested and opaque schooling sphere. It would also redirect attention and resources from classrooms as teachers, schools and system authorities seek to demonstrate how their pre-existing programs meet Commonwealth requirements. I made these same critiques in relation to the many conditions of the National Plan for School Improvement put forward by Labor in 2013.

I’m not alone with these concerns. Since my wrap of the school funding announcements was published a week ago, the National Catholic Education Commission and the Australian Primary Principals Associations have each raised similar concerns on the conditions.

Significantly, these conditions are proposed despite the Coalition’s critique of Labor’s policy conditions in its education grants and despite the Coalition’s rhetoric about making the states sovereign in their own spheres.

As I outlined in a paper last year Schooling federalism: Evaluating the Options for reform – each Commonwealth has increased the depth and scope of its involvement in schooling – despite evidence here and abroad, suggesting the states are much better placed to develop and implement school funding and programs. Even the Gonski Review said the Commonwealth should back off the minutiae and respect the states’ experience and expertise.

Finally, the kicker: the growth in school funding between 2015/16 and 2019-20 under this new indexation rate is estimated to be 26.5%. This is significantly lower than the 66.1% growth in Commonwealth funding for schools between 2004/05 and 2013/14. These figures are all on page 14 of the government’s own report.  The devil is truly in the detail. And I will continue to examine more of these details as they emerge.

So what will schools and states get under the Coalition’s  promised $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan?

Smaller funding increases and more conditions and tests, which I doubt will improve learning or outcomes for Australian school students.

 

B+Hinz+smilingBronwyn Hinz is a Policy Fellow with the Mitchell Institute for Education Policy at Victoria University, where she specialises in schooling, early childhood and federalism. Bronwyn’s PhD examined how federalism has shaped the reform of school funding policies at State and Commonwealth levels. This was jointly supervised by the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the University of Melbourne, and submitted January 2016.

She has previously worked for the Education Foundation, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, two federal politicians, and the University of Melbourne, where she taught public policy making and Australian politics. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, where she undertook comparative research on intergovernmental institutions, school funding and education policy-making in the United States and in Canada.

Her research has won multiple national and international awards and her analysis frequently appears in print and broadcast media. Her first book, Many Hopes, One Dream, was published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2009 and launched by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. More recently she wrote the chapter on education policies for the 2014 edition of Australian Social Policy published by Oxford University Press, co-authored a major report on early childhood education, and represented Australia at international symposiums on federalism and schooling organised by the Forum of Federations and UNESCO.

This post is an edited and updated extract from her personal blog www.bronwynhinz.com 

Follow Bronwyn on Twitter @bronwynhinz

‘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