Inside Story

Gonski, again

Gonski’s recommendations can work if we keep in mind how they might fail, writes Dean Ashenden

Dean Ashenden 2 August 2012 1550 words

IS IT possible to have mixed feelings about Gonski? Copious debate, commentary and criticism since the report’s release in February have served only to show what a good idea it is: good for educational equity, good for getting schools to focus on the core business of outcomes, and good for disentangling at least some of the world-class mess that is Australia’s school funding machinery.

Anyone with half a brain and half a heart gives a Gonski. As NSW (Liberal) premier Barry O’Farrell is reported to have said, “I think it would be disappointing if the opportunity that Gonski has presented wasn’t accepted… [I]t’s a formula that benefits both public education and non-government education… that we would dismiss at our own peril.”

And if further proof were required, Christopher Pyne doesn’t like it. Last week Pyne announced not just that the Coalition would oppose Gonski (no surprise in that) but also that an Abbott government would repeal any legislation giving effect to it.

So, to be clear: if Gonski doesn’t get up, as seems likely, its failure will represent the most grievous policy defeat of Labor’s two terms in government, not just because of what it would have done but because of what it would have made possible. Gonski is a big reform, and a platform for further reform.

But there are issues, three argued previously, a fourth not.

FIRST, there is no guarantee that Gonski’s recommended $6.5 billion (up from an initial estimate of around $5 billion) will end up in the schools doing the hard yards, as intended. Federal governments have turned this way and that for fifty years to get state systems and the non-government schools to do their bidding, trying the grand institution of Whitlam’s Schools Commission, locking up money in targeted (“special purpose”) programs and, more recently, sealing deals with charters, compacts, agreements and the like. None really works. Federal cabinet is reported to be worried that the money will disappear without trace, and so it should be.

Second, Gonski can provide a floor to funding but not a ceiling. The high-fee schools will take Gonski money then spend more to keep a safe distance between the best and the rest, and in the process they will sustain the “residualisation” dynamic that inexorably makes the educationally rich richer, and the poor poorer.

Third, Gonski proposes a fairer distribution of funds across the sectors, but that would still leave us with a system divided into three sectors and hence the most marketised school system in the OECD world.

The fourth observation begins with a galling concession. Christopher Pyne is not altogether wrong. In a series of media appearances and statements aimed at preparing the ground for rejecting Gonski, Pyne accused Labor of conducting “a masterclass in wasteful spending,” and argued that the most wasteful spend of all is on reducing class sizes.

In this Pyne is drawing on Catching Up: Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia, a report released by the Grattan Institute to coincide with Gonski. Pyne quotes Grattan to claim that “the evidence overwhelmingly shows that investing in teacher effectiveness rather than the number of teachers is the most successful method of improving student learning and creating top performing education systems.”

Pyne is very nearly correct, and the fact that he uses this argument as a figleaf to cover his preference for the present funding arrangements – starkly exposed by Gonski as chaotic, ineffective and inequitable – should not get in the way of acknowledging that teacher numbers are adequate, at the very least.

A small mountain of research from around the world as well as in Australia makes it absolutely clear that past a certain point more teachers for fewer students per class just will not make any significant educational difference, and that point has long since been reached in Australia. Countless billions of new dollars have been poured into ever-smaller classes with precious little educational payoff. One recent study estimated that the campaign to reduce class sizes is the greatest single source of a 258 per cent increase in real per-student expenditure between 1964 and 2003 and of an associated decline in productivity of Australian schooling over that period of around 70 per cent. The precision may be misleading but the conclusions are not.

Perhaps more importantly, and more encouragingly, research also demonstrates that other kinds of spending yield much more bang for the buck. In other words, the real cost of reductions in class sizes is in the opportunity cost.

If schools do get Gonski money, and if they have any control over how it is spent, hiring more teachers will always be an option, but one to be weighed for cost as well as effectiveness against a host of other strategies, some touted by Pyne, some not. These include better pay, career and study prospects for capable teachers willing to work in disadvantaged schools, peer and cross-age tutoring, “right-sized” class groups varied according to the task at hand, technology-based learning programs, rigorous in-school teacher appraisal, mentoring and development, and technology-based student performance monitoring and analysis capacities in schools.

There will be many in the legion of Gonski supporters who find such approaches hard to stomach. But they should remember that these and other prescriptions are neither new nor intrinsically right/left, Coalition/Labor. Thinking of this kind sponsored a sizeable “school restructuring” movement in the United States and Australia during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The former emerged from inside the teacher union movement, while the latter was taken up by a Labor government.

In 1991 federal education minister John Dawkins set up a National Schools Project underwritten by the “award restructuring” process. Dawkins tried to encourage schools and systems to experiment with more flexible ways of combining time, space, people and money so as to deal more effectively with different kinds of students and educational tasks.

The project was killed off by the teacher organisations, aided and abetted by complaisant system authorities. The unions took “flexibility” as a threat to a “class size” strategy that defined teacher workloads in terms of numbers of periods spent per week in front of classes of a fixed maximum size.

That this strategy served to lumber schools with just one of many ways of doing educational work – one class, one classroom, one teacher, one lesson - and left teachers stuck with low salaries and flat career paths, did not come into the unions’ calculations. I must disclose that I was an early advocate of school restructuring, and led a consulting team in the only Australian attempt to operationalise it, in Western Australia in 1988. We were trounced.

But things are different now. Money is hard to find and getting harder; there will be no more free lunches. The class size strategy is discredited by research that also pinpoints much more effective ways of turning money into learning. New technology-based approaches to the work of both students and teachers are on the way. Each school’s success or failure in lifting student performance is becoming a matter of public record, and even the reluctant and the resentful will want more control over how they do what is required of them. The danger is that teacher organisations and others rightly supportive of Gonski will deny these new and emerging realities because Pyne is using them in bad faith.

Of many conclusions that could be drawn from this construction of events, two should be emphasised.

First, Gonski as proposed, with so few conditions attached, is a threshold reform. The risk is that the federal government will stump up very large sums but get little from systems and nothing from teacher organisations in return, thereby denying Gonski the teeth that his reforms require. In the absence of conditions before the event, strenuous efforts to retrofit better tracking of spending and to encourage much smarter use of money would be both essential and urgent.

Second, it would be difficult to find an episode that more starkly displays the fact that a federal system working in tandem with close party-political involvement in decision-making about schooling is utterly dysfunctional. One important but currently neglected reason for supporting Gonski is that the funding mechanism he proposes would represent an important first step toward the necessary substantial reform of the machinery of reform. •

• The best single source of evidence about the relative effectiveness of class size reductions and many other educational strategies is John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009). Details of the National Schools Project and its fate are provided in Max Angus and William Louden, “Systemic Reform in a Federal System: the National Schools Project,” in Michael Fullan (ed), Fundamental Change, 2005. A survey of the restructuring movement in the United States and Australia can be found in my “Professionalism of Teaching in the Next Decade: A Report of Discussions by US and Australian Educators, October 1990,” published by the University of Wollongong with the assistance of the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, copies available on request.