Inside Story

Gonski the game-changer

The Gonski report has brought together an enormous body of evidence to show why equity must be at the centre of school policy, writes Chris Bonnor, and has decisively shifted the terms of the debate

Chris Bonnor 29 February 2012 4121 words

Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaking at the release of the Gonski report. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

THIS was always going to be a big year in education and it doesn’t get much bigger than the release of the report of the Review of Funding for Schooling, known as the Gonski review. We’ve had reviews and reports before but this one has changed the debate, perhaps forever.

Gonski’s release hasn’t been the only news about schools so far this year. We had a panic over NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) in January, with various players distributing explanations, alarm and blame for our apparent lack of progress. Then, on the first day of school, the Australian ran coverage of a leaked report on public education by Richard Teese, commissioned by all state and territory governments except New South Wales, which showed a growing gap between students from different backgrounds. The fact that this report was kept secret by the states raises questions about their stewardship of public education in Australia.

Then along came a nicely timed OECD report on equity and quality in education, which had the effect of supporting Gonski’s focus on similar themes. This was followed by a Grattan Institute report that tried to shift the focus back onto what schools were doing right and wrong, pointing to better student test scores in parts of Asia. Perhaps this wasn’t an attempt to “shanghai” the debate about schools, but Four Corners picked up similar themes at around the same time.

Finally, towards the end of February, came the release of the Gonski recommendations, accompanied by a flurry of coverage cut short by Labor’s leadership circus. It was hardly surprising that few even noticed the release of My School version 3.0 on 24 February.

All these events focus on school education and what we need to do to improve student outcomes – but that is about as much as they have in common. They represent a continuation of two strands of thought and advocacy about school reform. The first argues the need to lift student achievement by reforming schools on the inside; the second focuses on the wider framework in which schools operate and how it needs to become more equitable if we are to see sustainable improvements in student achievement.

Reforming schools: an inside job

Those who say that school reform is essentially an inside job believe that schools are good or bad, and will succeed or fail, as a consequence of their own practice. Schools can improve and increase student achievement by their own energy, appropriately funded and prodded by reforming governments and school authorities. Improvement can proceed regardless of any contextual issues and challenges, especially the challenges created by particular students and families. As a team of researchers from the Australian Council for Educational Research wrote, “Whereas socioeconomic background and schools do influence educational outcomes… they are far from having a determining influence. [That] thesis undervalues the importance of quality schooling and the contributions that teachers and schools make to the development of their students’ abilities, interests and learning.”

This view of schools is readily accepted by business groups and the various think tanks and philanthropic groups that take an interest in education policy and practice. Schools that find themselves at the top of any academic hierarchy are also quick to attribute their success – and the apparent failure of others – to school factors. Schools improve when the laggards replicate practice in such successful schools. This belief lives comfortably alongside the free-market view of schools as competing entities where quality is driven by choice and, in the process, the worst schools will somehow be lifted. The My School website is underpinned by this belief.

The idea that schools alone are the drivers has also become part of the dominant culture in education bureaucracies. From the top down to school level, the paradigm is that schools and teachers can make a difference whatever the odds. And this is true to an extent. But anything else, goes the narrative, is just excuse-making. If there is a problem then we should simply increase the autonomy of schools and the power of principals – and, if they are lucky, their budgets. And we have to improve teaching and learning: educational theorist John Hattie and others have told us how to do this, so just do it.

This focus is also driven by governments and others. Ben Levin from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has shown how governments use the accessible and politically attractive levers – funding, workforce supply and quality, accountability and school governance – in order to be seen as strong on school reform and accountability, and how they willingly embrace reward and punishment funding, testing, ranking and everything that goes with it. They also promote many useful priorities, of course, for example in teacher and principal development. Various high-profile researchers and think tanks pick up these themes and can usually find evidence from anywhere to push their school improvement barrows.

Some of these people are well known. In his previous life Andrew Leigh, the federal member for Fraser, was a prolific researcher across a range of topics including education. More recently, the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen has carried out research with this emphasis. Their work always makes a valuable contribution but it often misses or discounts the significance of other impacts on schools. Jensen is right, for example, when he challenges the assumed links between levels of funding and school outcomes. But he doesn’t go that step further to consider whether the way Australian schools derive their funding aggregates advantaged students in some schools and the disadvantaged in others. He challenges assumptions about lower class sizes and learning, but at the expense of overlooking the advantage of smaller classes in the early years and in disadvantaged schools.

Jensen is also right to say that our schools must learn from outstanding practice in other places, particularly in the way successful systems – systems that score highly in international rankings – focus on teacher education and, helped along by mentors, teachers themselves become researchers. But other factors are easily ignored. Schools in Shanghai benefit from many advantages, as I discovered in a visit a few years ago, but Shanghai isn’t typical of China and nor are the Chinese as effusive about their bright patch. Do we really want to adopt the frenetic culture that drives students in some countries to high achievement in a narrow range of tests – and drives some to despair? How meaningful and significant are the international rankings? Are we going to fly into a panic whenever a rapidly developing country catches up to our test scores and even gets ahead?

The problem remains that those who believe schools should be shaken from the inside are quick to discount other impacts on student achievement. Asked about the Gonski review, Ben Jensen commented, “I don't think it's looking at the wrong thing. I just don't think it's the main game.” Right or wrong, it certainly isn’t his game. But we need to play both games.

The media warms to these themes, often to the exclusion of anything else. The best recent example is the ABC Four Corners program, “Revolution in the Classroom,” which told of outstanding teacher development strategies in three schools. The implications were twofold: schools should be resourced to do this; and these practices should be used everywhere. It would all happen, it seems, if principals could hire and fire staff and run their own race – and if the unions would only get out of the way.

But the international research, especially from the OECD’s influential Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, doesn’t see these as game changers. Local selection of staff (and students) would soon see the “best” gravitate to the schools with the biggest firepower in terms of salaries, location and the types of students enrolled. It happens now, and it could get much worse.

After more than a decade of influence, this practice-focused view of school reform has had little impact. The reforms of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments have been accompanied by mediocre PISA scores and a growing gap between high and low achievers. While we have been looking almost exclusively at school practice the wider framework problems have worsened. Our most disadvantaged schools, the ones commonly beaten up in school comparisons, are making little progress. Peter Garrett once pleaded that reforms must be given time to work – but we can’t spend another couple of decades relentlessly pursuing school-level change and ignoring everything else which is considered important.

This brings us to the second strand of thinking about schools.

Reforming schools: context is critical

Teachers and principals must believe they can and should improve student outcomes and opportunities. They have no place in schools if they don’t. Some school improvement measures, especially in pedagogy and teacher development, have been successful. But there has always been more to school success than what goes on inside the school fence.

Those who focus on individual schools are being challenged by several recent developments. The first is the availability of PISA data and cross-country comparisons that identify those system and school practices associated with high system performance. PISA and its associated research consistently reports a strong association between system equity and uniformly higher performance. In a new report on equity and quality in education, the OECD stresses the need for improvement in schools policy as much as practice inside them:

In the path to economic recovery, education has become a central element of OECD countries’ growth strategies. To be effective in the long run, improvements in education need to enable all students to have access to quality education early, to stay in the system until at least the end of upper secondary education, and to obtain the skills and knowledge they will need for effective social and labour market integration.

One of the most efficient educational strategies for governments is to invest early and all the way up to upper secondary. Governments can prevent school failure and reduce dropout using two parallel approaches: eliminating system level practices that hinder equity; and targeting low performing disadvantaged schools. But education policies need to be aligned with other government policies, such as housing or welfare, to ensure student success.

The second development is the data behind the My School website. Although the website still doesn’t accurately identify quality schools, the data tell many stories. No matter how you cut it, My School clearly shows a close relationship between student test scores and the socio-educational profile of school enrolments as measured by the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA. Not only that, it shows that the assumed differences between schools – between public and private schools, for instance – become much less significant if and when schools are accurately compared.

We can expect more of this as the My School website continues to improve. It still has a way to go: the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority is still adjusting schools’ ICSEA values: 10 per cent of the sample of schools described in Inside Story last year have seen their ICSEA values jump considerably. Private school ICSEAs mainly rose; public school ICSEAs rose and fell in equal measure.

The third development is the Gonski review, which focused on equity and school outcomes throughout the review process, in the four research documents produced for the review, and eventually in its final recommendations. For the panel, equity in schooling means that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions – and its report doesn’t shy away from explaining these differences in detail.

The patterns that create differences between schools have become further entrenched over the decade in which the school reformers have had free reign. PISA 2009 tells us that Australia is concentrating disadvantage and concentrating advantage far more so than the majority of OECD countries. In Australia the impact of students’ socioeconomic status, or SES, on the achievement profile of a school is close to the OECD average, but the impact of school SES on student achievement is among the highest in the OECD.

The people who have been urging a focus outside as well as inside schools have struggled for over a decade to have their concerns taken up in mainstream research and debate. They form a diverse group of academics, teachers, teacher unions, principals and parent groups. They have been persistently sidelined but the mounting evidence and the findings of the Gonski review have now projected their concerns into the mainstream. So what was in the Gonski review that was so significant?

Reforming schools: the Gonski view

By now people will have absorbed the various reports about the review but it is worth digging a little deeper into what it has found and recommended. In the wider context of schools it argued that:

• All Australian students should be allowed to achieve their very best regardless of their background or circumstances. Hence we must have a funding model that adequately reflects the different needs of students to enable resources to be directed to where they are needed most.

• The key dimensions of disadvantage that are having a significant impact on educational performance in Australia are socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and school remoteness. Students who experience multiple factors are at a higher risk of poor performance.

• Increased concentration of disadvantaged students in certain schools is having a significant impact on educational outcomes, particularly, but not only, in the government sector. Concentrations of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous students have the most significant impact.

The last of these points is especially significant. There is ample awareness of the impact of individual student SES on their achievement, but the collective impact of school SES is considerable. As I indicated in Inside Story last year, key research in New South Wales shows how the SES of schools can lift or depress individual student achievement. This work has been replicated in Victoria by Richard Teese. The evidence was carefully explained in the research carried out by the Nous Group for Gonski and was certainly noticed by the review panel.

The current funding of schools and the mechanism of parental choice concentrates advantaged students in some schools and disadvantaged students in others. The mere charging of fees by some schools guarantees that this will happen, so the manner in which schools are resourced is even more significant than the total funding amounts. Probably the most important resource allocated to any school is its enrolled students. The fact that this resource is very unevenly allocated can certainly explain much of our present malaise in student achievement levels and the gap between the most and least advantaged. Government policy in this context is self-defeating: we spend a fortune in promoting parental choice but must then invest even more in poorer schools to compensate for their compounded disadvantage when their aspirant students have gone elsewhere.

An important objective of any funding regime should be to address this imbalance. It can do this, for example, by improving the quality of lower SES schools and reducing the extent to which combinations of public and private funding create overinvestment in the students and schools already advantaged. How far do the Gonski recommendations go towards achieving such objectives?

The review placed student outcomes at the centre of its recommendations. It identified the need for a schooling resource standard, or SRS, based on a student outcomes benchmark – a level of funding at which national goals of schooling are being achieved – as the basis for funding schools. The proposal is that the federal government would use the SRS as the basis for determining its total recurrent funding and the allocation of that funding across systems and schools.

The proposed SRS includes loadings for various factors, which will increase funding to schools where the concentration of disadvantage is higher. The recurrent costs of schooling for government schools to meet the SRS would be fully publicly funded. Gonski proposes significantly increasing support to all schools that have high concentrations of disadvantaged students and proposes that private schools that take on high-needs students and don’t charge fees should be fully funded for those students. This is an interesting prospect, in effect creating an integrated public–private approach to meeting the needs of such students.

The recommendations propose that the assessment of a non-government school’s need for public funding would be based on the anticipated capacity of parents to contribute financially towards the school’s resource requirements. To this extent the review deals quite directly with the vexed and divisive role of private funding. But at the same time the panel had its hands tied by the “no school shall lose a dollar” pledge. Hence, the minimum public contribution towards the cost of schooling would apply to non-government schools at a level between 20 to 25 per cent of the SRS per student amounts, without loadings. So we have yet another no-loser provision – though potentially more consistently applied than over the past decade.

Official reports are always couched in formal language and readers of the report need to go beyond the findings and recommendations. As Stephen Long put it in the Drum, “If you want to see the real insight of the Gonski report, go beyond the oh-so-careful language designed not to offend ‘stakeholders,’ and the non-committal responses of politicians. Look at the data collated by the review of school education. It tells a story of massive educational inequality.”

Along with much of the research informing the review the final report has certainly placed on the public record clear evidence of the extent of problems it has been asked to resolve. The charts in particular tell a sorry story. Some are worth mentioning because over time they’ll contribute to a more informed debate:

• The social hierarchy of schools is illustrated on page 9 of the report. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the enrolment profile of Catholic schools does not resemble that of government schools.

• The breakdown of enrolment of disadvantaged groups is shown on page 10. Despite the odd heart-warming story, non-government schools do not enrol significant proportions of these students.

• Although Australia spends close to the OECD average on school education, much of this is private expenditure, contributing to the problems described in the report.

• Page 22 reports that the “evidence suggests that societal issues, such as the level of inequality within a country, combined with particular characteristics of a country’s schooling system, create the conditions for high educational outcomes.” Gonski mentions significant in-school factors but these clearly don’t exist in isolation.

Other graphics point to such factors as the relationship between NAPLAN and parent education, school fees and ICSEA; the location of developmentally vulnerable children; changing proficiency levels in PISA testing; and disparities in capital funding (including between the states). Commentators will be mining this data and relaying what it shows us for years to come.

Where it has landed

The Gonski recommendations landed in the midst of Labor’s leadership ructions, which reduced the level of media interest. But the report certainly did excite reporting and commentary on equity and student achievement to an unprecedented extent. For some time the media has editorialised that something is rotten in school funding and that it must be fixed. Editors, journalists, commentators and others welcomed the Gonski recommendations and challenged the federal government to take the lead in their implementation.

The government’s cautious response – another round of consultation and a review of the review – was met with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief. “Honestly,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Stevenson, “what is there left to be said?” The paper editorialised: “So like a child asking for the impossible, Gonski has been told ‘We’ll see.’” The Australian reported on the perplexed responses. The spectre of Mark Latham’s private school hit list obviously continues to haunt Labor, regardless of any serious analysis of what lost the 2004 election for Labor eight years ago.

The Gonski recommendations have been met with surprising and suspicious agreement from all sides in the school funding debate. Even private school lobbies have accepted the need for change or have remained silent — with the exception of shadow education minister Christopher Pyne, who rarely seems to demonstrate great understanding of either the virtues of silence or the intricacies of school funding and seems quite out of step with his private school constituency. Politicians aside, the most vehement opposition has come from a small group of ideologically committed supporters of private schooling, who have treated Gonski and his panel as part of a broader “cultural-left” conspiracy.

The most frequently recycled cliché in the past couple of weeks has been “the devil is in the details,” which comes across as a code to signal that some school groups will fight tooth and claw against any attempt to diminish their funding and profile. The most obvious battleground will be over the minimum public contribution towards the cost of schooling that would apply to non-government schools. They won’t be happy and will argue for more than 20 to 25 per cent of the SRS and/or reduced equity loadings. Those who have the resources and who know the buttons to push have managed to delay fundamental reform in the past.

While much of this will take place behind closed doors we’ll also be dragged through the kind of distracting debate that has successfully clouded the issues in the past. More than ever we’ll be told that fee-charging schools save public money, as if somehow the purpose of public funding of schools should be to save public funding. But in the wake of Gonski such claims will be subject to even greater scrutiny and we’ll increasingly count the real cost of leaving large numbers of young people behind – and we might once again count the well-known social and economic dividends from universal and free quality education.

The response from the school-only brigade has been generally to welcome the report, albeit in some cases through clenched teeth. Many generally welcome the long-overdue attempt to balance the picture but seem unprepared for the long haul ahead. Ben Jensen wants to get it over quickly and move onto the main game. Geoff Masters from the Australian Council for Educational Research reminds us that funding isn’t everything and has reissued a list of within-school challenges that must still be met.

What will happen now?

The difference now is that such voices are appropriately balanced by the weight of evidence generated by the review process and report. The lingering narrative that the problems faced by schools are of their own making and entirely within their capacity to overcome has to be heard above the urgency of structural reform.

How long before we’ll see any significant change is anyone’s guess. In the short term the recommendations are in the hands of a government under permanent siege. It is possible that Prime Minister Gillard will grasp the nettle; she spent some time and energy in paving the way for the release of the report and has pitched it as an essential part of her reform agenda. She has achieved a breakthrough in the health rebate, arguably a parallel example of regressive middle-class welfare. But implementation of Gonski will challenge a couple of decades of rusted-on commitment to marketplace and choice. Gillard has pitched Gonski as an arm of her school reform – but it really points to the inadequacy of much of her own education revolution, especially in the often-counterproductive focus on school accountability, competition and choice.

In the longer term the achievement of the Gonski review might be that it is simply too big to go away. Seemingly intractable problems have been given a high profile, along with workable solutions. There is a new weight of data and research evidence that can’t be ignored. There are new players now articulating the problem and demanding that it be fixed.

It is not a matter of if but rather when this will happen. In the conflict between school-level and broader reform it’s not either/or – it is now both. •