Inside Story

Gonski’s review: another salvo in the Hundred Years’ War

Strongly argued, thoroughly evidenced, and unlikely to succeed. Dean Ashenden looks at the Gonski report on school funding

Dean Ashenden 24 February 2012 3254 words

David Gonski speaking at the release of his report on school funding in Canberra this week. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

SINCE the grand Karmel/Whitlam settlement of 1973, money for schools has come from three different sources and gone in three different mixes to three different categories of school. In two of these categories large numbers of parents pay significant amounts of money; in the third even larger numbers pay very little or nothing at all. Around these peculiar arrangements every religion, every state/territory government, and the best-organised unions in the country engage in a modern version of the Hundred Years’ War, their chronic enmities flaring from time to time into open hostilities, fighting always under banners of high principle, The Common Good, Freedom of Choice, Parents’ Rights, the Fair Go and, of course, Equality of Opportunity, the antagonists all swearing ultimate allegiance to Our Children’s and Our Nation’s Future. The fear that drives these hostilities is not that there will be insufficient money to do the educational job but that someone else might get a bit more. It is an inherently childish mental world, inflamed by an inherently demeaning system.

Admittedly the endless skirmishing has served to get more money for schools, but the cost has been a focus on amounts of money rather than their use. The larger issue is not how much is available, but how it is spent and how educational work is done. Although schools are more congenial places than they would otherwise have been, they are not more productive of educational outcomes. Most of the vast increases in funding have gone into ever-smaller classes, just about the least cost-effective educational strategy imaginable. Costs have risen and risen again but effectiveness has not. Schools are, in short, very much less productive than they were.

On this field of battle the federal government occupies ill-favoured ground. It is the biggest single spender but has no direct control over any schools at all. Worse, it is the only combatant simultaneously engaged with all the others. Willy-nilly it becomes a kind of umpire and arbiter as well as a player, a parent among squabbling children, in which role it is on a hiding to nothing. If it gets things right all it gains is a bit of peace and quiet for a while. If it gets them wrong? Twenty-five years on I have still-vivid recollections of travelling from one angry public meeting to another with my then-employer, federal education minister Susan Ryan, in the early days of the Hawke Labor government. The government had decided that funding to forty-one high-fee schools should be reduced, to a very modest degree, with the amounts saved going to the much needier Catholic systemic schools. What could be fairer than that? Politically deft, too, splitting one part of the non-govvies from the other and still keeping sweet with the most important of them, the Catholics. Within weeks of the announcement of that decision Senator Ryan’s political career, to that point prosperous, even dazzling, was on the way down. Wild media talk about Ryan's Hit List fuelled widespread concern that Labor was not to be trusted, that this was the thin end of the wedge. The Catholics sided with the independents, in the cause of high principle, of course. All parents, the bishops declared, were entitled to Commonwealth dollars as of right. To deny that right to one was to threaten the right of all.

It was Gonski’s task to bring some grown-up reason and evidence to this squabble, and to suggest how the system of schooling and funding that provoked it might be brought to some kind of order to serve some identifiable educational purpose. A “review of funding and regulation across government and non-government sectors” was announced in April 2010 by education minister Julia Gillard. A few months later terms of reference had been firmed up and a review panel appointed. It would be chaired by eminent businessman, philanthropist and jack of many high-end trades, David Gonski. His committee would include Ken Boston, the heaviest of heavy-hitters from the government sector, and his Catholic system opposite number Peter Tannock. Others appointed were former Labor premier and education minister in Western Australia, Carmen Lawrence; Bill Scales, from the upper reaches of both business and the public sector (and, importantly, previously involved with COAG and the Productivity Commission); and Katherine Greiner, who brought affiliations with the private schools and non-Labor politics. All were at or near the end of distinguished careers, silverbacks, at home in the deep forest, where monsters are.

Eighteen months, seventy-one consultations, 7000 submissions, four commissioned research papers and an emerging issues paper later, Gonski has landed. The government launched his report as the first comprehensive review of funding to all schools, government and non-government, in forty years, and as a key component of its Education Revolution.

A comparison with the review of forty years ago, Peter Karmel’s Schools in Australia, is illuminating. Karmel delivered not just a completely new configuration of school funding and an increase in federal spending that pushed schools (and particularly Catholic systemic schools) to a previously unimaginable plateau of prosperity, but two new national authorities, one (the Schools Commission) with the very substantial power of new money as well as a raft of “special purpose programs,” the other (the Curriculum Development Council) assuming almost instant leadership of thinking about teaching, learning and the curriculum. With direct access to a prime minister riding high and a political milieu less plagued by interest groups than ours, Karmel was able to do all this in just six months. Gonski has also proposed a new basis for funding – a “school resources standard” to be applied across all three sectors on a common, nation-wide basis – as well as closer links between funding and educational outcomes and equity of outcomes, an increase in spending by both federal and state/territory governments, and a kind of mini–Grants Commission to administer the new arrangements. He suggests School Planning Authorities in each jurisdiction to handle local infrastructure and planning issues. This work has required two years so far, with who knows how many more to be passed in “consultations.”

Gonski’s proposals do not approach the financial or institutional scale of Karmel’s, but he does have the advantage of technologies not available forty years ago. Specifically, he could use – and rely upon the ongoing use of – massive and very accessible amounts of information about both “inputs” and “outcomes” of every one of Australia’s 9000-odd schools. He could also draw on an associated stream of research undertaken over the past couple of decades within the so-called “effective schools” paradigm, unusual in educational research in being usable. It provides by far the clearest and best-evidenced account of “what works” in schools and school systems, and what doesn’t. This approach is ably summarised by the Nous consulting group in one of the two research papers that provided the basis for much of Gonski’s thinking (the other, by Allen Consulting, dealt with the school resource standard). Gonski’s report is a valuable document in itself, a lucid exposition of a great deal of complex information and argumentation, and a credit to Gonski’s consultants and his secretariat.

Gonski’s various findings and recommendations are made to seem modest by the government’s inflated rhetoric about an “education revolution,” but they should nonetheless be recognised as significant, worthwhile, strongly argued, thoroughly evidenced, and unlikely to succeed. There are problems in Gonski’s case, and bigger ones awaiting its reception.

The first of the limitations internal to Gonski appears on the “inputs” side of the equation. He suggests that each and every school, government and non-government alike, should get total payments, from all sources, according to the educational job it does, and the circumstances in which that job is done. A measure of this common per-student amount should be derived from resourcing available to “benchmark” schools, selected for their effective use of those resources. Secondary students would attract more dollars than primary. Schools with more students from poor (“disadvantaged”) or Aboriginal or non-English-speaking families should get more (a “loading”). Students with disabilities should also bring a loading, in ways to be determined by a separate review. Schools should also get more if they are small or remote. “[S]chools with similar student populations require the same level of resources regardless of whether they are located in the government, Catholic or independent school sectors,” Gonski insists. That’s the floor. But what about the ceiling? How can funding be levelled up if there is no control over “up”? All Gonski can do is recommend a minimum governmental input to a school’s funding, not a limit to the total. Over the past three or four decades schools that embody dominant conceptions of “the best,” tiny in number but high in prominence and symbolic power, have just gone on spending their way up and up and up, in the process, all things being relative, making the bottom fall further and further below. Is Gonski just the latest round in an unwinnable game of catch-up?

Second are difficulties in Gonski’s argument about how to make resources produce better outcomes, that is, to increase cost-effectiveness. He relies on NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) to measure outcomes, then focuses attention on schools with a long outcomes “tail,” arguing that they will need more resources to get a higher proportion of students up to a minimum standard. Here his recommendations betray the essential weakness of the federal position. He suggests no carrots, no sticks, and no other levers to be pulled either. Needy schools won’t get any reward for lifting their game, nor lose any funds if they don’t. Who will whip or encourage them along, then? Well, “governments” (sic) should “ensure” that all schools, irrespective of sector, “are publicly accountable for the educational outcomes achieved by students from all sources of funding.” Perhaps, given the unprecedented availability of information, that will work. But perhaps it won’t. The history of trying to use funds to influence how funds are spent is not encouraging. The Karmel/Whitlam Schools Commission and Curriculum Development Council were dismantled only a decade or so after they were established, put out of their states-inflicted misery by the first Labor government to follow Whitlam. Even the state departments themselves, with a whole array of levers to pull as well as close control of funding, have found their own schools harder and harder to control.

There are problems, too, in focusing on a narrow band of outcomes and on a small proportion of schools. In relying on NAPLAN Gonski inherits many concerns about big-scale standardised tests, including their highly selective focus. He is at pains to urge a hurry-up in work now under way to measure a wider array of outcomes. But some things – how kids are treated by teachers and by other kids, for example – are not “outcomes” in the usual sense, yet are nonetheless of first concern to parents and to students themselves, and vary widely across schools. Universities measure such things, via the CEQ (Course Experience Questionnaire). But in respect of this entire “domain,” as the researchers like to call it, Gonski is silent. As for putting his spotlight on schools that generate the unusually long Australian outcomes “tail,” what about the many schools enrolling few or none of the more challenging students but which are nevertheless, as the My School website reveals, poor performers? Why not set a bar for value-add that would apply to all schools?

GONSKI has inherited another area of concern from the effective schools research movement on which much of his report relies. As already mentioned, this body of work is unusually valuable in pinning down what works and what doesn’t. It finds, among other things, that there are significant differences in the effectiveness of similar schools, but even greater (in fact much greater) differences between very effective and ineffective teachers. From here it is but a short leap to the wrong conclusion, that what we really need (or all we really need, according to the Grattan Institute and then the Australian and, more surprisingly, two of the Financial Review’s most astute commentators) is a big push on “teacher quality,” associated with the kind of teaching which has stood the test of time, with which we are all familiar, and which will be found par excellence in Singapore and Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The fact is that “traditional” teaching approaches ceased to work very well in many Australian classrooms somewhere around the 1960s, as vastly increased numbers of teenagers stayed on at school, and these difficulties have compounded as the difference between the culture of a “traditional” classroom and the society around it has continued to grow. (And that, by the way, is where the push for ever-lower class sizes came from. It was in search not for better educational outcomes but for a restoration of order.) Gonski’s argument is considerably more embracing of reality than the Australian’s, but putting “teacher quality” at the top of his reform wish-list could encourage less responsible minds. The drive to put all our eggs in the “teacher quality” basket rests on a very simple but very basic mistake. Teachers are not the schools’ workforce. Students are. The focus on “teacher effectiveness” assumes that students are recipients or clients rather than workers. The only people in schools who can produce learning are students. As in any other workplace, what and how much they produce depends on the supervisor, of course, but also on how work is organised, controlled, sequenced, evaluated and rewarded. Better forms of work organisation for Australian students will not be found in other cultures, or in the past. In any event, can anyone suggest how we might get a majority rather than a minority of highly effective teachers? Or how we could afford such a strategy?

It is when these weaknesses in Gonski’s reasoning and proposals get into the hands of the interest groups that the political trouble begins. They become the jackhammers of demolition. The federal opposition’s education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, for example, has already seized on the “subjectivity” of outcomes measures to position his party to oppose any changes to the Howard government’s “objective” allocation according to the SES (socio-economic status) of a school’s clientele.

First among these threats to Gonski will be the state governments, three of them (and shortly four?) from the Coalition’s side of politics, and two (Western Australia and Queensland) particularly hostile to all things “Canberra.” Running schools is one of the chief raisons d’etre of the states. Gonski wants their money as well as the federal government’s to detour via a common bucket before it goes back to the states and thence to government schools. And he wants the states to be answerable – albiet in some unspecified and not too-terrifying way – for what these funds generate by way of outcomes and greater equity in the distribution of those outcomes. Will the states wear that? The relatively cooperative South Australia and Victoria might, but it’s difficult to see the others signing up.

Close behind will be the non-government schools which, as in 1983, will coalesce if they see a common threat, the most immediate of which is that a few of their number might (horrors!) lose a bit of funding. So alert is Gillard to this particular danger that, following Howard, she has done a pre-emptive buckle. When Howard tinkered with funding formulae in a way that would reduce funding to some high-fee schools he took care to guarantee that there would be no “losers.” Gillard has done the same. Peace in our time does not come cheap. As Gonski tersely remarks (at several points) the government’s cave-in would lift the minimum government input to some independents, in his model, from 10 per cent of their recurrent budget to 20 or even 25 per cent. Gillard’s credibility, and therefore her ability to sell the plan, suffers too. Every time she or her ministers talk about a new era of funding efficiency, transparency and consistency, someone will add “and convenience too, don’t forget.”

The government is not looking for a fight on yet another front. The prime minister has moved quickly to put a distance between the government and the review she commissioned in another era. Her refusal to commit to the $5.3 billion Gonski wants to oil the wheels of change, and the promise to consult all and sundry, in close detail, could be taken as signals that consultation will be found to show that it’s all too hard. It seems likely that an instrument set up by a strong minister in a strong government has been handed to a weak minister in a weak government that lacks the competence, credit or stomach to carry a worthwhile and achievable improvement in a system increasingly in need of it.

BUT even if, against the odds, the core of Gonski’s proposals gets up, we will still have three different kinds of schools serving three different social and ideological mixes. It will still be possible for schools with the deepest pockets, the most prominent social position and the most powerful clientele to do whatever it takes to maintain an advantaged position for themselves and a relatively disadvantaged one for everyone else. And, on the other side of this coin, it will still be possible for one parent to ask why his neighbour gets ten or fifteen thousand a year for his child’s schooling from the public purse while he gets peanuts. One third of Australian parents will still pay school fees, two-thirds will not. In short, “the system” will still be there.

By the time Gonski is as far behind us as Karmel is now, things may well be worse. Gonski points out that in several key respects our school system has been going backwards for some time. He records that “social stratification” in schools – educationally counter-productive as well as culturally deforming – has been steadily increasing over decades. So has the distance between the achievement of the most and least successful students, and the proportion of the prosperous in the former and the poor in the latter (gaps, by the way, that seem at least as panic-worthy as any gaps between us and a few of our Asian neighbours). Concurrent with these declines are steady losses in government schools’ numbers, morale, standing and comprehensiveness. Would even a fully implemented Gonski have the oomph to arrest and reverse these trends? But Gonski was not asked or allowed to consider the shape of Australian schooling, only how it can be serviced with more educational effect and less political trouble. We may get a lull in the Hundred Years’ War, but not its end. •