Inside Story

What Gonski really meant, and how that’s been forgotten almost everywhere

Governments began watering down Gonski’s school-funding recommendations right from the start, says panel member Ken Boston. But New South Wales shows how it could have been

Ken Boston 6 September 2016 2402 words

A problem of distribution: despite more funds, Australian students are slipping. pamspix

The Gonski review is history. The Gonski panel submitted its report in December 2011, and the government responded in February 2012. There have been two federal elections since then.

It is timely to revisit that history: what we as a panel were asked to do; what we found; what we recommended; what the government did with the report; what happened as a result; and the current situation.

What we were asked to do

For the past four decades – most notably in the last two – public funding for school education has increased steadily, yet our national performance has declined in absolute terms, and relatively in comparison with the other thirty-eight OECD countries. We have never spent more on education, yet our achievement continues to deteriorate.

In that context, the Gonski panel was asked to develop a funding system that is fair, transparent, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all Australian students, in order to achieve two things:

• First, to ensure that every young Australian has a fair go. We took this to mean, for example, that every child – regardless of language background, or family income and employment status, or ethnicity, or location and so on – should be given whatever support it takes to be, say, reading at minimum national standard by Year 3 (age eight).

• Second, in doing so, to maximise Australia’s national stock of human capital by giving each child the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

What we found

We found a clear relationship between aggregated social disadvantage and poor educational outcomes, which the funding arrangements for the past forty years have exacerbated.

We found that real equality of opportunity demands the strategic targeting of resources and support, which necessarily means the unequal distribution of resources and support in favour of need.

We found no evidence to suggest that teachers in our most disadvantaged and low-performing government, Catholic and independent schools are not as skilled as those in the most advantaged schools.

We concluded that the issue in low-performing schools is not the quality of teachers in these schools but the magnitude of the task they are facing. These teachers work in the emergency wards of Australian education, yet they lack the battery of specialist support typical of an emergency ward in a hospital. Their numbers are inadequate for the job at hand, and funding is not available for the necessary support from fully qualified personnel such as counsellors, speech therapists, interpreters and school–family liaison officers.

For that reason, it seemed to us that the quality of education – as distinct from the quality of teachers – in our most disadvantaged and underperforming schools is clearly and unacceptably inferior.

We concluded that education should be regarded as a strategic investment rather than a cost. It is in our national interest that every child – whether from a fourth-generation Australian family with an income three times the national average, or from a family that has been unemployed for three generations, or from a newly arrived refugee family speaking no English – should be given the kind and amount of individual support necessary to ensure a fair go.

This means diverting funding from low priorities to high priorities. By not doing so, we are consigning thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds to the dustbin of underachievement, preventing them from realising their full potential and ensuring that our national performance in education will continue to decline.

What we recommended

It was our view that the funding allocations for each of the three school sectors – government school systems, non-government school systems (Catholic, Lutheran and so on) and independent schools – should be built from the bottom up, on the basis of the measured educational needs of each individual school. Allocations should no longer be determined top-down by a political process of Commonwealth negotiation with state governments, independent school organisations, church leaders, teacher unions and others. To date, school funding has been essentially a political settlement, sector-based and needs-blind.

We recommended that add-on equity programs, the most recent of which was the New Partnerships program, should be incorporated into the total needs-based funding.

We recommended that the loading of funding for non-government schools as a proportion of the AGSRC (average government school recurrent costs) should cease. This is the mechanism that ensures that funding of the non-government systemic and independent sectors increases with increasing costs in the government sector, without measurement of need.

We proposed a minimum level of public funding for all schools regardless of sector.

On top of that, we proposed loadings for the different elements of aggregated social disadvantage – English-language proficiency, socioeconomic status, school size and location, Indigeneity, and children with disability.

We proposed that all government schools, and a small number of non-government schools in areas where there is no government provision, should receive full public funding.

We proposed that any additional public funding for other non-government schools should be on a scale relating to parental capacity to pay.

All this was quite radical. Gonski was a fundamental reimagining of Australian education. We proposed a change from a funding allocation system that for forty years has been top-down, politically driven, sector-based and needs-blind, to one that is built from the bottom up, educationally driven, sector-blind and needs-based.

There were two other critically important recommendations.

First, we recommended that each school should have a school resourcing standard, set at a level at which it has been shown – in schools with minimal levels of educational disadvantage – that high performance is achievable over time.

We took as our benchmark those schools in which at least 80 per cent of students were above national minimum standard for their year level in reading and numeracy in the most recent three years. This was highly aspirational: it was, and still is, about 16 per cent of schools. We saw the school resourcing standard not as a funding mechanism, but as the “price” for bringing all schools to standard.

The second recommendation was this. As a Commonwealth inquiry, we had developed a model, or concept, that needed to be fully tested and refined with the states and the non-government sectors before implementation. We had proposed certain boundaries for the loadings for disadvantage, but recognised that these had to be tested against hard data that the states and non-government sectors alone held.

We therefore proposed that a National Schools Resourcing Body should be established immediately to proceed with this necessary work. It would be similar in concept to the former Schools Commission, owned jointly by all the ministers rather than the Commonwealth alone, and supported by an advisory group from all three sectors.

What the Labor government did

The federal government immediately buried the concept of a National Schools Resourcing Body, ruling out any possibility of a jointly owned roundtable to test and develop the Gonski model.

It drew up a National Education Reform Agreement, or NERA, to be agreed by the Council of Australian Governments, under which government school systems would receive funding, while non-government systems and schools would be funded under a National Plan for School Improvement, or NPSI.

This model provided additional funding to all schools, providing that the state governments (under the NERA) and non-government schools and systems (under the NPSI) would undertake to apply the funding to projects approved under certain headings: quality teaching, quality learning, empowered school leadership, greater transparency and accountability to school communities, and meeting need within the sector.

Now, this was not what the Gonski review recommended. It was not sector-blind, needs-based funding. It continued to discriminate between government and non-government schools. It maintained the AGSRC, under which public funding for new places for children in disadvantaged government schools automatically generates public funding for non-government schools, without any consideration of disadvantage. And although empowered school leadership, greater accountability, greater transparency and so on and are all worthy objectives, Gonski was about funding for what happens in the classrooms of each individual school – about money going through the school gate.

The NERA and NPSI contain needs-based loadings, but they were pulled out of the thin Canberra air and negotiated in a hard-ball, top-down fashion with the independent schools, the Catholic Education Commission, the Australian Education Union, and state treasuries. They are not founded on rigorous national, evidence-based testing of the school resourcing standard or the loadings and indexation arrangements, to the extent envisaged by the Gonski panel.

And yet this response to Gonski – which was far from implementing Gonski – was packaged as “Gonski agreements” and “Gonski funding.” These terms are now widely accepted by the public, the media, and even the Australian Education Union as meaning that Labor (now in opposition) is committed to implementing the Gonski reforms.

It is not. The Labor government provided additional and very welcome funding for schools; in opposition, it has been an advocate for further funding (the so-called “last two years of Gonski funding”); and it declares a commitment to needs-based funding. But the Labor Party has not committed to sector-blind funding; it has retained the principle of the AGSRC; and it has not committed to total school funding being built from the bottom up according to measured need.

In the run-up to the 2013 election, prime minister Kevin Rudd and education minister Bill Shorten hawked this corruption of the Gonski report around the country, doing deals with premiers, bishops and the various education lobbies. These bilateral negotiations were not a public and open process, as would have been achieved by the National Schools Resourcing Body; they dragged on for twenty-one months up to the September 2013 election; and they led to a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation: agreements with some states and not with others, and – among participating states – different agreements and indexation arrangements.

Labor delivered more money for education, and that has been beneficial. But like the federal Liberal–National Coalition, Labor ducked the fundamental issue of addressing the relationship between aggregated social disadvantage and poor educational outcomes, and turned its back on the development of an enduring funding system that is fair, transparent, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all Australian students.

What happened as a result

New South Wales is different from the rest of the country. It has not only put all the NERA funding through the school gate, but it has also applied loadings for disadvantage through the Resource Allocation Model. Funding for government schools is being distributed on a measured needs basis. It has demonstrated, in the largest school system in the country, the feasibility of building school funding from the bottom up as envisaged by the Gonski panel. All the indicators are showing encouraging signs of real improvement.

No other state has done this to anywhere near the same extent. Some are using NERA funding not to pursue the Gonski objectives, but for purposes that normally would be funded by state treasuries and state education departments. In Tasmania, for example, which had $20 million in NERA funding for 2014–15, only $3.8 million went through the school gate, with $2 million spent on special education, $1 million on VET in schools, $2.5 million on IT bandwidth and servers, $3 million on workforce development, and $7.5 million on K–12 curriculum development. These are all good things to do, but they are the ongoing business of state governments, and none of them addresses the problem Gonski was set up to solve.

The Australian Education Union’s “I Give a Gonski” campaign, which was important in keeping the reforms alive, has now become identified with the defence of public schools rather than the promotion of needs-based funding across the independent, non-government and government school sectors. Much has been lost as a result.

The current situation

There is now no prospect of the Gonski report’s being implemented as recommended. That became clear as early as 2012, when the government set aside the proposal for a National Schools Resourcing Body.

We have lost the Gonski vision of the school resourcing standard being an efficient and effective price required to deliver agreed outcomes, and now regard it as no more than a resourcing mechanism.

Welcome though it has been, the so-called “Gonski funding” has bought us no more than time. It will be temporarily beneficial for so long as it lasts, but it is strategically irrelevant for the longer term. The problem Gonski was seeking to address not only remains, but is yearly becoming more acute.

Given that the principle of the AGSRC has not been abandoned, the current increased funding for government schools will be taken as the cost of government schooling. Funding for the non-government sector will therefore continue to grow, regardless of need. The total cost of education will spiral needlessly even higher.

The solution to Australia’s education problem is not pouring more public money into education, but redistributing the existing funding strategically, to address the things that matter in the schools that need it. Far too much is spent in wealthy independent schools, where recurrent funding can be used to service loans on capital works, not necessarily to provide a better education, but to provide facilities to make the school more attractive than its other high-fee competitors.

It is surely unacceptable that the twenty most expensive independent schools in New South Wales receive more than $111 million per annum in public funding, when the gap in reading performance between the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent of our fifteen-year-olds is equivalent to five years of schooling.

Australian education will not recover until we have a government prepared to establish an entirely new basis for our school funding. We need an educationally driven, sector-blind, needs-based school resourcing standard for all schools: based on hard evidence; designed to achieve specified and measurable outcomes; applied to all school sectors; agreed by the states, territories and Commonwealth; and accepted nationally as the affordable, efficient and effective price of building our national stock of human capital. •

This article is extracted from a recent speech to the NSW Branch of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, on the award of a Medal in memory of the late Dr Paul Brock AM.