The Prime Minister’s long-awaited school funding reforms outlined in the Gonski Review have been quietly shelved. The education ministers meeting last Thursday failed to endorse the reforms, with the Victorian Minister stating plainly that no substantial change will be happening anytime soon.
After two years of work, it will back to the drawing board for Gillard, but she now has the opportunity to do what she should have done at the outset: tweak the current funding model and then focus attention on what really matters – quality teaching.
It is common for government reviews to be sidelined or shelved, but rare for ones of Gonski’s significance. Labor has criticised relentlessly the existing private school funding system (the SES system) since its introduction in 2001.
Gonski was to finally provide an acceptable alternative; one that would address perceived problems with the current system, but avoid the political pain that Labor’s last effort – the ‘hit list’ policy – inflicted in 2004.
As a piece of intellectual work, the Gonski Review is reasonable. He recommends a new model for assessing a school’s funding entitlement based on the capacity of a school to raise private funds, and a ‘resource standard’ of what it takes to educate a student to a high level.
As a policy blueprint, however, Gonski has failed to deliver.
The most substantial policy flaw is that it is not based on financial reality. His recommended model carries a $5 billion per annum price tag, with the states and territories to pick up two thirds of this.
In the current fiscal climate, this is simply not feasible. Further, the recommended model cannot be implemented for a smaller sum: $5 billion ensures that no school loses in the transition to the newly proposed model – a core promise of the Government.
A policy which cannot be implemented due to its cost is worthless.
The second policy failure is that Gonski and the Government assume that the declining standards in our schools are primarily due to a lack of funding, when there is no evidence to suggest this.
Over the last decade, Australia has increased real per-student expenditure by 44 per cent, but we are one of only four OECD countries to go backwards in international tests. We are also dropping in absolute terms. The Grattan Institute finds that our Asian neighbours spend less per student than we do and have significantly larger class sizes (almost double in some cases), but are between one and three years more advanced than Australian students.
Money is important, but it is not decisive in lifting outcomes and does not explain inequities in our schooling nor falling standards generally.
This has been the fallacy underpinning the last decade’s debate over school funding. Gonski perpetuates the fallacy.
The Government will not admit it, but it is back to square one on school funding. With time running out before the expiration of current funding agreements in 2013, the Government will be left with little choice but to extend the existing SES funding formula, just as it did in 2008 and again in 2011.
The SES system is not perfect – no funding system is – but it is transparent and provides certainty to schools for four years in advance. Improvements could be made, such as providing an extra loading for students with disabilities, which the Government should implement. It must then rapidly shift its attention to what really counts in improving educational outcomes: teacher quality.
We have enormous challenges in this area.
The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) required to get into teacher training courses has dropped to below 50 in some cases, and will drop further now the Government has allowed universities to offer as many places as they like. This is catastrophic.
Our teacher training courses are frequently poor, focusing too much on the philosophy of education and not enough on the basics of how to teach well. In most schools, our principals are hamstrung over performance management, without the power to hire, remunerate and fire as required.
These are the biggest challenges facing our schools that are not being addressed properly, in part because of the relentless focus on funding.
Labor has been without a non-government school funding policy for eight years now, but Gonski is not their solution. They should accept that the longer they challenge the present funding system, the less time they are spending on making more substantial improvements to educational outcomes.
They should extend the SES system for another four years and then get on with the heavy lifting of improving teacher quality.