Abbott’s Gonski backflip will wreck school funding accountability

Bipartisan support of the Gonski reforms will come at a price. (AAP Image/Julian Smith

For six years the Coalition has repeatedly told us that the Howard government’s model for school funding was working.

They said the schools were getting the funding they needed and as education spokesperson Christopher Pyne described it, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

This made the government’s school funding reforms, first discussed formally under the David Gonski review for schools funding, unnecessary. It was, they said, “all feathers and no meat”, “unworkable and grotesquely expensive.”

But on Friday the Coalition made a shocking back-flip (with triple somersault and a pike included for good measure). Opposition leader Tony Abbott announced that he would guarantee the reforms for at least four years.

But if elected, the coalition would change the Australian Education Act – the legislation underpinning the reforms – to scrap the powers given to the federal education minister. As Mr Pyne put it:

we will dismantle in the Australian education act those sections that would give the Commonwealth over-arching control of school systems whether they’re government or non-government around Australia.

So what does the Australia Education Act 2013 actually say about federal oversight of tax-payer contributed funds? Well, it doesn’t sound anything like “over-arching control”. In fact it is exactly the stronger governance and accountability that the Gonski Review originally recommended.

The Act states that each State, Territory or other approved authority (Catholic or Independent systems) must have an “implementation plan that sets out the activities, programs and initiatives; and the milestones and timelines for implementing those activities, programs and initiatives” in relation to “quality teaching, quality learning, empowered school leadership, transparency and accountability, and meeting student need” and that these plans must “review the implementation plan and evaluate progress”.

The distribution of significant additional funds to improve Australia’s educational outcomes must be spent on those factors that research evidence indicates has the power to make a difference. Or do Mr Abbott and Pyne believe that they are just going to give the States, Territories and Catholic and Independent schools a blank cheque for over $6 billion per annum “with no strings attached” and claim fiscal, let alone educational, responsibility?

Tony Abbott has been out selling his Real Solutions booklet as his core political platform. Its Delivering better education policy seeks to actually undermine public education by “encourag[ing] State schools to choose to become independent schools, providing simpler budgeting and resources allocation and more autonomy in decision making”.

The rationale to justify the drive for more school autonomy is driven by a misguided belief that it improves student results.

Victoria, which led the world in increasing autonomy, has not performed above New South Wales, which was until recently the most centralised.

The proposition that the introduction of a more extreme form of autonomy, like charter schools in the USA, will make the difference is not supported by the evidence.

The Liberal policy therefore appears to be driven more by ideology and economics, not educational outcomes.

Real Solutions reiterates the mantra of “more choice for parents” but it difficult not to come to the view that the intent of conservative governments is to fracture and weaken the public system. As a result its role as the universal provider, boosting market competition through taxpayer support of private schools, is undermined.

A new study by The Grattan Institute found that more competition among schools or greater autonomy has not raised the performance of Australian students.

The Senate education committee also recently rebuffed the Coalition on the benefits of school autonomy, saying that there is no clear evidence that greater school autonomy leads to better student performance and recommends more research on its impact.

This is even more significant considering a majority of the Senate education committee are Coalition members. The Committee’s report on Teaching and Learning says:

… it is unclear whether school autonomy ultimately improves student outcomes … Clearly, further research into school autonomy and its impact on student performance is required" [p.47].

The most comprehensive review of the evidence published in Australia concluded that the weight of research evidence is that greater school autonomy in budgeting and staffing has little to no effect on student results.

This is not just a matter of school “ownership” but of the social values inherent in universal public schooling.

Autonomy for non-government schools allows them to raise hurdles such as compulsory fees or religious affiliation and only enrol students from families that can scale those hurdles. That is why there must be some control over any additional funding they are granted.

Voters now will have the guarantee of extra funding flowing to schools, no matter which party they vote for. But the Coalition’s education policy fails to recognise the real challenges Australia’s school system faces and it makes no serious attempt to address them.