An ethical education: why Gonski is a moral issue

The Gonski recommendations on schools funding is no longer a political fight – it’s a moral one. School children image from www.shutterstock.com

In the lead up to negotiations with the states on schools funding reform, the government has armed itself by labelling the reforms as a moral issue.

It’s easy, of course, for a politician to bring an issue to the boil by labelling it a “moral” one. But as infighting between the states and the government escalated in the last week, it increasingly seems that the larger importance of these reforms is being lost.

Too much of the debate that has followed the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling has focused solely on the losers and the winners in the different sectors.

We’re quickly losing the big picture on the broader reasons why the reforms were proposed in the first place: that we need in Australia, now, more than ever, to invest in a more equitable, transparent and well-funded education for all.

What well-funded education can do

First, we need to consider why we worry about education at all. After all, governments only have so much money, and there are plenty of other areas that cry out for additional funding. So why should education be at the top of the list?

Consider this: universal education is likely the most powerful social policy ever invented for boosting long-term economic growth and social prosperity. Education is strongly associated with improvements in happiness, health, civic cohesion and political participation.

It gives individuals more choices in life and has been shown to reduce the incidence of crime. It may give us pause to reflect on the fact that the average prisoner in Australia’s jails has received less than 10 years of schooling.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker identifies what he terms the “escalator of reason” (increases in IQ and education) as a key factor involved in the reduction of violence over the past few centuries.

With greater access to knowledge, the idea that, for instance, Jews poison wells, or witches cause crop failures, became increasingly untenable – and hence, so did numerous justifications for the infliction of suffering.

Not too many of us believe in witches anymore, but the education that we provide – or fail to provide – our children today, will reflect itself in the quality of our leaders in the future, and the nature of our public debate.

Increased education offers the hope of future generations less likely to believe the anti-scientific claims of those who oppose vaccinating our children, spruik conspiracy-theories about climate science, or espouse bigoted or hateful political views.

On the decline

Literacy is one of the principal ways in which people can be exposed to new ideas and perspectives. It’s also a skill that underpins learning in all other areas.

So it should worry us that, according to the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment results, during the years 2000-2009, the reading proficiency of Australian students has “declined significantly” in absolute terms. Only four other OECD countries joined us in the ignominy of a decline in the same period.

In a globalised world, education is essential to our international competitiveness. Comparatively, however, Australia is slipping.

Results released last year from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study indicated that seventeen OECD countries now out-perform our year 4 students in mathematics; eighteen in science. In particular, many of our Asian neighbours (Shanghai-China, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong-China and Japan) are surging ahead.

In 1957, the successful launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik gave Americans a big shock – the “Sputnik moment” – and led to them investing substantially more in maths and science education (the National Defense Education Act was enacted in response).

Australians need to come to grips with our own comparative crisis – let’s call it the “Shanghai moment” – and take the steps to ensure future generations will remain competitive in the global market.

Australia has a great history of innovation: Howard Florey brought penicillin to the world of medicine, and thereby saved the lives of millions; Professor Graeme Clark developed the Bionic Ear; CSIRO scientist John O’Sullivan invented the technology behind modern WiFi; and Professor Ian Frazer and his colleagues developed and patented the technology behind the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

Such breakthroughs require great learning, intelligence and creativity. As manufacturing becomes less sustainable as an industry in Australia, it becomes increasingly important that we equip future generations with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in a high-tech, services economy.

The clever country

High quality education offers huge social returns. It’s the most promising method we have for reducing long-term unemployment, breaking the cycle of indigenous disadvantage, and ensuring we have a populace of engaged citizens who can offer solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems (now and in the future), amongst other things.

While the current lack of detail publicly available makes it difficult to comment on the proposals to be negotiated at the upcoming Council of Australian Governments meeting, what the Gonski report recommended was the adoption of a more rationalised funding system, with a greater emphasis on student need and equity in funding allocations – ensuring that funding is prioritised where it can do the most good. For instance, the proposed system would include additional funding “loadings” above a base level for students with educational disadvantage (if a student is from a low SES background or rural area, for example).

Crucially, however, Gonski isn’t only about how we cut the pie. It is also about making the pie bigger, by about A$6.5 billion. And if the government is serious about its undertaking that no school would lose a dollar as a result of the reforms, then the much larger moral issue is simply in ensuring we bring about that greater investment in education overall.

Gonski won’t be cheap. But Australia is a wealthy country, and if spent well – for instance, on initiatives to improve teacher quality – it’s an investment that will pay for itself many times over; not only in terms of enhanced productivity, international competitiveness and higher wages (hence, greater taxes), but in all the social benefits that come from unleashing human excellence.

We can’t afford to be the “lucky country” anymore. It’s about time we became the clever one.