Getting past Gonski: school equity beyond the election

What comes next after the election? Maybe it’s better not to watch… School image from

The last few years have been a rollercoaster ride for anyone who has followed the politics of school funding. There was a low after the 2007 election when Labor dragged its heels on a review, a high when it finally began under businessman David Gonski in 2010, and another when its recommendations were widely applauded a couple of years later.

Through the cycles of hope and despair, the process has been repeatedly mangled by the vagaries of politics.

Political will power

By any standard the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling was an exhaustive process, gathering all the evidence to find an acceptable way to rescue our dysfunctional framework of school funding. It will forever remain a benchmark for what is needed to restore some equity and balance to Australia’s hybrid school system. In the long term it may not be much more than that.

The problems it highlighted won’t go away. Bill Scales, a member of the Gonski panel put it bluntly:

“If Australia wants to have a highly productive economy, if it wants to have well-informed citizens, then I’m afraid come [the election], whatever party is in power, they will have to confront these same dilemmas.”

The reality is they probably won’t in the short term. Labor’s plan is to dribble out half the recommended funding across more schools than those that need it – over more years than it should take. The Coalition’s track record indicates little understanding of equity and the gains from investing in struggling schools - and a disinclination to find the money beyond four years.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s road to Damascus about-turn on Gonski achieved a political outcome – narrowing the gap between the two parties on education – but this is hardly convincing. No one seems to know, least of all shadow education minister Christopher Pyne, how much will be invested by each of the states over the next few years, - not much, if Western Australia is any guide.

Yet Bill Scales is partly right: governments will eventually have to confront the dilemmas highlighted by the review. Thanks to the review and its supporting research we know much more about these gaps. Using publicly available data we can show that the social and related academic gaps between schools are widening to the point where even Gonski’s solutions may increasingly be seen as too little, too late.

Some of this data, in particular the socio-educational status index for each school, comes from the My School website. Whatever else we might say about My School, it now enables useful comparisons between schools grouped by their Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) – in effect a measure of the socio-educational status (including parent’s occupationand educational levels) of each school’s enrolment.

So what happens when we map changes in student achievement against schools grouped in this way?

Mapping disadvantage

We can find out by taking a closer look at Victoria where readily available Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) data shows the changing distribution of high-end academic results, represented by VCE study scores over forty.

There are 384 schools with more than 250 students that had students sitting for the VCE in 2003 and 2011. Between those years only the schools with the most advantaged students, increased their percentage of high scores. The percentage of high scores in the other groups of schools fell away as the measured advantage of their enrolled students also declined. The percentage of high VCE scores in the most disadvantaged schools, already low in 2003, fell the most – by over 20% in just eight years.

The conventional explanation driven by both sides of politics is that it is about school quality. This would suggest that most of the teachers and leaders of lower ICSEA schools have somehow collectively dropped the ball and become less successful. The policy solution is to apportion credit or blame, sometimes followed by a mix of carrot and stick policies in an attempt to lift performance.

Nor is the trend isolated to government schools. While sample sizes are small, the handful of low ICSEA private schools have also tended to fall behind in the VCE stakes. Government schools lost more, but they are already at the bottom of every local school hierarchy, being the only schools obliged to enrol all students, regardless of family background and level of prior achievement.

From other sources we know that more advantaged students have tended to shift out of schools dealing with higher levels of disadvantage. As a part consequence Australia has close to 60% of advantaged students now attending advantaged schools.

The shift to non-government schools is well known – but also evident is the shift of enrolments from lower to higher SES government schools.

My School readily shows that low SES schools with Year twelve students in Victoria are 20% smaller than high SES schools. For years we have known that student movement has increased their density of disadvantaged students. What is alarming is the pace of the change and its compounding impact on both disadvantaged and advantaged schools.

The trend certainly reflects what other research indicates: firstly that parents choose schools on the SES of their enrolment as well as achievement indicators , secondly that when faced with competition school principals primarily seek to increase their density of “desirable” students.

Losing out

How many students are attending schools which are losing out in this brave new market of schools?

In Victoria two thirds of the schools below the average ICSEA value have experienced a decline in the proportion of high Year 12 scores. If this is replicated across Australia, over 400,000 students attending around 700 secondary schools are similarly placed, struggling to achieve in increasingly residualised schools.

Many of these students begin school already far behind. They may sit in classrooms devoid of the student role models found in the schools of their parents’ era. In worrying numbers they drift away from school before the end of Year twelve. Their teachers are overwhelmingly committed but inexperienced and staff turnover is high. Their schools are usually close to the bottom of any achievement rank, and often cop criticism or, at best, pious but ineffectual hand-wringing. Their communities have lost much of the cultural capital essential to the future success of their children.

Greater funding, if carefully applied, can shift the achievement, enrolment profile and image of these schools. Certainly the evidence shows that such an investment can make a difference to student achievement. The investment and achievement is essential to entice middle class families back to their local schools.

Labor lost many opportunities created by the Gonski review. Its cautious “no-loser” mantra has blunted any chance to make a difference in anything but the long term. The Coalition shows every indication of not understanding the problem and is at best lukewarm about the limited solutions in train. The hollowing out of low SES schools will continue, something for which we’ll all pay a price.

This is an edited excerpt from the chapter on school education by co-authors Jane Caro and Chris Bonnor AM, in Pushing our luck: ideas for Australian progress, a new book to be published by the Centre for Policy Development.