Gonski is half the battle, trusting teachers is the next step

The government will boost schools funding today, but what’s next? Classroom image from www.shutterstock.com

Today the Prime Minister will announce the government’s full policy response on schools funding, following the Gonski report earlier this year.

The Gonski report recommended a funding boost across the sector, and the government gave strong indications there would be increased funding for independent schools.

But ahead of the response, it’s timely today to remind our politicians on both sides that the health of a democracy can be judged, not by how well we educate our richest, but on how well we educate our poorest. It’s not just more funding, but more equitable funding that is needed.

And not only do we need to give teachers and schools the resources they need, the next step is to trust teachers to get on with the job.

Disadvantage and democracy

When Julia Gillard looks at independent schools she may see “a great example” of a school system that has “led the way”. But to many of us, we see what would be possible for all students with an improved funding system.

The way that we currently fund schools is paradoxically geared towards more support for those who need it least – widening the gap in education outcomes between our best performing and worst performing students.

The way the Gonski report has been cast as a battle between public and private education is a gross misrepresentation of what the Gonski panel argued – that improving the outcomes of students who come from disadvantaged contexts (regardless of whether they attend government, Catholic or independent schools) must be an Australian priority. That the vast majority of students in need attend government schools should result in increased funding in those schools.

Quality and Equity

Although I remain less convinced about Gonski’s appeal to philanthropy, using NAPLAN to measure outcomes and the desire for increased regulation of teachers, there are four key findings from the Gonski report that I hope would be the focus of today’s government response.

First, schools do not have a quality problem, but they may have an equity problem. ACARA’s Profesor Barry McGaw holds that Australia is a low equity system, although the OECD maintains Australia’s education system is high quality but average equity. The lower the equity, the greater the gap in outcomes between our best and worst performed students.

Second, this increasing inequity is maintained by a confused, complex funding system where the students generally with the least need are funded at higher levels than students with the most need.

Third, Gonski suggests an overhaul of the funding system so that the payments are coordinated by a single authority and that there is a flat funding rate per student with different loadings based on the need of students.

Fourth, Gonski estimates that this will be in the region of an extra $5 billion per year.

An education race?

There is a parallel debate diverting attention from reforming school funding. Rather than understanding “good” teaching as enabled by funding, where teachers are given access to professional learning and support staff and expertise in each workplace, we continue to blame teachers for the inequity.

The problem is not teacher quality, the problem is how teaching is made exponentially more difficult when the funding does not allow for interventions that meet the needs of students.

This is not to say that all teachers are perfect. There is always room for continual and continued improvement. However, framing the solution to equity as about teacher “quality” because, as the Prime Minister put it “other countries were sprinting past us in the education race”, misrepresents the very nature of teaching and learning.

Education is not a race. We do not “win” at education through satisfying some PISA envy. Education is not an event, it happens every day. Success cannot be measured simply. Competition and regulation do not usually make education better.

Trusting not blaming

The best way to improve education is to recognise that the vast majority of teachers are committed professionals whose expertise should be better valued. In Finland, a high quality and high equity education system that outperforms Australia on PISA, they do something almost unheard of in Australia.

They trust teachers. In Australia, we are turning teaching into the most regulated profession in the country.

In Finland, they trust teachers to design their own curriculum and assessments based on the individual needs of their students. In Australia, we tell teachers what to teach and then have an assessment program (NAPLAN) that is increasing the stress and anxiety of our students and teachers for little evidence of improvement.

This is despite the fact that we know that stress and anxiety makes learning more difficult, not more likely.

Give a Gonski

Because we don’t think teachers know what to teach, we also don’t think they know what to learn. We tell teachers what counts as professional learning, and often very little of what counts is useful, empowering or relevant in their school context.

To be honest, I am sick of looking at tortured numbers that misrepresent “education”. When I talk to teachers working in disadvantaged contexts, they tell me that there is not enough funding to do what needs to be done. That’s all we need to know, and as far as I’m concerned more equitable funding hopefully announced today can’t come fast enough.