Gonski review: Experts weigh in on what the government should do

It’s been 6 months since the release of the Gonski report, and the 6700 public schools represented by this ‘sea of hands’ now await the government’s response. AAP

Australia doesn’t just need “a Gonski response”, it needs a plan for continuing improvement in our schools, says Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

In a speech to the Independent Schools National Forum, Ms Gillard has linked resources to results, arguing Australia doesn’t just need to reform the school funding system, but a plan to lift standards in all schools.

The government is expected to deliver its full response to the Gonski review of school funding in coming weeks, but Ms Gillard has said all students, regardless of school, will be funded on a consistent basis.

Ahead of the release of the government’s response, The Conversation asked experts to answer one key question: What is the single most important thing the government should be doing in response to the Gonski review in order to improve school education?

David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer in Curriculum & Pedagogy at Monash University

What the Gonski Review did that was ground-breaking was that it embraced the OECD definition of equity in education as its starting point; that every child should be able to achieve her potential regardless of social, cultural or economic background or their relationship to property, power or possession.

The Gonski Review sought to create a new funding system for Australian schooling, because what we currently have is a mess. It was to be transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all students. It gave long and overdue recognition to the fact that disadvantage has been “rusted” onto our education system and that the great weight of disadvantage is carried disproportionately by the public school sector – that our private schools whether independent or Catholic – are not looking after our most vulnerable students. In other words the great weight of change has been shouldered by our public schools that are least equipped and able to effect that change. 85% of indigenous students, 78% of disabled students, 79% of low SES students attend our public schools.

While the rhetoric around social justice is espoused by both independent and especially Catholic school sectors that “we are looking after the poor” in reality they are not.

Now PM Gillard has told the private schools that “every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase under our plan. … This plan will lift school standards, not school fees.”

The fact is that the fundamental pattern for the last 12 years of Australian Government funding for schools is that while most additional funding goes to non‐government schools this has never prevented private schools raising their annual fees more than 10% per annum.

John Pardy, Education Researcher at Monash University

The single most important thing is to recognise that there are multiple social purposes to secondary schooling.

No one ever believes we should lower standards, but the issue is that there are more and more people going to and staying on in school to year 12 and the purposes of schooling have multiplied.

Schooling ideally should assist in preparing young people for their lives after school. So it needs to be remembered that not everyone is interested in going onto tertiary studies at university, and that the significance of study scores or an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) can often be overstated. These measures reveal some things about young peoples’ schooling experiences and their achievements and performance.

It is often insinuated and implied in public discussions of funding that elite schools are the best schools and everyone’s got to emulate those schools, but what that does is it directly narrows the purposes and types of schooling. A school in a regional centre, and what it can do, is not entirely comparable with a school in a privileged suburb of Melbourne. School cultures and how that culture can contribute to students sense of value and self-worth is found in recognising just such differences and celebrating them.

Not all independent schools are middle class, a lot are working class schools. They’re not elite schools. They might be independent or private but they have a different culture. A catholic girls school in the western suburbs of Melbourne is working class in a way that a selective government secondary school in the inner city is not. I think to tar all independent schools as one thing and all government public schools as another is misleading.

Schooling does need to do different things and we need that for a vital society. There’s a real need to start thinking about the multiple social purposes of secondary schooling, then we will have a realistic basis from which to build and create a much better system. If people leave secondary school knowing that they’re intelligent and knowledgeable, and have a strong sense of their own intellectual worth then I think schools and the teachers working in them have done a good job.

Scott Prasser, Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at Australian Catholic University

It would be good if the government in its formal response to the Gonski review showed a genuine awareness of the review’s flaws and limitations and the complexity of education policy.

Also, the government should not use its response as another short-term knee-jerk reaction to save its face and political life.

Education needs a considered, serious reflection, based on real evidence not hyper pressure group demands.

I would like Australians to discuss quality of education and stop focusing on issues of inequality. Only by focusing on issues of quality are we going to address inequality.

Glenn Withers, Professor of Economics at Australian National University

The most important thing is to get going on the reform. What needs to be done has been painstakingly reviewed and defined. Unless we move as a country on further improving our educational foundations, our capacity to deliver prosperity, fairness and sustainability will not only stall but decline.

The funding needed is actually modest, and especially so relative to the social costs saved and the future tax revenues that the very reforms themselves will generate down the track. The funding is the price of co-operation with the process of change. It is also modest relative to the expansion of middle class welfare and industry welfare that has been sustained and increased over the last decade or more, and can gradually be wound back. New education funding must be conditional upon genuine reform though, as more money alone is no answer. Above all there must be very clear and meaningful delegation of responsibility and accountability to local school communities.

Also the reform in schools can be allied with further finalisation of reforms in tertiary education and in early childhood education, so that a full vision of our future can be delivered - and a staged and ongoing sequence of pay-offs from a year or two ahead to decades before us will result. This aspiration is the missing narrative of contemporary Australian politics.

Richard Teese, Director of the Centre for Research on Education Systems at University of Melbourne

As far back as the Great Depression, the Australian states have lobbied successive federal governments to contribute to the costs of educating the nation. Steadfastly resisting on constitutional grounds, the Commonwealth began to give ground in the fifties (taxation expenditure) and in the sixties (capital and eventually recurrent grants). The change of heart was driven by pragmatism (the Coalition) and idealism (Labor), but over most of the subsequent period pragmatism ruled. Much of the funding effort went into non-government schools, which today are the Commonwealth’s biggest client and with which the Commonwealth has formed a very close bond. Federal Labor began to restore balance through National Partnerships, but Gonski is the big hope. Australia needs a framework for adequate and reliable support for public schools. But the big test is whether Gonski will deliver a different relationship between public schools and the Commonwealth.

The Liberal states are united in protecting private schools from any resource erosion, while at the same time they engage in “fiscal consolidation” (cuts to public systems). Government schools have never needed a federal champion more. The champion they have wants to devolve management, step up performance pressure, and enhance teaching quality. How is this different from what the states themselves are doing? True, Canberra is putting money in, while the states are taking it out. But a more fundamental reform is needed, beyond engineering change through management autonomy and teacher incentives.

The Commonwealth needs to establish a long-term relationship with public schools themselves. It is the weakness in this relationship which is crippling the performance effort. The only way a firmer relationship can be established is through a major, enduring funding commitment by Canberra to public schools. This is what is really at stake in Gonksi. The Liberal states want a weak relationship with their public schools (market freedom), but a strong relationship between Canberra and private schools (secure funding). They do not see, or do not want to see, the full implications of how this works in practice. Many Australian communities face the risk of segregated and degraded schooling unless a very much stronger relationship is established between the Commonwealth and public schools. Canberra should use the machinery recommended by Gonski to create this relationship, but back it by heavy investment.

Greg Thompson, Lecturer at Murdoch University

As we listen to the Federal Government and Opposition try to outdo each other in promises to the private education sector, it is timely to reflect on the key recommendations for school funding in the Gonski Report. It is timely because the debate seems to have become mired in political upmanship, fear-mongering and a shift in the debate from what is fair and equitable to what is politically expedient.

Make no mistake, the health of a democracy is measured in how well it educates its poorest. What Gonski shines a light on, in no uncertain terms, is how our current funding mechanisms have been failing our poorest, and what we can do to fix it.

Firstly, the mish-mash of schools funding needs be brought under the control of one body. Secondly, the government needs to implement Recommendation 1 by setting a fixed rate of funding per student regardless of the system in which they go to school based on the need of the student. Thirdly, the government must inject the recommended $5 billion immediately into our schools once again based on need.

Politicians at both the State and Federal level cannot continue to blame teachers for decreasing education outcomes when the funding that they are responsible for is largely to blame.

Stephen Lamb, Professor of Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research on Education Systems at University of Melbourne

Nationally there are huge gaps between the rich and the poor in student achievement as measured on NAPLAN, measured in Year 12 completion, and measured in final year results and ATAR scores. For example, the gaps in NAPLAN in Year 3 mean that students from poor backgrounds can be up to two years behind children from wealthier backgrounds. The gaps tend to grow in later years, not reduce. This can no longer be tolerated; something needs to be done about it.

Australia has established national targets to raise school completion rates and to lift student achievement standards. To do this it needs to target funding to where it is most needed and where it will help the country achieve its targets for higher levels of learning and improved student outcomes. This means delivering to government schools—the schools that have by far the highest numbers of the most disadvantaged students—the funding they need to implement the sorts of strategies and initiatives that will help improve student outcomes. The Gonski assessment is that this will cost $5 billion. The single most important thing for governments in Australia to do is to provide that funding right now.

Peter Aubusson, President of the NSW Council of Deans of Education and Head of Teacher Education at the University of Technology Sydney

The implementation of the Gonski recommendations will benefit all Australians. The Gonski Report reminds us that in our wealthy country there are many who are disadvantaged. It shows that our education system, which should provide the launching pad for every Australian, can pile disadvantage on the disadvantaged and lavish the advantaged with every opportunity. It urges greater public expenditure on education and targets this at those who need it. In short, if we want a fair just and prosperous society for all then we must ensure that the most vulnerable have access to an enabling effective education.

Many individual parents are willing to spend on education for their own children. They know the value it adds to life and employment. Gonski simply asks whether we as Australians are willing to spend more on our children. It is a rare chance for this generation to have the generosity of spirit to invest in the generation to come.

There is no need to fear the Gonski recommendations. There are only winners when a country invests in education. It will not close the wide socio-economic gap in opportunity but it will reduce it. The problem is not whether the Gonski report recommendations ought to be implemented. The question is, can they be introduced in the current political climate? Perhaps not. The Commonwealth Government would have to be able to win the public argument and we are too easily frightened. The States have to participate to leave a legacy and the signs are that they are unwilling.

John Halsey, Professor in the School of Education at Flinders University

Increasing funding for rural, regional and remote schools without addressing the availability of top level professionals to staff these schools will not close the gap between urban and rural opportunities and outcomes.

The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling is a generational opportunity to impact on this critical problem by allocating funding to change the way leaders and teachers are prepared and supported for working and living in country schools and communities.

It’s time to immerse aspiring rural, regional and remote educational leaders in place, and properly fund and support them to deeply engage with real issues, a diversity of contexts and relevant, challenging theory- in short, a ‘hands, heads and hearts full on’ approach to rural leadership development, before they are appointed.

It would be considered absurd to claim to be training pilots to fly planes but never let them take to the sky- place- so why persist with the formation of rural educational leaders without a substantial experience in and with rural place?

It is also time to offer all final year pre-service teachers the opportunity of a semester length, properly funded rural placement. The evaluation of the 2011 extended rural placement program at Flinders clearly shows there are major gains for rural schools, communities and individuals from this approach.

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