The biggest review of school funding in decades has been handed to the government. The report recommends an injection of A$5 billion to the education sector, three-quarters of which would go to public schools.
For the past week, some of Australia’s foremost education experts have written on The Conversation about their hopes for, and reactions to the Gonski review, as well as the challenges the government will face in implementing it.
Our panel of experts provided their initial thoughts on the review’s recommendations and findings.
Melbourne University’s leader of education policy and leadership unit Jack Keating said the review was worthy, but the political climate may hamper its implementation.
The main problem with the report is its timing. It has come out at a bad time in the economic and political cycles, and is in the hands of a government that is in a weak position to implement it.
This timing compounds a problem of its negotiation with the states and territories. The Gonski report proposes a more prominent role for the Commonwealth in school education, a more integrated relationship between the levels of government in the governance of Australian schooling – including the establishment of new governing and advisory bodies, and an expectation that the states and territories will contribute to the extra $5 billion that it proposes. Read more.
Professor Scott Prasser, who heads the Australian Catholic University’s Public Policy Institute, argued the review was big on bureaucracy, small on substance.
The aim of greater coherence and consistency is commendable, but may well have been achieved by reform of the present arrangements rather than a complete revolution. The link between education performance and either the quantum of resources or the allocative mechanism is generally considered very indirect, and by most researchers very weak. A strong focus on elements of schooling such as teacher and principal quality, early intervention, targeted programs with proven success at overcoming educational disadvantage, choice, autonomy and accountability is where differences in performance can really be addressed. Read more.
Head of teacher education at UTS Peter Aubusson argued the review will struggle to change a funding system that has never been about what’s “fair”.
Australia has already decided it will support a private education sector. Many of our international competitors have decided to invest far more in education as a proportion of GDP than we have, often choosing a universally strong public education system.
Australia has taken a different path. We prefer a marketplace that creates competition and drives educational standards. This system demands we have winners and losers. This system does not require, indeed it in no way encourages, fairness in any way other than in rhetoric.
We have an educational race where children start in different places and can access different resources. But we declare it fair because the finishing line for all is in the same place. In this context, education is not about fairness or even education, per se. It is about getting a competitive advantage and comparative performance. Thus, a funding debate appealing to a sense of fairness is on shaky ground. Read more.
For the University of Melbourne’s Richard Teese, the funding debate has never been about Australia’s richest schools – it’s underperforming non-government schools that put a drain on the system.
Keeping these, the majority of non-government schools, on life-support comes at a very high price. It uses up the resources needed to eliminate under-achievement in the public system. It also uses up the cultural resources represented by educational level, know-how, values and aspirations that are needed to make the public system work consistently well, but are applied to segregation in a private system that adds little value of its own.
This is why real change cannot come from targeting the rich. But it is an even bigger mistake to imagine working-class and lower middle-class families are best served by splitting them up and dividing the scarce public dollar between them. That is not a recipe for either productivity or equity.
Public schools are community assets which only work well when financial and cultural resources are pooled in them. This is the only way to get value for money and justice into the bargain. Read more.
David Zyngier suggested we look to Scandinavia for answers to our funding questions…
In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. Teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots. Unlike Australia it’s more difficult to get into teacher education than law or medicine.
I recently spent time in Finland and spoke with a number of school principals, teachers, education policy makers and university researchers. Their first principle has been how to achieve equitable outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This means that while there are “private” schools in Finland, if they wish to receive public funding support they are unable to charge fees.
In this way the growing student achievement gap that is so well documented between Australian public and private schools does not exist. Read more.
… and argued reforming education is not just about the money.
If only it was about more money. Extra funding [to the tune of $5 billion] would be most welcome in supporting the needs of the most disadvantaged children in this country. If the government wants to bring in a budget surplus and put taxpayers' money where it is most needed, all it needs to do is stop funding the current practice of middle class welfare as it did with the removal of the Health Insurance Rebate.
But there is no guarantee that without changing what we are doing in schools, how schools are organised and how we actually teach children from communities of disadvantage will more of the same actually make much difference. Read more.
Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt looked at how science education could benefit from the Gonski review.
The primary thing we require are competent teachers across the board. And so the inequality comes to those people who for whatever reason end up with a teacher teaching a science or math who are not qualified to teach in science and math, whether it be at secondary or primary level.
We know the NSW government has admitted for example that in math a fifth of their students are not actually being taught by qualified people and that is presumably similar in other places.
The infrastructure is honestly secondary compared to the skill of the teacher. The teachers do need to have budgets and some infrastructure – and the higher the level, the more important that is – but the primary thing in my reading of the situation is the skill of the teachers. Read more.
And Murdoch University’s Greg Thompson put it simply – we need to spend as much on education as it costs.
We have been having the wrong debate about education. The debate needs to hold the government to account for the real problem: Australia’s public spending on schools is below the OECD average and the gap is increasing. The problem is not just about how you apportion the funding, it is about putting more money in the system. I would welcome any improvement in the funding model as it pertains to remote schooling regardless of whether it went to public or private school systems.
So I have a simple suggestion. Why don’t we pay what education costs? Rather than pre-determining how much we should spend and then making schools fit that figure, let’s commit to a level of funding that decreases the achievement gap.
And rather than seeing education as a cost, let’s see it as a down payment on our future. The challenge for the Gonski Review is to use funding as a tool to promote equity. Rather than shifting inadequate funding from one school system to another, let’s identify that which we see as outstanding educational outcomes for our young people. Then pay to make those outcomes a reality for all. Read more.