Gonski review: public inquiry on school funding needs more work

While the wheels of bureaucracy turn, schools wait for more funding. Andreas Ebling

A two-year process of research, consultation, public input and expert consideration and analysis is a reasonable route to follow for a government-appointed independent inquiry into a major policy issue, and there is no question that school funding is such a major issue. But when that lengthy and costly process leads directly into a further protracted process of consultation, public input and bureaucratic consideration, the value of the initial inquiry is open to question.

When Julia Gillard, as Education Minister, appointed the Gonski review of school funding in April 2010, it was with a promise that an objective and balanced assessment of the claims and counter-claims in this highly politicised area would lay to rest the long-running acrimonious debate about school funding arrangements and provide expert advice as a foundation for government action. Instead, the Gonski panel has recommended a complete overhaul of funding, involving readjustment of entrenched Commonwealth-state responsibilities, the establishment of new bureaucratic structures in each jurisdiction, and ongoing uncertainty for schools.

While the full 250-page Gonski report released at 1pm today warrants a more detailed examination than has yet been possible and may well reveal a strong rationale for its proposed revolution in funding, at face value the main proposals and the government’s response to them hold little promise for school funding to become more effective and equitable in the near future.

The main recommendations of the review are for a comprehensive approach to funding which would entail a realignment of current Commonwealth and state roles, the payment of a base grant for every student, the provision of additional funding according to need and the introduction of a schooling resource standard. The purpose of this overhaul is to bring greater coherence and consistency to the current complex funding arrangements, in the expectation that this will have the desired effect of raising education achievement and increasing equity.

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.

The concept of a base grant for each student and funding according to need are necessary components of any funding system, including the present Commonwealth Government system for funding for non-government schools, in theory although not in practice for all schools. The idea of a schooling resource standard is not new, and presents many challenges in its detailed design if it is to be robust, based on sound data and implementable. The construction of an acceptable standard will need considerable work and careful collaboration. It is not likely to be a speedy process.

Even less speedy is the proposal to pass the burden of further investigation to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the cumbersome machinery of Commonwealth-state bureaucracy hardly renowned for its capacity for effective policy-making in the public interest. While the bureaucratic processes crank up to establish working groups, engage with stakeholders, consider options and model new funding arrangements, the Gillard government is launching a new public relations campaign to discuss school funding with the wider community, a repeat of the public inquiry process itself.