Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham dropped a bombshell on state governments on Thursday, just 24 hours before the Education Council meeting in Adelaide.
Declaring that he wants to end the “corruption” at the heart of the Gonski model, he announced a new agenda to align state-by-state differences in funding.
It is an ambitious, albeit worthy, battle to pick at the eleventh hour. But it only tackles part of the problem.
The larger issue is how to deliver full needs-based funding to underfunded schools in a way that ensures the extra money will be well spent.
The proposal would free up funds to help education ministers resolve their differences in state funding while delivering needs-based funding in full. It would also use some funds to invest in sorely needed specialist teaching roles and master teachers.
The idea is compatible with minister Birmingham’s plan. To see how the two ideas might fit together, we must understand each part of the debate.
What are we fighting for?
The 2011 Gonski report was a radical attempt to end decades of fights over school funding, and to fund schools based on need.
The report’s principles were, and remain, sound. But from the start they were corrupted by politics, as one of its authors has said.
Yet while some are writing the Gonski model off as a result of this corruption, very little of the extra needs-based funding has actually been delivered. And, as NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli argues:
it’s unreasonable to expect to see systemic changes after two and a bit years of a needs-based funding formula.
Even so, there are encouraging early signs that needs-based funding can lift outcomes if accompanied by a mechanism that improves teaching practice. Such funding remains vital, but we still don’t have it.
Fixing difference among states
While Birmingham’s proposal has little detail, three things seem clear.
First, special deals with states and non-government sectors should be removed. Schools of similar profile should get the same Commonwealth funding regardless of what state they are in.
Second, from 2018 to 2020, overall funding growth from the Commonwealth will drop below what is currently legislated, to a newly defined education-specific index rate of 3.56%. This means that every year, Commonwealth funding would grow by 3.56% – although it is completely unclear whether this applies to funding as a whole or funding for each individual school.
After 2020, funding growth will drop to the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Third, there will be strings attached, designed to ensure the money is spent in ways that will genuinely improve outcomes.
While states will see this as a tough offer, there is much to like. The fixed funding growth rates in the legislation are too high given low inflation. And the government is right to want mechanisms to ensure money is well spent.
It is also positive that Birmingham has framed his arguments in terms of needs-based funding and some notion of “fairness”.
But the devil is always in the detail, which is not yet available. The politics in this space are incredibly hard. Legislative change would be needed. And even if funds are freed up, it is doubtful that Birmingham has enough money to deliver needs-based funding in full.
Delivering both needs-based funding and workforce reform
By comparison, our proposal focuses on delivering needs-based funding to every school, combined with workforce reform to improve how every dollar is spent.
Creating a $7 billion war-chest to fund vital reforms
At a time when low inflation and wage growth are likely to persist for years, Commonwealth funding growth rates of 3% to 4.7% a year are far too high.
Reducing funding growth to match wage growth would free up a A$7 billion war chest over four years.
We propose to return about A$1 billion to the budget bottom line, matching the 2016 budget envelope from 2017-18 to 2020-21. The remainder would fund two vital reforms: delivering needs-based funding and workforce reform.
Delivering needs-based funding
The big winners in our model would be schools that are currently underfunded. They would receive their full needs-based funding by 2022, provided it is invested effectively to meet educational need. This is later than Labor promised, but late is better than never.
Funding for schools that are at their target funding levels would grow in line with wages.
Schools that are funded above their resource standard would receive no funding increases until they return to their resource standard; in other words, they would lose money in real terms.
All schools would benefit from new investment in our best teachers.
We propose two new roles that give the best teachers more recognition and responsibility to build the capabilities of the workforce, and increase the use of evidence-based practices.
The first role would be the creation of subject specialists who spend half their time teaching, and the other half mentoring and supporting other teachers in their school.
The second role establishes master teachers who would work across schools to improve teaching in their subject area. They would be the very best subject specialists and would be responsible for identifying key issues in pedagogy across the system. They have no teaching loads and help to lead school networks and collaboration.
This model provides an inbuilt system of career development and salary progression. It would allow the most expert teachers to continue teaching, rather than moving into administrative roles.
A rigorous certification process would ensure that only the best teachers are selected. Importantly the positions would be much better paid, providing a signal that high-level teaching expertise is finally valued.
The proposed new positions are similar to top roles in high-performing systems such as Shanghai and Singapore, where there are inbuilt systems of professional development in career structures.
Similar but small-scale initiatives have been trialled in Australia. For example, the NSW Highly Accomplished Teacher initiative used a similar approach and showed positive effects.
Putting the ideas together
Combining elements of the two proposals could move Australia much closer to the principles of needs-based, stable, simple, fair and transparent funding.
Then we would finally have a funding system that offers an equal opportunity for a high-quality education for all students.