No detail, all strategy and an opportunity lost on Gonski reforms

The Gillard response to the Gonski review was a disappointment and could have been much more. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced the government will introduce some of the recommendations of the Gonski Review, including a new model for funding schools.

Many commentators criticised the announcement for being light on detail. This is unfair. The detail of her political strategy was clear enough.

The Prime Minister said she will personally meet with the heads of the states and territories and “move quickly” with those jurisdictions that want to come on board. In order to gain their support for the new funding model the Commonwealth will presumably put a significant amount of money on the table.

On the question of where the money will come from, again the Prime Minister was clear. The government intends to continue to make “tough budget decisions”. In implementing this strategy we were told that there will be “big controversy, big headlines, big criticism” but this was “the right thing to do, the Labor thing to do.”

But once we look at the policy detail (not the detail of the political strategy), it’s clear the Gillard announcement missed an opportunity for genuine reform on schools funding.

The undeniable value of the Gonski Review may be lost.

The tower of PISA

Along with adopting the basic schools funding model Gonski recommended, the Prime Minister announced a new goal for Australian schools – to be in the top five school systems in the world according to the international testing program, PISA. This new benchmark would be enshrined in legislation by the end of the year.

This will be an impressive act.

The Commonwealth does not currently employ a single school teacher, it does not operate a school and while we are at it, does not have any jurisdiction over other countries’ school systems – something that would be needed to stop any of our competitors in the “education race” rising up the ladder any further.

Nonetheless, Gillard said the goal would be achieved with more money to pay for teachers aides, greater autonomy for schools, annual performance reviews for teachers, annual plans for school improvement, greater information on the My School website and limited entry into teacher education courses to those who are at the top of their class.

But all these strategies are unlikely to get us into what the Prime Minister called the “coveted top five” (if indeed, this is all we really want from Australian education).

The problem as I see it is that the strategies signalled in the speech for addressing the problem of school funding and improving learning outcomes are unlikely to be effective and do not get to the core of effective teaching and learning.

Quite simply, the states and territories need to agree a program of reform. After all, they have responsibility for school education. They are more likely to come on board if they can co-construct the strategy.

And the strategies for improving learning outcomes announced do not get to the core issue of best practice in teaching and learning. Principals and teachers not familiar with the latest research on effective teaching and learning will continue to conflate innovation with effectiveness and technology with pedagogy.

Improved learning outcomes for students require career-long professional learning programs based on reputable research findings.

Single case studies, along the lines of the anecdotes that the Prime Minister included in her speech, and worse, recollections of our own decontextualized experiences as children at school, are of little value to teachers wanting to make a difference.

What might have been

The real disappointment after yesterday’s speech comes from how things might have been. The government could have delivered so much more.

We could have been told that the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA), the group which brings together state and federal education ministers, had reached an historic agreement that will settle once and for all the divisive and distracting problem of state and federal relations concerning the funding and provision of school education.

The Prime Minister has demonstrated that she is more than capable of achieving this type of co-operative agreement. As the former Education Minister, she led the establishment of the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) with its responsibility for the development of national curriculum and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) with its responsibility for establishing national standards for teaching and teacher education. Both of these initiatives were achieved through co-operation with the states and territories.

What was really lacking was an announcement on Gonski’s 36th recommendation, a National Schools Resourcing Body (NSRB), with the aim of holding all governments to account for their responsibilities in ensuring that Australia has a high quality and well resourced school system.

Once implemented, the NSRB could provide valuable direction regarding the affordability of the new funding scheme, including approval of capital works grants for new schools, guidelines for determining school viability and closure of non-viable schools would address three serious problems with current policies.

The cost to the taxpayer of school education will continue to be higher than it needs to be until these issue are addressed. But of course, denying an application for the establishment of a new school and deciding to close a school that is not viable are difficult for politicians sensitive to their electorates.

Putting the politics aside

If Gillard could achieve national initiatives in agreement with the states, then a new national system of resourcing schools in return for an agreed national school education plan should have been within reach.

In order to put to rest the long-running problem of funding for both public and private schools the Commonwealth needs to provide a large amount of money to entice the states and territories to relinquish a great deal of their current autonomy. The establishment of a national approach to education is long overdue.

Prime ministerial leadership within MCEECDYA for the establishment of a new national body for school resources and education quality, along the lines that Gonski has recommended, has a greater chance of success than legislating quality and demanding the States to come on board.