Budget time - the time when the federal government hands out gifts to the nation, or takes them away.
Gift giving is always tricky. Do you give cash, or is that a cop out? Gift cards are a popular option. A carefully chosen present shows you’ve put some thought in.
Government budgets are usually about presents. With presents, the giver has all the control. They can choose things that suit them, maybe get a good deal from a friend’s shop or repurpose an old gift in the back of the cupboard.
Educational funding arrangements
When it comes to school education, our current funding arrangements mean that the federal government can’t really give “presents” because school education is primarily a state and territory responsibility.
So federal governments have to hand over cash at budget time – for this budget they’ve already announced they will give an extra A$1.2 billion to schools between 2018 and 2020 and an additional $118 million to support disabled students – and they find that intensely annoying. After all, who knows what the states and territories will spend the money on.
Hence, they have always been begrudging funders of school education, particularly government schools.
In order to exert some control over apparently incapable/irresponsible/infantile state and territory governments, federal governments have often turned to the gift card option - where they agree to hand over cash on the condition that gift cards are first exchanged for goods chosen by the Feds themselves.
Over the years that is how we have been gifted the Australian curriculum, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, those A to E reports you receive each semester, and that National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy test your kids sit each May.
These big federal gifts, well, they’re okay, but they don’t seem to have done much to close the educational achievement gap in schools, which is growing rather than shrinking.
They are like those awkward gifts you sometimes get - like a Thermomix, or a piece of art glass. You can see it is big and expensive, and you should probably be thankful, but you are not sure what to do with it. You kind of wish they had just given you the cash.
The 2016 budget
This year’s budget has given us yet more education gift cards to use in the stores of the federal government’s choosing - two more tests for our children to sit; one when they come into school and one when they leave.
States and territories will be forced to cash in their gift cards for a literacy test for school starters. The trouble with this gift is that the states and territories already have one. School starters, for example, do Best Start in New South Wales and performance indicators in primary schools in the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia.
Why are we spending money gathering more proof of what we already know - too many children in this wealthy country struggle to read and write.
Why aren’t we spending money on fixing the problem rather than finding more ways to say we have a problem.
What happened to Gonski?
The report identified four characteristics that are correlated with being an under achiever at school - your socio-economic status, your proficiency in standard Australian English, whether you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander and whether you have a disability.
None of these characteristics are intrinsic to low-educational performance. These cohorts are over represented in the low achieving quartile of educational performance simply because our education systems fail to meet their educational needs.
Having described the problem, the Gonski report recommended focusing funding attention on individuals. Tie funding directly to individual disadvantage and put programs in place to improve the educational outcomes of those individuals.
Accountability would be transparent and easy - is the individual progressing as a result of the interventions put in place for them. If not, why not?
What do we need?
The Gonski report and its recommendations did not solve educational inequity, but it did offer a logical way forward.
The work that needs to be done now is to understand which are the effective educational interventions, what conditions need to be in place for them to work, and what makes them work for some kids and not for others.