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Gonski review: experts respond

School funding is under the microscope for the first time in nearly 40 years. torres21

A much-anticipated review of Australian school funding, spearheaded by businessman David Gonski, was handed to the Gillard government today.

We asked Australian education experts to respond to the report’s key recommendations and findings.

Dr Joel Windle, Senior Lecturer in Education, Monash University

The Gonski Review has assembled an impressive array of evidence highlighting the dysfunctions of current education funding arrangements. It signals the potential for a radical reorganisation of priorities that would address the most glaring problem identified in the review: the concentration of disadvantaged students within particular parts of the government schooling sector, and the accumulation of resources within particular parts of the private schooling sector.

Recommendations and government response emerging from the review wax lyrical about the need for greater equity and for improvement in the achievement of all students. But these ambitions are unlikely to be translated into concrete action, beyond ending a few glaring and indefensible absurdities.

The review is hamstrung by the federal government’s commitment that no school will be a dollar worse off, and the presumption that all schools should receive tax-payer subsidy in order to promote diversity. The only room to manoeuvre, therefore, is in the injection of additional funds to the sector with fewest overall resources – but the suggested $5 billion increase (to be shared across sectors) has already had cold water poured on it by both government and opposition.

The Review is likely to succeed primarily in the bureaucratic tasks of streamlining the financial administration of an inequitable system. The flow of the children of well-off and well-educated parents towards private schooling – which the Gonski review has promised a subsidy of between 20 and 100% of the estimated cost of educating a student – is likely to continue. A wider change requires political pressure rather than the technical expertise on display in the review.

Professor Kanishka Jayasuriya, Director of the Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre, University of Adelaide.

In reality I think the distinction between the two parties (on school funding policy) is very marginal. That is a really interesting part of this debate because if you look at the big school funding issues of the 1970s and 1980s, where there was a clear dividing line between the parties in terms of subsidies to private schools, the Labor party in a sense has shifted considerably towards the positions held previously by the coalition parties and especially the Liberal party.

What is interesting is that the Liberal party has been more assertive now in defending public funding for the very richest private schools. That seems to be the dividing line at the moment but it is very much a skewed debate because in a sense both parties have fundamentally agreed on what not to argue about and that is if there should be subsidies to private schools.

If you look education policies of the Labor party from before when Rudd was elected and through when Gillard was Education Minister, it has been fairly consistent. If there has been one consistent ideological theme that has run through this current Labor government it has been this emphasis on a Third Way idea that the quality of the public service can be increased by imposing market disciplines of choice and competition into the public sector, in this case the schools sector.

There another element that is relevant to this Third Way idea. When they talk about human capital, there is the question of how inequality is understood and framed in political terms. One of the really interesting things about this debate is that inequality is seen as something that is either to do with having a poor quality public system or poor teachers or something around individual attributes rather than a structural understanding of inequality.

This is a very significant shift in Labor party or social democratic thinking about inequality and is central to some of the debates on school funding and school quality.

Professor John Halsey, Sidney Myer Chair of Rural Education and Communities, Flinders University

My first impression is that it’s very much school-focused. This is to be expected because of the task set for the Review Committee. However, I would have liked to see more about the role community might play in education, looking to the future. I also haven’t picked up anything yet about helping to secure the sustainability of our country in an indefinite sense given population growth and pressures on the planet. The brief section on empowered schools and leadership opens up the possibility for some very innovative approaches to education in and for rural communities, and elsewhere.

Another impression I’ve got in the way the report’s been written is that there is space for considering rural education and what needs to happen in rural education for rural communities. But I do think it’s going to take a fairly concerted effort to make sure that rural communities do in fact benefit from this review.

It’s true the report comments quite extensively on remoteness, indigeneity and disadvantage and they’re all good things. It also talks about distance, but I am relying on the working groups and the high level committees and processes that put this report into action to bring forward a more articulate, well thought-through position in relation to schooling outside large population centres, which are other than remote. At my optimistic best I’m saying it’s workable from the perspective of rural education but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to bring unique issues and complexities, challenges and great opportunities in rural education to the fore.

The complexities and challenges are around the way in which new bases for school funding might work out in terms of, to put it bluntly, the numbers game. Typically, schools in rural communities are smaller and they in themselves bring particular funding challenges. The report acknowledges issues to do with enrolments, size and location. What’s going to be the challenge is to make that explicit.

In all-age schools – schools that cater from preschool through to year 12 – there are complexities in terms of creating different kinds of learning cultures within the school, so that students in the upper secondary get what they need in terms of a stimulating environment, and those in the early years gets the kind of nurturing and support they need. That speaks to not only the preparation of teachers for all-age schools, but it also speaks to ensuring that our leaders of all-age schools don’t fall between the cracks.

Another thing that is in the report is the need to continue to drive for greater achievements in outcomes. I think outcomes are important, and I’m not arguing for simply an input model, one just puts the cautious point down that moving to an outcomes approach in educations does require some pretty sophisticated research and modelling about the capacities and resources that students bring to the table from their out of school life, and who determines what is valued and worthwhile.

Jim McMorrow, Honorary Associate Professor of Education, Sydney University

It is a very considered report and I think it is a very good report on one of the most difficult areas of public policy. It deals with all the fundamentals and the weaknesses in the current funding arrangements and it presents a model is a helpful way ahead given the complexities and the levels of government involved.

I am very positive, particularly after two years of development and consultation. It is a very significant step forward. I hope it isn’t kicked into the political long grass. The utterances from the Minister have been very positive. I’m not naïve about the political context but I am a bit surprised at the wide level of support from the interest groups who up until now have been fighting each other in a mad scramble for funding.

We’ll see what happens in the weeks and months ahead but so far you have got a very rare occurrence with the level of support from a range of interest groups and authorities. It is of course recommending a significant investment of funding of $5bn to move forward. That will present a challenge to government.

The Federal government put in place this review and you would think they would need to present a strong sense that there is a way forward. The other thing of course is that current funding arrangements; particularly for non-government schools are due to end in 2013.

There are National Education Agreements for government schools that will need to be re-negotiated and if there are to be substantial changes they will need to be in place by the end of this year so that schools have notice of what is happening in the future.

It is the most substantial review of schools funding since the Karmel Report in 1973. There was another review by the old Schools Commission in 1984. Otherwise there has been nothing much. The former Howard government put in place funding arrangements as an announcement from the then Minister but this [Gonski] has been a very substantial and in-depth review.

It is an ambitious outcome that they are seeking. One of the things that has bedevilled school funding in this country has been the imbalance of responsibility of state and federal government for public and private schools.

This is suggesting a possible way forward on that. We certainly do need to re-balance so that it is clearer and to end the constant blame shifting that has gone on when the going gets tough, as it often does, in school funding. They have suggested a clear and explicit standard of resources by which schools would be funded, which is absent from current funding arrangements.

There is also proper targeting, through the comprehensive funding scheme, of schools and students that need it. They are very substantial changes and would need to be negotiated, especially with state governments, over the next few months. Something would need to be in place through legislation later this year if we are going to have new arrangements in place from the end of 2013.

Professor Ian Hay, Dean of Education, University of Tasmania

From a Tasmanian perspective we’re very ­supportive of the Gonski Review. We’ve completed a number of research reports that have also shown Tasmanian students are often behind in comparison to those students on the mainland, particularly in NAPLAN results; a point that is confirmed in the Gonski Review.

We have found that short-term intervention programs based on special funding work well, however this funding often stops and starts. What we like about this review is there is more of a long-term consideration given to students at risk of school failure. We see this as a positive step for these students, their families and their teachers. The other issue is that special funding for children at risk of school failure in often targeted funding, for example early intervention programs. What this new funding model does is recognises that there is a broad group of students who need support and the common characteristic of these students is low socio-economic status and their needs are on-going.

We believe the loading system [proposed in the review] will be positive for Tasmanian students because of the number of students who are in the disadvantaged category. The evidence from our research is that up to a third of Tasmanian school children are below academic benchmarks when they enter school, and without additional and on-going support this performance gap typical continues on past the early school years, particularly in measures on language, literacy, and reading.

The recommendations in the review will also be of benefit to children and students in regional Australia. As the Gonski Review documents, Tasmania ranks [educationally] behind other Australian states, except the Northern Territory. Both the Northern Territory and Tasmania have a high percentage of students from low socio-economic communities and who also do their schooling in regional and remote locations.

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