Going, going, Gonski?

The Federal Review of Funding for Schools, or the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling1 – named after chair, David Gonski, who is also the chair of the University of New South Wales – was set up to examine funding for all Australian schools and to recommend a new, more equitable funding system from 2014.

It is described as the biggest review of the Australian education system in 40 years.

A school resource standard Writing for The Canberra Times, journalist Emma Macdonald described the current school funding model as “a tangled web of financial intrigue involving ancient deals negotiated between the Commonwealth, states and territories and underpinned by a dizzying array of financial incentives, anomalies, bribes, threats and add-ons that attach themselves during the political cycle.”2

Welcomed initially as a way to untangle this web, and to refresh the system, the Gonski Review proposes a “school resource standard” to subsidise the country’s 3.5 million students enrolled in 6 750 government schools and 2 720 nongovernment schools. An additional top-up for children from disadvantaged or indigenous backgrounds and for those who have a disability is also part of the panel’s recommendations.

And in an effort to placate non-government schools and their parent bodies, the review – almost 300 pages long and released for public comment on 20 February 2012 – advocates that every private school student receive a public contribution of no less than 20-25% of the resource standard.

Additionally , the review panel suggests that government finds AUS$5 billion – less than one half of 1% of Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP) – “to bring all schools up to standard, bridge the widening educational gap between the haves and the have-nots, and to place Australia on a more competitive international footing,” reported Macdonald and other journalists. In return, schools will be expected to raise their accountability levels and to pursue academic excellence more vigorously, said Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the first public forum after the report’s release. “We’ve slipped from being equal-second in reading internationally to being equal-seventh, and from being equal-fifth in maths to being equal-thirteenth,” said Gillard, explaining why a wholesale review of the school system was necessary. 3

Funding an emotive issue The issue of school funding is a highly emotional one across the world as many countries find themselves in the grip of continuing economic hardship. In Australia, the Gonski Review has unleashed a fresh war of words on the rights of independent schools (private and Catholic form the largest two groups) to government subsidies. Said one blogger, “The wealthiest schools are up in arms at the thought that the generous endowments from their rich alumni and capital expenditure donations from wealthy parents could be taken into account in assessing their level of public funding.”4 Said another, the Gonski Review is nothing short of an attack on “middle Australia”.5

At the forum, Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett, responded to concerns that the Gonski model would enable government to subject private school parents to a form of means testing in order to determine the levels of government funding a school should receive.

Reported Judith Ireland for The Sydney Morning Herald, Garrett said that there was “nothing in this report that refers to means testing of parents at all,’’6 yet the review’s actual wording states that parents’ capacity to contribute financially should be taken into account when determining the level of government support to non-government schools. At a separate event launch, David Gonski himself expressed surprise at what he called an “alarmist response”. According to him, the report recommended using the existing system measuring students’ socio-economic status as the basis for determining capacity to pay until a more accurate measure could be developed. “I have difficulty in understanding why fees would rise. What we want to do is to lift all the boats,” he said.7

Disparate independent school sector

Like many other pundits, Peter Long, senior economic correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), is unconvinced.8 Delving into the review’s data, he reported that “about 80% of students from relatively poor, illeducated households – those in the bottom 25% for socioeducational attainment – attend government schools; 78% of all students with funded disabilities go to government schools; 85% of indigenous students; and 68% of students from a non-English speaking background. Often these disadvantages overlap, contributing to severe learning difficulties and poor educational performance. Yet despite this burden, the government schools get a couple of thousand dollars less recurrent funding per student from all sources than independent schools.”

Long points to “the disparate nature of the independent schools sector” as a further complication. “‘Independent’ schools as defined by the Gonski report covers more than a thousand schools, some of them relatively poor and others catering to indigenous students or students with disabilities. The report does not separate out the high-fee elite private schools. If it did, it would almost certainly show that a far higher proportion of their students come from families at the top of the pile for income and education.”

Show me the money

According to Long, the remedy is obvious and urgent, and implied in the Gonski Review: that ‘elite’ private schools should receive less government funding, and that struggling public schools should receive more. Yet, against a backdrop of larger political tensions, the review panel was obliged to reflect the Labour government’s determination to maintain funding commitments to wealthier schools. “State governments and the federal government – grappling with budget deficits – will have to come up with additional billions to address the plight of disadvantaged schools.”

Said political tensions were, according to Macdonald, evident at the review launch. “Not only did both Garrett and Prime Minister Julia Gillard refuse to give a commitment to any of the AUS$5 billion price tag, but the official four-page government response to the report also rebuffed Gonski’s recommendation that more investment in capital works was required.”

The tensions also continue to characterise debate about the impact of the Gonski Review on Australian schooling, with more than one commentator suggesting that private schools can and should find benefactors in the private sector who will support those schools and the philosophy they promote.

Yet this is the approach the Gonski Review panel wants utilised by what it calls “schools in ‘low’ socio-economic areas”; calling for the federal government to create a fund to provide national leadership in philanthropy in schooling. The fund should support disadvantaged schools to develop the capacity to form sustainable philanthropic partnerships. “These schools are less likely to have networks, the confidence to approach potential donors, or the time and resources to devote to grant applications or understanding tax incentives,” the review states.

Back to basics As the Gonski Review moves into a further consultation and research phase, the debate seems to be deepening to include more fundamental issues. For example, Mike Secombe, business and [new] system [will] encourage a kind of ‘ghetto-isation’ of schools; the more privileged parents [will] remove their students from the public system, leaving behind a concentration of kids whose educational needs are greater”, and Michael Ferguson, shadow minister for education and skills, and for innovation, science and technology, reminds Australians that “the world’s best performing education systems are not the biggest spenders. It is their strong focus on teaching and learning, on what happens in the classroom that sets them apart.”9

References 1. Available at: http://www.schoolfunding.gov.au/.

2. Macdonald, E. (2012) ‘Gillard’s dissembling response undoes much of Gonski’s backbreaking work.’ Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/garrett-rejects-schoolsmeans- testing-claim-20120222-1tn6x.html.

3. Secombe, M. (2012) ‘Don’t mention the class war.’ Available at: http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/dont-mention-the-classwar/ 72/.

4. Moore, F. (2012) ‘Important Gonski report drowns in fluff ’. Available at: http://moore4mums.com/2012/02/20/important-gonskireport- drowns-in-fluff/.

5. See, for example, http://www.thepoliticalsword.com/page/LYNSLINKS- 14-21-FEBRUARY-2012.aspx.

6. Ireland, J. (2012) ‘Garrett rejects schools means testing claim’. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/garrettrejects- schools-means-testing-claim-20120222-1tn6x.html.

7. Ferrari, J. (2012) ‘David Gonski denies fees will increase’. Available at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/nationalaffairs/ education/gonski-denies-fees-will-increase/story-fn59nlz9- 1226289867141.

8. Long, S. (2012) ‘Gonski, plutocracy and public policy.’ Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-22/long-gonski-plutocracyand- public-policy/3843906.

9. Ferguson, M. (2012) ‘Gonski report response.’ Available at: http://michaelferguson.com/2012/02/gonski-report-response/.

Category: Winter 2012

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