SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Gonski report penalises non-government schools
, March 17, 2012
After nearly two years of analysis and deliberations, over 7,000 written submissions and hundreds of face-to-face meetings with stakeholders and interest groups throughout Australia, the Gonski school-funding report was finally launched on February 21.
Given the time, effort and cost involved, one might have expected that the report would finally resolve the much-vexed question of what funding system should replace the existing socioeconomic status (SES) model, due to expire at the end of 2013.
Resolving the issue might also have been expected given Prime Minister Gillard’s repeated mantra that the Government’s education revolution is central to her agenda and that there is no more important issue than raising standards and ensuring that all students achieve strong outcomes.
Such is not the case. In fact, as detailed by Education Minister Peter Garrett, in his speech at the report’s launch, what Australian parents and schools now face is a further period of consultations, meetings, discussion and uncertainty.
The reality is that the federal Labor Government has put the Gonski report on the back-burner and, instead of deciding what its response will be, simply bought itself more time in the hope that its political capital will improve and that it can postpone any political and community backlash over the funding model.
It’s understandable why Gillard and Garrett refuse to finalise the Government’s response. Many of the recommendations in the Gonski report, if implemented, would financially penalise and undermine the autonomy of non-government schools.
Under the existing socioeconomic status (SES) school-funding model, non-government schools are not penalised for raising money at the local level as the amount of government funding received is linked to a school’s SES profile. The Gonski-inspired schooling resource standard (SRS), on the other hand, is based on the assumption that levels of government funding will be reduced by funds raised locally, such as school fees, monies from trusts and philanthropic sources.
At the moment, non-government schools, compared to government schools, have a large degree of autonomy and flexibility. In arguing that any government funding must be linked to outcomes, such as NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) and any other government imposed conditions, the Gonski report undermines that freedom.
In addition, the recommendation to establish school planning authorities to authorise “planning for new schools and school growth” smacks of the old New Schools Policy — designed to restrict the growth of non-government schools if such growth adversely impacted on nearby government schools.
By giving state governments control of allocating funding to independent schools there is also the problem that the level of funding to non-government schools will be decided by the very authority that competes against such schools for enrolments.
Schools are already suffering under the bureaucratic, inflexible, micromanaged model of education epitomised by the Government’s education revolution. Expect more intrusion and compliance costs if the Gonski paper is accepted as it argues for increased monitoring and accountability.
By identifying equity as its prime consideration, and arguing that disadvantage is concentrated in government schools, the report in effect argues that money must be re-directed from non-government schools to government schools.
It’s no secret that governments around Australia, except for those that are resource-rich, are finding it difficult to balance budgets, hence, the failure of the Gillard Government to commit to Gonski’s request for an additional $5 billion in spending.
The reality is that the quantum of government funds available to non-government and government schools is finite and, given the report’s argument that priority should be given to disadvantaged students concentrated in government schools, the likely outcome will be that non-government schools will have to make up the shortfall — especially those low SES non-government schools that will now have to contribute at least 10 per cent of the schooling resource standard (SRS) from locally raised funds such as school fees.
It should be noted, on the other hand, that Gonski recommends that all government schools, regardless of how resource-rich they are or how much money they raise locally, should receive the full amount associated with the schooling resource standard.
Forget the fact that, according to OECD research, Australia, compared to other OECD countries has a high level of social mobility, mainly because of our education system. Research also suggests that socioeconomic disadvantage is not the main factor determining whether students achieve success or otherwise at school.
Also forget the fact that non-government schools, compared to government schools, are more effective at overcoming educational disadvantage and ensuring that students achieve better results than what otherwise might be expected.
According to critics such as the Australian Education Union and left-of-centre academics, Australia’s school system is riven with inequality and disadvantage, and matters are only made worse by the fact that over 34 per cent of students attend non-government schools.
Non-government schools, so the argument goes, only serve the wealthy and the fact that they exist causes government schools to under-perform.
The statement in the report that the purpose of any new funding model must be to “reduce inequity of outcomes” best illustrates how the report has swallowed the cultural left’s argument that priority must be given to so-called disadvantaged government schools at the expense of Australia’s Catholic and independent schools.
While all accept that education should provide equality of opportunity, on the basis that all students deserve a well-resourced and funded education, the argument that there should also be equality of outcomes is used to justify penalising those students and parents who, through hard work and sacrifice, are able to afford non-government school fees.
In her maiden speech, when she first entered parliament, Prime Minister Gillard complained that it was unfair that students in so-called wealthy independent schools in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs outperformed working-class and migrant students in her western suburban electorate.
When education minister, Julia Gillard continued to argue that government school students, because of class, ethnicity and family background, deserve priority funding and positive discrimination in areas like tertiary entry.
It shouldn’t surprise people that the Gonski review, which she established and for which she set the terms of reference when education minister, has come to the same conclusion.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is author of Australia’s Education Revolution (available from News Weekly Books) and is director of the Education Standards Institute.