EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Gillard's flawed plan to fix our schools
, September 15, 2012
In 2010, Julia Gillard, then education minister, commissioned a major review of Australia’s education system by a panel of six, led by Sydney businessman, David Gonski. After a year of deliberations, the panel delivered its report to the federal government last November.
In light of the diversity of schools across Australia — covering a very wide range of socio-economic, geographic, historical, religious and cultural backgrounds — it is not surprising that its conclusions are complex and controversial.
Its fundamental conclusion is that education standards in Australia are slipping, at least in comparison to other countries, and that, in order to address this problem, governments must commit substantially higher funding to disadvantaged children who are concentrated in government schools.
It proposes an additional expenditure of $5 billion a year.
The authors of the Gonski report clearly believe that there is a direct link between funding and educational outcomes. This is probably incorrect.
A 2011 OECD report stated: “Research usually shows a weak relationship between educational resources and student performance, with more variation explained by the quality of human resources (i.e., teachers and school principals) than by material and financial resources, particularly among industrialised nations.”
There should have been discussion around this issue, but it was largely ignored in the Gonski report and in the government’s response. Yet the success of non-government schools, most of which have fewer financial resources than government schools, shows that the quality of teaching, rather than materials, is the key to improving students’ outcomes.
Yet governments insist on funding schools and education systems, rather than parents who have the primary responsibility for the education of their children.
Government funding for education should be focussed on children and their parents, rather than schools and systems. If this were done, then the issues of support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with disabilities, and indigenous children, could be addressed directly.
Shortly before releasing its response to the Gonski report, the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, announced that no school would be receiving less funding post-Gonski. Her comment aimed apparently to head off speculation that the federal government would find the additional $5 billion by diverting funds from non-government schools into government schools.
When announcing the government’s response, the Prime Minister gave no indication as to where the additional money would come from, nor how much of it would come from the states (which the Gonski report said should find two-thirds of the additional money).
Ms Gillard said that the phase-in of the Gonski recommendations would begin in 2014 — after the next federal election — and would not be completed until six years later. In light of the fact that the Gillard government is unlikely to survive until 2014, the implementation of the report looks like ruling from the grave.
In the absence of any discussion about the merits of the Gonski report, the debate in Australia has descended into an unsavoury row between the government, opposition and the states about funding of the Gonski recommendations.
There is justified cynicism about this government’s financial competence. At the height of the global financial crisis, it committed a massive $16 billion to “Building the Education Revolution”, a program to upgrade school facilities, including the funding of capital works in schools across Australia, to the benefit of all children.
The sad fact is that, in terms of lifting educational outcomes, the $16 billion was largely wasted. It has contributed to the federal government’s massive deficits, and arguably has made it impossible for Canberra to meet its commitments to the Gonski recommendations.
There is also concern that the Gillard government will add a new layer of federal bureaucracy to an already top-heavy education system, with the establishment of a new “national schools resourcing body” and “school planning authorities” to decide where new schools should be built.
The Prime Minister’s claim that, under the scheme, struggling students would get personalised learning plans ignores the fact that schools already try to help students in this way. The sad fact is that many young people leave school demoralised, undisciplined and negative, and many never get a job.
The reasons for this often have to do with family breakdown, domestic violence and other issues over which schools have no influence.
Her claim that prospective teachers would get into university only if their year 12 literacy and numeracy marks are in the top 30 per cent will probably lead to fewer teachers in the classrooms of the nation, as few of the top 30 per cent would apply.
The solutions to the education crisis will have to wait for a new government, after the next election.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.