EDUCATION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Gonski report: doubts emerge over educational benefits
, March 2, 2013
In 2010, Julia Gillard, then federal education minister, commissioned a study into school funding – the first since the 1970s – to develop a funding system which was transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent educational outcomes for all Australian students.
The expert panel which conducted the study was headed by businessman David Gonski, together with Ken Boston, Kathryn Greiner, Carmen Lawrence, Bill Scales and Peter Tannock. Its final report, handed down in December 2011, is called the Gonski report.
The panel reported that over the last decade the performance of Australian students has declined at all levels of achievement, notably at the top end. This decline has contributed to the fall in Australia’s international position.
In 2000, only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and only two outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy. By 2009, six countries outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and 12 in mathematical literacy.
In addition to its declining performance across the board, Australia has a significant gap between its highest and lowest performing students.
This performance gap is far greater here than in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, particularly those with high-performing schooling systems. A significant proportion of Australia’s lowest performing students are not meeting minimum standards of achievement.
The Gonski report declared that “Australia must aspire to have a schooling system that is among the best in the world for its quality and equity, and must prioritise support for its lowest performing students”.
It went on to say: “Every child should have access to the best possible education, regardless of where they live, the income of their family or the school they attend. Further, no student in Australia should leave school without the basic skills and competencies needed to participate in the workforce and lead successful and productive lives.
“The panel believes that the key to achieving this vision is to strengthen the current national schooling reforms through funding reform.”
The cost of the Gonski report’s proposed reforms was put at $6.5 billion a year, with the Commonwealth government to commit about $2 billion, and the balance coming from the states.
The report was enthusiastically endorsed by the Gillard government, but it pointedly failed to commit any money until the states promised $4.5 billion a year. Teachers organisations and academics were united in their endorsement of the report.
The states have not accepted the recommendation that they put up the additional $4.5 billion a year to implement the recommendations of a Commonwealth government report.
More fundamental criticisms have come from Scott Prasser, executive director of the Public Policy Institute, Canberra, and educationalist Kevin Donnelly.
Professor Prasser wrote in the Australian Financial Review (February 11, 2013): “It has become almost heretical to question the value of the Gonski proposals, but good policy-making requires evidence of likely success.
“In the case of Gonski, that evidence is sadly lacking. Even worse, all the evidence points to the likelihood that these new policies will not work and come at a huge opportunity cost.”
Professor Prasser warned that a respectable body of education research, national and international, showed that “money can be spent on education with few effects on outcomes, no matter how high the aspirations and how worthy the intentions”.
He said: “International data confirm the weak correlation between education spending and education quality. A reasonable level of funding is unquestionably the bedrock for good educational performance, but more money does not equal better performance.”
He pointed out that Australia’s expenditure per school student had increased over the past decade, and is well above the OECD average, yet our international ranking had declined.
“Moreover,” he said, “the main factor in the recent decline is the decrease in the number of students performing at advanced levels. The Gonski review chose to ignore these data.”
Dr Kevin Donnelly, who heads the Australian Standards Institute, also said that more money did not necessarily produce higher educational outcomes, and homed in on the plan to increase funding for government schools at the expense of non-government schools.
He rejected claims by the Australian Education Union that adopting the Gonski recommendations, which would add $6.5 billion a year in recurrent funding, will help Australian students rank among the top five nations in international tests by 2025.
“In fact there is little, if any, correlation between spending and educational outcomes. The most effective way to improve results is to embrace competition, autonomy and choice, characteristics associated with non-government schools and threatened if the government adopts the Gonski report’s recommendations,” he concluded.