SCHOOLING: by Dr Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Parental choice is key, not Canberra control
, April 27, 2013
Much of the response to Julia Gillard’s announcement on school funding, drawing largely on the Gonski report, centres on issues such as the financial split between state and Commonwealth governments and whether non-government schools will be disadvantaged.
Equally important, and only now being realised by the states, is that the Gonski report and the Commonwealth government’s response involve a seismic shift in who controls schools and who will determine what happens in the nation’s classrooms.
As a condition of funding, every school across Australia and every state government must accept Commonwealth intervention in what is taught, how it is assessed, how teachers are trained and registered and how school effectiveness is measured and made public.
That the Prime Minister’s national crusade in education involves a highly statist, centralised and inflexible model of education should not surprise us. The reality is that the Gonski report embodies a bureaucratic approach to education based on top-down control and government micromanagement.
Just look at the report and its recommendations. In response to the terms of reference asking the review to analyse the “links between school resources and educational outcomes” and identify what promotes “excellent educational outcomes for all Australian students”, all Gonski recommends is more money and more government control.
In addition to arguing that states and the Commonwealth must invest an additional $6.5 billion annually, the Gonski report endorses the Commonwealth-inspired national schooling reforms, such as the National Standards for Teachers, and recommends establishing yet another bureaucracy, the National Schools Resourcing Body.
That the Gonski report is ideologically blinkered in favour of a statist, command-and-control approach is also evident in the fact that nowhere in the report is there any discussion or thought given to a market-driven approach to education — one based on autonomy, competition, diversity and choice.
In fact, in the one chapter dedicated to identifying “the successful elements of a school system” the authors admit that although “research exists on the key success factors in schooling, this chapter does not set out to discuss the research”.
Charter schools and vouchers
If those responsible for the Gonski report had bothered to look at the research, they would have realised that the cutting edge of innovation and change in education involves what are known as charter schools in the US and free schools in England.
A school voucher system, where the money follows the child, and where parents are empowered to choose a school that best suits their children’s needs and their educational philosophy, is also increasingly popular.
That the Gonski report fails to consider local and international research identifying the characteristics of successful education systems and the most effective way to strengthen schools represents a fundamental flaw and a lost opportunity.
In Australia, the example of Western Australia’s Independent Public Schools demonstrates that autonomy is beneficial. While test results are mixed — not surprising given such schools were established only in 2010 — the fact that in WA enrolment growth in state schools is outstripping non-government (3.6 per cent increase in 2011 compared with 1.6 per cent) proves that parents value schools that are empowered at the local level. Additional evidence that autonomy is beneficial is the fact that Catholic schools, where decisions are made as closely as possible to those most affected, are high quality and high equity based on an international analysis.
The benefits of a more market-driven approach to education are also proven by research projects investigating the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the Washington DC scholarship program overseen by Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas. Wolf concludes, based on a number of studies, that school choice leads to “higher rates of high school graduation, college enrolment, and persistence in college”.
Among European and US researchers there is also a growing consensus that school choice, represented by charter schools and vouchers, is a tide that lifts all boats. Contrary to the argument of critics such as the Australian Education Union and the implication of the Gonski report — that choice and diversity in education represented by non-government schools lead to a weaker government school system — the opposite is often the case.
Linked to the Gonski report’s mistaken assumption that more money and increased government intervention and control will raise standards is the report’s belief that yet even more testing and accountability will improve results.
Ignored is the example of New York, previously lauded by Gillard when education minister as an example to follow, where standardised testing, league tables and shaming under-performing schools have done nothing to raise standards or improve results.
At the April 19 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), details of the new Gonski funding model will be tabled and debated. Initiatives such as the Gillard-inspired National Plan for School Improvement and the Australian School Performance Institute will also have to be agreed to.
One hopes that the state premiers involved know their history and remember the 1993 Perth meeting of education ministers, when the conservative states rejected the then Keating Labor government’s plans to nationalise the school curriculum.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science! (available from News Weekly Books). This article first appeared in The Australian, April 16, 2013.