EYES WIDE OPEN: What to make of Gonski Lite?

 

I have now read over 150 articles on the Commonwealth’s new funding model – most of them little more than repeats of press releases or snide remarks about its destined failure.

There are a few that stand–out, but unfortunately only a tiny minority have bothered to go beyond the media briefings, to analyse the figures and investigate the issues to any extent.  This is particularly shocking given how important this proposed new policy is for all Australians.

So what to make of what is on the table? Here is my take on the good, the bad and my on balance assessment.  But firstly I would like to be clear that I approach this issue from a social justice value base.  And, unlike many, I acknowledge that this does not make me an impartial observer – just a well informed, committed and passionate one.

I will deal with the bad first

The funding falls far short of the Gonski Recommendations

The oft-quoted Gonski figure of $5 billion per year in 2009 terms has gone forever.  Others have assessed that over 6 years this would have increased to about $39 billion in real terms. What is on the table is less $14.5 Billion over six years, or less than 50 per cent of what was assessed as necessary to achieve a quality needs based education funding regime.

The $14.5 billion includes $2.34 billion ($390 million per annum) that is already out in schools through the National Partnership Programs.  Yes this program was lapsing in 2014, but as far as schools are concerned, it is out there funding extra teaching resources.  It just means they won’t experience the taking-away of these much-needed resources.

The targeting approach recommended by Gonski has been diluted in significant ways to the detriment of our most needy schools

Gonski’s key message was that if Australia is ever to lift its educational outcomes it has to do it through targeting those most disadvantaged.

The current funding offer provides the vast bulk (83 per cent) of the funds in the form of base funds based on the Student Resource Standard.  The remaining 15 per cent of the funds are for needs based loadings.

The loadings or targeting measures are a key element of the Gonski reforms because as Colebatch notes “our funding system gives too little to the students who need it most, and the growth in funding should be used to redirect money to the most disadvantaged 25 per cent”

However while there are still targeted measures or loadings in the Government plan they are not well targeted and this difference is crucial.

Where Gonski proposed targeting the bottom 25 per cent of Socio-economic status the Government’s offer targets the bottom 50 per cent.  This makes a very big difference for schools at the low end of the ICSEA scale, because the money is spread as thin as vegemite over the vast majority of schools.  I had a brief search on MySchool and, although that is hard to do, it confirmed my sense that almost all schools can find a student or 2 in the bottom 50 per cent.

Where Gonski advocated for needs based loading for Indigenous students it would only apply the loading when the proportion of Indigenous students reached 5 per cent.  This would have included over 95 per cent of NT schools but only a minority of other schools.  There is no doubt that the decision to apply this loading for every Indigenous student has cost the NT dearly.

It is clear that the non-Government sector influenced this part of the deal making, as this dilution represents a clear win for them at the expense of the needs of the most disadvantaged schools.  The greatest need by far is in the public system and few schools serving the poorest communities in Australia are non-government.  Richard Teese notes that

About 80 per cent of all disadvantaged children attend government schools. Yet despite this, state and federal governments are set to give all non-government schools real increases in funds over the next three, and possibly six years. This includes the 1000 schools currently overfunded – schools that are “funding maintained”.

This more than anything cements our divided and highly unequal system into the future – a savage irony as also noted by Teese

We risk emerging from the most thorough review of national school funding with an architecture of advantage and disadvantage that is even stronger than when we began.

This is also a fantastic political win for the Independent education sector because it opens the door to a voucher type approach where wily non-Government schools can cherry pick the highest performing students who meet any of the loadings criteria but who do not require the extra ‘heavy lifting’ required by state schools who must take all comers.

By putting a price on the child’s head we are assuming that all children all Indigenous children are alike and all children in the bottom 50% are alike.  The NAPLAN results for NT Indigenous compared to the NAPLAN results for non-NT Indigenous are very very different – suggesting this is not the case.  The schools and associated families of the children with the highest needs have indeed been sold out.  And of course the NT has been sold out too.

On the other hand, Bill Daniel’s (Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia) implicit endorsement of the proposal suggests that they are indeed highly satisfied[1].

It brings with it all the inherent risks associated with federal overreach

Bernard Keane[2] makes the point that the real benefit of these funding reforms may not lie in the additional funding.  The funding he claims is just a means to an end –  “… the real benefits may well lie not in the extra dollars but in the changes to performance information and allocation of decision-making within large systems.” He goes on the say that “ In effect, for that extra $9.4 billion, Gillard wants the state to sign up to more rigorous entry and assessment standards for teachers, more power for school principals and greater performance information for parents”.

Keane might view these as benefits but I take a different view.  All states already have in place comprehensive and well-researched school improvement processes and were already sharing ideas based on what they had learnt from their programs.

And there is no strong evidence that giving more staffing hire and fire power and budget autonomy to principals enhances education equity but there is strong evidence that competition between schools over their ‘market share’ of ‘desirable student enrolments’ increases inter school differences and further disadvantages schools that have the hardest job.

 It does not address the schools that are currently overfunded under the current SES model

This is disappointing especially as I can recall there were articles that made it clear that even the coalition MPs acknowledged that the grandfathering of the overpayments needed to have a use by date.

It does not play fair between the states

This has been the focus of the WA Premier and he does have a point.  The logic outlined by Garrett is that they have drawn a Student Resource Standard line and applied a simple state blind gap filling model to the funding allocations.  That is, their allocations are based on what it costs to bring all schools up to this standard.

WA currently funds schools at a higher pre student rate than either Victoria and NSW so their funding gap is less.  This sounds fine from a distance, but it is worth remembering that Victoria, NSW and Qld have all taken funding away from schools and now appear to get a windfall gain from this cynical action.

It is also worth comparing this funding carve-up to other similar state negotiations over education funding.  For example, when the Early Childhood Education National Partnership funding shares between states were being negotiated Qld and NT has a much lower proportion of 4 year olds in preschools and argued that they aught to receive a larger share.  This ‘state blind gap resourcing’ approach was not followed on that occasion although there were some minor adjustments in recognition of this gap.

I think the key thing to take from this is that all states do not have equal bargaining power just like the unequal lobbying power between the education sectors.

It does not address the fact that Australia has one of the most class segregated and unequal schooling models in the world

I nearly didn’t include this negative because, even if ‘Gonski original’ had been proposed, this problem would have remained.  This was because the terms of reference for Gonski placed this out of bounds

It has been our obstinate commitment to the god of parent choice that has led to this outcome

So after all this – what are the positives?

The proposal offers new money to the public education system

The Government school share of the funding is $12.1 Billion.  Some $2 billion is already out in schools (under National Partnership Programs) but around $10 Billion is clearly additional to current expenditure.

This is important and we shouldn’t waste this opportunity because it is not on ideal terms.  It was never ever going to be. Moreover, opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne says an Abbott government would keep the old system, implying that it will offer nothing new for public schools.

If we don’t embrace this offer during this Government’s term we may end up with something far far worse.  Tony Abbott has already gone on record saying that equity should mean all schools get the same level of Government funding.  This would be an absolute outrage.

It tosses out, once and for all, the AGSRC – and this is critical

The AGSRC or Average Government Student Resource Cost was the basis of the old funding model.  It was just that – it was a costing figure derived from calculating the average cost of educating a child at a Government school.  This has been a sore point for decades because the average cost for Government school students is based on a student population that is very different from the non-Government school population and is getting more and more different over time.  The effect of using AGSRC to determine funding formula meant that non-Government schools were financially rewarded when public school residualisation caused the costs of educating the increasingly poorer and needy students at Government schools to rise.

This new offer ushers in a Student Resource Standard based on calculations that are much more defensible.

The need for a better deal for public schools is urgent – It cannot wait

As David Zyngier notes[3] currently only 71 per cent of Australian government spending goes to public schools. Only Belgium and Chile spent a lower proportion of government funding in the public sector.

The debate we have around school funding and school choice in Australia is absolutely unique.  We take as normal and natural that Governments fork out a large amount of dollars to pay for the education of parents who chose not to use the Government provided systems.  In the vast bulk of countries this choice would not be subsidized.

We are paying the price for this choice in our international test results.  I must say I don’t particularly care about that, but I do care that we are paying the price in terms of large numbers of children who fail to reach their potential because our schooling arrangements have disadvantaged them.  We need to acknowledge this and put this right.  This is a start.


[1] “The success of this funding model depends heavily on the response from state and territory governments,” responded Independent Schools Council of Australia executive Bill Daniels.

http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1756442/How-leaders-reacted-to-school-funding-plan

Kevin Donnelly thinks that Fabianism is a dirty word.

 

We’ve put up with absolute rubbish from Kevin Donnelly for too long.  It’s time to look at his claims without the emotion and invective

In his latest rant, in The Australian, called, “Education saviour is pulling too many levers[1]”, Donnelly makes the following claims.

1.        Julia Gillard “in a desperate attempt” is going to use education as her lever to stay in power

Sadly, and a little reluctantly, I share concerns about the growing centrality of education in the future election debate.  Although chances are slim, I am pinning my hopes on progress on implementing the key components of the Gonski reforms prior to the election to the extent that they cannot easily be rolled back. 

The temptation to use it the Gonski implementation plan as an election carrot will not save the ALP but it will cost public schools dearly.

2.        Billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit;

Donnelly clearly has not read the ANAO Audit report into the BER[2], because it concludes that where there were poor decisions and centralized rollouts the culprits were state Governments not the Commonwealth and that to some extent this was inevitable given the justifiable time constraints.  May I also remind him that this was a GFC response first and foremost not an education initiative? The audit report makes this clear:

The Government decided on school based infrastructure spending because it had a number of elements that supported stimulus objectives

It also notes that:

The objectives of the BER program are, first, to provide economic stimulus through the rapid construction and refurbishment of school infrastructure and, second, to build learning environments to help children, families and communities participate in activities that will support achievement, develop learning potential and bring communities together[3]

For many schools the capital works were a godsend because the new hall or learning space gave them the capacity to do the thing that Donnelly most encourages – use new space to increase local innovative solutions to education challenges.  Indeed the audit report noted that over 95% of principals that responded to the ANAO survey indicated that the program provided something of ongoing value to their school and school community.[4]

3.        The computers in schools program delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

I am not one to argue that ICT is the magic bullet answer to everything about teaching and learning in our schools.  However I am convinced that with well-informed computer literate teachers, who are also good teachers in the broader sense, students can only benefit.  I also acknowledge that a high level of computer literacy is now a core area of learning.   To achieve this even “out of currency” computer hardware will be better than no computers

Any ICT hardware rollout will result in out-of-date computers and a maintenance/update impost.  But the state of ICT infrastructure in our schools desperately needed to be addressed.  Is Donnelly really arguing that schools that do not have enough in their budgets to manage the whole-of-life costs of having computers should go without?  I wonder which schools these might be?

 

4.        Julia Gillard’s data fetish is forcing a centralised and inflexible accountability regime on schools, government and non-government, that is imposing a command and control regime on classrooms across the nation.

There is no doubt that we could benefit from a better accountability and reporting regime  – for all schools. So this is one of the few areas where Donnelly and I have aligned concerns but possibly for different reasons. I continue to believe that the changes to the original intention of NAPLAN testing has been disastrous for some Australian schools – but possibly not the ones dear to Donnelly’s heart. 

The reporting of NAPLAN results at the school level has, almost certainly, distorted what is taught in schools[5].  This is especially the case in schools where students struggle – our highly concentrated low SES schools.  It has also contributed to the residualisation of the public school system.  And we now have evidence that when the middle class students are leached out of public schools, public school students loose out in lots of ways.  For example they lose out because of the loss of articulate and ‘entitled’ parent advocates for the needs of the schools.  But they also lose out because each middle class child is actually a resource.  That is their existence in the class enhances the learning of all students in that class.[6]

Donnelly, on the other hand, appears to be more concerned that non-Government schools are now under the same reporting obligations as government schools.  I know of no other area of Commonwealth funding that was not expected to provide a defined level of accountability and reporting.   This anomaly was way overdue. 

5.        The Gillard-inspired national curriculum, instead of embracing rigorous, academic standards, is awash with progressive fads such as child-centred, inquiry-based learning, all taught through a politically correct prism involving indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives.

Donnelly appears to have a short memory on this matter.  The national curriculum effort was kicked off by the previous Howard Government – and that is why History was singled out above other social science disciplines. 

Perhaps Donnelly has not read the national curriculum? If he had he would know that it is just a sequence and scoping exercise and does not address pedagogy at all.  Donnelly has had a bee in his bonnet for years about so called ‘progressive fads’ based on nothing more than sheer ignorance.  And as for the cross curriculum perspectives – these came out of extensive consultation and negotiation and were not imposed by the Gillard Government.  While there are unfortunately many examples of Commonwealth overreach, the cross-curricular perspectives are not examples.

6.        Even though the Commonwealth Government neither manages any schools nor employs any teachers, Gillard is making it a condition of funding that every school across Australia must implement Canberra’s (sic) National Plan for School Improvement.

This is another area where, to some extent, I do agree with Donnelly but for very different reasons. 

My position is that the National Plan for School Improvement is Commonwealth overreach that was unnecessary and risky because it could have put the Gonski implementation at risk.

The National Plan for School Improvement was unnecessary because, all education systems throughout the country already had some form of school improvement planning and annual reporting, and had begun to share good practice through the National Partnership process.  It was also unnecessary because it foolishly cut across the more informed and consultative process being undertaken by AITSL to grow the teacher performance feedback and improvement process in collaboration with the various teaching institutes around Australia.  This process had a strong emphasis on supporting teacher development and self-reflection based on well-supported peer, supervisor and student feedback.  The Commonwealth initiative has recast the whole process into a high stakes, external reporting context that will be much less useful and teacher friendly.  This is a pity.  AITSL’s work should not have been distorted in this manner.

It was, and is, risky as some states seized on the obligations of the Plan as the rationale to push back on the Gonski reforms.  Tying the two together  was poor strategy, in light of the importance of implementing Gonski between now and September 2013.

Donnelly’s objection to the Plan appears to be that is is imposed on the non Government sectors that should, according to Donnelly, be able to receive significant levels of Commonwealth funding with no accountability?.   It’s the imposts he objects to, not their design elements.

7.        Research here and overseas proves that the most effective way to strengthen schools, raise standards and assist teachers is to embrace diversity, autonomy and choice in education. The solution lies in less government interference and micro-management, not more.

I am afraid that Donnelly’s claims that autonomy and choice is the best way to strengthen schools does not have a shred of evidence.  I, and others, have written about the autonomy claims[7] and there is now solid international evidence confirming that market models of education choice are disastrous for education equity and therefore for education overall[8].

8.        Autonomy in education helps to explain why Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools.

There is now enduring evidence that the differences in school outcomes are overwhelmingly connected with student demography and not schooling system.  When SES is taken into account the non Government systems do not perform any better at all.  The very detailed research undertaken by Richard Teese[9] in the context of the Gonski Review process concluded that:

Using NAPLAN data, the paper shows that public schools work as well or better than private schools (including Catholic schools).  This finding echoes the results of PISA 2009 that, after adjustment for intakes, public schools are as successful as private schools

9.        Gillard’s plan for increased government regulation and control and a one size fits all, lowest common denominator approach is fabianism and based on the socialist ideal of equality of outcomes.

Now this is the strangest claim of all.  Here Donnelly uses fabianism as a slur and it is not the first time he has taken this tack.  However it is a term so quaint, so rarely used, that this tactic may well pass unnoticed.  In fact in order to find a useful definition I had to go back to 1932 to an essay by GDH Cole[10].  Cole’s explanation is interesting given the implied nastiness of fabianism:

Whereas Marxism looked to the creation of socialism by revolution based on the increasing misery of the working class and the breakdown of capitalism through its inability to solve the problem of distribution, Webb argued that the economic position of the workers had improved in the nineteenth century, was still improving and might be expected to continue to improve. He regarded the social reforms of the nineteenth century (e.g. factory acts, mines acts, housing acts, education acts) as the beginnings of socialism within the framework of capitalist society. He saw legislation about wages, hours and conditions of labor, and progressive taxation of capitalist incomes as means for the more equitable distribution of wealth; …

And

The Fabians are essentially rationalists, seeking to convince men by logical argument that socialism is desirable and offering their arguments to all men without regard to the classes to which they belong. They seem to believe that if only they can demonstrate that socialism will make for greater efficiency and a greater sum of human happiness the demonstration is bound to prevail. 

So our progressive tax system, our Fair Work Australia, our transfer payments to those in poverty, our national health system, our public education system, our welfare safety net, our superannuation minimums – these are all examples of fabianism at work, not because fabianism is a secret sect with mal intent as implied by Donnelly but because we have come to see the benefits of a strong cohesive society where the wealth of the country is not enjoyed by the few while the majority slave in misery. 

What’s so bad about our proud achievements Donnelly?  I for one want to keep moving in this direction and for me implementing the Gonski reform is the essential next step in schooling policy.

10.     Tony Abbott’s view of education, is based on diversity and choice where schools are empowered to manage their own affairs free from over regulation and constraint.

It is interesting that Donnelly thinks he knows what Tony Abbott’s view of education is, because I suspect most of us remain unclear on this matter.  Abbott has said on one occasion that more funding should go to Independent schools – an astonishing claim given our profile relative to all other countries.  His shadow Minister has said a bit more but his statement that we should go back to didactic teaching (like when he was a boy) does not imply a commitment to allowing schools to manage their own affairs to me.  But maybe he only means that this is what Government schools should do.  That would probably be OK according Kevin Donnelly’s view of the world.


[3] Ibid P 8

[4] Ibid P 26

[5] A useful, research article about this is the submission prepared by Dr Greg Thompson in response to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Education Bill 2012 – Submission no. 16 available at this URL http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=ee/auseducation/subs.htm

[6]The best explanation for the important of ‘ other student affect’ on student learning is from an unpublished paper by Chris Bonner where he notes that “the way this resource of students is distributed between schools really matters. Regardless of their own Socio-economic background, students attending schools in which  the average socio economic background is high tent to perform better that if they are enrolled in a school with below Socio-economic intake