More Autonomy for NT on schools funding will be the death knell for ‘closing the gap’

I know this is a waste of my breath, but I am begging Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott to visit remote schools in the NT and schools in Darwin with a checklist in hand.  The checklist should include:

  • state of the buildings,
  • state of the grounds,
  • state of the playground,
  • sports facilities
  • water bubblers, pathways, covered ways. shaded areas and ablution areas
  • eating areas
  • existence of specialist areas such as science laboratories, ICT rooms, libraries, teacher staff rooms,
  • experience of principal
  • average teaching experience of staff
  • no of specialist support staff
  • turnover and average experience of teachers
  • average number of children on the roll for each class

Then compare the relative needs of the schools in question – numbers of children who do not yet speak or understand English, NAPLAN scores, student attendance figures special needs and so on.

Then and only then try and tell us that the best way to spend Gonski funding is to give a blank cheque to the NT Government.

The simple fact that every teacher in a Darwin school knows is that the Darwin schools are much more generously funded than the highly disadvantaged remote schools.  They also know that the NT Government, no matter what its political persuasion, will never be able to change this because they would immediately lose office.

To cover for this the Department of education has been pretending to work on a new needs based staffing formula and has been pretending this  since at least 2008.  It is a farce. I have written about this previously here.

And The Chief Minister has admitted that the reason they did not sign on to the ALP Gonski offer is because it would have forced them to shift funds out of Darwin and into remote because the Gonski framework required implementing the needs based approach.

Now it looks like Minister Pyne will give NT the funds with no restrictions.  And at the same time NT are cutting positions right across remote NT.  Indigenous peoples are being ripped off in the name of Gonski and this just makes me want to weep.


Poverty is important but inequality matters more

9781608193417Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane, 2009) was for a brief moment in time a hot topic- at least in the US and UK.  In Australia it passed without much of a ripple.  This is a pity because its message on education is stark and simple.

The research on which this book is based draws on mainstream longitudinal data from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census.  They correlate economic growth and levels of equity with a wide range of social data.

These data, they argue, tell a powerful, convincing and important story – Inequality is bad, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Wilson and Pickett ‘s evidence shows that for ‘the developed world, the pursuit of economic growth may once have been an important goal that contributed to our wealth and national well being, but this is now longer the case.

Historically the pursuit of economic growth has benefited humanity by providing better education, health, increased longevity, well-being and happiness.  They also argue that for poor countries today, life expectancy increases rapidly during the early stages of economic development.

However at a certain stage of economic development (middle-income countries) this rate of improvement slows down.

Finally, when countries become wealthy economies, the benefits of narrowly pursuing a growth agenda disappear and getting richer adds nothing further to life expectancy.  At this point, there are ever diminishing social returns to investing in the neoliberal agenda and developed societies have very little to gain in the continued sole pursuit of economic growth.

As countries move along the development continuum, infectious diseases common in the poorest countries gradually cease to be the most important cause of death but they are replaced with the diseases of affluence (cardiovascular disease and cancers). As affluent societies grow richer, there are also long-term increases in significant social problems across the board.

It is important to note that this has nothing to do with total wealth – usually expressed as average per-capita income. The US is still among the world’s wealthiest nations in terms of average income per person, but it has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence that is off the scale.

This is because it is not about wealth, nor is it just about poverty. It is about the levels of inequality that have been created in many economies as a direct result of intense wealth creation and the policies that have supported this path.  The authors contrast the US and the UK with Japan and Scandinavian countries – all wealthy economies but the differences between the income of the top 10% and the bottom 10% are in stark contrast.

Note: The data in the book on Australia suggests that we are closer to the US high inequality profile, but ACT Federal Member Dr Andrew Leigh will be launching his latest book Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, on 1 July 2013 at ANU. For more information click here.

Countries that have lower economic standing but are relatively more equitable will do better on almost everything.  And even though rich people tend, on average, to be healthier and happier than poor people in the same society it is important to note that both richer and poorer will do better in more equitable societies. This is demonstrated through a detailed comparison of nations by levels of inequity and rates of social/economic problems and then by comparing the 50 US states by the same two dimensions. Almost all problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies.  Or to put it another way, there is a very strong tendency for ill health and social problems to occur less frequently in more equal societies.

Inequality is life diminishing, not just for those at the bottom of the heap but right through society.  It increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; and it functions as a driver of consumption that depletes the planet’s resources.

Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality. This makes sense intuitively.  Many baby boomer aged educators will recall the groundbreaking research undertake buy Paul Willis, recounted in his book Learning to Labour, published in the mid eighties.  In rich and disturbing detail, this book provided an up close and personal account of the ways in which young men, with no economic or educational route to achieving high status and earnings, embraced a different form of status – being ‘bad boys; at school, in the gangs and through a hyper masculinity that embraced violence and petty crime. Reading this book was a light bulb moment for me, because it made sense of my growing awareness of the complexity of challenges faced by teachers in high need schools, where these dynamics play out everyday.

Mental health is the stand out example. There have been substantial increases in actual rates of anxiety and depression, and as all teachers know this has been accompanied by increases in behavior problems. There is a strong relationship between mental illness and inequity. They also show that levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries where income differences are the largest and also argue that this is because of the kind of stratification that takes place in association with inequity. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions.

Obesity, which is rapidly increasing throughout the developed world, is a major health crisis. In the past the rich were fat and the poor were thin, but in developed countries these patterns are reversed. Fat is now a class issue. Figures show that levels of obesity tend to be lower in countries where income differences are smaller.

More unequal countries have worse educational attainment. This suggests that there is more to educational equity than overcoming the unequal school readiness starting point of disadvantaged students and a relentless focus on student learning progress.  Differentiated levels of educational attainment are strongly influenced by the kind of communities we create and the sense of possibility and aspiration that exists.  Communities with high levels of trust and social capital and societies with high social mobility are more likely to flourish in more equal economies where governments invest in high quality public services, housing is not highly stratified and schools are not highly segregated by income.

Most policy measures directed to addressing the social determinants of health and educational inequality would have to be rather different if they were to take the thesis of this book into account.

This book provides a convincing critique of any narrow ‘close the educational achievement gap’ agenda. We may be able to marginally reduce gaps in levels of reading at a point in time by a relentless focus, but this book suggests that a belief that education measures alone can bring about greater equality needs to be flipped.  If we want better educational outcomes we also have to work for a more inclusive participatory civil society and greater economic and social equity – through wage fairness, job security, good working conditions, addressing career pathways for people in dead end jobs, retraining support, housing policies that reduce income based residential and educational segregation, food security and so on.

It also affirms the central importance of implementing school funding reforms currently on the table but suggests that this should be a start, and not an end.

Its important that the new funding arrangements will give greater scope for high need schools to provide much needed wrap around services, remedial support, greater subject choice, enrichment and early intervention to address the immediate learning and social emotional needs of their students.  However, if the funding reforms do not do anything to change the Government funding share across the different systems, then public schools, no matter how hard they work and how good they are, will not attract back to them, any of the parents who have opted out.

This means that, just as the US might have a level of violence that is off the scale in international terms, Australia will continue to have a level of educational segregation that is also off the scale.  If Gonski Reforms are agreed to, and I desperately hope they are, we will have made a start on addressing school funding poverty, but the relative levels of school inequality and the high levels of education segregation will remain until we have a government that is willing to stand up to the power of the non Government school lobby, for whom ‘market share’ of students is key.

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.