NT’s Adam Giles does a ‘Pyne’ on Gonski

We had fantastic news today.  Gonski is saved.  This is worth celebrating but in doing so, let us also remember that because of the different arrangements for the ‘Hold out’ states (Qld, WA and NT)  – the states where most of our remote Indigenous citizens reside – we do not have a national needs based school funding system in Australia and the losers are our most disadvantaged children.

I don’t know how this will play out in WA and Qld but when I think about what will happen in NT – what this should have meant for remote schools and the lost opportunity –  it makes me want to weep.

In a revealing article[1] in the Australian in July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many of its Darwin, and some of its Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded.

Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less,” Mr Giles said.

Under the federal government’s model, Darwin High School and Palmerston Senior College are overfunded by around $2 million, Moil Primary School is overfunded by more than $1.3m, Taminmin College is overfunded by $2.5m, and Bradshaw Primary School is overfunded by more than $900,000.

The NT Government receives additional funds from the Commonwealth Grants Commission for the purpose of delivering services to disadvantaged and remote communities.  In my previous articles, I revealed that a significant proportion of these funds are not spent in remote servicing but on the more white friendly services in Darwin and to some extent Alice Springs. School funding is  one aspect of rort.

You would think that, given that our fellow Indigenous citizens of the Northern Territory, are, as a group, the most disadvantaged people in Australia, this information would have generated some outrage.  But Giles’ admission passed with barely a ripple.

If journalists had bothered to look up the details of the overfunded schools it might have discovered that they all had much lower numbers of Indigenous students than the underfunded schools.  For example, while the proportion of  students  who are Indigenous in the NT is now around 45%.  The percentage for Darwin High School is 6%, Moil Primary is 13%, Palmerston Senior College is 27% and Taminmin High School is 16%.

This same article also made it clear that this was the reason why the NT did not sign up to the Labor Gonski offer. The Commonwealth even offered to modify their deal so they could maintain, but not enhance, the overfunding for the more white schools. The NT still refused.

In addition, Giles made it clear that the NT is not willing to apply the Gonski student resource and needs loading principles to the funding of their schools.

“Mr Giles accused Canberra of trying to hoodwink the Territory into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools…..

Mr Chandler said that under the Gonski model, Canberra had to approve how the Territory distributed its funding to schools,

So now they are getting their funding from the Abbott Government with NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

The I Give a Gonski website[2] has very helpfully provided a look-up chart so it is possible to see what NT schools should have received  as a result of new Gonski funding.  And remember that in the case of the NT, the Commonwealth gave a set additional amount to all the overfunded schools. So if you look up a Darwin average to well off primary school, you will find that they can expect a funding increase of 32% and a secondary school around 16-19%.

But here are some examples of the percentage increases NT remote schools would have received had the Gonski principles been applied:

Shepherdson College –  in Galiwin’ku, an Indigenous community, 73%

Yuendumu School – an Indigenous community, 60%

Umbakumbar School – an Indigenous community, 86%

Alekarenge School – an Indigenous community, 68%

Docker River – an Indigenous community, 110%

Borroloola – a mining town with a majority Indigenous population, 92%

Now Tony Abbott has never been a champion of equity – I get that – but he has claimed to being committed to improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

But what about all the wonderful Australians who rose up in their thousands to stop Minister Pyne from pulling the Gonski funding principles and inventing his own.  We were outraged and rightly so and our voices made a difference.

But the NT will be ‘doing a Pyne’  – inventing its own funding allocation plan.  And they have bad – very bad  – form on this.  Remote Indigenous Communities – parents, students, and teachers will see none of the benefits flowing from our successful campaigns to reinstitute Gonski, unless our voices are heard on this.

Can you please pressure your local politicians to seek a nationally applied needs based funding model in Australia, one that is transparent and accountable.  This is not ‘command and control from Canberra’. This is responsible Government.  We should expect no less. Especially when the issue is so important.

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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.

If Independent Government Schools are the answer: what is the question?

Pyne believes that introducing Independent public schools across Australia will bring significant benefits to these schools and their communities.

Yesterday The Conversation published its fact checker that concluded that the claims to increased productivity and efficiency as well as increased student outcomes have no basis in evidence.

While I agree with this, I think this was a cautious assessment that drew its areas for consideration too narrowly. In this post I focus on some of the more concerning aspects about the IPS system that were not considered by the fact checker.

Claims of improved student outcomes – treatment of the research

But first a brief comments on the claims that were considered.  The fact checker, in looking at overseas evidence of schooling set ups that have similarities to IP schools, looked at Charter schools in the US.   It drew from the 2013 CREDO Charter Schools study of the comparative student learning effects of Charter Schools.  This report concluded that there were some comparative learning outcomes improvements but that they were non-significant in nature.  Most media headlines reported in terms of Charters are performing slightly better than public schools

What I find interesting about this is how this non-significant difference is treated.   The Great Lakes Centre for Research recent Review of the CRDEO study makes this point

 The most important results of the study…are differences of 0.01 or 0.02 standard deviation units, and even the largest effect size reported are on the order of 0.07 standard deviations. 

Hanushek has described an effect size of 0.20 standard deviation for Tennessee’s class size reform as ‘relatively small’ considering the nature of the intervention.

So there you have it – an effect size that is tiny- very tiny – is hailed as a small improvement justifying this large scale reform.  However it is much smaller that the effect size attributed to smaller class sizes by Hanushek, who led the campaign to oppose class sizes because, the effect size is too small.

The logic behind autonomous schools

To go beyond the fact checker scope it is necessary to dig behind the claims.  Pyne is arguing that Australia has invested strongly into non-Government education and it is working well for Australia.  He notes that we are unusual in our high levels of investment in non-government schools relative to other OECD countries – so we must see it as a public good.

He is asking the reader to assume that non-Government school enrolments skyrocketed over the years of the Howard regime just because it was a great idea – totally demand driven. But I won’t chase down this particular rabbit hole here.

So, says Pyne, we have these great institutions that work well, so lets get a piece of this into the public education system.  This implies without any evidence that the public system is not working so well.

So what he is borrowing from the non-Government system?  Is it the great facilities, or the ability to enrol students as they see fit, or their ability to charge fees or their superior levels of per pupil funding.  No – because non-Government schools can only selectively enrol students and charge fees because there are government schools that must then pick up all the non selected students, and provide a free education

What he is picking up, is the stand-alone school concept, minus the generous funding – a school with a bucket of money to do its business, responsible to a board and able to make all its own decisions. This will, he argues, be more efficient, will encourage bold new thinking and innovation, and will give the community much more say over spending priorities.

It is interesting to note that in the negotiations over Gonski the non-Government sectors successfully argued for additional systemic funding to better support their stand alone idealised schools. Maybe, just maybe, stand-alone models are not all they claim to be.

The previous WA Education Minister, Barnett justified the WA model of IP schools in terms of increasing competition and variety because maintaining all schools as equal was undesirable as it breeds mediocrity.

So to follow the logic pathway, IP schools will deliver better student outcomes, more productivity and efficiency because ‘stand alone schools’ will make all their own decisions about how they use their bucket of funds.  This will make them more competitive, they will spend the same amount of money more wisely and they will be more innovative.

So lets look at these claims

IP Schools will be more innovative

A WA press article recently profiled an IP school in WA that opted to become a marine biology school.  Fabulous example!  This school has reported that student engagement is high and that they have a big enrollment waiting list.  Students in its enrollment district have an automatic right of entry but students outside this district will have to move house or hope for an enrollment win.

However, NSW, arguably the most centralist state when it comes to its schooling has schools that specialize in agriculture, in performing arts, in technology, in sports, in languages.  There are schools with Opportunity Classes and the Board of Studies has a year 12 syllabus in Marine Studies.  Victoria has Government schools that offer Steiner programs, ACT has the Cooperative school and a bilingual French-Australian K-12 IB school.  There are networks of schools that adopt innovative approaches such as the Big Picture schools, IB schools, UN schools, Stronger Smarter school leaders and Dare to Lead schools. These are just a few examples I know about.  We don’t NEED IP schools to develop innovative schools within the government system.

Lyndsay Connors, argues that when she was involved with the National Schools Network – an initiative of the Hawke-Keating government intended to free schools from bureaucratic and union rules, the new and innovative practices that schools adopted, that she witnessed, were all ones that they could have done without special freedom.

She says this was also true of the self-governing schools created within the Victorian public system under the Kennett government. A few principals took the opportunity to create a governing school or board with some financial freedom, such as increasing salaries, but she says other innovations she knew of depended on extra funding.

Connors argues that with the same increase in funding, other schools could have implemented similar reforms, even while operating under a more centralised system.

And of course not all innovations are good innovations.  A school could decide that they could shift funds directed to ESL learners or special needs students to a program that the more influential members of the board might want – a violin program, or an artist in residence.  Having parents on boards does not always lead to decision that are in the best interests of all parents.  Articulate ‘entitled’ parents will always end up with more say.

And finally, lets remember that some of the innovations in Charter schools are very worrying – “no excuses” schools that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, or, schools with built-in churn as they rely almost solely on TFA teachers passing through education, en-route to a high profile future.

Pyne is allocating $70 million to this initiative.  This will give all participating schools about $47,000 as a one off allocation. So all the innovations will have to come from changing the staff profile in some way because that is where the vast bulk of the funds are spent.

 Competition improves schools

Proponents of this view argue that by giving parents the power to choose between schools and the power to influence schools, schools will work harder to earn more student enrollments.  This competition will improve all schools.

It is very clear that in WA, where only some schools are IP schools, this competition has been hard for non-IP schools.  Trevor Cobbold has posted extracts from principals about the effects of the IP arrangements on their work.  They talk about how the IP schools suck up all the highest rated teachers, while they are forced to staff based on redeployees.  And the more high needs the school, the more intense the problem.

Here are some of their comments:

 Basically, the better ranked teachers chose better schools. That is how it goes and that is how we get residualisation within schools. Low SES schools just cannot compete with the leafy greens, and they don’t even have to be leafy greens but good solid communities that support education and their kids in school. There was always a component of this, but IPS has really amplified it.

and

[this is not a low SES school]
Public education was once about equity, about being able to say that a child way up in Wyndham and a child at leafy Wembly Downs will get the same quality of teacher. Creating a privileged set of schools badly damages this concept.

Autonomy and Student Equity

The ACER evaluation of the impact of IP schools in Australia did not ask questions that might have exposed the impact of this set up on student equity.  They did not look at any changes in the enrollment share of IP and non-IP schools by student demographic characteristics, nor did they look at the changes to the staffing profiles of the schools.  In my view this is a pretty big omission – not necessarily of  ACER’s choosing.

This is the big issue with Pyne’s proposal in my view.  Trevor Cobbold makes this point

 Greater demand for IP schools amongst higher income families and increased flexibility of IP schools to select student enrolments is likely to lead to more social segregation between government schools in WA. Inevitably, it will mean increased differences in school results and more inequity. This is after all what a market in education is designed to do.

 Chris Bonner reiterates

But the bigger danger is that we risk losing the equity safeguards which our public school system, with all its claimed faults, currently provides. [Where schools can choose their own teachers] … the best will gravitate to the schools with the more valued location, easier to teach students and money.   ….there are no prizes for guessing which schools and communities will miss out.

 There are other hidden stings. Unless closely monitored, increasingly autonomous public schools will seek and gain greater control over student enrolments. I love them dearly but already there are few rules which get between many of our enterprising school principals and a desirable enrolment. The better placed autonomous public schools will join their private counterparts in applying both overt and covert enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

A blog post by Chris Lubienski about research into schools autonomy and equity in the New Zealand context gives us a glimpse into how enrolment manipulation is likely to happen over time if autonomous schools are introduced across the nation. He found that schools will actively pursuer policies of enrolment segregation if they are given a chance to do so and that autonomy initiatives provide just that sort of opportunity.  His findings are so important I am quoting from him at length:

Previous research has shown that schools in more affluent areas are more likely to be in greater demand, and thus more likely to have enrolment schemes.  The question we asked was whether these self-managing schools were using their autonomy to draw their zones in order to improve or restrict access for disadvantaged students.  To do this, we simply compared the level of affluence in a walkable radius around each school to the level of affluence in the boundaries that the schools themselves had drawn.  Certainly, school zones are not perfects circles, as their creators have to consider traffic patterns, geographic barriers, and the boundaries of competitors.  But, all things being equal, we could expect that deviations in those boundaries from a geometric radius around a school would be more or less equally likely to include or exclude more affluent neighborhoods.  

But that is not what we found.  Instead, there is evidence of rampant gerrymandering to exclude children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  In the cases where there is a statistically significant difference in the “deprivation level” of the population in a school’s drawn zone compared to its immediate area, over three-quarters of these self-managing school had drawn a zone that was significantly more affluent than their immediate vicinity. 

Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, more affluent schools are not only drawing boundaries to keep poor kids out, but in their promotional materials are bragging about their success in doing this.  A review of school websites shows that more affluent schools are much more likely to include official information about the number of disadvantaged students they serve. 

While we might find these types of practices to be distasteful for public schools that are funded by taxpayers to serve all students, in some ways, such actions are predictable (if indefensible).  After all, policymakers are creating education markets where schools recognize competitive incentives to shape their enrollments.  It should be no surprise that, given such autonomy and such incentives, they find creative ways to do just that. 

So if on Saturday we have a change of Government, this is what we can look forward to in our schools.  We will have a tiered system of schools, competing on a highly unequal basis and our already highly segregated education system will become even more so.

Ironically one of the best tools for highlighting the issues will be the data from MySchool.  Is this why Pyne thinks the publication of the NAPLAN results is a bad idea?  It sounds crazy but I do wonder.