What's in a name? That's the question to be asked of the revamped Rudd Government ministry, charged over the last two weeks with signing up the remaining states to the Gonski education 'reforms.' Sorry, to new school funding arrangements, henceforth to be known as Better Schools.
After several years of Gonski hype, an expensive 'Give a Gonski' rent-seeking campaign funded by the Australian Education Union and a commitment of $21 million in the 2013-2014 Budget to bankroll the Commonwealth's advertising of the Gonski package, it is a hard ask to abandon the recognised label. Since reinstalled Prime Minister Rudd, in one of his first announcements of key policy ideas, declared that, with the agreement of David Gonski himself, the funding changes should no longer be known as the Gonski plan, journalists have been struggling with fresh formulations – the reforms that 'are no longer to be referred to as Gonski reforms,' the school funding arrangements 'following the report of David Gonski', the "Gonski" (now with inverted commas added) reforms. There's no escaping it, the label has stuck, a victory for the sideshow politics derided by former Labor minister Lindsay Tanner, characterised by a preference for symbolic announceables over ideas and rational debate. Small wonder that David Gonski would distance himself from the convoluted implementation of his proposals.
The message however has become the end and there seems to be no going back from the hyperbole and spin of the education announcements under the former Gillard regime. Even without the Gonski label, the mantra used by Gillard government to spruik the changes, sprinkled with references to fairer funding, a 'broken' existing funding model and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australian students, continue to be used in these post-Gonski weeks.
There is little suggestion that there will be an opportunity to revisit the actual merits of the policy changes. For a moment, there was a glimmer of hope, when the just-installed Prime Minister referred to the importance of spending money responsibly, where it is likely to lead to real education outcomes and committed to listening to the concerns of the non-signed up states like Victoria and Queensland which have well developed, evidence-based plans for school improvement. These state plans go far beyond the one-size-fits-all headline school improvement measures incorporated in the Australian Education Act.
The passage of the Australian Education Act, rushed through without proper debate at the deathknock of the 43rd Parliament, leaves little scope for real negotiation over the concerns of the states about both their share of funding and the heavy hand of Commonwealth intervention in this key area of state responsibility. The legislation cements some questionable policies that would not stand the test of reasoned discussion.
The evidence clearly shows that just throwing more money at schooling makes no difference to student outcomes. To support higher achievement, resources need to be targeted to education quality – attracting better teachers, supporting the professional development of teachers and principals, raising standards of teacher education, providing additional classroom support for students with educational needs, setting high expectations for all students and investing in those students falling behind their international counterparts at the top end of performance as well as those failing to achieve minimum standards. These are the policies adopted by high performing and improving education systems elsewhere in the world, but are absent in the Gonski proposals.
Nor is there likelihood that changes in the way funding entitlements are calculated, a la Gonski, will affect achievement. The argument that the existing school funding model is too complicated and lacks transparency can hardly be sustained given the complexity and secrecy of the new arrangements. A different deal for every state and every school system suggests a very elastic formula, or a flexible arrangement with states and systems for allocating the formula-based funding entitlement to schools.
Rudd hopes by appointing Bill Shorten as the new education minister that his skills in communication and negotiations will allow the previous ham-fisted dealings with the states to be conducted in a more civilised way and will gain agreement. However, the most that can be hoped for is a few more sweeteners and some more 'deals' rather than adoption of policies that make a difference to schooling outcomes. The Rudd Government may have changed the label but can hardly abandon the thrust of the Gonski proposals. That would be admitting policy failure in an area where Labor once had real achievements.
What a wasted opportunity it has all been!
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