When media reported that Education Minister Pyne was undoing the Gonski funding he claimed that it was a 'media beat up'. However after the meeting with state and territory Ministers on Friday 29 November it is apparent that the media reports were far closer to the truth than anyone realised. Following the meeting NSW Liberal Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said that "The Commonwealth has implied that if there is a reduction in funding for states that have signed up . . . that reduction may only well come out of public schools. That is of enormous concern to all jurisdictions. I sought as Chair some clarification about that but none was forthcoming."
If Mr Piccoli's perception is correct, this appears to be actually a complete reversal of Gonski and a return to the Howard years where Federal Government money, provided by citizens in all states and territories of Australia, was disproportionally directed to the non-Government sector.
Some distortion of the original vision of the Gonski review began with the Gillard Government. While there may have been good intentions her Government's response was a mixture, among other thing, of simplistic educational thinking, realpolitik and budgetary irresponsibility. Many of these issues were addressed in an Australian College of Educator's submission made to the federal Government.
By focussing on such things being in the 'Top Five' by 2025 and setting conditions such as 'empowering school leadership' the Gillard's government's response not only unnecessarily got state and territory governments offside, but actually bypassed the core issue of addressing the entrenched inequity in our education system.
The single best thing we could do to raise our international standing in international assessments such as PISA would be to address why such a prosperous society as ours has such a high percentage of students in the lower categories and then take bold measures to do something about this. A study of PISA results in 2009 for example revealed that in Korea, Finland and Canada the percentage of students below proficiency 2 in reading (the standard of basic literacy) varied from 11 percent to 20 per cent. For Australia it was 29 percent. By comparison in the United States it was 35 per cent. If we seriously focussed on addressing this underachievement and the situations in which it occurs we would actually move up the world educational ladder, because it is this under achievement that pulls down our average.
Not only was this low level of proficiency not directly addressed in the Labor Government's response but this failure was followed by the repeating the slogan common to all political parties whose purpose is to appeal to self-interest: that 'no school would be worse of'. The implication was made that all schools, irrespective of their communities' wealth, would get their share of extra funding and every system lined up at the trough. This eventually resulted in a promise of amounts of money that no Federal Government could provide, in the current economic climate without a significant increase in taxes or serious cut in other services. If the Government had the courage to say that all additional money would be directed to targeting educational disadvantage it could have at least halved the expenditure, required.
The Gonski report did provide the Labor Government with the opportunity to remove funding from the political arena. Recommendation 35 of the report proposed the setting up of a National Schools Resourcing Body whose members would be appointed "on the basis of merit and expertise" to maintain and refine the data used and monitor its success. The Government's argument was that such a body would take responsibility away from the elected government. However the Resourcing Body's only function was to collect factual evidence, and then it was up to the Government to decide how it would respond within budgetary constraints.
Under the current Minister factual evidence is increasingly unimportant – perceptions seem to be all that matters. In an interview for Sky News Minister Pyne claimed that a 'recent study' rated Australia 27th among English speaking countries in both literacy and numeracy. This goes against all the evidence from any of the respected studies, and in fact it was just one study into primary school spelling. When the distinguished authors of the Gonski report offered to actually explain on what basis funding could be distributed, reports claim that Mr Pyne said he was 'too busy'. In all his public statements it is hard to find any mention of achieving equity or addressing educational disadvantage which was the underlying theme of the Gonski report.
Even if the Federal Coalition Government does take addressing educational disadvantage seriously it is important to understand that extra money to disadvantaged schools is by itself no guarantee that outcomes will improve. To ensure such money was well spent, a significant portion of the money would need to be dedicated to research into what actually works and in on-going evaluation of the project. It would be important that such evaluation begins with a clear view of what the base is from which the improvement begins, and in evaluating its success to look at not just measuring improvements in academic performance but also quantify the savings to the community in such areas as increased employment, reduced incarceration and improved mental health. There are schools in Australia that are succeeding and we need to learn what their secrets of success are.
It would also be worthwhile directing resources to the disadvantaged schools' communities. This could include extra resources to local libraries, homework centres and internet access. As well supporting adult learning and improving community facilities could all help turn disadvantaged communities around.
'Business as usual' is not good enough. Using the criteria originally suggested in the Gonski report, and targeting any extra education funding to where it would do the most good we would not only improve life outcomes for individuals, but also arrest the decline into an increasing inequitable society, with all the social problems that creates. It would be more cost effective than pouring money into those schools which are already well financed and would also allow other key programs such as the Disability Insurance Scheme to be better financed.
And if we returned to the top five in PISA that would be a bonus.
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