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Mr Gonski and the social contract

By Dean Ashenden - posted Friday, 23 May 2014

David Gonski is a famously cool customer, but surely even his sangfroid was tested as he rose to speak on Wednesday evening at Melbourne University's Wilson Hall. This was his first substantial public statement since the release of the eponymous report on schools funding more than two years ago, years of incessant headlines, of hopes raised and dashed, and of bitter political brawling. He was entering dangerous territory.

The "Gonski" review was launched by the Rudd/Gillard governments at the point of intersection of three of the most enduring conflicts of Australian political life: between federal and state governments, between left and right, and between the free, secular government school sector and religion-based, fee-charging non-government schools. All ride on the tectonic plates of class and class relations, slow-moving but fundamental.

"Gonski" argued that these divisions have allowed the school system to drift steadily toward greater social segmentation, and have prevented it from tackling persistent problems of inequality. Overcoming these problems, the review suggested, demanded overcoming these divisions. All public funding for schooling, federal and state alike, should go into a single national bucket from which each school would be funded according to the difficulty of its educational task, irrespective of its location or sector.


The divisions declined to be overcome, however. "Gonski" was first hung out to dry by its sponsor, the Gillard government, then passionately embraced; watered down before being accepted by some states and rejected by others; rejected then embraced then tolerated for the moment by the federal Coalition in the person of Christopher Pyne; and, most recently, confronted by a counter-proposal.

The National Commission of Audit, after finding arrangements left in the wake of Gonski to be "complex, inconsistent and lack(ing) transparency," has recently urged the new government to abandon the national bucket in favour of a devolved approach – give the money to the states, that is, for their use and distribution within a broad national framework.

What, in the light of all that, would this courteous, quietly spoken master of the backrooms of power, this chairman of everything, choose to say? He had promised to define "the essence of the findings of the review," to consider whether and how these findings had been understood and implemented, and to close with some remarks on what "I personally… learn(ed) from being involved in the review." Plenty of scope there.

Would he play the statesman, perhaps? Accept that the end of greater fairness in schooling might be served by means other than those that he and his panel devised? Some version of the Audit Commission's model, for example? That would alienate Labor as well as making it seem that he had reverted to corporate type, not a man of principle at all, just another player in the cynical game.

Or fight fire with fire? The temptation was certainly there, in Pyne's brazen opportunism, and in the Commission of Audit's arch interpretation of "Gonski" as just another funding mechanism. A payback killing might keep faith with Gonski's many supporters and his Labor's sponsors, but it would also enrage a federal government with a long memory. It would obliterate any hope of influencing the Abbott government's eventual solution.

Or might he, just might he say what he really had "learned from being involved in the review"? That Australian schooling is squandering its patrimony, becoming more socially divided and less able to deliver on the promise of "equal opportunity" by the minute? An ungovernable mess, buzzing with activity but making scarcely any headway? That its world's worst-practice three-sector system is a divisive relic of the nineteenth century? That the blame-shifting involvement of two levels of government in every school in the country is counter-productive? That having governments on three-year electoral cycles run a business that needs big strategies pursued over decades is a recipe for muddle, frustration and waste?


No, he didn't say those things. But nor did he say anything to the contrary. He is a subtle man, used to saying things with silence.

What he did say, out loud, was that he apologises for nothing and regrets nothing – well, one small thing perhaps. It might have been better, in the light of experience, not to have mentioned the price tag. "Major media outlets," he observed, naming no names, "talked of further billions for education and no doubt those who had to find the amount were very bluntly reminded of what was involved."

The shame of that was that it distracted from the real point and purpose of the report, the breadth and complexity of problems it took on: big differences in funding amounts and methods as between states and sectors; the fact that those least in need had most, and vice versa; the opaque, complex and various ways of measuring and allowing for disadvantage; the lack of clear statements of "aspirations" for schooling. "Two years on… our analysis has stood up to scrutiny," said Gonski. "Some may disagree with aspects and conclusions but I'm not aware of any major holes that have been found."

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This article first appeared on Inside Story.

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About the Author

Dean Ashenden was co-founder of the Good Universities Guides and Good School Guides, and had been an adviser or consultant on education policy to state and federal governments and agencies.

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