The Gonski Review hasn’t gone-ski far enough-ski
We are all now awaiting the Gillard Government’s response to the Gonski Review of School Funding that was commissioned by Gillard herself in 2010 when Education Minister and which was released some six months ago.
For the Gillard Government, responding to Gonski is important for its survival. It is another policy box to be ticked that shows the government is delivering on policy in contrast to the Opposition’s negative approach.
Also, spending more money on education aligns with Labor’s caring brand, even if some of this goes to the non-government sector. And how the Government responds will also affect its relations with Labor-aligned trade unions like the Australian Education Union (AEU) which represents public school teachers.
The challenge for the Gillard Government and the Opposition is that responses to Gonski will be increasingly driven by political exigencies rather than what may be best for education in Australia in the long term.
Sadly, the whole focus of debate about Gonski has been whether its recommendation for an annual injection of $5 billion of extra funding will be accepted or not.
More spending is seen by some, like the AEU, and others, as the only criterion by which to judge education policy. And politically more spending is also a way to keep everyone happy in both the public and non-government sectors, even if it is not the answer to many of Australia’s education challenges.
But the real sadness concerning the Gonski Review and current debate has been the lack of critical analysis of all of its recommendations and the over emphasis on its recommendations concerning increased funding.
The issue is that Gonski Report’s proposal for increased spending is not adequately supported by the evidence it provides.
More money alone is not the answer to education quality or even tackling inequality. It would have been good if the Gillard Government and others had shown just a little awareness of the limitations of this approach. After all, Australian education spending has increased in real terms by 44 per cent during the last decade.
And there other flaws in the Gonski Report that are also ignored by its supporters.
For instance, Gonski’s proposed schooling resource standard is not new and presents many challenges in its detailed design if it is to be implemented. It is hardly worth the effort given the funding outcomes.
Then there is Gonski’s proposal to pass the burden of further investigation to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), that cumbersome machinery of Commonwealth-state bureaucracy hardly renowned for its capacity for effective policy-making in the public interest, is a further step in the wrong direction. Why would the States sign up to this?
Gonski missed or glossed over many areas of education policy that do make a difference – competition, the role of parental contributions, teacher quality, school governance, targeted special assistance and the decline at the top in the school performance, hardly rate a mention. Gonski failed to focus on quality which is the best way to improve education for all.
But in the end even Gonski’s funding proposals, the prime and almost only focus in current debate, are fundamentally flawed. If implemented, Gonski’s funding model would leave a number of public and non-government schools worse off, with some disproportionate results across the states.
This and the fact that some iconic independent schools like Geelong Grammar would get more funds highlights what a political grenade has been handed to the Gillard Government.
Public inquiries are supposed to clarify the facts, provide the basis for rational argument, identify the core problems and develop practical solutions based on evidence. Gonski has failed as a public inquiry. Some of its commissioned research was poor, its consultation processes flawed, its recommendations lacked a sound basis in evidence and some are too complex to be implemented.
Moreover, instead of reducing prejudice in the debate about the sensitive issue of funding schools, as a good public inquiry should, the Gonski Review managed to reignite these old concerns. A once settled area of public policy in Australia, school funding, has once again become highly unsettled.
The Gillard Government has to ‘fix’ Gonski before it enters the forthcoming election year. This means it has to develop a new coherent funding model. Resources are limited and time is running out.
Of the 70 or so education public inquiries we have had since federation, Gonski is one of the worst. An opportunity to address some of the real problems of the previous funding model and to develop an better set of long term policy objectives that focus on quality have been lost.
Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy at the Australian Catholic University and is author of Royal Commissions an Public Inquiries in Australia.
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