It Will Take A Miracle To Get The Gonski Reforms

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While "giving a Gonski" has proven somewhat popular, it seems that actually "getting Gonski" might be a task for the very long haul. If the Gonski recommendations are ever fully implemented it will have to go down as a modern miracle.

Consider the odds. The Gillard Government delayed the establishment of the school funding review, then told the panel that no school must lose a dollar — which meant that any equity could only be achieved by better distribution of a lot more money. Then the release of the otherwise well-received recommendations was upstaged by yet another ALP leadership circus.

Gonski had gathered the evidence, stated the case, devised a plan, pointed to the goalposts and then — as required — passed the ball. Panel members must be wondering why they bothered. For six months the government didn’t seem to commit. It created an opening for anyone even less committed to fill a leadership and commentary vacuum, fiddling with funding models, highlighting doubt and feeding apparent confusion through the media — and feeding one-liners to a delighted Opposition who never wanted a bar of Gonski. Those committed to the report’s recommendations recoiled in disbelief. Even the mainstream media, News Limited aside, has been scathing about the lack of government backbone.

The government has never seemed comfortable with anything that hints at carving up the school funding cake in different ways, even in the long term — despite the overwhelming reality that just about any form of needs-based funding will head in this direction. Forever spooked by the political ghost of Mark Latham and his hit list, it has courted private school lobbies and their backers. Not only will they not lose money, they’ll all now apparently get more!

The Gonski review process and the research it commissioned has given us unequivocal messages about what is wrong about our framework of schools and why it needs to be fixed. Almost alone in the OECD world we have developed a hybrid system with inconsistent and unsustainable student outcomes, rules, funding, school obligations and accountability. At some stage, now or in the future, it will need to be overhauled. In terms of student achievement, national productivity and growth, the economic cost alone of doing nothing will just continue to mount.

Despite the recycled language about good and bad schools it has become increasingly evident that the socio-educational background of schools as well as families is creating very different futures for our kids — explaining our widening achievement gaps, enhancing advantage and entrenching disadvantage.  The increasing evidence about this is starting to resonate, to the confusion and discomfort of those who have carved careers out of pointing the blame solely at schools.

The Prime Minister warms to the school-blamers’ rhetoric. Uncertain about the equity appeal of Gonski she seems to be wrapping the legislation in the things everyone will support and get excited about: promises and threats about transparency, school performance plans, school autonomy and teacher reviews. 

Nothing new here; Gillard has been batting on about this sort of thing for years without any real tangible effect on schools. She will also parade Gonski as the right solution to our slipping down the OECD league table. Nothing like a moral panic to sway the punters.

The political games now being played are not unusual. Lining Gonski up with school improvement populism might neatly wedge the Opposition, but they have enough problems all of their own. Tony Abbott’s clumsy equation of funding with school enrolment share saw him scrambling to retrieve traction.

What it did display is that he is taking advice from private school lobbies. If he continues to do this he’ll constantly run up against complexities that can’t be explained away by slogans. The debate has shifted; he is in danger of being left behind.

Christopher Pyne is in a similar fix. He has even denied that Australia has an equity problem in schooling and recently managed to cite half of the facts to prove his point.  Yes, student achievement in Australia does reflect OECD averages in terms of parental background. However, he omitted to mention the related impact of school socio-educational status which compounds our equity problem. It’s not about school quality, it is about which kids go to which schools and the impact of this across all our schools. What is different in 2012 is that more people get this and want the equity consequences addressed.

Whatever the reach and fate of the Gonski recommendations it will be interesting to see where the Opposition will go. There is a kitbag full of discredited or largely irrelevant conservative policies that we are yet to really see in Australia. Charter schools are about to reach New Zealand. Vouchers aren’t too far below the surface. Tax deductibility of private school fees has been floated here before. It all has the potential to worsen the problems tackled by Gonski but it will be given an appealing gloss by an Opposition light on ideas and which sees education as a cost rather than an investment.

How have we come to all this? Easy — the last three decades has amply illustrated that attempts to create a sustainable and equitable framework of schools in Australia has run up against vested interests, shifting rationales, dysfunctional federalism, a politics of distraction and conflicts over the very purpose of schools. Why would it be any different this time?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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