Gonski's Last Stand

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Earlier this week David Gonski gave a landmark speech.

For the first time since his funding review reported, the high-profile but unassuming businessman, university chancellor and chair of seemingly everything, went public with his comments and reflections in a speech delivered at the University of Melbourne.

He has certainly had enough time to reflect: since the end of 2011 his review has been widely applauded, ignored then reshaped by the Gillard Government, accepted under pressure by Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne, then undermined by Pyne and News Corp. It has finally been all but abandoned in the Coalition's first budget.

It was a thoughtful speech and one that will be carefully analysed. He has some regrets: mentioning the likely cost of implementation tended to obscure many of the review’s important findings.

Unsurprisingly, Gonski felt the need to remind us what it was all about: the pursuit of greater equity and all the benefits it delivers, the need for a unified commonwealth/state approach, the commitment to funding all schools to achieve a standard, and to fund on need, taking into account the resources of each school.

He is clearly pained by the course of events since 2011 and especially the likely direction from budget 2014 onwards. He tackles assumptions made by the recent National Commission of Audit, especially its simplistic belief that money can’t improve outcomes. Gonski reiterates that increasing money where it counts is vital. He knows that determining the needs loadings is not easy but that is hardly a reason to walk away from fundamental principles.

But the Federal Government is walking away and the future portrayed by Gonski is quite alarming. It would see states operating their own systems again, without any consistency or comparable commitment. More importantly, he argues that indexing funding after 2017 ignores both aspiration and efficiency. This would embed whatever ad hoc arrangements we end up with in 2017 and continue them forever.

Then he said something of even greater significance. He commented on the 'no school will lose a dollar' constraint on the review panel's own work, a constraint that meant greater equity could only be achieved by increasing investment — at different rates — in all schools. He commented in an oblique way but his meaning was clear — Gonski expressed surprise that the Commission of Audit, in its pursuit of savings, didn’t question this ‘no loser’ constraint. He noted:

“Embracing the concept of needs based aspirational funding in an environment of wanting to save money would be better served in my view by concentrating on that aspect rather than seeking to go backwards to resourcing based on historic figures…”

In other words, if there is to be no more money, then redistribution of existing funding needs to be on the agenda. In taking a shot at the Commission of Audit, Gonski is really pointing to the elephant in the room: if equity remains the target then some schools will gain and others will lose.

The implications of this are considerable. The Gonski pathway, a masterful strategy to fund schools in equitable and sector-blind ways, without any losers, is all but dead. The next big conversation will be about redistributing existing school funding in more equitable ways. It will almost certainly reignite the school sector wars which we thought we’d left behind.

Educators and commentators who want to avoid this only have limited time to swing decisively behind advocacy for full implementation of the Gonski recommendations. They have to marginalise those at their fringes who have spent months undermining not only the chance of greater equity and opportunity for our students, but what was effectively a road map to peace.

Putting on my partisan hat I’d have to say that those committed to achieving greater equity, especially through public education, are better placed than ever. Public school teachers especially have committed to Gonski’s sector-blind solution. No one wants the unproductive and often destructive public versus private debates of the last few decades.

But a renewed debate about equity could be different. The Gonski review set a new benchmark: the need for equity is far more widely accepted, the debate is about opportunity for all kids. The need to consider all school resources — including fees — is now widely acknowledged.

We know far more about the facts behind the slogans thrown around in the old debates. Yes, private schools do enrol the more advantaged, but My School data shows that many go out of their way to accept strugglers. To their shame, some public schools try to avoid them. But we do have a regressive social and academic hierarchy of schools — apparent in just about every town and suburb in Australia — which blocks the path to the benefits we can all derive from greater equity.

Other old arguments won’t get the same traction. Private schooling was supposed to save public money — but greater school transparency and data shows that private schools often get as much public money as similar public schools. Indeed, some private schools now receive more public money than similar public schools. We are much closer to the integrated school model of places such as New Zealand, but without consistent obligations on both public and private schools.

We are also apparently nearing the end of the age of entitlement and this raises many questions which would feature in a renewed debate. Ross Gittins is certainly not alone in wondering why the funding of private schools is quarantined from attacks on entitlement. Who should have such an entitlement and why? What boundaries and limits, if any, should be placed around such entitlements?

None of this is an argument for a renewed debate — it just points to a possible future. The Gonski review could have created a new settlement, acceptable to all school providers. David Gonski has once more nailed his colours to the masthead. The settlement which came tantalisingly close will only happen now if the advocacy for equity under his proposals remains front and foremost.

New Matilda

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