As 220,000 young Australians complete their Year 12 exams, the correlation between their results and the resource standard of the school they attended should be a cause of national concern.
That is a truth that makes some, including our current Federal Government, uncomfortable and one which makes them want to change the subject from school funding reform to almost anything else, including the review of the Australian Curriculum announced earlier this year.
They need to change the subject because it is hard to ignore the findings of the Gonski Review, which diagnosed inequality as the problem in our schools and more funding – targeted and accountable funding – as the solution.
Differences in ability and motivation will inevitably exist between children, but differences in results that flow from disadvantage are not.
It is within our power to deliver a more equitable funding system that supports the needs of all children and gives them a chance to reach their potential.
If the Government had intended to fully implement the Gonski reforms there would have been no curriculum review.
Setting up a review of a curriculum that is yet to be fully implemented was always going to be a distraction, even before the revelations of the shocking racist emails of one of the subject reviewers, Professor Barry Spurr, had been exposed.
The Review is based on the extraordinary suggestion that poor performance in our schools can be blamed on a so called sub-standard, politically-biased curriculum being forced onto students by a shadowy clique of leftist academics and educators.
No mention of the fact that 100,000 students with disability do not get the support they need in schools, of our class sizes and workloads (higher than the OECD average), or the fact that 40 per cent of secondary school maths classes are taught by unqualified teachers.
These are all hard problems that can’t be solved by slogans, rhetoric or stunts.
The Gonski Review set us on the path towards a fairer system, which would see all schools reach a minimum resource standard and give their students a better chance of reaching their full potential.
But the Abbott Government has chosen to walk away from these issues, abandon the Gonski agreements with the states and territories and begin an insidious dismantling of the architecture behind the Gonski reforms.
If it is allowed to get away with it, we could return to a funding system which exacerbates the resource gaps between schools and the achievement gaps between students.
We know that the Abbott Government does not support the Gonski needs-based funding reforms. Earlier this year it abandoned the six-year Gonski agreements with the states and territories, committing only to the first four years of increased funding.
Because two-thirds of the extra funding was to be delivered in the last two years of the agreements, that effectively ended the attempt to lift all schools to a minimum resource standard.
It was like stopping a three-storey building after erecting just the first level, but what’s worse is the way the Abbott Government is now attempting to undermine the building’s foundations.
Gonski is not just about putting more resources into schools, although that is an important part of it.
It is about rethinking how we fund schools, by moving to a system that is needs-based and sector-blind and making sure state governments and private school authorities are made fully accountable for where the money goes.
It recognises that we can get the best results by targeting funding to the schools where it is most needed.
The principal of any public school that has received extra Gonski funding this year will be able to tell you how it has made a difference, whether through more literacy programs, speech pathologists or other support for staff.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne is on the record as saying he and Tony Abbott feel a “particular responsibility” for private schools that they don’t have for public schools. Where does that leave the majority of Australian children who attend public schools?
In opposition the Abbott Government promised to increase the ‘disability loading’ which is paid to schools that educate students with a disability from 2015. This promise was abandoned on Budget Night, leaving over 100,000 students with disability without any funding at all.
Minister Pyne is also conducting a review of the low-SES funding loading – a Gonski measure – which sees schools which educate high numbers of students from low-income families given extra funding to recognise the extra challenges they face.
The problem is the review is invitation-only and conducted in secret, with the majority of organisations invited representing private schools, which educate a disproportionately low number of students from low-income families. There is no doubt this review will be used to water-down the loading and divert money from needy schools.
The Abbott Government has also passed changes to the Australian Education Act through the House of Representative which, if passed by the Senate, will quietly delay the requirements of state governments and private school authorities to report on how they are spending Gonski funding and the mandatory “school improvement plans” which were part of the Gonski agreements.
There will be no way of tracking the allocation, let alone whether the money is being used for the implementation of programs for the students for whom it was intended. This is setting up the Gonski reforms to fail.
Opponents of Gonski push the line that giving schools more funding doesn’t make a difference, and that Australian test scores have dropped in the last decade.
They fail to point out the decline in Australian students test scores took place from 2003-2012, a time when schools-funding was based on the flawed Howard Government formula, delivering some of the biggest increases in funding to the wealthiest private schools.
To use that to conclude that accountable, needs-based, targeted funding will not assist in lifting overall student performance and close student achievement gaps is ridiculous.
Meanwhile, every year that we delay needs-based funding, another cohort of disadvantaged students misses out, and gaps in achievement grow.
The two to three year achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is unacceptable as is the difference in retention rates of students from low-income families who have only a 60 per cent chance of finishing Secondary School, compared to 85 per cent for those from wealthier families.
What’s worse is that recent research has shown that gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged schools have grown in just the last three years, while the Gonski reforms were being designed.
A better, more equitable school system is achievable, but it can only happen if we have governments which are willing to embrace the idea of needs-based funding and increase resources to close the gaps in achievement and opportunity between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
* Angelo Gavrielatos is the Federal President of the Australian Education Union
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