The high level Gonski Review was appointed in April 2010 by then Education Minister Gillard to examine the fairness, efficiency and effectiveness of school funding arrangements in Australia.
The need for an objective and comprehensive exploration of school funding is widely accepted. Current funding arrangements are greatly in need of repair. Having an independent, well resourced, expert committee outside of executive government to review such a difficult policy issue is accepted as an effective mechanism and an opportunity for sound and lasting reform.
As public inquiries involve a significant investment of public resources we expect them to have transparent processes, to effectively gather and digest the evidence, establish the facts, to consider alternatives and to test possible solutions with an engaged public before making recommendations to government.
The Gonski Review, now 80 per cent complete, has the trappings of a good public inquiry, operating transparently, consulting extensively and relying on research But it is a failureon several counts.
First, after its initial public consultation the Gonski Review produced an "Emerging Issues" paper which documented the predictable range of conflicting views, but stopped well short of exploring their policy implications. Effective consultation is more than just listening. It needs to improve understanding of other perspectives and challenge fixed positions. Gonski failed to do this.
Second, the Gonski Review has garnered significant amounts of information from 7,000 plus submissions. While the Review would claim that its processes are transparent with all this information housed on a website located within the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), these are in an undigested and indigestible form. This obfuscates rather than clarifies the substantive issues under review. Another failure.
Third, the Gonski Review appears too close and dependent on DEEWR. While public inquiries often have close links to their sponsoring department, they need to show that they are not captive and keep at arm's length. This is especially important in relation to school funding where DEEWR is not seen as an independent player.
Fourth, the Gonski Review most seriously fails in its unwillingness to provide any detailed analytical commentary on the 600 pages of output from its four major commissioned research studies released at the end of August. This research will supposedly underpin the Review's final conclusions, yet the Gonski paper that accompanies it only notes what the researchers were asked to investigate, giving no inkling of their main conclusions. This is not good enough. By not producing its own discussion paper and response to the research that would reflect the expert knowledge and experience of its eminent members, the Gonski Review is failing to meet the standard of a sound public inquiry. Instead, the task of analysing and responding to this latest mass of research has been left to individual stakeholders and the public.
Moreover, there are several issues in this recent batch of research that the Gonski Review needs to address now if it is to be an effective independent inquiry.
For instance, does the Gonski Review agree with the assumptions on which the Nous Group's research report on "Schooling Challenges and Opportunities" is based? This research starts with the contestable, if not flawed premise that Australian schools exercise a high degree of academic selectivity, it is based on a narrow measure of school outcomes, and is selective in its own reliance on research.
Surely a public inquiry should monitor commissioned work so that it is objective and balanced and considers all relevant research and data, including findings from reputable sources that may not fit neatly with the researchers' own ideological position.
The Nous Group report could have examined a wider set of measures for school effectiveness than PISA results, such as Year 12 outcomes. It could have analysed the extensive national and international research that demonstrates how school-related factors such as choice, autonomy and accountability make a difference to achievement and reduce the dependence of student achievement on socio-economic background.
All this undermines the Gonski Review's creditability. If a public inquiry is incapable of considering all the evidence, digesting it and engaging meaningfully with stakeholders over its implications, then as a mechanism of government policy-making it is as flawed as the public bureaucracy has proven to be. No doubt the Review's own conclusions from the research and its public conversations will be drawn up behind closed doors and take the public by surprise at the end of the year in its final report.
Interest in school funding is high as the number of submissions to the Gonski Review attest. The public deserves better treatment from a public inquiry than to be left to wade through voluminous reports without interpretation and analysis from the Review itself. There is too much at stake in this major area of public expenditure.