When Labor came to federal power in 2007, it promised to instigate education reform. Though it made much about introducing laptops into schools, the real issue that had to be reviewed was Federal Government funding to schools. It had been nearly four decades since the last comprehensive review of federal school resourcing. The existing system was becoming unbalanced. Politics had prevented well founded funding formula being applied to all schools.
In response to this, the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling (the Gonski Review) was commissioned in April 2010 by the then Rudd Labor Government and Education Minister Julia Gillard to review Commonwealth school funding. It was initially seen as a genuine attempt by the Rudd Government to review the current school funding. The Gonski Review is what is deemed a “public inquiry” – a temporary, ad hoc body with members drawn from outside government, using open processes of consultation and seen to be providing independent expert advice.
What makes the Australian school system different, and why this funding issue is so important, is that one in three children go to non-government schools and these schools receive considerable government funding. Most of this comes from the Federal Government in Canberra, with some top-up also going to the public schools.
The States are responsible for 76 percent of total government spending on all school education in Australia, but they mainly allocate their funds to the public schools, with less support to the non-government sector. Just to clarify, on average, in 2008-09 a government school student received $13,544 in public funding and a non-government school student received marginally more than half this amount – $6,850. The average independent school student received a little less – $6,100.
The debate in Australia has been about whether we are spending enough on education (we are about average), the performance of our students (middle to high ranking) and whether governments should fund the non-government sector and, if so, by how much. Mixed in here are concerns about equity, helping those in disadvantaged categories improve and, for some, seeing the school system as the means to improve social inequality.
In summary, the Gonski Review, which was released in February 2012, has recommended an increase in spending on schools (about $5 billion extra a year), a new complex formula for funding schools and increased Commonwealth involvement in school funding. Some hail it as a “reform” while others see Gonski as making a complex system more complex, involving a too-intrusive intrusion by the Commonwealth into school education about which it has no direct experience.
The greatest criticism of Gonski is that it does not provide the evidence for its proposals of increased spending. Indeed, Australian and overseas evidence is that it is not spending levels, but where and how you spend the money, that makes the difference to quality education.
After all, spending on education has increased by about 40 percent over a decade, with classrooms getting smaller by about the same amount and quality not improving. Moreover, Australia has long been providing extra funding to disadvantaged students, though its impact has been limited in terms of real improvements, and the link between performance and those students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds is not as straightforward as some would suggest.
In other words, other factors like school governance and flexibility, quality teaching, parental involvement, school choice and the existence of a private school system and targeted programs to those with special needs, are what improve school quality. The Gonski Review had surprisingly little to say about these matters.
Consequently, the public debate post-Gonski has degenerated into a squabble over just spending more money, which political party will promise how much and whether state governments will sign up and make their contributions.
Sadly, the old debates about public versus non-government schools have been reignited rather than dampened. All this has been fanned by the public teachers’ union which wants more spending, and a Federal Government desperate to stake out a policy area where it boast it is really different from the Opposition.
The Gonski Review is a failure in terms of its process, the evidence it uses (and ignores) and its recommendations that seek to create a more complex school funding system.
Its greatest failure is that it did not tackle the myths surrounding school funding and the vested interests that are resistant to the changes that would improve school quality and help Australia continue to compete in the international arena.