"Gonski 2.0" Hype or hope?

Amid the hype about Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to deliver a new schools funding model, there’s one question he can’t answer. Will every child in Australia be able to attend a school that has enough resources to meet their needs?

Under his new funding model, there is no guarantee that will happen, and that’s why it doesn’t represent true needs-based funding. Not only will he give our schools $22 billion less over 10 years than the Gonski agreements, he won’t ensure they are funded on the basis of need. Surely he can do this, if he believes that we can afford a $48 billion company tax cut.

The key to the Gonski Review was its recommendation that every school have enough resources to meet a minimum schooling resource standard (SRS), based on the needs of its students. Schools with high levels of disadvantage would have a higher SRS per student to reflect their needs. The six year Gonski agreements with the states, signed by the federal government and due to run from 2014 to 2019, put all schools on a path to reaching the SRS by the end of 2019 - the first step to ensuring all students had access to a properly-resourced school.

The simplest way for Malcolm Turnbull to ensure all students have the resources they need at school is to honour the Gonski agreements in full. But the Turnbull plan walks away from this, and from the key principle of the Gonski Review that schools funding should be a joint responsibility of states and federal governments. Instead we get a system where the federal government will provide 20 per cent of the SRS to public schools and 80 per cent to private schools. That is effectively enshrining the historic anomaly which sees the bulk of federal funding go to private schools, regardless of their need.

It will hurt some of the most vulnerable students in Australia. For example, public schools in the NT will only get a 1.6 per cent annual increase in federal funding, despite having some of the highest levels of need and worst results in Australia. Tasmania sees its public schools get lower increases than private schools, again despite higher need.

Minister Birmingham has said that he will make states and territories accountable for maintaining their own spending on schools. That’s great in theory but we have no idea how it will work in practice. The previous NT government cut its own funding to schools from 2014, with no action taken by the federal government. Buried in the fine print is a plan to adjust the SRS after 2021, something which could see a further reduction in funding increases. There has been a lot of attention on the plan to reduce funding for schools above the SRS. But given the tiny number of schools that this affects, the money saved will not deliver anywhere near enough to match the full six years of Gonski.

The second Gonski Review won’t look at issues of how much funding schools need, just examine the best way to invest schools funding. Reviewing what is being done in schools and finding out what works is a good idea. But I can guarantee that what it will find is that there is little that can be done without some kind of commitment of resources – whether it is to better professional development for teachers, more one-to-one support for students, extra programs for kids who are struggling with literacy and numeracy, or timely speech pathology for children who arrive at school with speech difficulties.

The AEU’s State of our Schools survey found a majority of principals considered their school under-resourced, and 84 per cent believed that it was the students who struggled the most that would miss out if Gonski funding wasn’t continued. Lifting results in schools, particularly those with high levels of disadvantage is labour-intensive. It takes time, patience and resources.

It is a positive sign that Malcolm Turnbull has recognised that the public wants him to invest in our schools. It’s a shame that he has come up with a policy which does not deliver needs-based funding and leaves schools short of vital resources.

Correna Haythorpe                                                                                                           AEU Federal President

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 4, 2 June 2017, p11