From the President: Gonski still the key to Australia’s education future

The leaking of options for the control and funding of education from the Reform of the Federation Green Paper discussion paper created a significant backlash across the Australian community. However, as is so often the case, the detail reveals the true devilishness of the Abbott government’s education policies in the lead up to the next federal election.

Predictably, the “problems in education” that motivate the options in the discussion paper are generally a rehash of those tired old lines:

  • record spending but lower outcomes “on some measures”
  • teacher quality – “a student with a good teacher can achieve in three-quarters of a year what would take a full year with a “less-effective teacher”
  • duplication, waste and poor targeting of investment and effort.

Other issues identified resonate with what we know about our systems, including:

  • a significant achievement gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • frequent chopping and changing due to short-term funding
  • children with similar needs receive “different funding based on which school they attend in which state or territory”.

A number of national functions are maintained in all the possible scenarios canvassed in the discussion paper. These include: My School; NAPLAN; the national curriculum; and national principal and teacher standards.

So the proposed answers revolve around four options:

  • States and territories are fully responsible for all schools.
  • States and territories are responsible for funding government schools and the Commonwealth is responsible for funding non-government schools.
  • Reduced Commonwealth involvement in school programs.
  • The Commonwealth is the dominant funder of all students on an equal and consistent basis.

Option 1 would see the Commonwealth forego any involvement in education funding or control. Option 2 fits with the “emotional commitment” of the Abbott government to non-government schools but has flagged concerns about the need to channel funds through the states and territories because of the provisions of the Constitution. Option 3 is a non-option in that it just means that the Commonwealth will minimise its involvement in school programs and no longer provide targeted or supplementary program funding.

Option 4 however is an entirely different proposition and presents perhaps the greatest threat to our education system as we know it. It is described by the authors of the discussion paper as an “ambitious change to current arrangements”. The fine print of Option 4 clearly spells out a model in which each child would be provided with an allocation of funds that would follow them to whichever school they attend: a voucher. It also highlights that this option could also be used to deliver the other options, giving it higher status. This fourth option is also based on the mantra of parent choice that is a favourite of the advocates of systems such as Academies in the UK and Charter School in the USA.

The option contemplates that states and territories may choose to “top-up” funds to schools to allow parents to send their children to public schools for free. The value of vouchers issued will be based on the educational needs of the child and the capacity of the family to contribute. This is the genesis of the means testing of public education that was so hotly debated in the media at the time this paper was leaked.

The intent of Option 4 is to separate the provider of funding for schools from the level of government to be held accountable for other aspects of the system, including outcomes. This mirrors the typical push under school-based management to make schools more accountable while reducing funding and resources available, and should be resisted at all costs.

Ultimately, the upcoming federal election will be a referendum on many issues, but mostly on what type of country we want to live in. Education funding on a basis promoted by the Gonski Report is still the best option for Australian schools and will be an election issue when the poll is called. Get out your green!

Kevin Bates

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 5, 17 July 2015, p7