Why 'giving a Gonski' doesn't mean better education or a better funding model

Blaise Joseph

01 May 2017 | Australian Financial Review

RR26 school students 3 webFor certain parts of the education sector, ‘Gonski’ funding has taken on an almost mythical level of importance. In the cult of ‘Give a Gonski’, campaign buses cruise around schools spreading the good word and a sea of green hands sprouts on the Parliament House lawn.

As a result, Australia’s national political debate bizarrely revolves not around how to best give children a great academic foundation and equip them for a changing workforce, but whether or not the Coalition is committed to ‘Gonski’ funding.

Yet most people — including, many well-intentioned ones who advocate for it — fundamentally misunderstand what Gonski funding actually is: aside from big dollops of cash going into education. And that is because ‘Gonski funding’ is actually a myth.

In 2010 the Rudd government commissioned David Gonski (then chancellor of UNSW and chair of the Australian Securities Exchange, Coca-Cola Amatil and Investec Bank) to lead a report into Australia’s education system funding.

When the Report was released in 2012, the formula it produced seemed simple. There would be a nationally consistent per-student funding system, and then ‘top-ups’ of funding for needier students and more disadvantaged schools. The formula for how the funding was determined would be uniform, transparent and regularly reviewed.

Unfortunately, the underlying premise of the report was fundamentally flawed to begin with. It relied on NAPLAN and school funding data that was out of date, even in 2012, and simply asserted — without evidence — that much higher funding for disadvantaged students would produce better educational outcomes.

But while Australian education has significant problems, the quantum of money spent is not among them.

Between 2011 and 2015, real government school funding per student rose by 7%, while key test results have slumped, while Australia went backwards in the two primary international literacy and numeracy tests, PISA and TIMMS.

The Gillard minority government had attempted to implement the Report’s original recommendations through a six-year National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI), involving significant increases in school spending.

But extensive closed-door negotiations between the Gillard government, states, and the Catholic and independent school systems turned the NPSI into a vastly different beast from that intended — one the Gonski Report authors would struggle to recognise.

The newly negotiated NPSI expanded the ‘disadvantage’ criteria so much that more than 50% of Australian students are now considered ‘disadvantaged’ and attract extra funding.

Yes … ‘Gonski funding’ supporters actually claim that the majority of Australian students are ‘disadvantaged’.

The redefined criteria level and raised funding benchmark have resulted in a school funding fiasco. Government school systems in almost every state and territory are receiving thousands of dollars per student above the base amount — in some areas nearly double — yet are still deemed ‘underfunded’. With the exception of Western Australia and the ACT, all states and territories are receiving less than 95% of their funding targets.

For example, government funding in the Northern Territory’s public system is more than $23,000 per student — $11,000 above the base level per student, and $9,000 above the national average of $14,000. Yet the system is still considered as being ‘underfunded’ at only 90 per cent of its specified level under the NPSI model.

The Gonski Report’s model was meant to be transparent, simple, and nationally consistent. The NPSI is none of these. Its negotiations, funding formula calculations, and school agreements have all been opaque and complicated. And including the NPSI agreements, the federal government now has 27 different school funding arrangements across Australia.

The Report also suggested an independent body be established to review and index the model — but five years later this is still nowhere in sight.

And cravenly, the Gillard government promised buckets of cash but scheduled most of the extra funding – some $7 billion of the total $10 billion – for the final two years of the NPSI in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets.

This unholy mess is what is commonly referred to as ‘Gonski funding’, and accorded cult status by some state governments and teacher unions. The arbitrary funding model, devoid of an evidence base, has become an albatross around the necks of the Abbott, and now Turnbull, governments.

All Australians are rightly concerned about disadvantaged students and want school funding to effectively support their needs, but the inescapable conclusion is that ‘Gonski funding’ does no such thing and is an irredeemable mess.

The best policy would be to methodically reassess the current funding formula — especially the extra money for disadvantage — or move to a whole new funding model.

Blaise Joseph is an education policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The Fantasy of Gonski Funding: the ongoing battle over school spending.


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