Gonski on Gonski

The chairman of the Gonski school funding review, David Gonski, has criticized the Commission of Audit recommendation to Government that his funding plan be abandoned. The following is an extract from his seminal Inaugural Jean Blackburn Oration given to the Australian College of Educators in Melbourne on 21 May 2014. The full speech is available below.

The recommendations of the National Commission of Audit are disappointing in so far as they apply to school funding. While I am happy the commission specifically notes support for government investment in schooling, I am disappointed with their general commentary.

It is its view that increased funding does not necessarily equate to better school outcomes, basing this assertion on education funding increasing in real terms in Australia between 2000 and 2012, while results in international tests declined.

Both statements are true. Funding did increase and comparative results in PISA scores did decrease, however, the commission does not recognise there are many other reasons to explain this. Monies may have increased but not been given in the correct areas and other countries may have been more adept at where they put their money to improve their country’s scores.

The essence of what our review contended was that the way monies were applied was the important driver because increasing money where it counts was vital. The monies distributed over the 12-year period to which the commission refers are not applied on a needs-based aspirational system.

The commission believes our needs-based concepts are complex. I don’t agree. But even if they are, to reject an advance in effective distribution of monies merely because it is complex is too simplistic.

The commission suggests the states be given the task of disbursing funding to all schools, which means the commonwealth will effectively not participate in the distribution of the monies. Our suggestion was for states and the commonwealth to work together and, where useful, to use an independent body to make determinations that required independence from governments. We believed that states should operate their own systems but were aware that, if the states were asked to oversee the funding of the other systems on a day-to- day basis, two problems could occur.
First, those states would potentially be in a position of conflict. They would be operating their own systems and, at the same time, having to oversee distributions to competitors. While acknowledging the commission’s suggested safety mechanisms to overcome this problem, I doubt those safety mechanisms are sufficient nor seen to be so.

Second, leaving the entirety of a state’s education to a state leads to a situation of different educational systems with different aspirations and attributions in different parts of Australia. We felt this was undesirable. The multiplicity of funding systems in Australia when we did our review was to us an example of complexity where we believed uniformity was needed.

My biggest regret is that the commission also advocates that the funding of 2018 should be based on 2017 funding, indexed on changes in the CPI and the relevant wage-price index. This means the concept of aspiration and need end in 2017 and, from then on, funding increases by indices not specifically related to changes in costs in education. If the funding is wrong in 2017, it will be perpetuated and, if circumstances and aspirations change after that date, they will presumably be irrelevant. No doubt this is simple but, like a lot that is simple, it is not adequate.

Given it is seeking to save monies for the commonwealth, I am surprised the commission doesn’t question one of the tenets we were given, namely that all schools should receive the same as what they were receiving per student before our review. I suggest this as a richer vein for savings.

The budget pleasingly appears to have guaranteed the additional federal money agreed with the states to implement our suggested resourcing standard until 2017. Unfortunately, the budget papers suggest acceptance of the approach advocated by the commission that federal funding for school education should grow from 2017 in an amount equal to the changes in general inflation.

Based on what school education has done for my family, the benefits it can bring for individuals and our country as a whole and the reverence I feel for it having spent almost a year looking into it, I hope that, between now and 2017, the federal government will rethink this position and continue to fund a formula based on aspiration and need well past 2017.

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