Ken Boston, a member of the Gonski panel on school funding, recently addressed the Annual Conference of the NSW Teachers’ Federation. The following are highlights of the address.
Boston told the conference that the neo-conservative right that has taken control of the Federal Cabinet is totally opposed to the Gonski funding model because “the two key Gonski objectives are both anathema to a neo-conservative agenda”.
Those key objectives are:
First, to ensure that every child, regardless of individual circumstances, receives the support needed to experience education as a public good.
Second, to ensure that educational achievement, as a positional good, is available on the basis of talent and hard work alone, rather than preferentially available to those in a position of wealth and privilege.
He said that the Gonski model represents a fundamental re-imagining of Australian education, not simply a proposal for allocating resources to schools. “It is a radically liberal rethinking of priorities and approaches and objectives, not an exercise in accounting.”
Past governments have never allocated funding to the three school sectors on the basis of a detailed assessment of the needs of individual schools. “It has been essentially a political settlement, sector-based and needs-blind.”
There has been a series of post-hoc equity programs designed to address specific purposes, the most recent of which was the New Partnership funding. However, he said, these programs have been but partially effective, and time-limited.
He said that the Gonski model has changed all this.
The Gonski model turns all this on its head. It is sector-blind and needs- based. It seeks to assess the resource requirements of each individual school according to need. It proposes a base loading for all schools and loadings for the different elements of aggregated social disadvantage. It brings equity funding into the main stream. What is eventually spent in each sector is to be the sum of the needs of the schools in that sector, built up from the bottom, not the result of a political settlement pushed down from the top.
According to Boston, Christopher Pyne fully understands the significance of this, unlike many in the Coalition, and he is utterly opposed to it. He said that Pyne is opposed to re-distributing funding according to need.
Mr Pyne is anchored in the era of Dr Kemp, the minister in the Howard Government who presided over increased funding for non-government schools in order to underwrite financially the exercise of choice between government and non-government schools by parents.
As many of us predicted at the time, this has not resulted in reduced fees and greater accessibility to the non-government sector, but has widened the gulf between the rich and the poor.
Boston proposed five steps for future action:
First, the priority is again to make the case for the Gonski reform to the Australian electorate. This the previous government failed to do adequately. The objective should be to elect a pro-Gonski government at the next election.
Second, we must not be distracted by the diversionary and flanking attacks on Gonski, launched by Pyne under the banner of the Students First program and its four pillars of teacher quality, school autonomy, parental engagement and a robust curriculum.
Third, we must all have the arguments at hand to counter – in meetings with parents, in the local media, in the local pub, in meetings such as Rotary which principals are often called upon to address – the fallacious and frequently dishonest assertions made in the media.
Despite neo-con assertions that there is no evidence that increased expenditure will improve school performance, the positive impact of increased funding on student and school performance is overwhelmingly reported in the scholarly literature.
The jury is in on this.
The relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement is also absolutely beyond question.
Fourth, we must keep the pressure on the Labor Party. They have a lot to answer for. I admire Gillard for establishing the Gonski process. But the reason we don’t have Gonski today is not because the country has elected an Abbott Government, but because the Labor Government failed in its implementation. Nine months after the election there is no roadmap apart from a promise to fund the full six years.
Finally, whoever forms the next government – a rejuvenated Labor Party or a more enlightened group of Liberals – let’s campaign to get rid of what proved to be the albatross around the neck of the Gonski Panel: the undertaking that no school should lose a dollar.
I am not suggesting the end of state aid to non-government schools. But, taking up David Gonski’s comment in his recent Blackburn Oration, I do believe that it is in the interests of the nation and the individual that whatever funding is available should be spent strategically on the schools that need it – government and non-government – and on the things that matter, rather than on the schools that don’t need it and on things that are simply nice to have.
Boston concluded his address with a final message of hope:
I firmly believe that needs-based funding along the lines of the Gonski model will eventually be introduced to this country. The longer the delay, the greater the deterioration and injustice. But at some stage there will be a national government that will be prepared to act, to prevent Australian education going utterly to the dogs.
The full transcript of the address is available here.