A key member of the Gonski School Funding Review, Ken Boston, has savaged the political failure to implement the Gonski plan as originally recommended. In a speech last week to the NSW branch of the Australian Council of Educational Leaders commemorating the eminent educator, Dr. Paul Brock, Boston said that Gonksi has been “torn apart at the seams”.
While welcoming the increase in funding that has flowed from the review, Boston listed several fundamental weaknesses of the funding system implemented post-Gonski. Most importantly, the system that has emerged from the political process is not sector-blind, needs-based funding as recommended by the review panel, but continues to discriminate between public and private schools.
Boston was particularly scathing of the secret deals negotiated with Premiers, bishops and private school organisations by the Labor Government in the lead up to the 2013 election. These side deals were also criticised recently by the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, who said that they should be phased out.
Boston singled out the continuing use of average government school recurrent costs (AGSRC) to determine funding for private schools, a mechanism that was heavily criticised by the Gonski Report. As a result, increased funding for disadvantaged students in public schools automatically generates extra funding for private schools without any consideration of disadvantage and need. As Boston says: “Funding for the non-government sector will therefore continue to grow regardless of need”.
This is most apparent in the decision of the Victorian Labor Government to legislate that private schools receive a minimum amount of per student funding equal to 25 per cent of per student state recurrent funding in public schools. However, the abandonment of needs-based funding is also implicit in the guarantee given to Catholic and Independent schools by the Gillard and Rudd governments to at least maintain their existing shares of government funding of schools – as funding for public schools increases, all private schools, even the most wealthy, are guaranteed increases without regard to need.
Boston was highly critical of continued government funding of wealthy private schools. It is totally unacceptable, he said, that the 20 most expensive independent schools in NSW receive more than $110 million per year in government funding when the gap in reading performance between the top 20% and the bottom 20% of 15 year-olds is equivalent to five years of schooling.
Both Labor and the Coalition contributed to the corruption of the original Gonski plan. Boston excoriated the Gillard and Rudd governments for the secret side deals that protect private school funding, for the immediate rejection of the concept of a National Schools Resourcing Body and for the long delay in implementing the funding plan. Another failure was to impose the “no school will lose a dollar” condition on the Gonski review, which protects government funding of the wealthiest private schools in the country.
The Coalition wrecked the plan for a national school funding system in several ways. It incited three state Coalition governments (Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) not to participate in the plan; it refused to accept two other Coalition governments (Victoria and Tasmania) as participants on the technicality that they did not sign bilateral agreements with the Federal Government before the 2013 election even though they had signed the National Education Reform Agreement; it reneged on funding the final two years of the plan when some $7 billion was due to flow to schools in 2018 and 2019; and it released participating state governments from their commitments to increase funding so that they remain free to substitute Federal funding for their own as they have been doing for many years.
The Federal Government claims that funding the $7 billion for the last two years of the Gonski school funding plan is not sustainable given the state of the federal budget. But, as the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott , recently said, it is a “false perception that there is a funding shortfall preventing us from implementing a needs-based approach”.
The consequences of the political failure on Gonski are disastrous, as Boston spells out. By failing to divert funding currently being spent on low need students to high need students “we are consigning thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds to the dust-bin of underachievement, never realising their full potential, and ensuring that our national performance in education will continue to decline”.
Boston called for a new national sector-blind, needs-based funding system:
My view is that Australian education will not recover until we have a government prepared to establish an entirely new basis for our school funding arrangements. We need an educationally-driven, sector-blind, needs-based School Resourcing Standard for all schools; based on hard evidence; designed to achieve specified and measurable outcomes; applied to all school sectors; agreed by the states, territories and Commonwealth; accepted nationally as the affordable, efficient and effective price of building our national stock of human capital.
Says it all really!