The Prime Minister Should Fully Implement Gonksi to Improve Indigenous Education

If the Prime Minister is serious about his “passionate” commitment to improving Indigenous education, he should stop the sabotage of the Gonksi funding model and implement it in full. Gonksi is fundamental to reducing the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school outcomes.

In his response in the Parliament last week to the Report on Closing the Gap, the Prime Minister spent almost half his speech proclaiming his personal commitment to improving the lot of Indigenous people. In contrast to his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, the Prime Minister clearly recognises that Australia does have an equity problem.

However, despite his passion, the Prime Minister made no serious commitment about future funding for Indigenous education. All he did was announce a new target to end the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years and highlight the Government’s new anti-truancy $28 million program over two years for 40 remote schools.

The Prime Minister’s speech completely ignored the Gonksi funding plan for schools and disadvantaged students, including Indigenous students. And for good reason! While the Prime Minister talks up his personal credentials on Indigenous policy, the Coalition Government is sabotaging the funding model designed to reduce Indigenous and other achievement gaps. Indigenous and other disadvantaged students will miss out on several billions of dollars in funding over the next six years because of the sabotage of Gonski.

While it is hoped that the anti-truancy program will help improve Indigenous attendance, it is a far cry from a major systematic funding program that is needed to improve Indigenous education. The Gonksi funding model provides such a program. It would deliver specific funding loadings for Indigenous students as well as loadings for other factors affecting Indigenous education such as low income, rural and remote location, small schools and limited English skills.

However, the Abbott Government has walked away from the Gonski plan. It has refused to commit to the $7.5 billion increase in Federal government funding planned for the final two years of the six year funding period of Labor’s Better Schools plan agreed between the previous Labor Government and the NSW, Victorian, South Australian, Tasmanian and ACT governments.

It has also released these governments from their agreement to increase their funding for disadvantaged students and schools. It has even released them from their commitment to pass on Federal funding to government schools. The Coalition’s new funding agreement with the Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory governments does not require them to make any funding commitments of their own.

As a result, state and territory governments will be free to decide whether to increase their funding, substitute Federal funding for their own funding or cut their funding. This threatens the loss of the Federal funding increase for government schools over the next four years and of $5.6 billion in state and territory funding over the next six years. The only certainty is that private schools are guaranteed their Federal funding increase for the next four years because this goes directly to private schools and systems.

Indigenous and other disadvantaged students will miss out on hundreds of millions every year in funding if state and territory governments renege on their commitments under Labor’s Better Schools model. The large majority of Indigenous and other disadvantaged students attend government schools. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that 84 per cent of all Indigenous students attended government schools. Census data shows that 75 per cent of low income students also attend government schools.

The Report on Closing the Gap found that there has been very little progress towards the goal of halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy. It notes that the gaps are still quite large, especially in Year 9. It says that much more progress is needed if the target is to be met in the next five years.

If anything, the report has understated the extent of the problem because it did not use the latest data on the results of Indigenous students.

The results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that average reading and mathematics results for 15 year-old Indigenous students have declined since 2006 and no change in science results. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students has remained unchanged for the last decade. Indigenous 15 year-olds remain approximately two-and-a-half years behind their non-Indigenous peers. They are three-and-half years and more behind high socio-economic status students.

Very high proportions of Indigenous students failed to achieve the standards set by the national education ministers’ council. Nearly 70 per cent of Indigenous students did not achieve the reading standard set by ministers, 77 per cent did not achieve the mathematics standard and 67 per cent did not achieve the science standard. Since 2006, the percentage of Indigenous students below the ministers’ standards increased slightly in reading and science and increased substantially in mathematics.

The 2013 NAPLAN results also present a distressing picture. Year 5 Indigenous students are about a year and a half behind non-Indigenous students in reading and numeracy while Year 9 Indigenous students are three to four years behind. The reading and numeracy scores for Year 9 Indigenous students were below those of Year 5 students from highly educated families.

For the most part, Indigenous results have not improved since 2008 or 2009. There was little change in average reading results in Years 7 & 9 and in numeracy in Years 3, 5 & 7 while there was a substantial decline in Year 9 numeracy.

However, there have been some improvements. There were large increases in Year 3 & 5 reading since 2008. The average for Year 3 reading increased by 30 points and is equivalent to nearly a full year of learning. Year 5 reading also increased by 30 points but nearly all the increase occurred in 2013 and it remains to be seen whether this level of achievement is sustained in future years.

A paper published by the Australian Council for Educational Research warned last week that unless educational outcomes for Indigenous young people vastly improve the downstream impact and cost in terms of social wellbeing, welfare, health, employment and economic sufficiency will be heavy. It called for a renewed and highly targeted approach to correct the downward trend of Indigenous students in secondary mathematics, reading and science.

Increased funding is fundamental to achieving this. The ACER paper said that Indigenous results “underscore the importance of needs-based funding in education”. This is the essence of the Gonski funding model, being sabotaged by the Abbott Government. Although not fully adequate, the Gonski funding model embedded in the Better Schools plan represents a real start to an extremely difficult and complex issue. The Prime Minister should endorse it if his passion to improve Indigenous education is to be seen as genuine.

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