The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, put the Gonski funding plan back on the agenda recently saying that everyone agrees “we need more resources into education and it needs to be needs-based”. There is now hope for Gonski whereas previously there was despair under Abbott and Pyne.
Turnbull has created some optimism that we can undo the highly segregated school system created by the Howard Government’s preferential funding of private schools. Howard’s funding model entrenched privilege in education, eroded public schooling and shattered the egalitarian role of education in society by widening learning gaps between rich and poor.
By contrast, Turnbull understands the importance of education for individual opportunity, social cohesion, innovation and economic growth. He says he has a lifetime commitment to supporting education. He recognises that a high quality education for all children regardless of family background is fundamental for a fair society and a prosperous economy.
Turnbull’s own personal trajectory is testament to the opportunities provided by education. He says his life was transformed by education. The same potential exists for over 200,000 students from disadvantaged families who are currently denied an adequate education. On average, they are two to four years of learning behind their wealthy peers at age 15 and one-third of them do not complete Year 12.
He rightly says that Australia’s national identity is defined, in part, by “a deep intuitive sense of a fair go”. He should further this egalitarian ethos by fully implementing the Gonski funding plan, the goal of which is to reduce the pervasive inequity and injustice in education rather than favour privilege in education for the well-off.
He also acknowledges that Australia “is the most successful and most harmonious multicultural society in the world.” This is due in no small part to its inclusive public education system which has broken down barriers for children of immigrant families.
Australia has one of the highest proportions of immigrant students in the OECD and is one of only four OECD countries where immigrant students achieve similar results to non-immigrants. Immigrant students in Australia achieve the highest results of immigrant students of any OECD country except Canada.
However, students from some ethnic groups are badly missing out. The lack of school success contributes to unemployment, social alienation, high crime rates and religious fundamentalism in some ethnic groups.
While many public schools have been highly successful in overcoming socio-economic, cultural and religious divides within their communities, much more must be done in others. Increased funding is critical to providing the human and material resources needed to make a difference.
High quality education for all students, whatever their country of origin, is essential to sustain Australia’s multicultural success story. Our choice is continuing social cohesion or more social disharmony and conflict.
The Prime Minister also wants to develop an agile, innovative economy. He sees this as necessary to ensure Australia’s long-term economic growth and prosperity.
Improving education outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students, is fundamental to this task. It will increase workforce participation and skills and lift productivity. Higher productivity creates the potential for higher earnings for workers, higher living standards and reduced income inequality.
Numerous reports by the OECD, IMF, European Commission and others show that high income inequality impairs economic growth. A recent OECD report says that the evidence strongly points to poor education amongst low income groups as a central factor in income inequality.
Australia is paying a high price for low education achievement by disadvantaged students. It controverts our egalitarian ethos of a “fair go” for all. It means unemployment, low income and poverty for many. It contributes to social alienation and division. It means an under-performing economy, lower taxation revenue and higher government expenditure on health care, crime and welfare.
In a unique degree of consensus, the National Reform Summit of major national business, worker and welfare groups in August endorsed the economic case for Gonski. It called on governments to “ensure that all schools are operating at a resources standard that meets the needs of all students on the principle of needs-based funding”. It recognised that high quality education for all is essential for a strong economy and a fair society.
The Prime Minister has made the economic case for Gonski on many occasions. For example, in his speech to the Parliament on the Gonski legislation he said:
“So how do we maintain a high-income, developed economy in Australia, with a generous social welfare safety net? We can only do that by raising our productivity and competitiveness, and that means better and better education and higher and higher levels of skills.”
He said the Gonski funding plan is “a very valuable piece of work by a very outstanding Australian”. He should now seize on the national consensus across major business, worker and welfare groups to fully implement it.
Full implementation of Gonski will further the egalitarian vision of greater equity in education while increasing economic prosperity. Failure on Gonski will ensure Turnbull’s legacy as a Prime Minister who had a vision of a fair and prosperous society, but lacked the political will and skills to make it a reality.
This article was originally published in The Age on 9 November 2015