Waiting for Gonski – A Review Essay

The following is a summary of a review essay of Waiting for Gonski by Tome Greenwell and Chris Bonnor. The full review can be downloaded blelow.

Ten years ago, the Review of Funding for Schooling was published. Widely referred to as the “Gonski Report”, it recommended a completely new approach to funding schools in Australia. It was based on a national resource standard for schools – an estimate of the resources required to educate students with no identified disadvantage – supplemented by funding loadings for various categories of disadvantaged students and schools. It took account of both Commonwealth and state and territory government funding for schools.

The Labor Government adopted the basic framework recommended by the Gonski report. It was implemented through the Australian Education Act 2013, the National Education Reform Agreement between the Commonwealth and three state and territory governments and memorandums of understanding with private schools. It planned a $16 billion increase in school funding phased in over six years with over 80 per cent to go to public schools.

Waiting for Gonski by Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonner is a well-researched and well-written account of the history of the Gonski funding inquiry, the flawed implementation of the new funding model by the Labor Government and its destruction by successive Coalition governments. It reveals new information about the implementation of the Gonski model and should be read by anyone concerned about the state of school funding in Australia and inequity in education outcomes.

A particular strength of the book is its identification of continuing inequity in school education in Australia. It describes the large disparity in outcomes between rich and poor and the impact on school outcomes of the concentration of disadvantage, also highlighted in the Gonski Report.

The book’s central message is that Gonski failed. Its evidence is the decline in Australia’s school results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the undiminished achievement gap between rich and poor, far bigger funding increases for private schools than for public schools and continuing high levels of social segregation between schools.

It argues that this failure was conceptual, as well as in implementation, because the Gonski Report accepted the basic contradiction of an education system in which a free publicly funded system existed in parallel with publicly funded private schools able to change fees and select enrolments. Its solution is that governments fully fund private schools provided that they do not charge fees, are open to all students, and meet curriculum and transparency requirements. Apart from this, schools would be allowed to retain their special ethos and character. The authors claim that fully funding private schools under these arrangements will reduce social segregation and improve student outcomes.

Despite its strengths, the book has several severe limitations.

The proposed solution would allow religious schools contracted to governments to impose compulsory religious teaching and observance and to discriminate in hiring staff in order to preserve their special ethos. As justification, the authors argue this no more or no less than private schools do at present.

However, this misses a crucial issue. At present, parents pay fees to access the special ethos and character of private schools but the proposal means that governments take responsibility for funding them in future. This means governments will fund religious education and support discrimination in hiring staff. It jettisons two fundamental principles of public schools – they are secular and non-discriminatory. It would introduce a different structural contradiction: some fully funded schools would be secular and others absolutely non-secular; some schools would be prohibited from discrimination in hiring staff while others would be allowed to discriminate. Parents, not governments, must pay for the special ethos of religious instruction and having their children taught only by teachers who support their faith.

The argument that government funding of private schools currently supports discrimination and a religious curriculum and values may be valid, even likely because of the over-funding of this sector. But this is not a reason to continue or extend government funding of such practices. It is a reason to look for an alternative method of funding private schools.

The proposal is also highly unrealistic. Catholic and Independent schools are massively over-funded and will remain so for the rest of the decade. It is inconceivable they would take up the offer of full public funding conditional on not charging fees because it would involve a substantial reduction in income per student under a fully needs-based model.

The authors also have unwarranted faith that fully funding private schools will increase student achievement. This faith is not supported by extensive Australian and overseas research evidence which shows that after allowing for differences in student background, private schools do no better than public schools in student achievement. Moreover, the evidence that recent declines in Australia’s PISA results have largely occurred in private schools. 

In the rush to condemn Gonski as a failure, the book ignores major achievements of the Gonski Report. The Report completely changed the terms of debate about school funding, it adopted far reaching national equity goals and designed a needs-based funding model to be applied nationally. The advocates of school choice were put on the defensive and had to resort to back room deals to extend their privileged funding.

On these achievements, Gonski didn’t fail; it was governments that failed Gonski. The model was compromised from the start by Julia Gillard’s edict that ‘no school would lose a dollar of funding’ and her later edict that every school would get an increase irrespective of need. This was compounded by special deals negotiated with the Catholic Church and private school organisations that further undermined the principle of needs-based funding. The Labor Government also substituted the strong Gonski equity goals with a weak equity goal of improving the results of disadvantaged students.

Then followed the destruction of key features of the model by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments. The Abbott Government didn’t dare amend the Gonski principles contained in legislation because they had widespread community support. However, it sabotaged their implementation by stopping the $7.5 billion increase in funding planned for last two years of the six year phase-in. It also released the states from their commitment under the National School Reform Agreement that they would also increase their funding over the six years. These were followed by the Turnbull Government’s arbitrary restriction of the Commonwealth funding role and more special deals for private schools. Abandoning any semblance of commitment to equity goals, the Morrison Government then embarked on an ideologically driven multi-billion dollar spending spree on private schools.

The result was massive over-funding of private schools and a widening of the resources gap between private schools and public schools, which do the heavy lifting in educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If that over-funding had been devoted to increased funding for public schools then Australia might have made some real progress in improving equity.

Waiting for Gonski misunderstands the fundamental cause of this resource disparity. This is the presumption that all private schools, including the wealthiest and most exclusive, are entitled to government funding and that the financial needs of schools should be assessed by the capacity of families to contribute financially to schools. These have been features of school funding polices for decades and have led to massive over-funding of private schools

Another limitation of the book is that its evidence that fully funding religious schools will boost student achievement and reduce achievement gaps is not convincing. It relies on the performance of the Canadian education system which has higher PISA results and greater equity in outcomes than Australia. However, Canada’s superior performance is more likely due to other factors such as higher socio-economic status of families, much larger increases in funding and higher exclusion of students from PISA than in Australia. These factors are ignored by the authors in highlighting Canada as a success story in fully funding private schools.

The socio-economic status (SES) of students exerts a strong influence on student achievement in Canadas and its average SES index score is significantly higher than Australia’s, especially in Alberta and Ontario which are two of only three provinces where Catholic schools are fully funded by government. Funding per student adjusted for inflation in Canadian schools increased by three times that in Australian public schools between 2001-02 and 2016-17 and by four times in the three provinces where Catholic schools are fully funded. Canada also had a much higher student exclusion rate in PISA and lower coverage of eligible students than Australia.

Other countries such as New Zealand and Netherlands that fully fund religious schools also perform worse than Canada and no better than Australia in terms of average results and equity. Indeed, they perform worse than Australia on some measures.

Waiting for Gonski claims that needs-based funding is “practically impossible” in a system where government funds both fee-paying private schools and free public schools. However, the authors fail to consider how the current model could be reformed. There is an alternative to their proposal to fully fund private schools under contracted conditions. It is a Gonski Plus model.

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