Opinion

Gonski’s troublesome twin

The reason I supported the original Gonski schools funding formula was because it was both needs based and sector blind. The formula wasn’t perfect, but what is? Implementing it, for example, was more expensive than it should have been because of the ridiculous condition that no school – no matter how high their fees or luxurious their resources – should lose a dollar. That was a waste of scarce funds, but even with its flaws, at least Gonski provided badly needed money to the schools – and students – that needed it most and where it would really make a difference.

Thanks to its fairness and common sense, Gonski was instantly popular with voters. Even more importantly, thanks to an energetic and passionate campaign by the public education community, the whole conversation about schools funding shifted. It went from a debate that focused on parental choice to one that focused on needs-based funding. What that shift meant is that it stopped being acceptable for the funding governments provided to be used to reward – or punish – the parents governments either approved or disapproved of. Instead, schools funding became about helping children get the education they need, no matter who their parents are or what “values” they might espouse. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought education was primarily about kids. In fact, I am so old-fashioned that I believe it is the children less favoured in the lottery of birth who should get the most help, not the least. Mind you, given recent events, maybe I am not as old-fashioned as I thought, but more about that later.

Virtually the only group that didn’t like the original Gonski was the federal Liberal National Party. When the Gillard government produced its version, which had the feds picking up a far higher share of the funding than the original, even most state governments grabbed it, especially the LNP in New South Wales.

Hallelujah. Or so I thought.

I had failed to factor in the marketing savvy of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his education minister, Simon Birmingham. All of which was on conspicuous display during the launch of their version  – the so-called Gonski 2.0.

Unable to resist the tide of approval for needs-based, sector-blind schools funding, Turnbull and Birmingham decided to co-opt the language from the original. They even wheeled out David Gonski to help them sell their package. And there were some things I liked about their version; particularly that some overfunded schools would lose a dollar. That made good fiscal sense. I also liked the proper approach to indexation.

But there were a couple of things I didn’t like at all. One appears to have been overcome and funding will now be rolled out over six years rather than 10. It also looks as if they will put a body independent of government in charge of administering the schooling resource standard (SRS), and that is a welcome return to the original Gonski recommendations.

However, while Birmingham and Turnbull adopted the original funding formula’s idea of an SRS – simply what a school needs to do its job properly – they appear to be using it in a way that risks abandoning the principle of funding schools according to student need.

In other words, Gonski 2.0 may turn out to be a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing funding formula.

How can a funding formula that wants to enshrine in legislation that the federal government will provide 80 per cent of the SRS to private, fee-charging schools be considered either needs based or sector blind? They are dividing the money up entirely according to sector, it seems to me. And how can it be about need if the federal government caps their commitment to public schools – educating more than 80 per cent of students struggling to overcome any kind of disadvantage you care to name, according to the original Gonski review – to 20 per cent of the SRS?

Some argue this is simply a way of forcing the states to take responsibility for funding state schools. Lovely, I guess, if you equate neat formulas with solving problems, but cold comfort for children in rural and remote areas of the Northern Territory or Tasmania. Those are our two most cash-strapped states and they also (not coincidentally) contain our most disadvantaged and therefore most expensive-to-educate children. Any funding scheme that does not take that into account simply cannot be considered needs based. 

It is because of this superficially neat equation that, according to figures calculated by shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek before the rollout was shortened to six years from 10, schools such as Lauriston Girls’ School, with annual fees of $25,000, will get an increase from Gonski 2.0 of $4093 per student over 10 years, while the public school in Tennant Creek, with three-quarters of its students in the lowest quartile of disadvantage, will get a paltry $1300 a student over the same decade. It’s why, according to Plibersek, Geelong Grammar, with 70 per cent of its students in the top quartile of advantage, will get an increase of $2309 while Wanguri Primary School in the NT, with a quarter of its student body from Indigenous families, gets a mere $565. 

In what universe can this be considered needs based? And just how is this SRS being calculated if schools such as Geelong Grammar are considered to be below it and in need of extra help? Is there one resource standard acceptable for the children of the already privileged and another for the children of the poor? Or is the federal government only calculating SRS on public money received and so conveniently ignoring fees charged and resources already available? 

Economist Trevor Cobbold, a spokesman for Save Our Schools, argues that Gonski 2.0 fails to take into account that many state governments already fund their private schools at above 20 per cent of the SRS and their public schools at below 80 per cent. As a result he warns that most private schools could be funded at or above the SRS under this new formula, while virtually all public schools will remain below it.

“Unless the states markedly increase their funding, public schools will remain underfunded,” he wrote on the Save Our Schools website. “At present, the state component of the SRS of public schools is well below the target 80% in most states. For example, it is 71% in NSW, 66% in Victoria, 72% in Queensland and South Australia, and 67% in the Northern Territory.

“It is highly uncertain whether the states will ever meet the 80% target as most have neglected public schools in recent years. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15, they cut inflation-adjusted funding for public schools by an average of $732, or 6.6%, per student, but increased funding for private schools by $161 per student, or 6.9%.”

Quite apart from the unfairness and rigidity of Turnbull and Birmingham’s 80/20 formula – under Labor’s Gonski, 65 per cent of funding to all schools came from the feds and 35 per cent from the states, distributed according to need regardless of sector – it also risks a return to schools funding that created nothing but a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. 

Under Howard’s socio-economic status (SES) private school funding formula instituted in 2000, fees of private schools did not reduce; parental choice – particularly for families with average incomes and more than one child – did not widen; and student achievement – as measured by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment – either stagnated or fell. Millions more was invested in schools but in the wrong schools. The SES scheme was also touted as a “needs-based” formula, but as it only applied to private schools, it was about as effective as having a hunger relief program for the well fed. 

When you give more money to schools that predominantly educate the most fortunate, that are already well resourced, and that charge high fees themselves, nothing much changes except the level of luxury. It is only when you give more money to schools that are educating the most disadvantaged, that lack the resources they need and charge low or no fees, that you get a real return on your investment. 

That’s where the hope lies, for the old-fashioned among us, anyway, who still believe needs-based funding ought to focus on the kids with the, um, most need.

Then again, maybe we are not so old-fashioned after all. Jeremy Corbyn just brought the Conservative government of Theresa May to the brink of disaster against all expectations. He ran his campaign based on a brilliant slogan: “For the many, not the few”. That is, of course, what the original Gonski formula was also about and is why it was primarily public schools that benefited. In this country, public schools are for the many. Private schools are for the few. The clue is in the names.

Comprehensive public schools must accept all comers, regardless of the child’s ability, background, health, religion, social class or affluence. They alone shoulder the responsibility for all of Australia’s children. They must take on the most expensive to educate, which is why it is absurd to make them so dependent on the poorest arm of government. Some private schools, to their credit, try to be more inclusive, but it remains a choice, not an obligation.

Some public schools are also exclusive, especially academically selective ones, but at least they select on merit not wealth, religion or social class. In fact, our divided education system is a direct result of policies prioritising parental choice. If you elevate parental choice above need, which seems to be what Turnbull and Birmingham risk doing, you don’t actually give parents more choice. What you do is give some schools – both public and private – choice over which children they will or won’t educate. This happens because the school of choice in any given area becomes oversubscribed and so can become very picky about its students. It’s why the neoliberal worship of the market as the solution to everything simply does not work in education.

With Gonski we had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fund schools for the many. As it stands, I remain worried that as long as the 80/20 SRS formula exists, Gonski 2.0 will turn out to be for the few.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Gonski’s troublesome twin". Subscribe here.

Jane Caro
is a Sydney based novelist, writer and documentary maker.

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