The recommendations of Gonski’s Review of Funding for Schooling were finally released on February 20. But Gillard’s response made it clear we will have to fight for every extra dollar in schools funding.

David Gonski—former Sydney Grammar Headmaster and corporate chairman—was handpicked by then Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard to chair the panel. Former WA Labor Premier Carmen Lawrence was the token advocate for public education among the panel’s six members.

Nonetheless, the panel couldn’t escape the conclusion that Australia has one of the most inequitable education systems in the developed world: “When compared to other high-performing OECD countries, Australia’s schooling system is characterised by a strong concentration of disadvantaged students in certain schools, and conversely, a strong concentration of advantaged students in other schools”.

Furthermore, government spending on education is 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product (below the OECD average of 4.2 per cent), while private spending (fees) was double the OECD average.

The report called for increased funding to tackle “high concentrations of disadvantaged students”, with $3.8 billion of $5 billion extra funding earmarked for government schools.

Yet the remaining 24 per cent funding increase would go to the private system. The panel was unwilling to challenge Julia Gillard’s pledge that no private school would lose “a dollar” in funding.

Its conclusions are a long way from the fear mongering of the private school lobby—backed by Liberal Christopher Pyne—about Gonski’s alleged “Marxism”!

The report proposes a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) of about $8000 for each primary student and $10,500 per secondary student. Extra “loadings” would apply to schools in remote locations; with a high proportion of indigenous children; those from low socio-economic backgrounds, limited English proficiency or a disability.

Private schools

But Gonski’s report is at pains to emphasise that all private schools would receive government money, regardless of how wealthy they are. Even the most elite schools would still receive a minimum of 25 per cent of the SRS, meaning that a high school with an enrolment of, say, 800 would still be handed $2 million.

The SRS would replace the old funding model based on how wealthy a school’s students are. This would see some elite private schools actually double their levels of funding. Schools like Cranbrook in Sydney or Melbourne Grammar will benefit from a system that takes no account of the wealth of their students.

In addition, Gonski has maintained the pledge that “no school will lose a dollar”—even taking into account inflation over time.

Despite all this, the report’s call for extra funds for public schools is very welcome. The Australian Education Union is aiming to build upon its sense of urgency.

The response of the Gillard government has been utterly predictable. Presented with an opportunity to bring about a genuine “education revolution”, Minister for Schools Peter Garrett stressed that, “We’ve always said that we’re going to bring the budget back in to surplus…I think that’s the most important thing that we can do at this point in time.”

Rather than invest in public education, the government would much prefer to blame teachers for declining education standards.

By contrast the Gonski report concluded that social background is the major factor in determining educational outcomes. In reading literacy, “the gap between Australian students from the highest and lowest economic, social and cultural status quartiles was found to be equivalent to almost three years of schooling.”

The government and the media heaped praise on a different report released on the eve of Gonski—the Grattan Institute’s Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia, which repeated the assertions that there’s no link between school funding and test results.

In rejecting the idea that smaller class sizes benefit educational outcomes, the Grattan Institute cites Shanghai teachers working with average class sizes of 40 (compared to 23 in Australia), whose students are ahead of Australian students in reading, science and maths. Yet each teacher in Shanghai only has to spend 10-12 hours in front of a class, compared to 20 hours here, and Shanghai’s education system doesn’t exhibit anywhere near Australia’s level of inequality.

After two years of writing submissions and lobbying, public educators and their supporters will now have to fight for every Gonski dollar. The NSW Teachers’ Federation March Council meeting called for major mobilisations of teachers, parents and students “at a strategically appropriate time”—ideally this would coincide with either the May 8 federal budget or public education day on May 24.

Mark Goudkamp

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