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Issue #1538      7 March 2012

Gonski unveils Howard’s shame

The findings of the Gonski Review into Schools Funding are an indictment of a decade of misspending by the Howard Liberal government, which drastically increased federal funding to wealthy private schools under their SES formula while leaving public schools to languish.

Of course, duchessing of private schools was ALP policy ever since Whitlam, but under a succession of neo-conservative education ministers such as Vanstone, Kemp, Nelson and Bishop the rabid assaults on public education and open encouragement of the privatising “choice” option led to a shameful disintegration of a once successful and fairer system of educational provision for our children.

Now the Gonski review has told us what the vast bulk of teachers and parents in Australia already knew: there is a correlation between such lopsided spending and an overall decline in Australia’s educational outcomes compared to other OECD countries, as shown in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests.

Not only have outcomes for the top and middle layers declined, but the gap between rich and poor students’ achievement has widened. What else can be expected of a funding system that provides millions of dollars to wealthy fee-paying schools who simply do not need it?

Crazy spending

Such absurd situations are typified in a recent Sydney Morning Herald (25-02-2012) report on Sydney Grammar, the only private school to make it into the NSW “top ten” according to the Herald’s (test-based) school “rankings”. Grammar is the school that serviced Gonski himself, and should not be confused with Sydney (Church of England) Grammar, otherwise known as “Shore”, another elite school attended by John Howard’s own sons, Michael and Tim.

The article pointed to the fact that the gross amount annually spent on a student at Grammar was $40,000, of which over $3,000 came from government sources. The other nine selective public schools in the top 10 rankings received between $10,000 (Penrith High) and $12,000 (James Ruse). One of Gonski’s recommendations is that the base funding rate per secondary student throughout Australia be $10,400.

The simplest way to achieve some justice in redistributing school wealth would be to take the $3,000 donated to Grammar and give it to Penrith, or an even poorer western Sydney or remote public school. But that won’t happen, because the Gillard Labor government’s promise that no school would lose a dollar as a result of the review means there is Buckley’s chance of clawing back excessive public funding from wealthy schools.

Over the past decade, funding to public schools rose by 2.9%, compared to 7.2% for catholic schools and 7.5% for independents.

Yet the rate of fees increases in these self-same “independent” schools rose faster than the rate of inflation over the same period. The total cost of education for the community has duplicated and risen, without effective results.

The point is, elite schools such as Grammar can increase their fees (current level: $25,297 per annum) as much as they like precisely because their aim is to remain “elite” – too expensive for the hoi-polloi! Yet governments of every stripe continue to throw money at them.

In short, Gonski’s message is diplomatic, but simple: Australia’s education system has become a desperate, clutching, dog-eat-dog race for privilege, created by government policy, for political ends.

Needs-based funding

Who suffers from the misspending? It’s not those gifted students in selective schools, for starters. It is the average student in average comprehensive public high schools, as well as disadvantaged students in remote areas of Australia, English-second-language migrant kids and students with disabilities.

Gonski points out that about 80% of students from relatively poor, ill-educated households – those in the bottom 25% for socio-educational attainment, i.e. working class people – attend government schools. 78% of all students with funded disabilities go to government schools; 85% of Indigenous students; and 68% of students from a non-English speaking background.

Often these disadvantages overlap, or are in the same geographical area, contributing to severe learning difficulties and poor educational performance in a “ghetto” context.

Gonski proposes that extra amounts of funding, calculated according to prescribed and transparent criteria of location, level of disadvantage (etc) be attached to each student enrolment, beyond the basic per capita amount mentioned earlier ($10,400). While seemingly positive, there is danger in this as it sets up a structure for vouchers and the total “marketisation” of education.

Meanwhile, Opposition spokesman on education, Christopher Pyne, has vowed to scrap any changes brought about by the review, ranting about a “private school hit list” and the need for “indexation” while promising to “vehemently oppose” any attempt to unwind the SES (socioeconomic status) model that has served private schools so well but distorted the general level of educational provision in Australia.

In fact, Gonski has proposed indexation overseen by a single funding committee called the National Schools Resourcing Body, as well as a focus of funding towards areas of need.

Most Australians would welcome the prospect of needs based funding, especially directed towards students with special needs, or those who are struggling or in some way disadvantaged. Public schools have always done the heavy lifting in these areas, and it is about time it was recognised in terms of resources.

In this respect, public schools would benefit greatly from the injection of $5 billion recommended by Gonski.

Pitfalls

While $5 billion would be a timely injection and a reversal of years of public school neglect, it tends to paper over some systemic weaknesses underpinning Gonski’s thinking – he is, after all, a capitalist and Chief Executive of Coca-Cola/Amatil. It is hard to ignore the drift to privatisation implicit in his report.

Australia is one of the few countries in the world that subsidises privately run schools with taxpayer funds. They receive public revenue but retain the right to run their institutions in their own way, hire and fire, enrol and expel whomever they choose. They can operate on the basis of gender, religion, or any obscure ideology. Under Howard they flourished. Gonski’s recommendations for the future in no way challenge this entrenched arrangement.

Obsession with “per capita” amounts attached to individual students rather than comparative wealth and resourcing of schools is something privateer lobbyists love. They know they will always be able to “top up” beyond these standard amounts from fees and sponsored contributions. They can also hide their riches from outside scrutiny in ways public schools cannot.

As mentioned, “per capita” thinking sets up a “voucher” template, a market where parental “choice” becomes even more important than it is now. Instead of a total, cooperative and integrated system of schooling, competition, image, promotional hype, League Table rankings, narrower curriculum, suppressed creativity in teaching and poorer overall outcomes become the order of the day.

The Review openly invites privateer companies to set up the equivalent of “Charter Schools”, especially in areas of disadvantage, which would receive full government funding but which would be privately run. Howard tried this with technical/trade education in his declining years. The experience in the US where this has been tried, after all the usual blather about “educational miracles” and after the dust has settled, is a story of pressure-cooker classes taught by underpaid pressure-cooked young teachers: boring, unadventurous lessons teaching to the test, but with dismal outcomes.

It would appear that Gonski has not fallen for the neo-con mantra that teacher quality is determined by devolution and “Principal Power” – the power to hire and fire and use “local initiative”, just like private schools. But Gillard, Garrett, O’Farrell and other state honchos have indicated this is the future.

By calculating school funding on a per capita basis and supplying a “bucket of money” governments are able to hand over responsibility for the governance of schools: it is a step towards privatisation and the sell-out of public schools. Then no one would be able to complain to their local MP. Their discontent would have to be sorted in the marketplace which, as every neo-con knows, supplies justice, (if you have the money).

“Teacher quality” has always been something of a red herring. It suggests that Australian teachers are inadequate when the reverse is actually the case. Right wing think-tanks prefer to raise it than spend more money on further resourcing or teacher salaries. Apart from some token gestures, a few flagpoles and some smoke about “values” and “chaplains”, the Howard government did absolutely nothing to develop teacher quality in its decade-plus stewardship of national education.

All the US and British inspired “models” have proven not only illusory, but counter productive. Would it be too much to ask the Educational Commentariat to look at systems that actually work, such as the Finnish example, where more than 90 percent of schools are public, inclusive, not test-dominated, where teachers are respected and occupy high status and outcomes are consistently outstanding?

Or Shanghai, where extra funds were invested in ditching the Confucian “swat” model to develop all-inclusive, egalitarian, cooperative schools with a supportive teaching force that followed up on students causing concern? The outcomes there have, indeed, been spectacular.

What now?

The reactionary mantra of “ ... you don’t solve a problem by throwing money at it” soon evaporates when private school funding is threatened! You can’t even talk about it because it’s “socially divisive”, it’s the “politics of envy”, it’s “class war against those who’ve earned their money” and so on.

It’s “class war” alright, against kids, parents, and teachers in public schools and the unions that represent them, and it is all about money. Now that Gonski has made the recommendations it would appear that our respective governments’ cupboards are bare. Feasibly 70 percent of the suggested $5 billion would have to come from the states. They may talk generosity and largesse, but they certainly aren’t showing any at the moment. Of course, the Commonwealth has its budget-balancing act to consider.

There is a lot of “stall-talk”, “more data has to be gathered”, “the community needs to digest things.” We should “ ... review the review”. Some pundits suggest that Gillard should wait and take it to the next election, fully aware the ALP is staring into the jaws of defeat.

As Gonski’s Report clearly shows, public schools have endured the class assault of more than ten years of Howardism. A further five years of Labor rule have finally produced some recommendations. The longer the current crooked set up is allowed to perpetuate, the longer our national education resourcing wallows in waste and inequality.

Can we seriously afford not to act now?  

Next article – Culture & Life – Africa’s hidden hunger

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