Newcastle Herald

Clock ticking loud on urgent Gonski reform

Author: James Albright
Date: 28/02/2012
Words: 755
Source: NCH
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: News
Page: 11
Action on equitable funding is long overdue, writes James Albright.

THE 24-hour news cycle provided quick response to the highly anticipated Gonski Report released last Monday.

This most recent attempt to overhaul the provision of school funding has generally been met with guarded approval by many educational stakeholders.

The Gillard government has acknowledged the report's key recommendation that every Australian student is entitled to equitable educational funding regardless of what school they attend or their family's wealth.

But, no sooner than the report was issued, the Labor government announced that it would not act on its recommendations until after the federal budget was back in surplus.

Until then, the Commonwealth plans to hold broad stakeholder consultations and working parties with the states to sort out the implications of the report's call for a $5 billion increase in investment in education under a proposed School Resource Standard formula.

So what sort of a debate might we anticipate and what possible agreement can be reached on how the relevant issues get framed?

Concerned with declining international comparative assessments over the past decade, the Gonski Report's key aim is to address educational competitiveness and disadvantage via a sustainable funding model.

The report argues that an overhaul of the current education funding model is long overdue as it is overly complex, confusing and has obscure goals. Yet, securing broad agreement that educational success should not be about differences in wealth may be more difficult to achieve than expected.

There doesn't seem to be sufficient political will or energy to tackle the hard work needed to develop, test and agree on the different elements of a revolutionary funding model that would provide the resources needed for schools and students.

Any deliberation of Gonski's funding principles, particularly the student resource standard, is likely to be tarred by the rancour over how well the Rudd/Gillard government has spent the doubling of school funding to more than $65 billion over the past four years. Providing a new equitable basis for general recurrent funding for all students in all school sectors may be just another of a growing list of issues that the government finds too hard to tackle.

The genius of the Gonski funding proposal is in its break with the particular charm that enthralls almost all discussions about education in Australia. The report neatly sidesteps the contentious sectorial stoush that frames our debates about educational equity and funding.

Gonski's School Resource Standard formula provides loadings for the additional costs of meeting the educational needs of all students irrespective of whether they attend independent, Catholic or government schools. They take into account socio-economic background, disability, English language proficiency, indigenous background, school size, and location of all schools.

The recommended formula is based on actual resources used by schools already achieving high educational outcomes over a sustained period of time. It recognises that schools with similar student populations require the same level of resources regardless of whether they are independent, Catholic or government.

The report notes that the formula should be reviewed every four years so that it continues to reflect community aspirations and, in between reviews, be indexed using a simple measure that is based on the actual increase in costs in schools already achieving relevant high educational outcomes over a sustained period of time.

If the Commonwealth government is serious about implementing these proposals then it will have to mobilise support across all three sectors, especially the significant number of non-government schools that service low socio-economic sectors, disabled, immigrant, rural and remote, and indigenous students. Otherwise, the traditional arguments about school choice and various merits of any particular sector will again trump true reform.

The problem with discussions about equity and funding, though, is that they can be easily distracted by other agendas. And, as we saw in the press in the days since the Gonski Report's release, its proposals are likely to be enveloped within such debates about merit pay for effective teachers and parental commitment to their children's education.

There is a real danger any momentum from the favourable initial response to the Gonski Report will dissipate because of a lack of political will, the dead hand of previous educational debates about equity and funding, and other contentious education issues.

Consequently, we join others in urging that the move to a fairer funding system be brought forward. We urge the federal government to strengthen its commitment to introducing legislation to ensure its adoption by 2014.

Professor James Albright is the

director of the Educational

Research Institute, Newcastle, at

the University of Newcastle.

 
 
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