Tribal conflict

Australia's Labor government has ambitious plans to reform school funding. But will the `rivers of gold' it wants to provide for socially disadvantaged students be disastrously diluted by political opposition?

News article image

In 2010, Julia Gillard made history by becoming Australia's first female prime minister. Three years later, her acrimonious departure from office has been an altogether less dignified affair.

Even before she was unceremoniously ousted by her predecessor Kevin Rudd (whom she herself usurped to take the top job) in a Labor party leadership contest in June, Gillard's popularity was on the wane - and not just among the adult population.

During an official visit to Lyneham High School in Canberra in May, Gillard narrowly missed being hit by a salami sandwich thrown at her by a disgruntled student. It was the second such incident that month: three weeks earlier, 16-year-old Kyle Thomson was suspended from Marsden State High School, south of Brisbane, after being accused of hurling another sandwich - this time, incidentally, containing Vegemite - at Gillard during an official visit.

But while the media storm over "sandwichgate" has subsided, Gillard's work on school reform could provide the most lasting legacy of her leadership.

The visit to Lyneham High had been arranged so that Gillard could announce that the Australian Capital Territory (the ACT) had signed up to the so- called "Gonski reforms", described by the federal government as a "once- in-a-generation" opportunity to fix Australia's school funding structure.

The sweeping package of reforms was inspired by a report by David Gonski, one of Australia's most respected businessmen and philanthropists, and several co-authors, published in February 2012.

The report was commissioned, like so much education policy around the world, in order to help halt Australia's steady drop down international performance league tables such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). In the report, Gonski concludes that although the country's school system is "relatively high-performing" overall, "over the last decade the performance of Australian students has declined at all levels of achievement, notably at the top end".

"This decline has contributed to the fall in Australia's international position," the report continues. "In 2000, only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and only two outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy. By 2009, six countries outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and 12 outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy."

Gonski and his colleagues also note an "unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socio-economic and indigenous backgrounds".

The consequences of this decline are being felt the length and breadth of the country, according to Ian Hay, emeritus professor at the University of Tasmania's faculty of education.

There is a strong link, Hay argues, "between a poor education outcome for individuals and . social dysfunctional measures, such as long-term unemployment, welfare dependency, poor health outcome, high crime, domestic violence and poverty. These are the indirect costs of not investing in education that in the long term do real damage to an economy and a society."

On this point, Gonski and his co-authors are in agreement. Extra funding is needed, their report concludes, in order to "strengthen and secure Australia's future".

Former teacher Joel Windle, now adjunct senior research fellow in the faculty of education at Melbourne's Monash University, believes that the most serious problem dogging Australia is the "consistent underfunding" of schools serving the most deprived parts of the country.

"Whereas universal provision of a basic level of education guided the expansion of the secondary school system, this has not been matched by an expectation that results should be similar across social groups," he says.

Political dust-ups

The Labor government agreed with the report's authors that drastic action was needed; this was, a government statement said, a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to get school funding reform right for Australia's future".

Labor's blueprint for change, the National Plan for School Improvement, is certainly bold: it proposes that schools should receive an additional A$14.5 billion (pound;9 billion) in funding over the next six years.

On top of a basic rate of per-student funding - A$9,271 for primary students or A$12,193 for those attending secondary schools - it calls for additional money to be diverted to students needing extra support, such as those from Aboriginal communities, with special needs, living in isolated rural areas or from deprived backgrounds. Under the plans, the funding would begin to trickle out to schools from next year, gradually increasing over the subsequent five years.

But there is a catch: while the federal government will contribute two- thirds of the total, the state and territory authorities will have to stump up the rest.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not all the regional governments are as keen. Several deadlines for striking a deal have come and gone. New South Wales, the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania have signed up, but Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory have not yet made any commitment to do so.

The Australian Education Union has thrown its weight behind the plans. Federal president Angelo Gavrielatos believes that many of the Liberal- dominated states are reluctant to back a Labor policy.

"It's good policy," he says. "They are opposing it purely for political reasons, not because of the educational rationale. If it's in the best interests of students in South Australia, the ACT and Tasmania, why is it not in the best interests of Victoria and Queensland? Let's keep things in perspective: this money will almost take us to the average OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) levels of investment in education."

But whereas some states are open to striking a deal, others remain hostile. Last month, Queensland's education minister John-Paul Langbroek hit out at the approach taken by the Labor leadership.

During an interview on ABC Radio, he told a journalist: "Bill Shorten (the new schools minister) can come on to your show with his velvet tones and try to make out that he's offering us a lot more and that he wants to sit down and talk, while his boss (Rudd) is out there slagging us in a press conference. It's not constructive and shows that Kevin Rudd is a charlatan as well."

So the future of Australian school funding is far from being resolved, and with a general election expected to take place in September, the federal opposition - the conservative Liberal-National coalition - has been quick to stick the boot in.

Christopher Pyne, shadow minister for education, apprenticeships and training (pictured left), told TES that the situation for schools had become "very messed up".

"Kevin Rudd is not as committed to this school funding model as Julia Gillard was," he says. "It was a signature tune for her; for him, it's just a headache."

The problem, Pyne explains, is that the government is looking to replace a straightforward national formula with a new system in which each state can haggle independently to secure the best deal for themselves.

"It's very chaotic," he says. "All (these agreements) are different; you've got the extras and bribery and political chicanery thrown in."

And funding alone is not the answer to Australian schools' prayers, Pyne insists. "We're not against spending more money on education, but money in itself is not going to solve the problem . We want the education debate to move beyond the banal debate about funding. It's an important part, but it's not the whole box and dice . Education funding has increased by 40 per cent and outcomes have declined. Money is not the answer."

Instead, the coalition - if elected - intends to focus on four key issues: teacher quality, principals' autonomy, parental engagement and curriculum quality.

As teachers in the UK will testify, this rhetoric bears more than a passing resemblance to the language used by England's education secretary. Needless to say, Pyne is quite a fan. "We think what Michael Gove has done in Great Britain has been very good for (the country). Of course, we are not averse to adopting policies from other countries."

Gonski beat goes on

But, until the election at least, the fate of the Gonski reforms is - in the words of Gavrielatos - the "only show in town".

Questions over precisely who will benefit from the cash - and when - are yet to be categorically answered. Pyne insists that, in the short term at least, schools could receive more funding if their states don't sign up. "The so-called rivers of gold will not flow for another five or six years," he says.

And where exactly these "rivers of gold" will end up is another source of controversy. State schools will not be the only institutions to receive government cash: Australia's blossoming private sector also stands to take a substantial chunk - A$1 billion over the next six years, to be precise. Private schools would continue to receive a portion of the base payment based on their capacity to raise funds privately.

Crucially, those non-government schools that serve the most disadvantaged students - such as Aboriginal learners, those in remote communities and students with special educational needs - could be fully funded by the state for the first time.

Given that the sector can already boast 560,000 school-age students, Monash's Windle fears that offering private schools even more money could entrench existing inequalities. "There is clear evidence of overfunding of historically wealthy private schools that, thanks to generous public subsidies, are able to embark on building multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects to improve Olympic swimming pools and stables for horses," he says.

"The current reforms don't address the underlying problem of unequal distribution of resources based on the lobbying power of the private school sector. This power is demonstrated by the government guarantee at the outset of the review that no private school would be worse off.

"This promise has been made good, and in fact further concessions have been made which improve the position of private schools. In particular, the definition of social disadvantage has been widened from the bottom quartile to the bottom half. This dilutes the already small allocation of funding targeted at social disadvantage."

Another hostile body that Rudd has been forced to court is the influential National Catholic Education Commission, which stands to receive a A$3 billion boost under the plans. Last week, it also signed up to the reforms. The Catholic schools have won a number of significant concessions, not least that 90 per cent of them will reportedly be exempt from the national student funding formula. Crucially, this means that funding allocations for the majority of Catholic schools will not be tied to the socio-economic status of the communities they serve, unlike other state institutions. The Catholic schools have also lobbied hard for greater autonomy - as have the private schools.

As far as shadow education minister Pyne is concerned, this makes sense. He says the fact that almost a third of students attend private schools - with that figure rising to half when students reach the ages of 16-18 in Years 11 and 12 - reflects parental demand for the high degree of autonomy and quality of teachers on offer in the independent sector.

"What it tells us is that parents are prepared to use their after-tax income for a service they could get for free in government schools," Pyne says. "Rather than regulate the non-government sector so it's more like the government sector, we should be making the government sector look more like the non-government sector."

Windle, though, does not agree. He argues that private schools have blossomed largely as a result of the "under-resourced public system".

"There is a huge educational price paid for the social segregation of students that has resulted from the expansion of private schooling, reflected in the very uneven educational outcomes that Australia records in Pisa and other testing programmes," he says.

With the Catholic and independent sectors now on board, as several states still dither, the ultimate risk is that privileged students will benefit from extra funding while their peers in neighbouring state schools will miss out.

But, Windle adds, with Rudd under ever more pressure to seal a deal before the next general election, the "massively powerful private school lobby" holds all the aces.

"My guess is that Rudd will do anything it takes to sign on the remaining states, particularly since he will want to claim education reforms as one of Labor's key achievements in office. What will probably remain of Gonski is a basic per-student funding formula plus bribes for the acquiescence of various segments and constituencies within the private school sector."

But although the price of securing an agreement may be great, the consequences of failing to strike a deal would - politically, at least - be far greater. So the behind-the-scenes horse-trading is set to continue and schools have no choice but to wait to discover their budgets for the next year.

Not for the first time, teaching and learning appear to be coming a distant second to political posturing.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you