The great Gonski: Closing Australia’s equity gap through education reform

by Mar Candela, Communications officer, EI Headoffice

In the current context of educational reforms - 'top-down' developments imposed with alarming rapidity in many countries worldwide by stakeholders largely ignoring what actually takes place in classrooms - it is surprising to come across a different trend. In Australia, we see the very opposite of those neoliberal reforms that promote drastic cuts in state funding and base educational decisions on economic rationality, performance and productivity. In this Antipodean country we find a new driver of reform. This movement is based on the original ideal of the public school system as a social leveler - guaranteeing equal educational opportunities - to ensure the social transformation needed for a sustainable future. The magic word is Gonski. This could be the black swan making an unexpected historic educational shift happen. Let's take a closer look.

 

A new funding framework

The Gonski Review was the most comprehensive investigation of Australian schools’ funding in the last 40 years. Commissioned by the Federal Government in 2010, the review was conducted by an expert panel headed by senior businessman and philanthropist David Gonski. The final report was released on 20 February 2012.

During 18 months of investigation, the panel reviewed over 7000 submissions from stakeholders and members of the public, visited 39 schools, and consulted 71 key education groups across Australia.

 

Key findings of the review included:

 

  • Australia is investing far too little in schools and the way money is distributed is not efficient, effective or fair;
  • There are growing gaps in student achievement: students in disadvantaged areas are up to three years behind those of the same age who live in wealthy areas.

 

As a consequence, the review recommended shifting to a new system that better matched student funding with student needs across the country. This would mean a base level of funding for every student, with additional loadings for disadvantaged students.

Public schools, which educate the vast majority of disadvantaged students, would receive the full base amount from both state and federal governments, while the amount given to Catholic and independent private schools would vary depending on the ability of parents to pay school fees.

Recurrent-expenditure funding for non-government schools would be calculated on the basis of the so-called socioeconomic status (SES) of a school community. All schools will receive additional funding in the form of loadings to reflect disadvantage. 

Dependent on their student enrolment profiles, additional loadings will be provided for schools which serve students from poorer backgrounds, indigenous students, students with disabilities, students who lack English proficiency and for schools serving students in rural, remote and isolated settings.

 

I give a Gonski: The union comes in

For over a decade, EI’s affiliate, the Australian Education Union (AEU), had been campaigning for additional and more targeted investment in public education.

When the school funding review was announced, the AEU grasped the opportunity to launch a nationwide campaign to get school communities involved in the review and build support for better public school funding. As part of that campaign, over 6,000 submissions were made by teachers, principals and parents to the Gonski Review.

After the final report of the review was released, the union launched a new campaign, I give a Gonski, to pressure governments to act on its findings and deliver the additional resources and the new funding system it recommended

Strong campaigning by the AEU and its members boosted huge public support for its demands. This support came from teachers, parents, students, as well as welfare groups and business leaders. Community rallies have been held in towns and cities, from North to South. The name Gonski has acquired a whole new connotation of equity and quality in education.  

 

Gonski in jeopardy: Playing politics

The campaigning and the review itself bore fruit. On 3 September 2012, the federal government announced its intention to legislate for a new funding model consistent with the Gonski recommendations. Nevertheless, the agreement of the states is also needed to co-finance the reform.

To help achieve this, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried to negotiate with state premiers and chief ministers on an AUD$14.5 billion increase in state and federal funding over six years. However, last April, at the Council of Australian Governments’ meeting, Gillard was unable to convince any of the states or territories to sign up for her schools’ funding plan.

Eventually, New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell was the first one to sign on to the Gonski package, after agreeing on an AUD$5 billion funding deal with Gillard.

Ms Gillard has set a June 30 deadline for the rest of states and territories to sign up. Indeed, AEU has warned that, for the Gonski reforms to succeed, the Australian federal government, along with the state governments, will have to put in place the school funding by the beginning of next year.

“The real challenge is to set aside political ideology and take action based on evidence,” stated AEU Federal Secretary and EI President Susan Hopgood. “Australia needs a new model for schools funding, because there just aren’t the resources to provide the support to the students who need it most.”

Hopgood went on to say: “Australia’s overall performance in education has significantly fallen in the last decade and, unless we achieve school funding reform, it will continue doing so. The cost of inaction will be far higher than the cost of investment.

Video: The Campaign so Far

 

Making history to benefit each and every Australian pupil

Interview with AEU Federal President, Angelo Gavrielatos 

 

How was the AEU involved in the Gonski review?

The AEU was not involved in the creation of the review itself, other than lobbying for it to happen. We subsequently became heavily involved and organised parents, teachers and principals in public schools across the country to work together on submissions to the review. In total, 6,200 of the 7,000 submissions that were made came through our campaign, I give a Gonski.

 

If the reform passes, how will the money be spent?

It’s still not 100 per cent clear how the money will be spent, with negotiations currently continuing outside of New South Wales. However, the Government has flagged this: AUD$14.5 billion extra will be invested in Australian schools over the next six years to 2019. Averaged over all schools, this is around AUD$1.5 million for every school, or AUD$4000 extra for every student in Australia.

But, and this is a crucial aspect, individual school amounts will vary. Schools that need more money - because they have lots of disadvantaged students, are smaller in size, or are in regional and remote locations – will get more.

 

What kind of new programmes could be implemented with the extra funding?

For local schools, this extra money could be used for the following:

•New or better ways of teaching: working with literacy and numeracy specialists or more focus on tracking how kids are doing every day and putting in intensive effort where it’s needed

•More specialist programmes that benefit students: reading or maths remedial or extension activities for kids with special talents

•More teachers, teacher aides and specialist support staff: guidance counsellors, librarians, science laboratory technicians and language specialists who can deliver a huge range of curriculum, learning and support programmes

•Better resources and equipment: smart boards, computers, iPads and tablets that can capitalise on the National Broadband Network

•New strategies and resources to tackle bullying and help teachers get on top of behaviour management

 

How are the Gonski reforms closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage?

For the first time, schools will receive funding for each indigenous student they enrol. The higher the level of concentration of indigenous, the higher the level of funding. That will allow the adoption of specific strategies that benefit Indigenous students, whether they are in metropolitan, rural or remote settings.

 

What would be the cost of inaction?

Public schools would receive AUD$390 million less in funding in 2014 if the Australian federal and state governments fail to put in place the Gonski school funding reforms by the beginning of next year. This cut would be equivalent to more than 3,000 teaching positions, according to recent budget analysis by AEU.

 

The worst case scenario?

The conservative government wins the elections in September and destroys the Gonski reform. It maintains the current broken funding system, established in 2002, where the majority of federal funding goes to private schools. And so, it continues discriminating against disadvantaged children, denying them the resources they need and deserve to receive a quality public education.

 

How long have you been campaigning for the Gonski reform? 

We have been campaigning actively since April 2010 when the Gonski review was commissioned by the government.

 

What is a ‘normal day’ for you?

Depending on the intensity of the campaign period, my day could start with an early morning check of all the media followed by media commentary; visits and meetings with AEU affiliates, politicians and other stakeholders; community rallies; media interviews; evening functions… During the last month, I have taken about 25 flights. This week, for instance, I will be in a different city in a different state every day.

 

What is your assessment of the campaign so far?

We are very proud of this campaign. It has had a huge impact and a lot of visibility. The issue has widely penetrated into the public opinion; it is being reflected in daily columns and attracts huge media coverage. But we don’t want history to record that we ran a good campaign. We want history to record that we won.

 

Why have you invested yourself personally in this campaign?

I have a fundamental belief in the transformative power of public education and what it should mean for each individual child and the nation as a whole. I believe the quality of the education should not depend on the wealth of one’s parents, or where one lives. 

Every child should be given every opportunity to achieve his/her very best, to be able to fully contribute to the sustainable and democratic development of society. This is really the key to creating a better world.

 

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