Education

The Fabian Fallacies of the Gonski Report

If we are egalitarian in our intention we have to reshape education so that it is a vital weapon in the transition to more equal outcomes for disadvantaged groups and classes rather than a ladder to equal opportunity for individuals.
                                  Joan Kirner, Victorian Fabian Society Pamphlet 41 

Funding arrangements should, “ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions” and “reduce inequity of outcomes”.
                                — Gonski Report

After spending nearly two years travelling across Australia visiting schools and key stakeholders, publishing draft and issues papers, receiving over 7000 submissions and commissioning detailed research papers, the Gonski school funding report was finally released in February to the plaudits of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the schools minister, Peter Garrett.

The report recommends that all students, regardless of school attended, be eligible to receive a minimum amount in recurrent public funding (what is termed the Schooling Resource Standard, or SRS) and that schools receive an additional loading to compensate for enrolling disadvantaged students. While not quantified, the intention is that the SRS will be linked to the resources required by a group of reference schools where at least 80 per cent of students achieve above the national minimum standard in the National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy Tests (NAPLAN).

The report also argues, as its primary focus is on overcoming disadvantage in education, that any new funding model must prioritise support for Australia’s lowest performing students and that the SRS must be designed to “reduce inequity of outcomes”. In relation to non-government schools, the report argues that the level of public funding received by schools should be based on “the anticipated capacity of parents enrolling their children in the school to contribute financially to the school’s resource requirements”. As a result, non-government schools, even those serving low socio-economic status communities with limited financial means, will be expected to contribute at least 10 per cent of their SRS entitlement from private funds, such as school fees.

In order to further detail the report’s recommendations and to implement the new funding model (required to be in place after the current socio-economic status (SES) model runs out at the end of 2013) the Gonski Report also recommends establishing an additional layer of bureaucracy. A National Schools Resourcing Body will be responsible for developing and indexing the SRS, collecting and analysing school data to ensure improved performance and developing standards for school infrastructure. A second bureaucracy involves what are termed School Planning Authorities in each of the jurisdictions that will be responsible for developing a “co-ordinated approach to planning for new schools and school growth” and for allocating Commonwealth funding.

It should be noted that the Gonski Report does represent a significant breakthrough with its recommendation that all disability students, regardless of whether they attend government or non-government schools, should be eligible to receive the same amount of public funding linked to disability; in addition to the per student SRS.

Based on initial media responses, the Gonski Report has been well received by the various school sector interest groups and spokesmen and, contrary to fears that any new funding model might financially penalise non-government schools, especially in the independent sector, the consensus is that the ALP government has kept its promise that no school will lose a dollar of funding as a result of the report’s recommendations.

If only it were that simple. A close reading of the Gonski Report proves that the devil is in the detail and, given its underlying cultural-Left view of educational disadvantage and the role of non-government schools, the report represents a clear and present danger to Catholic and independent schools. 

When judging whether the Gonski Report and recommendations represent a threat to the autonomy and financial viability of non-government schools, the first thing to note is that the report’s recommendations, at the moment, are hypothetical. If those present at the report’s launch expected that the Commonwealth government was about to detail its response to the report they were disappointed. Not only did the Prime Minister and the schools minister fail to give any idea as to whether the report’s recommendations would be accepted but, in addition, by announcing another round of consultation and review (ironically enough, chaired by David Gonski) the government guaranteed itself a breathing space before having to resolve the thorny issue of school funding.

Given the adverse political impact of Mark Latham’s hit list of so-called wealthy private schools at the 2004 election, and the parlous state of the ALP leadership and the government’s standing in the electorate, it’s understandable that Julia Gillard might want to postpone any decisions about funding until a more opportune time.

That the Gonski recommendations face an uncertain future is also likely, given that the $5 billion price tag associated with the planned reforms is totally unrealistic. The argument that the states, many facing financial constraints similar to the Commonwealth, must contribute 70 per cent of the school funding figure also suggests that implementation of the report’s recommendations is far from certain. In addition, the fact that Christopher Pyne, the shadow minister for education, has stated that the Coalition is comfortable with the current SES funding model and that there are flaws in the report suggests that any future Coalition government will, more than likely, sideline the report.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to think that the report can be dismissed and that non-government schools have nothing to fear. A number of school choice critics have admitted that non-government schools will suffer if the proposed funding model is implemented after 2013.

Contrary to Julia Gillard’s promise that no school will lose a dollar in funding as a result of the report, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro in a comment piece in the Sydney Morning Herald argue, “No doubt some private schools will become more expensive as their public funding reduces in real terms … Their fees will go up.”

Chris Bonnor, in a second piece published by newmatilda, after arguing that non-government schools are overfunded, repeats the claim when he states, “If the recommendations correcting this imbalance are implemented there is no doubt that some private schools are going to become more expensive over time as their public funding reduces in real terms.”

A third critic of non-government schools, Michael Furtado, writing on the Eureka Street website, also argues that Catholic and independent schools will suffer financially as a result of the school funding report: “While Gonski has said no school will lose funding, elite schools, most of them independent and some of them state-based and selective, will get a smaller proportion of state funding.”

While the detailed modelling analysing the impact of the new funding model was not made public when the Gonski Report was released, it’s clear that the report discriminates against non-government schools. The most obvious example is the fact that while non-government schools will be forced to contribute at least 10 per cent of a school’s SRS from local funds, government schools will suffer no such impost. The report’s recommendation number two states: 

In a new model for funding non-government schools, the assessment of a non-government school’s need for public funding should be based on the anticipated capacity of the parents enrolling their children in the school to contribute financially towards the school’s resource requirements. 

Funding details on the MySchool website show that wealthy and privileged government schools like Melbourne High, Balwyn High, Mac Robertson Girls and Sydney’s James Ruse Agricultural High charge substantial enrolment fees and enjoy private sources of income that exceed many low-fee-paying non-government schools but, such is the ideological bent of the Gonski Report, the intention is that such state schools be fully publicly funded.

As observed by Jennifer Buckingham, from the Centre for Independent Studies, the above approach is “fundamentally discriminatory” on the basis that “a non-government school and a government school with the same socio-economic profiles would be entitled to different levels of funding. While both school communities have the same ‘anticipated capacity to pay’, only the non-government school will have its funding reduced as a result.”

Additional evidence that non-government schools are in the firing line is the Gonski Report’s mistaken argument that students’ socio-economic background is the main cause of educational success or failure. Linked with the erroneous belief that non-government schools only serve privileged students and disadvantage is concentrated in government schools, the argument is that government schools deserve priority funding. In fact equally, if not more important, than socio-economic background in determining success or failure are factors like student ability and motivation, having a rigorous curriculum and effective teachers and a school culture that promotes excellence and a sound learning environment.

Research, over many years, also concludes that success or failure at school is influenced by home background and whether students’ parents value education and provide an environment that fosters learning and a willingness to succeed at school. The children of immigrant families to Australia, many of whom arrived with very little in terms of wealth and material possessions, have a history of outperforming native-born children, proving that performance is not simply a matter of privilege and wealth. Anyway, non-government schools are not the preserve of the top end of town, as there are many low-fee-paying schools in country and outer suburban areas, serving low-to-middle-income families.

Finally, by defining disadvantage in terms of class, ethnicity and indigeneity the Gonski Report ignores the fact that many high-ability Australian students are disadvantaged as a result of an education system that fails to recognise and reward high achievement. Recent results in international mathematics and science tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) prove, compared to stronger performing education systems, that we have fewer high-achieving students and, over the last four to six years, the percentage has declined. 

Notwithstanding David Gonski’s argument that his report is impartial and balanced, it’s clear that it embraces a cultural-Left, deficit view of education; one that justifies compensating government schools and their communities at the expense of non-government school parents. The arguments that “differences in wealth, income, power or possessions” should not be allowed to influence a student’s performance and that education must provide “equity of outcomes” echo the misplaced Fabian ideal of equality of outcomes championed by Victoria’s one-time Premier and Education Minister Joan Kirner.

Some years ago, in a Victorian Fabian Society booklet on education, Kirner argued that education had to be “part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system”. Kirner, much like the Australian Education Union and the majority of education academics ensconced in our tertiary institutions, also believed that instead of being based on equality of opportunity, education had to be “a vital weapon in the transition to more equal outcomes for disadvantaged groups and classes”.

Those familiar with the sociology-of-education movement in the USA and England, which grew to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s and was subsequently imported to Australia, will understand that the cultural-Left identifies education as a tool used by the ruling class to enforce its hegemony over the under-privileged and the dispossessed. Competition and an academic curriculum, as well as school choice, are all condemned as inequitable and socially unjust. The answer, as recommended in the Gonski Report, is to discriminate in favour of government schools and to penalise non-government schools on the basis that such schools only represent the wealthy.

Additional evidence that the Gonski Report is ideologically opposed to parents choosing non-government schools is its treatment of school choice. Instead of providing a balanced and comprehensive account of the issue, the report concentrates on arguments commonly put by critics to undermine the existence of non-government schools. After admitting that school choice “may” be beneficial the report notes that “not all Australians are able to access or afford school choice” and that there are concerns that competition is leading to students being “segregated” in terms of socio-economic status and ability and that disadvantage is made worse because of “government sector gradual loss in market share to the non-government school sector”.

While it is often described as independent, in fact the Gonski Report is weighted against non-government schools and calculated to make it more difficult for parents to choose such schools for their children. In a talk to the Australian Education Union in January 2011, David Gonski revealed this not-so-secret agenda when he said, “We need to continue to build a strong public school system, and investigate and understand the causes and effects of the enrolment shift from government to non-government.” Gonski’s preference for supporting government schools at the expense of non-government schools, and his desire to stop parents voting with their feet and choosing such schools, are arguments regularly voiced by cultural-Left critics like the Australian Education Union.

 

While non-government schools, compared to government schools, enjoy a degree of autonomy and flexibility to best manage their affairs and reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities, such autonomy is seriously compromised by the Gonski Report. Australian schools, both government and non-government and as a result of the Rudd–Gillard “education revolution” and the current fetish for defining educational success in terms of what can be quantified and measured, suffer from micromanagement and a command-and-control model of educational delivery. The Gonski Report’s recommendation that funding be linked to outcomes like the NAPLAN tests will only make matters worse. Establishing yet another bureaucracy, the National Schools Resourcing Body, and asking such a body, along with the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), to evaluate and monitor schools in terms of measurable outcomes will place an additional burden on schools and classrooms.

In addition to supporting a national testing and accountability regime represented by NAPLAN, the Gonski Report also endorses other aspects of the “education revolution”, such as a national curriculum, the Melbourne Declaration, national teacher training and registration and a host of national partnership agreements being implemented under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments.

The Melbourne Declaration should be of particular concern to faith-based schools, as it argues that all school sectors must “provide all students with access to high-quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on gender, language, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, socio-economic background or geographic location”. Taken literally, such a requirement denies faith-based schools the freedom to ensure that school policies in areas like enrolments and staffing conform to the schools’ religious beliefs and teachings.

While the Commonwealth government’s rhetoric is one of giving schools greater autonomy and allowing decisions to be made at the local level, such freedom is illusory given the statist and intrusive nature of the ALP’s “education revolution”. After surveying Australian school principals, Professor Brian Caldwell, one of Australia’s leading education academics, discovered that one of their greatest concerns related to governments centralising control over education and imposing restrictive and intrusive compliance costs on schools.

While the Gonski Report calls for increased centralised control, in the USA President Obama has warned against the debilitating impact of standardised testing and his administration has revamped the No Child Left Behind federally-funded program to allow greater autonomy at the local level. Michael Gove, the English Secretary of Education, is also ensuring that schools are freed from bureaucratic interference and over-regulation by championing what are described as Free Schools.

Such is the increasing popularity of non-government schools in Australia that between 1998 and 2008 enrolments increased by approximately 20 per cent while enrolment growth in government schools increased by only 1.2 per cent. Across Australia 34 per cent of students now attend non-government schools, with the figure rising to over 44 per cent at Years 11 and 12. In Canberra, the figure for Years 11 and 12 this year for the first time rose to over 50 per cent.

In addition to establishing a National Schools Resourcing Body, the Gonski Report also recommends setting up School Planning Authorities in each of the states to take control of “planning for new schools and new growth”. Those who remember the New Schools Policy enacted by previous Labor governments, designed to restrict the growth of non-government schools by refusing approval if it was deemed such schools might adversely impact on government schools, will appreciate the fear that the intention is to stifle the growth of non-government schools.

On examining the terms of reference establishing the Gonski review it’s of interest that one of the key tasks is to identify what can be done to strengthen “educational outcomes” with reference to “overseas examples, especially in high-performing school systems”. Additional evidence that the Gonski Report adopts a blinkered and biased view of the importance of non-government schools is its failure to properly analyse why some education systems and schools consistently outperform others and to acknowledge the growing consensus that properly funded non-government schools are an important factor.

Over the last fifteen years, in Australia and overseas, a good deal of research has been undertaken analysing why some countries outperform others in international tests like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While the Gonski Report makes brief mention of two notable researchers in this area, Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek, it fails to fully detail their work and the arguments they make in support of competition and choice in education and the significant role played by non-government schools. In a 2007 paper titled The Role of School Improvement in Economic Development Woessmann and Hanushek, in opposition to arguments put by critics of non-government schools, argue that competition and choice are beneficial as a more market-driven approach leads to stronger outcomes: “In a cross-country comparison, students in countries with a larger share of privately managed schools tend to perform better on average.”

In another 2007 paper also involving Woessmann titled School Accountability, Autonomy, Choice, and the Level of Student Achievement, the researchers conclude, “Students perform substantially better in systems where private school operation creates choice and competition.” Much to the chagrin of those arguing that governments should stop funding non-government schools, this paper argues that it is important that government and non-government schools are treated equably in relation to funding: 

Students in countries where privately operated schools receive less government funding than publicly operated schools perform significantly worse than students in countries where public funding is equalised between privately and publicly operated schools. 

A 2008 paper by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann provides additional evidence that the existence of non-government schools leads to stronger educational outcomes: 

There is a strong and statistically positive association between private school share and student achievement on the PISA 2003 maths test, even after controlling for the host of student, family and school background factors. 

The last point is significant as critics mistakenly argue that the only reason non-government schools achieve strong results is because they enrol privileged students; West and Woessmann argue otherwise.

Andrew Coulson, after a meta-analysis of just over 100 studies on school effectiveness, also argues that school choice and the presence of non-government schools lead to stronger outcomes: “the private sector outperforms the public sector in the overwhelming majority of cases … It is in fact the least regulated market school systems that show the greatest margin of superiority over state schooling.”

Research in Australia by Gary Marks at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) also concludes that non-government schools, compared to government schools, achieve stronger educational outcomes and that it is wrong to suggest that the only reason such schools do so well is because of the socio-economic background of students attending such schools.

Such an argument undermines one of the central tenets of the Gonski Report, that students under-achieve because they are disadvantaged and they deserve priority funding as a result. If under-performance is not a result of disadvantage then it also suggests that throwing an additional $5 billion at schools will do little, if anything, to address the real reasons why some schools and students fail to do as well as others.

In a second paper, Marks observes, “So, even when taking into account differences in ability levels and socio-economic backgrounds of students attending Government, Catholic and Independent schools, substantial sector differences remain.” As to why non-government schools achieve such strong results, and contrary to the argument that it is because such schools are better resourced, Marks argues that factors like student motivation and ability, having a rigorous curriculum and effective teachers and promoting a disciplined school culture with high expectations are central.

After analysing why non-government schools are so effective in helping students to achieve better results that what otherwise might have been expected based on students’ previous records, Marks concludes that “non-government schools promote a more academic environment that lifts student performance”. He also notes, “Neither can school-sector differences in tertiary entrance performance be attributed to the non-government sector being able to recruit high-achieving students or to restrict low achievers from competing for university entrance.” 

Additional evidence that the Gonski Report is closed to acknowledging more innovative, market-driven approaches to education is its failure to explore in any detail the impact of vouchers or tax credits and what are described as charter schools in the USA and “city academies” in England. In the USA vouchers have been introduced in various school districts, including Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio and Washington DC. A recent longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program by Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas concludes that the program is much valued by parents, that it increases the chances of students graduating and attending college and that the school voucher program has led to students in public schools (those controlled by a school district) performing at higher levels. As the English academic James Tooley has noted, there is also growing evidence that school vouchers, linked with the growth of non-government schools, are leading to improved results for disadvantaged students in less-developed countries.

In answer to those Australian critics arguing that school choice and vouchers are ineffective in raising standards it needs to be noted, in relation to the existing way non-government schools are funded, that Australia already has a de facto voucher system. While not meeting the full conditions of a school choice program as outlined by the US researcher Caroline Hoxby, the reality is that the level of funding non-government schools receive is in large part due to the number of students they attract and as enrolments rise and fall as a result of student movement, so too does the level of funding.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is the Director of the Education Standards Institute (www.edstandards.com.au) and author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science (just published by Connor Court). 

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