Bill Shorten contacting schools and asking principals to sign a petition in support of the ALP’s $37.3 billion funding initiative might be a good pre-election stunt but it lacks credibility and denies the evidence that spending more rarely, if ever, raises standards or improves outcomes. It also risks the independence and neutrality of schools and principals by turning them into political advocates for the Australian Labor Party.
Shorten is not alone in mistakenly arguing increased funding will lead to better results. Adrian Piccoli, the NSW education minister, also stresses funding when he says, “Anyone who argues money doesn’t matter in schools is wrong” and “To say money doesn’t matter is incomprehensible”.
Piccoli and Shorten might seem strange bedfellows, but in relation to the Gonski school funding model they are on the same page. Both politicians insist the Commonwealth must fund the final two years of the Gonski model, at an estimated cost of $4.5 billion, and they criticise Prime Minister Turnbull for refusing to agree.
Piccoli states: “NSW and I have been big supporters of what David Gonski recommended in his review” and Shorten, if the ALP is elected, has promised to spend $37.3 billion over the decade 2015-16 to 2025-26 – including $4.5 billion for the final two years of Gonski. If Piccoli, or any one else for that matter, believes that an incoming ALP government will be able to deliver on its election promise then they also must believe in the tooth fairy.
Based on the Rudd/Gillard government’s record, where the lion’s share of the Gonski money was beyond the four year forward estimates and Australia was left with a multi-billion dollar deficit, the most likely outcome is that the promised funding never eventuates.
Notwithstanding the Australian Education Union’s mantra ‘I give a Gonski’ it also needs to be understood that the original Gonski school funding model has never been fully or uniformly implemented. Leading up to the 2013 election Julia Gillard was so desperate to finalise the new funding model that she signed different agreements with the five states and territories that were willing to accept Gonski — Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory refused to sign. No wonder Ken Boston, one of the members of the Gonski Review panel, has attacked Gillard for “auctioning off” school funding and for failing to remain true to the Review’s recommendations.
In addition to Gonski never being fully implemented much of the methodology and research underpinning the proposed funding model is inaccurate and misleading. The Gonski report argues that one of the main factors influencing educational outcomes (and leading to disadvantage) is a student’s home background. Playing the victim card, much loved by Australia’s cultural-left, the belief is that working-class and migrant students are destined to underperform.
Ignored is the research that proves home background, or students’ socioeconomic status, only accounts for between 10% to 18% of the factors that influence outcomes. Far more important are student ability and motivation, effective teaching, a rigorous curriculum and high expectations.
The oft repeated claim that the Gonski model is sector blind as it does not discriminate between Catholic, Independent and government schools is also not true. When calculating the base level of funding all schools will receive, what is known as the Schooling Resource Standard, Gonski argues Catholic and Independent school parents must contribute at least 10 per cent from local funds, including school fees.
Government schools, no matter how wealthy their parents are, do not have to contribute anything, even though many set compulsory fees. As argued by Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies, only non-government schools will have funding reduced because of parents’ capacity to pay.
Moshe Justman and Chris Ryan, in Melbourne Institute Policy Brief No 2/13, identify five significant flaws and weaknesses in the Gonski funding model. In part, the researchers argue it is wrong to assume increased funding will lead to higher standards and that increasing the Commonwealth’s role in education restricts innovation and flexibility at the school level.
Australia’s experience over the last three decades proves that increased funding is not the solution. The 2014 National Commission of Audit highlights how, over the years 2000-’12 and despite a real increase of 3.8% in Commonwealth and state investment, test results in the Programme for International Student Assessment went backwards.
In a paper co-authored by Andrew Leigh, now the ALP member for Fraser but then an academic at Australian National University, a similar conclusion is reached based on an analysis of expenditure and literacy and numeracy test results. Over the years 1975-’98, despite a real increase in per-student expenditure of 10 per cent the researchers conclude “To preview our results, we find no evidence that the test scores of Australian pupils have risen over the past four decades, and some evidence that scores have fallen”.
While Gonski supporters, such as the ALP and the Australian Education Union, argue that there is evidence proving recent increases in funding related to Gonski have led to stronger outcomes, the reality proves otherwise. Results from an analysis carried out by the commonwealth education department, involving the relationship between Gonski funding and the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test results concludes,
“Overall, the data shows no clear correlation between funding and NAPLAN results.”
As expected, the ALP and the AEU argue that money is the solution and that the Commonwealth must invest in the last two years of the Gonski model while throwing good money after bad. Based on the recent history of education in Australia, the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.
What is needed, as proven by the success of Australia’s Catholic and Independent schools that outperform government schools even after adjusting for students’ home background, is greater school autonomy and freedom to innovate and be flexible.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down