Funding Education is up for Election


“High-quality schooling fosters the development of creative, informed and resilient citizens who are able to participate fully in a dynamic and globalised world. It also leads to many benefits for individuals and society, including higher levels of employment and earnings, and better health, longevity, tolerance and social cohesion.”

So begins the imposing 319 page report officially entitled “Review of Funding for Schooling” but widely known in Australia as the ‘Gonski Review’. The review is my main focus in this post but, before I tackle this monster, a quick recap of last week is in order.

As I mentioned, Australian voters go to the polls in September and education issues seem to be a hotter topic in this election than any other in my memory. My last post forwarded you all to the ABC’s ‘Q and A’ program as evidence of this.

I thought the program was remarkable. Firstly, because it attempted to cover as much of the Australian education debate as it could with the federal minister and his opposition counterpart. More importantly though, it highlighted the International education debate. The show aimed to give Australians an insight into the thinking of the two major parties but I believe their answers are good representation of the thinking of politicians across the western world. I know that’s a rather grand and sweeping statement so here’s my plan. I’ve decided I’ll take three key areas of the program’s discussion and focus on one each week. I really think it shouldn’t matter where in the world you are when reading this, the issues are truly global and political opinions expressed are telling. In my mind, the three key areas ‘Q and A’ touched were funding, teachers, and minorities.

This week’s issue is funding so without further ado I’ll get back to ‘Gonski.’

In 2010 the education minister of the day commissioned an expert panel to review the way the education is funded across the nation. It was a fairly unambiguous task and it was clearly an expert panel (5 of the 6 members have been awarded Australian official orders for their distinguished service to the country in the filed of education). Chairman of the committee was Mr David Gonski, a high profile Sydney based businessman and philanthropist. In his open letter at the start of the report he observes that over 7000 written submissions were considered and hundreds of education “stakeholders” interviewed. Nevertheless, it took this panel a little over 18 months to compile and publish their review and this suggests to me a high degree of cooperative effort from passionate authorities.

So what did the review find? It found that Australian’s spend a reasonable amount on school and that this funding supports a level of education that is high by international standards. However, the system is complex, inefficient and inequitable and all international indicators suggest the current high quality is slipping. The panel’s aim was to offer an alternative system that is “transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all”. It summed up it’s ambition like this,

“Every child should have access to the best possible education, regardless of where they live, the income of their family or the school they attend. Further, no student in Australia should leave school without the basic skills and competencies needed to participate in the workforce and lead successful and productive lives. The system as a whole must work to meet the needs of all Australian children, now and in the future.”

I can’t possibly summarise how it suggests this should happen, but I can write here that the review recognizes the following areas of complexity and has an answer for them all.

  • Complexity of public versus private school funding
  • Low socioeconomic inequality
  • Indigenous inequality
  • Multicultural inequality
  • Education inequality in remote areas of the land
  • Funding students with additional needs
  • Managing additional private or philanthropic investment fairly
  • Managing the transition from an old system to a new one
  • Devising a system that leaves no student worse off than they are now
  • Indexation of the system to avoid underfunding issues in the future

The 26 official findings and 41 recommendations deal with all the above and more. That’s why I called the review a monster earlier. It is an awesome beast of a thing.

It is also, tremendously popular. A recent Auspoll survey reports that 89% of respondents support the Gonski report and 86% consider its implementation to be urgent. There’s even a  website that’s been set up to collect and drum up support – http://www.igiveagonski.com.au.

So to quickly recap: An impressive list of experts in the field of education have worked diligently and in a short time frame investigated the funding model that exists in a fairly successful education system. This panel of experts has concluded that a better system of funding is needed to at least maintain if not actually improve this system. Finally, the proposed reforms of this expert panel have met with popular and industry acclaim.

So what did the politicians say? You can check the Q and A program, but if you trust me to paraphrase here’s my summary. The Minister likes it a lot but is in deep, complex and (probably) partisan negotiations with the various State and Territory governments. Meanwhile, the opposition party thinks the review has merit but baulks at the 6 or so billion a year price tag.

One thing that wasn’t raised in the show but is very relevant is that the education minister who commissioned the Gonski review back in 2010 was the honorable Julia Gillard MP. For those outside of Australia reading this, Ms Gillard is now the besieged Australian Prime Minister desperately trying to hold onto Government. In fact, as I write this very sentence the PM is on TV having just survived a leadership challenge this afternoon.

And there you have it in a nutshell. Internationally as well as here in Australia, the issues facing improving education systems is not a lack of awareness from the policy makers, it’s the issues of partisan politics getting the better of political good will, and an aversion to accepting the inevitable high costs.

Ultimately, I suspect there is very little chance of the Gonski review becoming a reality. Despite it’s popularity, it’s critical acclaim, and it’s apolitical recommendations, it is too closely aligned with partisan politics, politicians’ approval ratings and electoral grandstanding. Internationally, the issue of reforming education, particularly funding, suffers from the same problem I fear.

Pity.

Still, I could be wrong. You never know…

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