Fairfax Media | 1 December 2013
Pyne fails to justify Gonski backflip
In ducking and weaving over his lately revealed determination to demolish the National Schools Plan (aka Gonski) – contrary to assurances before the election – education minister Christopher Pyne has deployed all aspects of the Bart Simpson excuse:
- I didn’t do it;
- You didn’t see me do it; and,
- You can’t prove I did it.
But as attested by just about all media commentators and state and education ministers (liberal, national , labor and greens) from those jurisdictions that signed up to the plan, 1) he did do it, 2) everyone’s seen him do it and 3) it can be proved he did it. He’s got into name calling (“Shambles Shorten”), stridently misrepresenting the funding arrangements (over treatment of non-signatory jurisdictions in the forward estimates) and constantly contradicting himself (over the efficacy of the discredited postcode system of determining SES status, for example). Pyne’s performance would be quite comedic – the man deserves a rednose, frankly – except for the serious nature of the issues. In this opinion piece published in Fairfax Media, Bill Scales forensically dissects the issues. Scales has held very senior executive positions in industry and government; he was a member of the Bradley review panel and of the Gonski panel; he’s renowned as an intellectually “tough” economist (you’d never call Scales a bleeding heart); and he’s chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology. Scales is a person of great substance, reputation and integrity.
We should not underestimate the serious implications of this development on Australia’s education system and its long-term consequences for Australian society.
A well functioning primary and secondary education system is a cornerstone of a contemporary nation. It is essential for a nation’s social, cultural and economic wellbeing. Therefore, policy adjustments in this area need to be thoughtfully considered, and implemented.
An effective and efficient funding model for schooling in Australia will have four key characteristics: Funding will be adequate; it will be needs-based; it will focus on the needs of individual students – not the sector in which they are being educated; and it will be a shared responsibility of Commonwealth and state governments.
However, adequate funding for schooling is a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring that our children leave secondary school with an internationally acceptable education.
While the relative weightings of the various non-financial influences affecting education outcomes for Australian children are not particularly precise, they go something like this. Around 75-80 per cent of the performance of a child at school is determined by that particular child’s innate capabilities. But clearly there are other influences.
For example, the quality of the child’s teachers, the governance framework of the school, the interest shown by a child’s parents in their child’s progress, and the parents’ interest in academic pursuits more generally are very important. Even the number of outstanding students in a particular school will have an effect on the performance of all the students at that particular school.
While this range of additional influences are not the main contributor to a child’s success at school, they really do matter, and we need to ensure that adequate funding is provided to individual schools to allow the dynamics of these issues to play their part in a child’s education.
They are the issues that can turn an average student into a high performing one. They can determine whether a child goes to university or doesn’t, or whether a particular child gets the extra few marks to enable them to study in their profession of first choice.
In addition, there are other very specific societal issues that have a profound effect on educational outcomes for some children. These include socio-economic background, whether the child is a new entrant to our country and English is not spoken at home, whether a child has a particular disability that might inhibit learning, aboriginality, and remoteness.
For many children in these categories, adequate funding of their education is critical. It will determine if they actually achieve any reasonable level of education at all.
However, we should not assume that any particular funding, no matter how well designed, will solve all of Australia’s educational challenges. But some funding principles are central to success. It’s these funding principles that the Gonski panel attempted to describe and codify.
Let me be very clear about the basic elements of that funding model, established by the independent panel after 18 months of research, consultations and thoughtful considerations.
The panel found that there should be a significant increase in funding across all schooling sectors, with the largest part of this increase being directed to the government sector. It’s the government sector that educates the largest number of students with particular and urgent needs. That all recurrent funding for all schools, be they in the government, private or independent schools sector, be based on a new schooling resources standard. That the new schooling resourcing standard would consist of separate per student amounts for primary and secondary students, plus loadings for the additional costs of meeting certain educational needs for particular students.
And very importantly, while the states should retain full responsibility for the delivery of primary and secondary education, funding for schooling is a shared responsibility of Commonwealth and state government. This is because in this important area of public policy, appropriate funding, and therefore educational outcomes for individual students, should not be undermined by the constant vagaries of the economic circumstances of individual states or territories.
It is worth noting that while there has been significant discussion about the cost of this approach, there has been little criticism of the concept, or the logic of these recommendations.
The panel also came to some conclusions about what it would cost to implement such a model. It concluded that the cost to implement this model was about $9000 per year for a primary school student and about $12,500 per year for a secondary school student.
Second, for those students that are not ”average”, either because they are very bright, or alternatively, have very special needs such as those discussed above, we must provide them with a reliable flow of additional and appropriate resources to meet their very specific circumstances.
How much in additional financial resources is necessary to meet the educational needs of these particular students is and should be subject to ongoing debate and discussion. But we do have a good idea about these costs, and we have enough of an idea to be able to begin to implement the needs-based model that was broadly agreed to by the panel just two short years ago.
There is no doubting the right of a new government to reconsider its policy settings. However, if the Abbott government does intend to move away from the considered approach established by the Gonski panel after 18 months of serious and thoughtful consideration, given the importance of these issues to Australia’s future, it has an obligation to Australian parents, to Australian business, and to the Australian community as a whole to explain exactly what it has in mind and how it arrived at its position.
Australia’s future depends on it.