By Pasi Sahlberg and Adrian Piccoli
If you were a disadvantaged child today in an Australian school, chances are high that a majority of the other children in your school would also be disadvantaged. Your school would most likely need more resources to have experienced special education experts; it probably would not have qualified mathematics and science teachers, and nobody to teach music.
In this respect, Australia is an outlier among the richest countries in the world. No other wealthy nation concentrates disadvantaged children into disadvantaged schools like we do. That concentration effect has increased the socio-economic segregation between schools and has widened the achievement gap between affluent and poorer children that has been evident in international education comparisons and was confirmed by the latest Naplan data.
Ten years ago, the Australian government launched the Gonski review of funding for schooling, a landmark proposal to correct the flaws in how our national resources are spent in education.
A decade later, we are back to the debates about what effect money has on student achievement. Critics have claimed the Gonski review offered a flawed model for school funding and has therefore not achieved its aims. It is time to forget that review, they insist.
We argue that Australia needs to fund schools according to the original Gonski review recommendations now more than ever. Here is why.
The funding formula for schools in Australia was fundamentally flawed prior to the Gonski review in 2011. That is why the review was commissioned. The flawed formula meant that when more money was pumped into education, schools that needed funding the least were getting more funding while schools serving mostly disadvantaged students were not.
Gonski’s solution to fixing persisting inequalities in Australian education correctly assumed that funding schools more fairly would benefit not just children with disadvantages but indeed all children. This was based on recommendations offered by the OECD, evidence by international researchand advice by our own education experts.
The evidence is overwhelming that money matters in education, especially for disadvantaged students. For example, Nobel prize-winning economist David Card has established a causal relationship between education expenditure and student achievement. Furthermore, recent meta-analysisfound positive impacts from increased school funding on student outcomes.
Ten years on from the Gonski review being debated in public, the question is: Were the recommendations from the Gonski review right, and are they still relevant today?
The answer requires consideration of the two aspects crucial to success of any reform. Firstly, the quality of the recommendations, and then how accurately and successfully those recommendations were implemented.
The Gonski review recommended that students, via the school they attend, should receive the funding they need to succeed calculated on their individual circumstances. This is the needs-based school funding model that is the internationally adopted standard in all high-performing education systems today.
The model recommended a base level of funding for each student with additional loadings funded for students dependent on their individual characteristics, including disability and socio-economic status. Not surprisingly, public schools receive more of this funding given they enrol more than four out of five disadvantaged students.
There is overwhelming Australian and international research showing that family background is a major factor explaining student achievement. Consequently, students’ socio-economic circumstances need to be considered when schools are resourced. The specific loadings in the funding formulas were designed to allow schools to better support students who face the sorts of disadvantages that affect their learning before they even arrive at the front gate of their school in the morning.
This principle of needs-based funding of schools is as sound today as it was a decade ago – if not more, given that economic and educational inequalities will continue to play a destructive role in the post-pandemic recovery.
Unfortunately, while the reforms and recommendations were right, their implementation has failed to deliver on the promise of the Gonski review.
So, what went wrong? States and territories have implemented the Gonski’s recommendations inconsistently and the special funding deals for non-government schools were not removed. Most significantly, the commonwealth government put a straitjacket on the reforms on day one by declaring that no school would lose any money. That meant money that could have flowed to underfunded schools continued flowing to overfunded non-government schools.
It is important to keep in mind that the extra funds that were allocated to schools started to flow in 2015 and only started as a trickle. Since then, schools serving disadvantaged students have seen significant increases in funding, not just because of the extra money but also thanks to Gonski’s changed funding formula.
The Gonski funding reforms and the extra money has improved the services and support that many schools are now able to offer. But the fact is that all disadvantaged public schools, at least in New South Wales, are still underfunded. At the same time, during the past decade, public money to private schools has increased at five times the rate of public schools.
The Gonski review had the potential to be an absolute gamechanger in Australian education 10 years ago. The momentum to make those much-needed reforms in school funding was watered down by ideological debates and political posturing.
Consequently, the Gonski’s recommendations were not implemented as intended, and we can only speculate what the situation in our education would be today if we had kept the promise.
Originally published in the Guardian on 22 February 2022