Why Gonski fight goes on

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24 October 2016

By AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe

If you believe Gonski isn’t working, you probably haven’t visited a disadvantaged school recently.

If you think the debate around the full six years of Gonski is over you may have swallowed some of the myths that the federal government is pushing to distract you from the fact they want to stop $3.9 billion in additional funding to schools after 2017.

This is funding that would see many schools reach the minimum level of resources they need for the first time ever.

In 2016, schools across Australia are receiving more Gonski funding than ever before. That’s how the agreements, which see increases in funding until 2019, are designed. In most states this funding appears as a line item in school budgets, so educators and parents can see exactly how much they are getting and what it is being spent on.

The funding is being distributed on the basis of student need. Schools in regional areas, in low-SES areas, with high numbers of students with disability, with high numbers of Indigenous students or those from non-English speaking homes are all getting the biggest increases.

Students are receiving help through speech pathology, one-to-one support in class and extra literacy and numeracy programs. Teachers are being supported by classroom aides and better training and professional development.

That is why it is strange to hear Education Minister Simon Birmingham continually claim that Gonski has been ‘corrupted’ or is not working.

He is wrong. The problem is not with Gonski, it is with a Federal Government which wants to walk away from the six-year Gonski agreements signed with the states and territories and stop schools getting $3.9 billion in extra funding in 2018 and 2019.

If Simon Birmingham has a plan for how schools will be able to maintain and extend the results they are achieving through Gonski without these extra resources, he hasn’t shared it.

Stopping this support going to schools, means taking staff and programs out of classrooms and impacting on our most disadvantaged students the hardest.

It means denying schools the resources needed to close the gaps in achievement which see students from low SES families two to three years behind their high-SES peers by the time they reach Year 9.

It means believing that Australia can afford $50 billion in company tax cuts, but not to invest in education which will make our future workforce more productive.

The Federal Government pays lip service to needs-based funding but is pushing ahead with a funding plan which would mean the most disadvantaged schools will never receive the resources the Gonski Review found that they needed.

The key recommendation from the Gonski Review was that all schools be lifted to a minimum Student Resourcing Standard by 2019.

Funding schools on the basis of need may not seem like a radical idea, but the Gonski Review came at the end of a period when the ideology of ‘parental choice’ had dominated and the biggest increases in funding went to private schools.

From 2009 to 2014 combined government funding for private schools increased by 30% per student, compared to a 14% increase to public schools.

Minister Birmingham has claimed the Gonski agreements are flawed because the Federal Government provides different amounts of money to schools of equal need in different states.

The reason why states are getting different amounts from the federal government is not because the system is ‘corrupt’ it is because each state started from a different point and has a different capacity to fund schools.

Under Gonski, the NT and Tasmania will receive more from the federal government because those state governments don’t have the resource base to meet student needs by themselves. The alternative is for students in those states to miss out.

But the bigger issue is that pitting states against each other won’t do anything to solve the problems caused by a lack of resources.

Redistributing funding between states won’t add a single new teacher or support program. It’ll just move existing funding around, from one under-resourced system to another..

Because when it comes to our public schools EVERY single state public system, apart from the ACT, is currently below the SRS, in some states the average public school is receiving just over 80 per cent of what it needs.

The second distraction has been Minister Birmingham’s comments about over-resourced private schools.

Again a distraction from the fact that under his funding model 62 per cent of extra federal funding would go to private schools after 2017 – that’s what happens when you ignore need.

In contrast the last two years of the Gonski agreements would see 80 per cent of the extra federal funding go to public schools, a figure that corresponds to the actual needs in public schools which educate about two-thirds of all students.

The Coalition says it wants to re-design schools funding, but can’t even offer a plan, just a series of threats and thought bubbles.

Compare that to the Gonski reforms which were based on the biggest review in a generation – which took into account the views of educators, school systems and academics.

Redistributing funding between states won’t add a single new teacher or support program. There is no way to fix this without resources. Likewise the current debate about shifting funding from private schools currently above the SRS would only deliver a fraction of the funding needed.

Any discussion of the level of resources schools need does not mean we need to stop talking about what is done with the funding, how we train and recruit teachers, or how best to invest in teaching programs in our schools.

These are vital issues but we must recognise that a lack of resourcing effects everything a school does or tries to do.

How can the Coalition explain to states like NSW and SA – where governments know Gonski is working and have committed to their share of the last two years - why it won’t properly resource their schools?

And, more importantly, how can it explain to disadvantaged students and their parents why it does not think they deserve to have the support they need at school?

They should be able to rely on the certainty of funding which Gonski is delivering.