OPINION: School education left with class divide


IT is all very well talking about needs-based funding, but Gonski 2.0 is increasingly looking like the cynic’s view of foreign aid (poor people in rich countries giving to rich people in poor countries). With Gonski 2.0 it looks like: poor parents of government-school students in middle and rich suburbs subsidising rich parents of private-school students in in middle and poor suburbs.

We see this in the way that some very wealthy high-fee schools are going to do fairly well under the new system and in the way that the Catholic system is allowed to distribute its government funds how it sees fit and it is giving more to its elite schools and less to its poor schools.

How and why did we get here?

Most people’s eyes glaze over when you mention “Gonski”, but education funding is of fundamental importance even if you do not have school-age children. It is affecting the social cohesion and economic prosperity of the country.

One problem is that the “needs” of schools under Gonski are largely determined by the socio economic status (SES) of the area code of its students. Moreover, in determining “needs” the funding formula does not consider the capacity or willingness of parents to pay fees.

The result is that an elite school with a lot of students coming from low and middle SES suburbs will get higher funding, even though the students coming from those low and middle SES suburbs are coming from very well-off families with a high capacity and willingness to pay fees.

By and large elite schools draw students from families with high capacity and willingness to pay fees, and they draw them from low to middle SES suburbs as well as high SES suburbs.

Indeed, you could imagine elite schools scooping up all the children of the wealthy and educationally keen in middle and poor SES suburbs. So they are getting credit for educating many students from low SES suburbs even though those children are from high SES families.

These schools are getting both the fees and the government funding.

The history is instructive. We have come a full circle. There was a time when Federal funding for school education and influence over it were critically importance. Now it is pernicious.

The inept, indolent, semi-corrupt, long-serving Tory knights of the mainland states in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s served Australian education poorly: Sir Henry Bolte (Victoria); Sir Robert Askin (NSW); Sir Thomas Playford (South Australia); and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (Queensland).

Small wonder Gough Whitlam set up the Schools Commission to shake up the shambolic do-nothing non-systems in the states.

Incidentally, this commission recommended that money going to the Catholic schools go through state-level trustee bodies each with an independent federal member to make the system more accountable for public money. Alas, that was not put in to effect.

Nonetheless, Federal money in the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating years by and large funding went according to need. Then along came John Howard who narrowed the broad church of the Liberal Party by removing all the pews left of the nave.

“Market forces” and “choice” entered the field of what used to be a universal right and duty to be educated. Federal funding was increased and greatly skewed towards wealthy elite schools, on the argument that the states were not providing them enough.

Many in the Coalition favoured a voucher system where students got a voucher to spend wherever they liked. The voucher would be enough to pay for education at a public school and no more. The idea was that everyone is entitled to an equal government contribution to their education – a money entitlement, not an entitlement to an education and a parental duty to ensure it is effected.

The theory was that every student’s education provided privately was one less that the government had to provide.

Fortunately, that grossly unfair system never got through. It would have meant that students of wealthy parents could take their government voucher and add more money in the form a fees to it and spend the lot at a lavish private school.

But Howard went quite a way towards that system. Seventy per cent of Federal money going to secondary education goes to private schools.

Educationally, much of the Federal money has been wasted because the private schools were already spending and delivering on the three Rs so the money was spent on luxury accouterments.

The Rudd-Gillard governments gave more money to education but never addressed this inequality. Julia Gillard foolishly promised that under Gonski Mark I no school would be worse off.

The result has been declining standards of education in Australia over the past 20 years compared to other OECD countries. We have wasted money in places where it is not needed and deprived places where it is.

It would now be better for the Federal Government to get out of secondary education altogether. The pressing need for Federal involvement in the early 1970s is no longer there. The inept, indolent Tory knights have gone. By and large the states have had some quite good governments of both complexions: Wran, Greiner, Carr, O’Farrell, Baird, Hamer, Bracks, Bannon, Richard Court, Carmen Lawrence, Goss, Beattie and so on.

These days the states often have more effective good-government principles than those at the federal level.

For the past 20 years, Federal interference in secondary education has only been for the worse.

The overarching Gonski principle of needs-based funding is a good one, but the detail of how to assess needs is more difficult. That said, there is every reason to believe people closer to the action can do a better job. Just give them the money.

The Feds are good and efficient at raising money, but not so good at the on-the-ground spending of it.


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