Wednesday, 30 December 2015


Birmingham as Scrooge

Today’s announcement that the Turnbull government won’t honour the final two years of Gonski schools funding is unsurprising but nevertheless disappointing. The Abbott/Turnbull government long ago walked away from Christopher Pyne’s ‘unity ticket’ pledge. The timing of the announcement, between Christmas and New Year, suggests the government wanted to minimise scrutiny of its decision, with good reason. Turnbull and Birmingham may have missed Christmas by a few days but Ebenezer Scrooge would be proud of them.

Part of the problem here lies with the Gillard government’s failure to fully adopt and bed down the reforms recommended by David Gonski and his expert panel in 2011 after 18 months of research. Had the Labor government made a better fist of this task and developed a consistent national model, including an independent federal body to determine funding, we might not be where we are now.

There’s little doubt that an incoming federal Labor government would deliver on the additional funding promised to the states and which state premiers and education ministers are demanding. So it’s the LNP government that has questions to answer.

Today federal education minister Simon Birmingham has indicated he wants a new needs based funding model developed by 2018. Gonski tabled his report in late 2011, so the LNP has had two years in opposition and two years in government to develop a schools funding model. Now Birmingham wants another two years. Despite the rhetoric, it’s hard to escape the conclusion it’s just not that important to this government, except to neutralise it as an election issue.

There’s no doubt the government has to consider its budgetary situation. But what’s the long term impact on the economy of an education system that marginalises a good proportion of the population? And I expect most people could nominate some potential savings. Try offshore processing of refugees, big business tax avoidance and Direct Action payments to big polluters for starters. And if a serious review of school funding took place there would be potential savings from private school funding – an option Gonski was forbidden from contemplating.

There are other concerns coming from Birmingham’s announcement today. His claim that public schools cannot be trusted to spend additional funding wisely is both irrational and insulting. There is a wealth of research about what makes a difference to student learning; our issue quite simply is that we don’t have the funding to do what’s needed. I don’t recall non government schools being questioned in this way as their funding sky rocketed over the last 15 years. And if we look at where that funding went, it supported the employment of additional teachers and the development of new facilities, which Birmingham classifies as wasteful. Ironically, the impact of that funding was not to lower school fees (they’ve increased at a rate far exceeding the CPI) but to concentrate advantage in non government schools and disadvantage in public schools. At some stage government is going to have to address this issue, unless of course it favours education as a means of preserving privilege.

The other major area of concern is Birmingham’s signal that he wants the commonwealth to play a more interventionist role in schools. This might satisfy some egos in Canberra, but it’s a poor signal. Schools remain a state responsibility under the Australian constitution and if we need anything from Canberra it’s less intervention, not more. If you want evidence, look at the slide in Australia’s educational performance over the last 15 years while Canberra has adopted a much more active role and sought to direct policy while doling out more funding to schools that are already well off in the name of promoting choice. The equity gap is widening; our most needy students (80% of whom are educated in public schools) are falling further behind and our highest ability students are flatlining. Birmingham would be better advised to make a meaningful contribution to the federal constitutional reform process.

Both the LNP government and Labor claim they want a needs based school funding model. That is completely at odds with the pattern of education spending over the last 15 years. It’s time to do something.

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