I come from a teaching family. My parents met at Burwood Teacher’s College in Melbourne in the 1960s. You can still see some of the original buildings today, where, perhaps fittingly, I now work, having recently secured a position at Burwood’s modern incarnation, Deakin University.
My dad went on to a varied career in the public service, as a social work lecturer, an advisor to a state education minister, and later, in the private sector. My mum remained a teacher. Over a remarkable 40-year career, she has taught everywhere from country Victoria to Brixton in London. Now, at the age of 68, she’s about to retire as the principal of a primary school, deep in the tough outer suburbs of Ipswich, in Queensland. She’s implemented a national curriculum, secured millions of dollars of extra funding from the state and Commonwealth, and battled a devastating flood, which submerged half the school’s classrooms in a metre of Bremer River mud.
When I ask her about the biggest issue she has to deal with, she replies: disadvantage. The students entering her school count amongst the poorest in the state of Queensland. Some of the kids turning up for their first year are not yet toilet trained. Some have only rudimentary motor coordination: they can’t hold a pencil or even sit still for any length of time. Some don’t know their own name. The ‘soft skills’ so vital to human flourishing, ordinarily imparted by parents and grandparents almost unconsciously, are often lacking in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. These kids start their school years far behind their middle-class peers. The worst cases harbour dark histories of neglect and abuse.
In recent years, the federal government has embarked on an extensive project of gathering data to measure the nation’s schools system. Along with a national testing system, called NAPLAN, the government has also created a website allowing parents to track data on their children’s schools, called My School. One stat the My School engine spits out is called the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) score, which relates to the school’s relative advantage or disadvantage. My mum’s school has an ICSEA score of 902, a full standard deviation below the mean. Seventy-two per cent of the school’s students are in the bottom half of the socio-economic distribution. According to my dad, who has run the stats, her school is in the bottom tenth of schools in Queensland, which is by no means the best-performing state in the federation.
My mum’s school is an appropriate place to begin a discussion of Australia’s robust debate about schooling. It is schools like this that will most benefit from one of the more contentious policy issues of the 2013 election campaign: the Gonski reforms.
It’s perhaps surprising that an arcane debate about how to fund our schools system has become one of the key election issues in the run-up to the 2013 election. But for reasons that are partly global and macro-economic, and partly local and specific, schools policy has taken on unusual potency in recent years. In the process, the name of a merchant banker has become synonymous with schools policy. His name is David Gonski, and the review he chaired is centre of the current debate.
Schools have always been important, but they’re getting more important. A century ago, Australia’s economy was still dominated by agriculture and local manufacturing. Both were hungry for unskilled workers. Few Australians studied at university. White collar jobs were relatively few. Now we work in an economy in which unskilled jobs have almost completely migrated to Asia, and where even white collar careers are no longer a guaranteed vocation for life. Some of the fastest-growing parts of the economy are the ‘pink collar’ or ‘no collar’ sectors like healthcare, IT and the creative industries. Buffeted by the high Aussie dollar, manufacturing is in long-term decline.
This big picture stuff is affecting rich nations all over the world, as our economies mutate and our jobs get ever more complex, trade-exposed, skills-intensive and robot-vulnerable. Workers with only a high-school education incur a huge wages penalty across their lifetime compared to their better-educated colleagues. The less educated and the low-skilled are more vulnerable to the gale-force winds of global capital, which can shift labour requirements between national jurisdictions and offshore jobs with the click of a mouse. Of course, there are university drop-outs starting internet companies, but the information technology sector is hardly unskilled. Google is famous for its preference for maths graduates. Literacy in statistics, data and code are more and more prized.
The politics are just as important.
In Australia, schools have become one of the key markers of class distinction. Buttressed by privilege, fuelled by ambition, bloated by government largesse, Australia’s elite private schools deliver a quality of education that outstrips anything available at any of our increasingly cash-strapped universities. The quality of teaching and educational resources deployed by the great private schools of Australia’s capital cities is probably the most intellectually rigorous, and certainly the best-resourced, available anywhere on this continent.
I know, because I went to one. The classes I attended at Brisbane Grammar School in the 1990s benefited from teachers with masters’ degrees in English literature and Australian history (specialties: Mailer and post-war American fiction; Australian politics after Federation), a massive library with seemingly infinite resources, a bespoke outdoor education centre, even lab pracs in molecular biology. The sporting program spent tens of thousands a year (in 1990s’ dollars) on physiotherapy and sports medicine for the marquee First XV rugby team. In my graduating year, the school produced the largest number of top tertiary entrance scores in the state. And this was before the election of John Howard brought millions flooding in from the federal government.
The mission of top private schools is, as they quite overtly advertise, to turn out leaders: to credential and approve a social elite. Schools in Australia have come to occupy one of the key status-conferring roles in our society. Perhaps because Australia’s university system is not nearly as unequal, schools here play roughly the same role that the elite Ivy League institutions play in the United States: as incubators and signifiers of the meritocratic elite, a cohort of students who can be expected to go on to fill key posts in the commanding heights of our society: medicine, law, the echelons of business, the top professions, as well as the intelligentsia and even much of the art world.
Parents send their kids to schools for a whole range of reasons. But there’s no doubt that some parents have the money to shell out top dollar to ensure their children get more than the very best education money can buy. What they’re really buying is the imprimatur of privilege. In many cases, they succeed.
The assertion that Australia is a relatively classless or egalitarian society collapses as soon as one examines our schools. The data on this inequality is now incontrovertible. It has been painstakingly gathered by the Gonski Review. It shows that Australian schooling is startlingly skewed. Students at lower performing schools are literally years behind their high-performing cousins: perhaps three years behind by secondary school. The bottom tier of our schools, such as those in the outback Northern Territory, are some of the worst performing schools in the OECD.
None of this would matter if inequality had no impact on schooling. If kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, attending resource-poor schools, could make it into university and high-paying jobs as easily as a prefect from Scots College, then the education debate would be a lot less heated. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Inequality helps manufacture poorer outcomes. As the Gonski Review puts it, in marvellously flat tones, ‘countries that have high educational outcomes tend to also have low levels of performance inequality.’
And Australia is no longer delivering ‘high educational outcomes’. The Lucky Country is well behind the international high achievers, like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and Finland in international measures like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). There is a confusing acronym for everything in education policy.
One of the countries often cited as a leader in world schooling is Finland. It makes an interesting comparison, if only because the Finns’ approach to schooling is so different. Finland has a system that emphasises universality. The school system is almost totally public. Finnish schools are well funded and their teachers are well paid, highly respected and highly educated themselves: most have masters’ degrees. Ninety-three per cent of high-school students graduate. Two-thirds go to university. The academic gap between the best- and worst-performing students is the smallest in the world.
In an interview with the ABC’s Lateline last year, Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish director-general of education, told Emma Alberici that ‘we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system.’ Sahlberg also cited the Canadian and South Korean schools systems as similarly equal. Both score above Australia in international test scores.
Halfway through the interview, Sahlberg said something that, to Australian ears, sounds rather astonishing. ‘In Finland, we don’t have any private schools.’ Finland devotes essentially no government funding to private schools, and very few are established there. The reason, Sahlberg explained, was that the Finns wanted to ‘make sure that every single school is a good school in Finland, and all the schools have good teachers.’
It’s a sentiment that sounds utopian in the Australian context. Rather than prop up poorer-performing public schools, Australia spends lavishly on non-government schools, many of them at the very top of the tree. The best recent data, compiled by the Parliamentary Library, tells us that the Commonwealth spends nearly twice as much on non-government schools ($8.2 billion) as it does on public schools ($4.5 billion); and that Canberra spends far more on private schools, which are not traditionally a federal responsibility, than it does on universities, which are. Only Chile and Belgium devote less of their national education budget to the public sector.
So our schooling disease is clear enough. But, precisely because schools are such a hot-button social issue, the remedy of redistribution is fiercely resisted.
Labor found this out the hard way in 2004, when it took a very mild policy of redistribution to that year’s federal election. The party proposed redirecting some of the extra private school funding, doled out by John Howard’s government since 2001, back to the public system. Only the very elite private schools, with the very highest Socioeconomic Status (SES) scores, would be touched.
The backlash, particularly from sections of the media whose children attended some of these schools, was immediate and raucous. Labor’s leader, Mark Latham, was derided as a class warrior seeking to punish the best and the brightest. Although the true strength of the reaction is often overstated, the savage blowback was later elevated to a kind of parable amongst Labor strategists: don’t take on the private schools lobby. In 2007, Kevin Rudd explicitly committed to retaining all Commonwealth funding for private schools.
That’s been Labor’s position ever since. Even for a government not known for its tact in avoiding enmities, taking the private and Catholic schools lobbies head on achieved the political status of ‘courageous’. Although the ALP took a policy of reviewing schools funding to the 2007 and 2010 elections, when the Gonski Review was eventually announced the terms of reference stipulated that no school would be worse off. Labor gave itself no option of increasing equality by playing Robin Hood. A future schools settlement that gave to the poor would not be allowed to rob from the rich.
The Gonski panel solved this problem by trying to ‘flood the system with money’, as education policy expert Chris Bonnor told me in a podcast interview. The idea was to lift up the laggards by spending lots of money of them, while continuing to fund everyone else at least at current levels. As a policy outcome, it had the benefit of increasing resource levels across the system. It also allowed the Gillard government to promise that no single school would be worse off.
But nothing is easy in schools policy, especially in a federal system where the states and territories run schools, rather than Canberra. It took Minister for School Education Peter Garrett more than a year of number crunching to come up with the government’s official response to Gonski. Garrett’s plan ran into trouble almost immediately.
The former Midnight Oil front man was mostly not to blame. It wasn’t his fault the money ran out. In the time between the commission of the Gonski Review and the announcement of the government’s response, tax revenue collapsed. While Australia comfortably survived the global financial crisis, corporate profits didn’t. Company taxes, in particular, are well down on expectations. The result has been hundreds of billions of dollars in budget write-downs. The government’s piggy bank is empty.
Garrett and Julia Gillard were thus faced with an unenviable problem. They could no longer flood the system with cash. At most, they could offer an incremental top-up. The government’s final response boiled down to a cash offer to the states and territories. If they would support the Gonski reforms, Canberra would tip in a few billion extra each year: around $10 billion spread over six years. To get it, the states would have to cough up some funding of their own. All up, the final figure would come to around $15 billion in extra schools funding, over a period stretching out to 2020. It’s less than half the $39 billion Gonski said would be necessary. Critics christened the offer ‘Gonski-lite’.
Worse still for reaching a national agreement, some states under this plan would fare better than others. The government’s proposal – certainly a viable one – was to establish a national funding standard of per-student funding, and top up the states and territories to get each school up to the watermark. But some states would need more than others, and the top-ups would be inversely proportional to each jurisdiction’s current commitments. Queensland and New South Wales are rather stingy supporters of their schools. Their schools are well below the resource standard. They will get billions. Western Australia, buoyed by lucrative mining royalties, has invested heavily in its schools in recent years. It will get just a paltry few hundred million. Yet again, the Westerners will be dudded by the arrogant bureaucrats from Over East. Premier Colin Barnett found the rhetorical opportunities irresistible. He refused to sign on to the deal.
In contrast, New South Wales’ premier Barry O’Farrell didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. He signed on the dotted line, no doubt calculating that an incoming Abbott government would find it hard to go back on an agreement that delivers billions in extra funding to the schools in Australia’s largest state. The rest of the premiers and chief ministers held back, holding out for a better deal.
Most observers expect the old imperatives of federalism to work their course. ‘Never get between a premier and a bucket of money,’ warned Paul Keating, and Canberra’s fat cheque book is likely to be too tempting for the states and territories to ignore. Education policy researcher Bronwyn Hinz told me that ‘I think individual deals will be made with many, if not all, of the states and territories by 30 June – because at the end of the day, no state wants to be the one that missed out on additional funding for schools.’ At the time of writing, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia are still holding out.
So chances are we’ll get a version of Gonski, if a rather penurious one. The end result looks a lot like business as usual. Schools funding will be overhauled, but inequality is unlikely to vanish.
Some aspects of the new system are undoubtedly better. The new funding formulas are no longer the ticking time-bombs the old algorithms were, and the worst-performing schools, like my mum’s, will get extra help to hoist themselves up. But it’s not as much money as Gonski said would be required, and the funds will be targeted not at the bottom quarter of schools, as recommended, but at the bottom half, which spreads the extra dollars more thinly. And the elite private schools will keep their funding: all of it. So the top couple of per cent will continue to streak ahead.
The likely election of an Abbott government in September complicates matters further. Under its high-profile schools spokesman, Christopher Pyne, the Coalition has been no fan of the Gonski Review. Both Pyne and Tony Abbott have repeatedly cast doubt on whether they would honour Gonski agreements on coming to office.
If Julia Gillard does sign up most of the states and territories, the egg could be too difficult to unscramble. There is no doubt Pyne prefers the current system, in which non-government schools will enjoy more and more funding over time, to reforms which in effect halt the spigots of cash pouring into the non-government systems. But the fiscal imperatives are such that a future Coalition government may come to like some of the Gonski settlement’s particulars, especially if indexation rates can be weakened to crimp spending growth over time.
Hence Gonski, or Gonski-lite, will most likely shape Australia’s schools system for years to come. Like many of Labor’s reforms under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, it’s a partial win at best. It won’t rebalance the playing field; nor will it remove venerable private schools from the resumes of Australia’s professional elites. But it will help some of our poorest school students get a better shot at a good education, and a better life.
My mum is retiring later this year. Like most state school principals, she’s a supporter of the Gonski reforms, and believes they could make a big difference to the teaching and educational resources her school can offer. For instance, her school already provides free breakfasts for students. Otherwise, many would start the school day not having eaten. Extra funding could help her hire extra support for her teachers, and extra help for her students at risk. Of course, extra funding can only achieve so much.
Whether you think Gonski is worth it depends on your view of the difficulties and possibilities of social reform. For those hoping for more radical reform, Gonski-lite is a failure, even a betrayal. As Monash University policy research David Zyngier recently wrote, ‘Labor is waging class war…against its own class.’
If, on the other hand, you think politics is an art of contingency, you might judge the benefits to outweigh the costs. Reform is slow, and difficult. As Max Weber famously put it, politics is a ‘slow boring of hard boards’. The privileged don’t easily give up their perquisites. Pulling up the needy is much harder than showering gifts on the well recognised and most able. Australia’s school system will remain very unequal. But that inequality might moderate. At the very bottom, students that need the extra help might be better off.
If you ask my mum if she’d take the extra funding, she’ll say yes. Like the premiers and chief ministers, she knows something is better than nothing. That’s just basic arithmetic.