The stark class divide in education, and the Gonski solution


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There is a dramatic class divide in Australian education. The Gonski Review reveals it to be so stark that our international performance is slipping.

The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling is the first comprehensive review of school funding in Australia since the 1970s.  Its findings are incredibly important for Australian education. Its recommendations must be supported by all those who care about equity in education, and the proper funding of public education in particular.

The Gonski Review identifies some very disturbing trends in Australian education.

Firstly it provides evidence that, while we are a high performing country when it comes to education, our international performance is slipping.

In 2000 only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy, and only two countries outperformed us in mathematical literacy in the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA.  By 2009, six countries outperformed us in reading and scientific literacy and 12 countries outperformed us in mathematics. 

Even more concerning is that our self-perception as a nation of equality with a fair go for all just isn’t borne out when it comes to our education system. 

Compared to many OECD countries, the performance gap is far greater in Australia between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from wealthier backgrounds.  In Australia, your demography determines your destiny – much more so than in other comparable nations.  Students from the highest socio-economic group are on average two years ahead of students from the lowest socio-economic group.  In 2009 nearly one in three school leavers aged 15-24 years did not complete year 12.  These students were overwhelmingly from lower socio-economic groups and students from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds.

This stark class divide in Australian education must be addressed. It should not be tolerated for the sake of fairness and equal opportunity – but even for those who do not aspire to these lofty ideals, our declining international performance is partly due to the Australian education system having what is termed a ‘stubborn equity tail’. 

The Gonski Review shows that the most successful schooling systems internationally are those where students achieve to the best of their ability ‘without their background or the school they attend impacting on their outcomes’.  Because the impact of student background in Australia is stronger than in many other OECD countries, our international performance as a whole is declining.  Educational inequality impacts on our international competitiveness and long-term economic performance.  We are not harnessing the talents of all of our citizens.

Why is it that Australia has failed to achieve the same levels of social mobility through education as other OECD nations?

Firstly, Australia is unusual in the funding governments provide for non-government schools.

Our non-government school sector is highly subsidised compared to other countries.  By way of comparison, in the land of the free market, the United States, if you want to send your child to an elite private secondary school, you can pay upwards of $100,000 per annum for the privilege.  By comparison, subsidised private schooling in Australia is much more affordable for middle class and even working class parents.

The non-government school sector is therefore able to compete very effectively with our government schools to attract the best and brightest students.

Secondly, our government school sector in states such as NSW aims to attract the best and brightest students to selective schools at the expense of local comprehensive high schools. 

Australia has a system of schooling that is far more segregated than other school systems around the world.  Students from wealthier backgrounds, or those with natural ability, are more likely to attend non-government schools or government selective high schools compared to kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

The problem with this structure is that the latest educational research shows that student cohorts matter for the performance of all students in that school.  It is much harder for a school that only caters to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed, relative to schools which have a comprehensive mix including students of all classes and educational backgrounds. 

The Nous Report (a research paper commissioned as part of the Gonski process) concluded that, once you take student quality and other resources into account, government schools do as well as, if not better than, non-government schools, when it comes to the quality of the education experience.  There is not a lot that non-government or government selective schools are doing that is educationally ‘better’ or creates a greater education ‘value add’ than the comprehensive government system – it’s just that their cohort of students is from a background that makes it much more likely to succeed educationally.

One of the few things that can intervene in a child’s ‘demographic destiny’ is their schooling experience.  There are many factors that make a good school – including good teachers, good facilities, and good extra-curricular programs.  However, what we now know is that good educational outcomes are also dependent on a mixed and aspirational student cohort where all sorts of student and adult role models exist, whether they are academic, sporting or cultural role models.  High expectations impact on educational outcomes. 

The divide that has occurred between the haves and the have-nots in Australian schooling, and in our secondary school system in particular, has been extremely damaging for both our international performance, and for any claim that we are still a society of the ‘fair go’.

So what is Gonski’s solution, and why is it so great?

The Gonski Review outlines an objective ‘resource standard’ for all Australian schools, regardless of sector. 

The Review sets a standard that all schools should meet.  This is determined by looking at ‘reference schools’, both government and non-government, from across the country.  The reference schools are schools where 80 percent of students achieve and sustain performance over three years that is consistently above the national minimum standard.

From these schools a ‘per student amount’ is calculated.  Based on 2009 figures, the indicative estimate for primary schools performing at this level is around $8,000 per student.  For secondary schools it is around $10,500 per student.

However, the formula goes further.  It then applies ‘loadings’ for factors shown to affect educational outcomes.  Loadings are applied for factors such as school size and location; number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds; numbers of Indigenous students and numbers of students from a non-English speaking background.  These loadings mean that schools that have higher numbers of students from higher need backgrounds, get more resources.  It is a simple idea and the formula is universally applied across all schools – government and non-government.

Public education advocates have applauded this funding approach.  It means that schools serving communities with greater concentrations of disadvantage will receive more funds.  The funding model recognizes the educational challenge that these schools face. 

The Review also recommends that School Planning Authorities be established within each jurisdiction, with representatives from both government and non-government sectors, so that there is a coordinated approach to planning for new schools and school growth. 

The idea is that public investment in new schools should only be provided for schools that are objectively determined to be needed in that community.  At the moment, public funding automatically flows to any registered non-government school that decides to establish itself in a particular area. 

This can lead to situations where there are four or five secondary schools, all receiving public funds, and all competing for students from one geographic area.  For government this is grossly inefficient. 

Further, only non-government or selective government schools have the ability to ‘choose’ their student cohorts, so an over-supply of school options in one area exacerbates the problem of segregated schooling.

High quality, free and secular public education provides a fundamental base for any civil society.  Access to free public education has for a long time been a key ask of the labour movement. Genuine social mobility and opportunity in our society, and education as the great equaliser in an otherwise unequal world, are both fundamental tenets of the Labor Party and the labour movement.

Australia has come a long way from its ‘fair go’ tradition.  The segregation in our school system is impacting on education outcomes in this country.  The fact that this has been allowed to happen is disturbing, but the findings of the Gonski Review offer a solution.  The Gonski Review is a game changer in public education in this country and must be supported.  There are not many chances to get these fundamentals right, and now is the time to act.

Author: Verity Firth

CEO Public Education Foundation

Verity Firth is the former member for Balmain, and was the NSW Minister for Education


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