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Election result ‘could help revive Gonski’

Opinion

Reviving Gonski would improve the education results of struggling South Australian schools and address entrenched disadvantage, writes Matt Osborn.

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It’s been three years since South Australia signed up to the Gonski education funding agreement, featuring more than $650 million in new funding to students on the basis of need, and removing the ceiling imposed on young people due to factors of disadvantage, distance, and disability.

It’s also three years since then Opposition leader Tony Abbott decried Labor’s use of Gonski as a political wedge and guaranteed that Labor and the Liberals were on a unity ticket.

Clearly, a lot has changed in the last three years.

The Coalition Government reneged on the funding agreements and decided to go back the drawing board, but a simpler, flatter and less-regulated model never materialised.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s short-lived proposal to allow states and territories to exclusively fund public schools with revenue raised from levying income tax failed to gain any traction.

The Gonski expert panel advocated for funding to be based on aspirational educational outcomes, but the $1.2 billion in additional education funding available from 2018 to 2020, announced within the 2016 Federal Budget, is merely the application of an education-specific indexation rate to current funding.

Labor promised to honour the Gonski funding agreements, but its raft of spending commitments was projected to lead to a deficit $16.5 billion higher over the budget period. The Coalition repeated its position that the Government must live within its means, but the underlying lack of detail failed to woo voters.

However, the close federal election result provides a unique opportunity to build consensus.

Standing in its way is entrenched ideology.

Which brings us to Professor Richard Blandy’s recent article on InDaily – specifically, his commentary about Melbourne’s Kambrya College, which featured in ABC2’s Revolution School.

The success achieved at Kambrya College is worth celebrating. But Professor Blandy’s observation that the marked academic improvement is “…not because of any preferential expenditure increase compared with other Victorian schools” is misleading.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the principal of Kambrya College, Michael Muscat, had to say:

“In commencing this massive task we were fortunate to be part of the federal government’s National Partnerships Program, a precursor to needs-based Gonski funding that gave extra resources to low-performing schools.

“This funding was a godsend and kick-started our improvement.”

Additional Commonwealth funding was the only way that Kambrya College was able to employ leading teachers and engage a leadership coach to work with teachers and staff.

Professor Blandy is correct when he states that the “…relentless focus on the quality of teaching can truly make a difference to the lives of students and that can happen in any school in the nation”, but there is a cost involved. Schools cannot establish professional development programs for teachers without a financial investment.

It is difficult to fathom the logic behind the suggestion that schools should be incentivised to improve academic outcomes through funding cuts. Proposing the removal of funding certainty would savage the capacity for any school to develop long-term academic programs, and performance would inevitably drop further. This is precisely the opposite of the needs-based funding model recommended by the Gonski Review.

Penalising schools on this basis would inevitably lead to further inequity for students, particularly those in the country, with a disability or experiencing disadvantage.

Let’s consider the outcomes of investing in education on a needs basis in South Australia.

Roma Mitchell Secondary College is a multi-campus high school in Adelaide’s inner-north. Fifteen percent of the 1300 students have disabilities, and 8 percent of students are Indigenous. Using Gonski money, a speech pathologist has been employed to work with students with learning difficulties. Tutors have been appointed in the new Aboriginal Education Learning Centre to work individually with Indigenous students, families and teachers to support students in their studies.

The 2015 NAPLAN tests indicated a 6 per cent increase in students showing improvement in the upper level in reading compared to 2014 results, with a 1 per cent decrease in the percentage of students showing low progress.

Because of Gonski money, students with disabilities at Roma Mitchell Secondary College have benefitted from teachers equipped with training and strategies to help them overcome the daily barriers to learning that speech, language, fluency and voice disorders present.

In claiming that government cuts to education “cannot be expected to do discernible harm to overall student performance”, Professor Blandy seems to be joining with the Turnbull Government in asking us to believe that $1.2 billion in additional education funding will achieve the same or better educational outcomes than Labor’s pledge of $4.5 billion over the same timeframe, without explaining how or why this is possible.

Cuts to needs-based funding will mean that Indigenous kids, children with disabilities, young people from the country and students living with disadvantage will miss out.

By remaining committed to the notion of needs-based funding while failing to produce an alternative model of distribution, the Abbott-Turnbull Government has avoided detailed analysis of how the Coalition’s plan stacks up against Gonski.

It’s now clear that voters went to the ballot box on Saturday wary of cuts to services under a returned Coalition Government – most voters nominated health and education as the issues that guided their vote. It must now be recognised that the electorate’s preference is swinging away from austerity in favour of accessible and high-quality services.

The reality is that we have a choice. If we want to give all Aussie kids the best opportunity for an education, it’s a matter of making school funding a priority and adjusting fiscal settings accordingly, not the other way around.

The result of the election may help revive Gonski.

A minority Coalition Government, cautious of further service cuts campaigns, could seize the opportunity of negotiating with minor parties and independents to reinstate the unity ticket on school funding.

Committing to the establishment of a National Schools Resourcing Body to implement a Schools Resourcing Standard would enable the Government to refocus its message of delivering quality educational outcomes.

Reinstating support for Gonski might come with a price, meaning that Labor’s $4.5 billion would not be fully matched. If this compromise was to occur, the present balance of schools funding must be reassessed, with schools in most need (regardless of sector) receiving additional investment. A review of the current funding distribution to schools across all sectors would be a practical and logical next step, along with the development of a standard of responsibilities and obligations of all schools receiving public funding.

It’s critical that minor parties and independents approach negotiations with the Liberals and Labor having listened to the overwhelming public support for needs-based funding and determined to ensure that irrespective of whomever forms government, Gonski agreements are honoured.

The cost to invest in education is nothing compared to the price we will pay if the Government fails to deliver on the most comprehensive reforms in a generation.

Properly investing in education, starting by implementing the final years of the Gonski deal, will have a positive long-term impact on South Australia’s economy and jobs, and address entrenched disadvantage.

Having delivered the education outcomes that most struggling Australian schools aspire to, Michael Muscat should have the final word:

“Kambrya College has shown that investment in education gets results. It is essential for the Australian government to proceed with the full six-year agreement regarding Better Schools funding in order for the wonderful work initiated through the National Partnerships funding to continue.”

Matt Osborn is the Lead Organiser with One Community SA (lead agency of the Learn to Grow campaign promoting investment in education), a City of Port Adelaide Enfield Councillor, and a member of the Australian Labor Party.

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