Blame-shifting at a Federal level leads to Gonski 2.0

May 17, 2017

The Gonski report, undertaken by a number of eminent Australians, and led by David Gonski AC, former Chairman of Sydney Grammar School and Chancellor of the University of NSW, was commissioned by the Gillard Labor Government. Gonski’s report was based around the principle of sector blind, needs based funding, which would treat all schools, whether government, Catholic or independent, the same way, on the basis of identified funding need. This was a worthy principle, supported by all sectors. Unfortunately, from the time of official release (I was present as the Chair at that time of AHISA, the Independent Heads association), the Prime Minister made it clear that Gonski, in its necessary full sense, would not be implemented. Additionally, knowing that they were likely to lose the next Federal election, the Labor Government pushed the real funding back into the later stages of the plan, knowing that by then, finding the money would probably not be their problem, but an issue (and a nice buried incendiary!) for a subsequent Coalition Government. Mr Abbott, as Leader of the Opposition, signed up to deliver Gonski, but abandoned this as soon as he gained government.

Each side of politics has played fast and loose with Gonski, as have federal and state layers of government. Each party has blamed the other from their time in government, while the feds have blamed the states and the states have blamed the feds! One of the problems in the way our Australian Democracy is structured is the inbuilt capacity of politicians to shift blame. This game is played endlessly.

The impact of lobby groups has distorted Gonski out of all shape, so what has been paraded in recent years as ‘Gonski’ is, by his own admission, unrecognisable to its founder.

Politicking, where governments and oppositions are inclined to prefer short-term political advantage and wedging to the long-term interests of the nation, has disguised two basic realities:

  1. There is a great disparity between the educational resourcing of the most affluent Australian students, compared with the most disadvantaged. The former are found in the really elite schools of our nation, with spectacular facilities; the latter are found mostly in government schools (but also in some Catholic and in some independent schools), in disadvantaged areas on the perimeters of our major cities, in rural and regional areas, and in the outback.
  2. Many schools – government, Catholic and independent – have been funded for many years beyond their level of entitlement. Governments have lacked the political courage to deal with this situation, as to deprive some communities of their resources may cost them votes. Accordingly, they have established an absurd time scale where it will take over 100 years for some of these schools to reduce to their mandated level of government funding (SACS is not one of these schools! We are funded at the appropriate level. Eighty-six per cent of our funds come from parental fees, a level set in response to the relatively high educational levels, occupational roles and income of our parents, according to the last completed census. The remaining 14 per cent are the aggregate of federal and state government funding of our school).

Prime Minister Turnbull has surprised us all by announcing Gonski 2.0, where David Gonski himself will lead a further review of the implementation of a needs-based model, and where overfunded schools will more quickly be returned to their gazetted level of entitlement. What is going on here? Have politicians been struck by pangs of conscience? More likely, the Federal Government has realised it is in electoral trouble (they, along with the rest of us, have seen the polls and are looking for levers to gain support). Two of these levers appear to be educational funding and house prices. These particularly may speak to marginal electorates, where elections are decided.

What will be the impact on SACS?

Probably very little, given that our funding is at the level which the government finds appropriate. Other schools not far from us, with extensive facilities, charge fees much less than SACS because their government funding is so much above their entitlement level. Over time, the effect on them could be very substantial.

This issue no doubt has some way to play out before it is settled. Each pressure group will attack the government with whatever levers it can find in order to deter it from enacting legislation which deprives its stakeholders of some of their funding base. Facing elections with a low support base, governments normally become timid.

In any case, the Prime Minister’s plans need to run the gauntlet of an unpredictable Senate, where various arrangements of convenience between minor parties decide the fate of legislation passed by the House of Representatives. No doubt a great deal of lobbying will occur from interest groups.

At SACS, we support proper resourcing of the disadvantaged, as an aspect of Christian social justice. Jesus was concerned for and often found in the company of the poor, the alienated and the dispossessed. The Prophet Amos enunciates the principle clearly: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream!” – Amos 5:24

David Gonski himself has enormous credibility. He is apolitical and can be relied upon to make recommendations for the national good. If it be possible to end the funding wars between sectors and schools, and fund all elements of the Australian community appropriately, our nation will prosper, governments will also get what they want, i.e. better PISA results (Program of International Student Assessment) in that Australia would have a higher PISA ranking among the OECD countries. The main factor which is holding Australia back is the length of the academic tail, which is a function of the inability of governments to resource disadvantaged schools in deprived areas, and resource learning disability generally in any school.

Dr John Collier
Head, St Andrew’s Cathedral School