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The First Gonski Report

The governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard returned to the agenda which the Karmel Report and the Australian Schools Commissioned had pioneered thirty years previously: the unequal distribution of funding to public and non-government schools.

The first Gonski Report: funding of schools to be needs based and sector blind

In April 2010 Julia Gillard commissioned businessman David Gonski to lead a panel to examine the achievement of schools and their funding. The brief required that no school would end up with less funds than they currently received. (Note that the same promise was made by John Howard.) The panel received more than 7,000 submissions, visited 39 schools, and consulted 71 education groups – which gave an opportunity to consider the competence and commitment of people involved, bureaucrats, principals and teachers alike. The panel was very aware of the assertions about the competency of these people, especially the frequent assertion that “poor” education outcomes were due mainly to poorly qualified and/or competent teachers.

The panel delivered its report on February 20, 2012: the recommendations went to the heart of the issue of equity. The funding going to independent schools (especially since John Howard’s policies had been in place) was found to have led to severe under resourcing of public schools.

The Report recommended a new approach to funding to ensure differences in educational outcomes were not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possession: needs-based funding for each school student, with additional loading for disadvantaged students. It found the current funding arrangements for schooling were unnecessarily complex, lacked coherence and transparency, and involved a duplication of funding effort in some areas.

A significant increase in funding was required across all schooling sectors, with most of the increase flowing to the government sector due to the significant numbers and greater concentration of disadvantaged students attending government schools.

School funding was considered to be not simply a financial matter. Rather, it was about strengthening and securing Australia’s future. Schools must be appropriately resourced to support every child, and every teacher must expect the most from every child.

The principal proposal of the panel was that funding be delivered based on need: as well as being needs-based the outcomes should be sector blind. Schools serving less advantaged students, especially public schools, were found to be struggling much more than were other schools. A standard would be set with a uniform basic amount per student, to which loadings would be added to cover their students’ disadvantage in the categories of low socioeconomic status, English language proficiency, school size and location, and indigeneity. The allocation of funds would be determined from the bottom up, not from the top down in negotiations with states and sectors.

A few days after the release of the Gonski report The Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor commented on a report on teacher appraisal published by the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen and colleagues ten months earlier. “Better Teacher Appraisal and Feedback: Improving Performance” asserted, “Systems of teacher appraisal and feedback that are directly linked to improved student performance can increase teacher effectiveness by as much as 20 to 30%. This would not only arrest our decline but lift the performance of Australia’s students to the best in the world. But at present Australia’s systems of teacher appraisal and feedback are broken, and students are suffering as a result. It is time for change.” The similarity of this recommendation to one of the major findings of the second Gonski Report and its proposal to discard what it termed “an industrial model” must be obvious.

The study agreed with other studies. But money is what drives political debate! And accountability. So, the government ploughed on with its NAPLAN tests. The second Gonski Report took up the same issue.


David Gonski finds what actually goes on in Education

David Gonski delivered the Jean Blackburn Oration to the Australian College of Educators in May 2014 not long after the first report was published. He expressed opinions not in close agreement with the general tenor of debate and the common assertions. I have previously commented on this important speech by Mr Gonski and note particular statements again.

Of principals, “I don’t believe I found one I didn’t admire and respect… Some all had a quality of leadership which was both impressive and inspiring.”

Of schools, “I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.”

Of education department staff, “I confess that my un-researched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite. The people I met, who dealt with me, were on the whole open to change, experienced, intelligent and well-meaning…”

Of sector representatives and unions, “I should also mention that dealing with the representatives of the various sectors … was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively.”

He spoke of the value of encouraging movements between sectors of the economy which could build trust and “facilitate better cooperation in achieving ambitions for the country”.

I repeat the statements made in the post introducing the four current essays.

It would be entirely appropriate for a lot less notice to be taken of much of the commentary in favour of much more attention to the wisdom and knowledge of those who have contributed so much to what we now understand. And of course, most of all to the best understandings possible of what would bring the greatest gain to those who should benefit.

Response by Education Researchers

Leading education researchers provided their views on the Gonski Review’s findings and recommendations in a special article in The Conversation 20 February 2012. It was noted that funding levels and relativities of school sectors had been strongly contested, even undermined, since the release of the Karmel Report in 1975. Though the review was considered positively, even ambitious, concerns were expressed about the political climate, the government being seen in leadership turmoil and likely to defeat at the upcoming election, the Opposition’s response being intensely negative: it had come at a bad time in the economic and political cycles so its implementation could be difficult.

Professor Peter Aubusson, UTS, observed, “Australia has already decided it will support a private education sector. Many of our international competitors have decided to invest far more in education as a proportion of GDP than we have, often choosing a universally strong public education system.

“Australia has taken a different path. We prefer a marketplace that creates competition and drives educational standards. This system demands we have winners and losers. This system does not require, indeed it in no way encourages, fairness in any way other than in rhetoric…

”School funding by the Australian Commonwealth Government is a controversial and risky issue. He referred to difficulties in attempts to introduce the mining tax, health fund subsidies and carbon tax. “The simplistic private/public classification of schools is based on ideology rather than deep analysis of the nature of particular Australian schools and their communities.” It was observed that private school lobby groups who have warned Gonski off international comparisons as incompatible with Australian “tradition”.

David Zyngier of Monash University observed that numerous select committees had reviewed teacher quality and student outcomes over the previous 20 years. “But when we start to investigate the origin and source of the policies that are driving our public education system today what do find? Policies like mandatory national testing, publication of league tables, publishing comparative school data on MySchool, Teach for Australia, performance pay for teachers, contract teaching and so on. All these are imported from the failed education systems of the USA and England.”

The Political Response

In April 2013 Gillard announced $14.5 billion of additional money for school education and a new funding model. The Commonwealth Government was prepared to contribute a 65 per cent share of total funding. She called for the states to index their funding at 3 per cent pa and cease cuts to education, “no more taking money out of education as we have seen across the country” she told ABC News. Whilst a resource standard was to be set, the proposal by the panel to have it and the size of the loadings determined by a separate body like the Schools Commission was not agreed to.

The Coalition, in opposition, labelled the proposals as a con and spokesperson Christopher Pyne was vehement in his criticism.

Trevor Cobbold, former Productivity Commissioner and convenor of “Save Our Schools”, has followed the financial issues especially involved in the education debate focusing especially on public schools and inequity in the education policies. He strongly endorsed the National Plan on his website in June 2013 as,

a potential watershed for school funding in Australia. It breaks new ground in the history of school funding with its focus on increasing equity in education. Its adoption of Gonski’s equity goals and principles sets the foundation for the future.

“The plan provides the biggest increase in funding in living memory, certainly in the last 40 years. It proposes a $14.5 billion increase in school funding over the six years from 2013-14 to 2018-19.”

Over the next five months first NSW (April), which was to receive about $5 billion extra funding over six years from 2014, contributing 35 per cent from its own funds, then the ACT, committing an extra 3 per cent in funding, then South Australia.

In June the National Catholic Education Commission signed an agreement to gain $1.6 billion in extra funding for the nation’s 1,650 Catholic systemic schools for six years from 2014. The agreement gave authority for Australian government funding for schools, funding accountability obligations and outlined the details of the National Plan for School Improvement.

In July Tasmania signed up to the plan and then the Independent Schools Council of Australia reached an agreement for $625 million in additional federal funding to flow to independent schools around the country.

Christopher Pyne asserted the present system was fairer: “it’s more transparent, it’s clearer for people to apply, it has better indexation and it means every school next year and every year after that will be better off and get more money. Whereas the model that’s being proposed by the Government called the Gonski model, in spite of the fact that it’s not the Gonski model, cuts spending in the next four years by $325 million.”

In August Tony Abbott said, “we want to end the uncertainty by guaranteeing that no school will be worse off over the forward estimates period. So, we will honour the agreements that Labor has entered into. We will match the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure that no school is worse off.”

And Pyne elaborated. “Our approach will provide schools and parents with the funding certainty they deserve. It means that the Coalition will match Labor dollar-for-dollar over the next four years. We will dismantle all ‘command and control’ features imposed by Labor on the States, Territories and non-government schools and any new funding will not be conditional upon a deal which reduces their authority over schools or creates unnecessary red tape. If elected, the Australian Education Act will be amended to remove any parts that allow the Federal Government to dictate what states and territories must do in their schools.”

On August 3 Victoria signed up to the plan and was to receive $6.8 billion in extra funding. The result was only Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were not partners in the new “plan”.

A day later Rudd called a federal election for September 7. The Coalition won the election and Abbott became Prime Minister, Pyne Minister for Education. It was back to the drawing board! Pyne accused Labor of a school funding shambles and said he would announce a model “fairer to states and territories and equitable between students”. In November Pyne announced an extra $230 million for Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, confirmed in December as with “no strings attached”!

Coalition Years – The Abbott Government

The funding proposed in the National Plan was to flow over 10 years, rising from around $12 billion in 2013 to $28 billion in 2022-23. The Coalition was only talking about four years of funding. The difference became a major issue. Six months later, in May 2014 now Opposition spokesperson on education Kate Ellis accused the Abbott government of cutting $30 billion from schools. In fact, the government was providing increases over the years 2013 through 2018 totalling $18 billion of which $11 billion (60 per cent) was to be for non-government schools. They were not committing to funding through 2024-25.

So, the ensuing polices flowing from the findings of the first Gonski Panel became bogged down in arguments about the funding of public schools, schools which were required to accept every student who sought to enrol and which are funded almost entirely by taxpayer funds, and private or independent schools which can choose not to accept students for whatever reason and which are largely funded by parents and other sources but increasingly also by government funds, mainly the Commonwealth Government.

The Sydney Morning Herald in an editorial of December 3 2013 strongly criticised the new government led by Tony Abbott: the electorate and students were “betrayed by the cynicism of Abbott and Pyne”.

“Australians are not stupid. They know the Gonski plan is a chance to ensure every child has an equal opportunity to reach his or her potential. It ties needs-based funding to reforms aimed at better teaching, while devolving more education decisions to those who can best judge what children need.

“But there are no guarantees in the Abbott government’s latest commitments. Much remains unknown. What’s more, in its half-hearted reversion to a watered down and cut short Gonski-lite, the government has jettisoned most of the trust and goodwill of voters on education policy and far beyond.

“The cynicism behind the government’s betrayal could hardly be greater. “Voters can trust us in a way they could never trust old billion-dollar Bill [Shorten] over there,” Abbott told Parliament on Monday. The Prime Minister’s comments reflect a disturbing hubris and show he is yet to adapt to the responsibilities of government.

“Education is about the future of our children. It is not a political plaything. Yet for months Abbott has bobbed and weaved on Gonski to the extent that it is hard to know which of his comments to take seriously; which ones he expects voters to take “absolutely as the gospel truth” and which ones are just thought bubbles in “the heat of verbal combat”.”

In an opinion piece the following day Canberra writer Nicholas Stuart went further. “In a move of stunning incompetence, Pyne trashed a carefully wrought student-funding model without any idea of what’s going to replace it. It was a slapstick performance so incompetently carried out it would have drawn laughs in a music hall.”

As the Rudd/Gillard government departed to be replaced by the Abbott-led Coalition, Dean Ashenden summarised the situation and options.

He pointed to the Gonski report tackling three major problems in schooling: “the dysfunctional arrangements for funding three sectors in three different ways by two levels of government; the consequently chronic antagonism between sectors and interest groups; and the failure of funding policies to address growing problems in schooling, including social and cultural segregation, a widening gap between the best and worst schools, a “long tail” of students leaving school without even the bare minimum of skills, and stalled performance.”

He continued. “Gonski’s plan was elegant in its simplicity: Each school would be guaranteed a minimum per student amount (the “schooling resource standard,” or SRS), plus loadings reflecting the school’s size, location and demographics. The same formula would apply across all schools and sectors on the advice of a “national schools resourcing body.” The new scheme would be national, sector-blind and, above all, needs-based.

He pointed out that though widely applauded as an educational, political and policy breakthrough there were problems in the plan, “most of them exacerbated by the bungled, drawn-out implementation process initiated by Julia Gillard and conducted by schools minister Peter Garrett”.

The dropping of the national school resourcing body meant that there was no agency to carry the extensive research needed to settle key questions such as the level of the SRS, ways of measuring each of five categories of “need”, the proportion of total funds to go to basic resourcing as against the loadings, how many schools should receive loadings, and how extra resources could be most cost-effectively used. Nor was there an accountability mechanism.

Critics on the right (and in cabinet, apparently) claimed that school funding increases over the decades had done little or nothing to improve outcomes, in other words, they were simply throwing good money after bad.

“Since most needy schools were government-run, that sector was Gonski’s main beneficiary. Some supporters of non-government schools were suspicious or hostile, and Gonski became identified in many minds with public schools and the teacher organisations that did so much to bring the review into being. As well, Gonski was often seen as a kind of consolation for schools doing the hardest educational yards rather than, as intended, the price paid for schools to deliver improved performance.

“All this was in addition to the handicap given to Gonski at the outset, the requirement that “no school will be worse off,” which greatly complicated the calculation of school entitlements and pushed up costs (accounting for up to half of the $6.5 billion by some estimates).

The “unity ticket” on the Gonski reforms promised by the Coalition in opposition just before the election was abandoned upon gaining office. Coalition-governed states objected and refused to be told how to spend their money, a position supported by Abbott and Pyne. The result was a reversion to “the unfair, educationally counter-productive and administratively chaotic arrangements that confronted Gonski back in 2010.”

Ashenden concluded, “meanwhile, other arms of the Abbott government commissioned reviews – the Commission of Audit, the Competition Policy Review, and the Reform of the Federation process – that either directly tackled school funding or made recommendations bearing on it. None had Gonski’s breadth, and none linked resource distribution and use with national goals for schooling such as social cohesion and equality of opportunity.”

The Commission of Audit gave no consideration to education as an investment or the contribution it made to a live lived. It was simply an expenditure matter with relevance to future employment and economic growth!


In October 2016, Lyndsay Connors queried the Coalition Government’s commitment to removing the overfunding of some private schools which Minister Birmingham had admitted did exist.

“This came as the Turnbull Government is under pressure to commit the Commonwealth to meeting its share of the funding required to achieve the Gonski resource standards. The Coalition Government will have, reluctantly, funded only one-third of the transition towards those standards by 2017. For schools that are yet to reach the appropriate standards under the formula developed by the Gonski Review in 2012 the Commonwealth bucks will stop there. The Coalition budget commitment of only $1.2 billion over four years will not do much more than cover the effects of inflation. It falls far short of the $3 billion needed to bring all schools to the Gonski standards in 2019 according to the timetable foreshadowed by the previous Labor Government.”

Overfunding had existed since 1973: the Karmel Committee had committed to phasing out the overfunding.

She continued, “The definition of ‘need’ proposed by the Karmel Committee meant that the lion’s share of ‘state aid’ for private schools would flow to the needy, over-crowded and rundown Catholic parish schools with their high proportion of students from low-income families. But the then Country Party was not going to stand for all that money flowing to schools serving the Catholic community, with its traditional links to Labor.   The price the conservatives demanded for passing the legislation was that a share of the funding go to the other private schools, which were mainly Protestant, well-endowed and more closely aligned politically with their own side of politics.

“The point of re-visiting this history is that no educational rationale was ever provided, in 1973 or since, for the private school ‘over-funding’ recently acknowledged by the current federal Minister.

“The murky sectarian politics that were on the verge of becoming obsolescent by 1973 live on in our school system, tainted as it is by resource inequalities that cannot be justified on educational or any other grounds. These have now reached the point where they are undermining efforts to raise outcomes overall.

“Minister Birmingham has justified the Coalition’s decision to abandon the Gonski resource standards on the grounds that the original Gonski funding model has been ‘corrupted’. This argument, specious as it is, sounded touchingly innocent or naïve. Could Simon Birmingham really be unaware that needs-based schools funding models in this country have always been corrupted?

“He has been reported recently in the media as having stated that he ‘was determined to do away with the cosy deals Bill Shorten ran around the country stitching up before the 2013 election” (in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October).

“But there is a long, long trail of ‘cosy deals’, mainly with Catholic schools, winding back through the history of schools funding since 1973. What Birmingham is confronting, whether he knows it or not, is the policy equivalent of the famous Russian doll toy where, in this case, one ‘deal’ is securely nested inside the next deal and so on.”


Destruction of the Gonski vision

The first budget of the Abbott government started the significant retreat from the National Plan and its basis in equity. Trevor Cobbold wrote that the government had turned its back on public schools and disadvantaged students: “a disaster for public education in Australia. It has killed off the Gonski school funding increases for 2017-18 and 2018-19. Public schools stand to lose over $6 billion as a result. The unity ticket on school funding promised by Abbott and Pyne before the election has been completely shredded.”

Cobbold said that state governments were unlikely to make up the loss and the result would be a loss to government schools which would increase the prospect of no improvement in school results or reduction in the large achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

He pointed out that under Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI), Federal Government funding for schools was expected to increase by $10.3 billion (excluding indexation for rising costs) over the six years to 2018-19, with $2.8 billion committed to the first four years which left $7.5 billion to be delivered in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

“This has been rejected by the Federal Government. From 2018, increases in Federal funding for schools will be limited to increases in the consumer price index (CPI), with adjustments for student enrolments… tying future funding increases to the CPI is likely to mean a real cut in funding. The CPI is not a good measure of rising costs in education because it reflects productivity increases in the rest of the economy… The Federal Government says it is shifting responsibility for school education back to the states.”

Chris Bonner, in an article of May 23 2014, reported a speech by David Gonski in which he expressed views about developments since the completion of the report. A critical comment was directed at the Commission of Audit Report which in its pursuit of savings did not question the constraint imposed on the panel than no school would lose funding. Gonski said, “Embracing the concept of needs based aspirational funding in an environment of wanting to save money would be better served in my view by concentrating on that aspect rather than seeking to go backwards to resourcing based on historic figures… Bonner commented, “In other words, if there is to be no more money, then redistribution of existing funding needs to be on the agenda. In taking a shot at the Commission of Audit, Gonski is really pointing to the elephant in the room: if equity remains the target then some schools will gain and others will lose”.

Over the years the campaign for improvement in funding of public schools came to be identified with the Gonski plan, Gonski becoming synonymous with more money for public schools. This was not correct, Gonski panel member Ken Boston pointed out (as Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins reported 24 February 2017). The Gonski report was about “redistribution of existing funding to individual schools on the basis of measured need”. Gillard’s plan did not accept the sector blind, needs based recommendation but rather “stuck with the old, religion-based arrangements”, in other words it continued to be a political settlement and sector-based, in other words needs-blind and top-down.

“Gonski recommended that the loading for non-government schools as a proportion of “average government school recurrent costs” – a biased formula that meant public funding for new places for children in disadvantaged government schools automatically increased the federal government grants to non-government schools, without any consideration of disadvantage – should cease.” Instead Gillard kept the previous formula.

As to the resource standard, Boston stated, “Like the Coalition government, Labor has ducked the fundamental issue of the relationship between aggregated? social disadvantage and poor educational outcomes, and has turned its back on the development of an enduring funding system that is fair, transparent, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all Australian students”.

The third misunderstanding was that most of the problems would be fixed by the bulk of the cost “loaded on to the last two of the six years 2018 and 2019. The $4.5 billion of the plan was cut to $1.2 billion over four years to 2021 by the Turnbull government (Turnbull having succeeded Abbott as Prime Minister in 2015)

Boston concluded, “What [the two sides] have in common, however, is that neither is genuinely interested in moving to needs-based funding. The government and opposition are fluffing around the margins of the issue, and neither appears to understand the magnitude of the reform that is needed, or – if they do – to have the capacity to tackle it.

“Equity and school outcomes have both deteriorated sharply since we wrote the Gonski report. Some stark realities now shape the context in which governments – state and federal – must make decisions two months from now about how Australian education might recover from its long-term continuing decline. The present quasi-market system of schooling, the contours of which were shaped by the Hawke and Howard governments, has comprehensively failed.

“We are on a path to nowhere. The issue is profoundly deeper than argument about the last two years of ‘Gonski funding’”.

Turnbull and Morrison

The Governments of Turnbull and Morrison, as did those of Abbott and Turnbull, carried on regardless with grossly inequitable funding of independent schools to the detriment of public schools and yet continued to assert that they were funding based on need and were not biased as to sector. People such as, especially, Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools (in report after report), Chris Bonnor and David Zyngier, amongst others, have been able to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that such assertions are fraudulent.

In a two part essay, Lyndsay Connors responded to the announcement of funding by the Morrison Government, referred to as Gonski 2.0.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham, she said, “had previously shown some mettle and gained credence when he dared openly to refer to the existence of some ‘over-funded private schools’ and gave an undertaking to remove the over-funding.”

“It seemed possible that the “tangled web of special deals” which typified schools policy for decades might end. The Coalition had accepted the principle of ‘needs-based’ funding against a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) that provides a base amount per student and additional funding for disadvantage.  This recognises that the total workload of the school system, the work of teaching and learning, is not shared equally among schools and that some schools do a greater share than others of the ‘heavy lifting’.”

“In the atmosphere of hope in early May that some sanity may be returning to schools funding policy, it was tempting to brush aside the misgivings created by the Government’s commitment to funding 20 per cent only of the SRS for government schools and 80 per cent for non-government schools …. On the face of it, the percentage shifts cited for both sectors were both positive:  from an average of 17.0 per cent of the SRS for government schools in 2017 to 20 per cent in 2027; and from an average of 76.8 per cent to 80 per cent.

“But with the advent of the 2017 Budget and the subsequent tabling of the Government’s Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017, it has now become clear that the Turnbull Government intends to entrench a structural problem that lies at the heart of national schools funding arrangements in this country; and that the special deals which have bedevilled them for years are well and truly back with us.”

Connors continued, “Perhaps one of the most ‘wicked problems’ at the heart of schools funding in this country has been the irrational and lopsided split in responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the states for the public funding of government and non-government schools.  Non-government schools get the lion’s share of their public funding from the Commonwealth, which holds the purse strings: government schools must compete for their funding from the states, which deliver most essential services.  When the Commonwealth became a partner in schools funding, it brought with it the VFI virus, the vertical fiscal imbalance that characterises our federal system.”

Later last year (2018), Connors and Jim McMorrow observed that equality of educational opportunity was at the heart of the original Gonski report: “the democratic principle that the quality of students’ education should not be limited by where they live, their family income, the school they attend or their personal circumstances…  Labor policy has involved recognition that all children in all schools share an equal entitlement to receive the support they need to achieve their personal best and that, according to Connors and McMorrow “is a thread running through from the 1970s Karmel Report and is enshrined in the preamble to Labor’s 2013 Education Act”

“By contrast, the Turnbull Government’s 2017 amendments to the 2013 Act removed this democratic principle in the course of introducing its own ‘Gonski 2.0’ policy. Without that principle there is no basis for the school resources standard and, therefore, no real anchor for the Coalition’s funding policy… The Coalition Government’s decision to set in legislation its preference for private over public schooling through a commitment to fund 80 per cent of the public funding needed for private schools to achieve their SRS while capping the corresponding amount for public schools at 20 per cent was a repudiation of the original Gonski report’s advice…

”If the maintenance of their current funding per student required by the Commonwealth is the best the states can manage, this will be insufficient to bring public schools up to the Gonski 2.0 standard.  In these circumstances, it is misleading of Minister Birmingham to claim that ‘all schools will be funded on the same basis’.

“Contrary to the inference in the Gonski 2.0 announcements, there is no ‘constitutional’ basis for the Commonwealth to differentiate between public and private schools in this way.

“It is one thing for the Turnbull Government to use the 80-20 figures to describe the dollars it will provide respectively to private and public schools.  These figures simply reflect decades of political decisions and special deals. But it is another thing entirely, in my view, for the Government to seek to entrench in legislation the major structural inequality in schools funding.

“From the time of the Whitlam Government, there has been a steady reversal of the Commonwealth’s distribution of its schools funding between public and private schools, well beyond what might have been attributable to changing sector shares of the school population.  What was originally a roughly 70 – 30 split between government and non-government schools respectively has now become an 80-20 split but in the opposite direction.

“Over these years, we have seen a growing socio-economic separation between public and private schools.  This form of segregation is one of a range of factors that work against equality of educational opportunity and, in that sense, against the overall quality of school systems.  The evidence is that the contribution of this form of segregation is high in Australia by world standards, and the second highest level of social segregation between public and private schools in the OECD.  Particularly alarming is the evidence that the inequity in the allocation of educational staff between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Australia is the highest in the OECD and the third highest of the 70 countries and regions participating in PISA 2015.

“In the space of several weeks, the Turnbull Government has squandered the fragile consensus around Gonski 2.00.  Simmering resentments between the Catholic and independent schools authorities and interest groups have now surfaced.  The states are united in opposition to the Commonwealth, with NSW, in particular, expressing ire at the fact that the Commonwealth is reneging on the funding agreements put in place under the Gillard Government.  Public schools are recognizing they have been short-changed generally and compared with private schools which, collectively, serve a relatively more privileged share of the school population.”

Since the departure of Malcolm Turnbull, the Coalition, under the Prime Ministership of Scott Morrison, has proceeded even further in its support of non-government schools. It is that which has further energised Cobbold’s observations quoted at the beginning of this essay.

Connors’ two-part series on “The Tangled Web” referred to earlier, traversed the ongoing accommodation of the Catholic sector and traced the history. “‘Sector-blind’ does not mean turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of any sector in distributing public funding received from government.” She recalled Birmingham’s promise to “pare funding from ‘over-funded’ private schools”.

She asked was the Catholic system receiving its fair share of funding, was the Catholic system distributing funding fairly among its own schools and is it the responsibility of governments to ensure that funding is distributed in accordance with the purposes for which it is provided.

Though the Rudd-Gillard governments retained existing arrangements, the introduction of the MySchool website brought new transparency to the fore.

A report for the NSW and ACT Bishops by Kathryn Greiner, member of the Gonski panel, found funds were being directed more to populous dioceses to the detriment of rural ones and the Victorian Auditor-General in 2016 found funding favouring higher socioeconomic schools.

Reporter Michael Koziol in the Sydney Morning Herald reported January 30 2019, “The main element of the package announced by Mr Morrison and Education Minister Dan Tehan in September adjusts the way a school’s wealth is assessed, meaning it will now be determined by the income tax paid by its parental cohort. That reform – for which the Catholic sector lobbied aggressively – will generate a $3.4 billion windfall for Catholic schools by 2029, according to Department of Education modelling.


The overfunding of independent schools continues, the drift of students from an advantaged background to private schools has distorted the profile of schools and left many public schools poorly funded.

By 2016, more than one-third of Australian students were in private schools, one of the highest rates in the OECD. Though 70 per cent of primary school students attending public schools, that proportion shrank by the time students reached secondary school: 59 per cent of students attend public secondary schools, 23 per cent catholic schools and 18 per cent other independent schools. Catholic schools get most of their money from government whereas other non-government schools gain most from school fees.

Most Commonwealth funding – almost 64 per cent – went to private schools and that has been increasing at a greater rate in recent years than has funding for public schools. In 2014-15 the Commonwealth spent almost $15 billion on schools and the States and Territories $38 billion.

In 2018, the government estimated the cost of educating a child in a primary school was $10,953 and at secondary school $13,764

In a comprehensive review of the consequences of school funding in March 2016 Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd found the widening gap in socio-economic terms between government and Catholic and Independent schools and also between urban and rural schools. They found a noticeable enrolment shift from lower socio-educational advantage (SEA) schools to higher SEA schools. They found public funding to government schools between 2009 and 2013 had increased at half the rate of funding (12.4%) to Catholic (23.5%) and Independent schools (23.7%).

“Many students who are already advantaged, especially those attending high SEA schools, are generously funded from a variety of sources but, according to My School, their measurable results are much the same as those achieved by similar students attending much lower-funded government schools.

“Less than a third of schools now have an enrolment which resembles the cross-section of people in the school’s local area.”

Gonski 2.0: Best deal ever or a Trojan Horse

Dr Ken Boston had an interesting reaction to the Government’s “Gonski 2.0”. In June 2017 he said it would be a tragedy were the Senate to vote down the legislation: the country was on the “threshold of a new deal of historic national importance” and should not allow the opportunity to pass. “Five years after the release and subsequent emasculation of the Gonski Report, Australia has a rare second chance,” Dr Boston told Fairfax Media. “The progressive elements in Australian education need to recognise that their argument has been won” he said! Mathew Knott in the Sydney Morning Herald reported Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek saying the government’s plan was “not needs-based” and “not sector-blind” and would leave needy schools under-funded for too long. Dr Boston has previously criticised Labor’s implementation of the Gonski Review, describing the deals with different states and school sectors as a “corruption” of the report’s vision.

Trevor Cobbold had a radically different interpretation. “The Prime Minister says the Gonski 2.0 school-funding plan is “fair, it’s needs-based and it’s consistent“. But confidential data released by the federal Education Department under freedom of information law contradicts his claim. It shows a massive increase in the overfunding of private schools by 2027 and continuing underfunding of public schools.

“Gonski 2.0 will increase the number of independent schools and systems that are overfunded from 143 this year to 257 next year. The proportion overfunded will almost double from 17 per cent to 32 per cent. By 2027, a total of 531, or two-thirds of all independent schools and systems, will be overfunded and some by very large amounts.

“This massive increase will occur because the Turnbull government will increase funding for private schools to 80 per cent of their public entitlement, as measured by the schooling resource standard. Yet state and territory governments already fund nearly all these schools at over 20 per cent of their standard..

“If Gonski 2.0 is implemented fully, independent schools in NSW will be funded at 107 per cent of their standard, in Western Australia at 109 per cent and in the ACT at 113 per cent of their SRS. In Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, they will be funded at their schools resource standard or slightly above.”

As a direct rebuttal to Boston, Cobbold pointed out, “Gonski 2.0 is the best special deal independent schools have ever had. The overfunding will cost taxpayers many millions of dollars over the next decade and will divert funds from where they are most needed in disadvantaged schools.

“Catholic education authorities have presented a totally misleading picture of how their schools are funded under Gonski 2.0. The new deal ensures that Catholic systemic schools in five states and territories will be funded at or above 100 per cent of their standard in 2018 and in six states and territories by 2027. Schools in the other two will be only slightly below 100 per cent.”

Peter Martin, leading financial journalist, pointed out a few months later, “Catholic and independent private schools are set to get more than 100 per cent of their needs from governments under the new “Gonski 2.0” plan, official documents released under Freedom of Information show.”

And Henrietta Cook, writing in the Canberra Times, reported, “Victorian Catholic schools will soon receive millions more in Commonwealth funding for students with a disability than state schools: “Commonwealth disability loadings for Victorian Catholic schools will increase by 26 per cent, to $188 million in 2018… Disability loadings for Victorian state schools will grow incrementally, by 5.6 per cent, to $171.7 million, while those for independent schools will dip 4.5 per cent to $117.8 million. Victorian state schools – which educate 71.3 per cent of funded students with a disability according to the Productivity Commission – were previously set to receive the largest share of Commonwealth disability funding… “Government schools educate the vast majority of students with disability and yet in Victoria they won’t even get the largest share of disability funding from the federal government,” the Australian Education Union’s federal president Correna Haythorpe said.”

Money Matters

In late January 2019 Trevor Cobbold reported a new comprehensive review undertaken by the US National Bureau of Economic Research of money and student outcomes which found “overwhelming evidence of a strong causal relationship between increased school spending and student outcomes”. It has been argued frequently by the Coalition that money is not really the issue: the aim is to restrict any further funding. The report said that “….any claim that there is little evidence of a statistical link between school spending and student outcomes is demonstrably false”

An earlier study by Hanushek which claimed there was no evidence of a link between funding and school performance was said to have “employed faulty statistical reasoning in which the results of multiple-state studies were combined with single-state studies and this had the effect of muting positive results. Another study conducted a meta-analysis of the studies used by Hanushek and concluded that, contrary to Hanushek’s finding, they suggest a strong association between school spending and student outcomes.”

Education Department fails to monitor how school systems distribute funds

In early 2019 Trevor Cobbold reported on an audit which found that the government was failing to ensure that funding of schools was in accordance with needs-based principles.

“The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit of the Parliament has slammed the Commonwealth Department of Education for failing to ensure that government funding of public and private school systems is distributed according to needs-based principles. In a bi-partisan report tabled in the Parliament last week, the Joint Committee criticised a lack of transparency and accountability about school funding caused by inadequate administrative arrangements.

“The Committee was strongly of the view that the current monitoring arrangements established by the Department of Education and Training do not provide sufficient assurance that Australian Government school funding is administered in a way that is transparent, accountable and compliant with the Australian Education Act 2013. [p.2]

“The Committee noted a lack of transparency and accountability as a result of inadequate administrative arrangements — specifically in relation to compliance monitoring, evaluation and reporting mechanisms. [p. 7]”

What can one say?


In January 2019, Chris Bonnor and colleagues released the third paper in the Centre for Policy Development series, In a Class of Their Own “exploring different facets of how Australia’s contemporary school system segregates and divides students, families and communities, and concentrates disadvantage”. The first paper dealt with Indigenous disadvantage, the second on selective schools and their impact on other schools.

The latest paper, “Separating Scholars”, shows high achievers increasingly concentrated in the most advantaged schools, meaning the burden of addressing disadvantage being concentrated in the less well-resourced schools. The consequence is that increasingly educational gain will have little to do with the quality of teaching but will be determined by who is enrolled.

As in so many other areas of education policy, the evidence for gains from selective schools simply is not there. There’s “no such thing as a gifted child” seems highly contentious. But  research by Wendy Berliner and Deborah Eyre, based on the latest neuroscience and psychological research, published in “Great Minds and How to Grow Them”, demonstrates that “most people, unless they are cognitively impaired, can reach standards of performance associated in school with the gifted and talented. However, they must be taught the right attitudes and approaches to their learning and develop the attributes of high performers – curiosity, persistence and hard work, for example – an approach Eyre calls “high performance learning”. Critically, they need the right support in developing those approaches at home as well as at school.”

In November 2018, a report by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund shows Australia’s education system to be nearly the most unequal in the developed world. Australia is the equal 2nd most unequal education system with Slovakia and only marginally behind New Zealand on a combined ranking of education inequality across pre-school, primary and secondary schooling. Australia is ranked 36th out of 41 countries in inequality in pre-school attendance, 25th out of 29 countries in inequality in primary school reading achievement and 30th out of 38 countries in inequality in secondary school reading achievement.

Education should equip students to know how to think!

Early in 2019, Mark Scott, secretary of the NSW Department of Education said schools and parents need to stop worrying as much about what students know and start looking at and assessing whether they know how to think. “The insights that we now have, we know critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, will be absolutely vital skills for young people to survive in a highly complex and fast-changing world.. We need to make sure we can assess progress in these areas as robustly as we can assess knowledge accumulation and delivery back during an exam.”