Published in The Weekend Australian on 1.02.14
Education experts agree that extra school funding without reform won't improve student performance. But nor can the performance of disadvantaged students be improved without extra funding to pay for the support they need. Here's the irony: having called for reform and opposed extra funding for disadvantaged students the federal government has manoeuvred itself into a position of offering extra funding without reform.
It's as if the government's policy of more funding with no requirement for the states to reform was designed to fail. Then, after its four-year funding commitment expires, the government, if re-elected, could say it told us so and return to the old, unfair Howard government funding formula which education minister Christopher Pyne has described as 'perfectly good.' And that’s the second irony: Pyne has consistently criticised student performance which is based on an old, badly flawed Howard government funding model that he wants to keep.
In an astonishing gymnastic effort, having attacked the needs-based funding model recommended by a committee chaired by businessman David Gonski, the Coalition was forced by the weight of public opinion to backflip and declare in the election campaign that it was forming a unity ticket with Labor in support of the Gonski reforms. Then, after the election, in a double forward summersault, the Coalition government sought to renege on that commitment. A public backlash obliged the government in December to perform a triple twisting backflip with pike to honour its pre-election unity ticket promise.
But that promise extends only to the end of the present four-year budget period. Thereafter the funding profile of the needs-based system rises sharply as it moves into full swing. After the four years, schools would be fully funded for all five criteria of disadvantage: students with non-English speaking backgrounds, students with low socio-economic status, students with disabilities, indigenous students, and students in small, remote schools. Gearing up the new system over time makes good sense, since it allows any teething problems to be identified and solved.
Gonski's needs-based funding system cannot succeed with just four years of funding and no significant increase thereafter. Nor can it succeed if the funding is given to the states and territories with no conditions attached.
To say that Pyne is half-hearted about proceeding with the needs-based funding model would be generous. After all, as minister he has declared it 'a shambles' and 'unimplementible' (if that's a word).
That will be news to the New South Wales government, the first to reach an agreement with the Gillard government, having resisted intense pressure from the federal Coalition to reject the Gillard offer. That state's education minister, Adrian Piccoli, supported by Premier Barry O'Farrell, defended the new scheme, describing the pre-existing model that Pyne considers 'perfectly good' as 'broken.' Piccoli pointed out that the state, Independent and Catholic sectors all supported the state government's decision to sign up and all opposed a return to the 'broken' system.
Important reforms are underway. States such as Victoria and New South Wales are giving much greater autonomy to school principals, a genuine reform provided for in national partnership agreements between the previous federal Labor government and the states that preceded the full needs-based funding system.
The national partnership agreements provide for annual performance appraisals for every teacher. In a break from the past, New South Wales has been using national partnership funding to pay higher-credentialed, better-performing teachers more to teach at disadvantaged schools.
Add to these reforms the transparency and accountability provided by the MySchool website, which publishes national testing results, and the foundation of a reformed school education has been laid. In fact, the latest national test results released just before Christmas show encouraging improvements in the literacy of younger primary school students as the reforms begin to take effect. But of course more reforms and greater improvements in student performance are needed.
Yet Pyne has confirmed that the federal government will attach no strings to its funding - the states will be free to do or not do whatever they like, including reducing their own funding effort. So while New South Wales agreed with then Prime Minister Gillard to increase its funding effort, Queensland, which didn’t sign up to the Gillard offer, is under no such obligation, courtesy of minister Pyne. Consequently, even within the four-year period, similarly disadvantaged schools in Queensland and New South Wales will end up with different resources.
A political party that has consistently argued that extra school funding without reform will not improve student performance is now committed to implementing precisely that losing formula. It’s a system designed to fail so that the Coalition can justify a return to its cherished, ‘perfectly good’ system – the unfair Howard government formula that left Australia’s disadvantaged school students languishing behind their better-off peers.