On politics and the tragedy of Gonski
(or the world's most depressing book review)
It’s been 10 years since the Gonski review of funding for Australian schools was conducted. The review recommended needs-based, sector-blind funding and had bipartisan support. Brilliant! Except nothing has happened. In fact, existing Federal funding arrangements are locked in until 2029. Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor write in detail about why in Waiting for Gonski: How Australia failed its schools.1 There’s a Federal election coming up and judging by recent Twitter activity, there are many who think a change of government might result in a fairer funding arrangement.
I won’t recap the entire book. It’s well researched, balanced and guaranteed to ruin your day. And I’m not going to rehash old discussions about tribalism and oversimplification as I have done here. But I do want to focus on one area and sadly, it’s the area that might be beyond repair without some serious structural questions raised. This area is “peer effects” and it seems they are here to stay.
First, some context for my non-Australian readers. According to the findings of the review, the effect of socio-economic status on educational attainment is far more pronounced in Australia than in other similar countries. We also have a model which funds non-government schools on a per capita rather than needs basis, the only model of its kind in the OECD, but with no government input into how those schools are run. For example, exclusions and admissions are the business of the school and there are no fee caps required. The authors refer to this as a resource advantage, where government funding and fees combine to allow schools to build facilities like these.
The review found (predictably) that the concentration of the have-nots in disadvantaged areas with only public schools available as part of a family’s range of choices also concentrated low educational outcomes. This is probably not new in itself, but I was very surprised to find that this influence outweighed the effects of family and socioeconomic status. In fact, the most disadvantaged children could easily outperform the wealthiest when benefiting from positive peer effects. And of course, the reverse was also true.
The authors rightly acknowledge knock-on effects of this, like teacher recruitment and retention, lack of student motivation, and the concentration of students with a disability in particular schools. They also touch on the selective system and the way that drains motivated and capable students from the comprehensive system. They claim - and I don’t doubt this - that the selective system was instigated to retain an attractive and competitive option in the public system but that this strategy has ultimately backfired2. The whole dilemma reminded me of Robert Pondiscio’s excellent book, How the Other Half Learn, about a free charter in New York that produces incredible outcomes, despite the community’s low socioeconomic status. TL:DR - the lottery system enables the school to select for motivated families.
The most depressing part of this book was the solution put forward by Gonski. In everyone’s excitement about an ostensibly fair, needs-based solution, people forgot to look at the underlying paradox. While Gonski had identified peer effects as the factor that most influenced the growing gap in attainment between rich and poor, rather than seek to solve this, the solution was to accept this and throw money at it. Never mind for a moment that Gonski never got off the ground. The proposed solution was to accept that student learning outcomes would worsen, disadvantage would become more entrenched and concentrated, and more money would be needed to intervene. It was the policy equivalent of a heroin shooting gallery.
The authors do a far better job than me of explaining the political toxicity that comes with discussions about non-government sector funding. Hot tip: if you’re a lobbyist who wants to preserve current non-government funding arrangements, start the discussion in an election cycle. It was Labor who began the iterative whittling of anything good Gonski had to offer. I have worked in disability in the public system but have spent my whole career as a qualified teacher in the independent sector. I can’t say I was personally served by public education, growing up in an area of concentrated disadvantage. You might even say I was influenced by peer effects. I suppose my hope is that as voters, we look more deeply into the offerings and solutions of our politicians and start demanding better.
Greenwell, Tom; Bonnor, Chris. Waiting for Gonski: How Australia failed its schools. UNSW Press. Kindle Edition.
Side note: selective schools draw from very advantaged families anyway, and are the kinds of students that independents would love to snap up, should selective schools disappear overnight as a kind of ‘solution.’