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Photo of John Buchanan, by Joanne Saad

John Buchanan, photo by Joanne Saad

In summary:

  • A recommendation for a more accurate means of measuring social disadvantage amongst school children came out of the recent Gonski review
  • Senior Lecturer John Buchanan questions whether the federal government will provide the means needed to ensure a more equitable and efficient education funding model 

The recent Gonski review of school funding recommended an injection of $5 billion into the education sector, three-quarters of which would go to public schools. Senior Lecturer in the Learning Cultures and Practices Group John Buchanan reflects on the review’s findings and raises some questions about the feasibility of an efficient and equitable future funding model. 

The children of Shanghai and Finland are outperforming Australia’s children in maths. Then again, the surf is better around here. The observation is only partly facetious. In this pursuit of first-in-the-world maths, I wonder what (leisure, socialisation), and who, is lost? What about the children in Africa? Should we spare a thought for them in our quest to out-math Shanghai’s kids? 

You probably know of kans, those Zen Buddhist riddles admitting no rational solution: the sound of one hand clapping, a one-ended rope, a one-sided coin. Or a one-sided anything for that matter, such as an argument. With education, when I feel I finally know something for sure, something or someone always tells me the opposite, and it often seems to make some sense as well. I use these examples because so much of Gonski has me saying, ‘Yes, but…’

Gonski is big on motherhood statements: ‘resources where they’re needed’ or ‘best teachers’.  They’re admirable, noble aspirations but they beg more scrutiny, and achieving them is likely to be highly problematic. Moreover, many of these outcomes are difficult or impossible to quantify, yet much of the evidence used (such as the annual National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results, where Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 students are assessed nationally in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy) are numeric in nature. 

Having said this, Gonski – not a teacher by profession – recognises excellence in schooling, teaching and learning transcends the measurables that are the focus of the report. He acknowledges schools contribute to a much broader range of outcomes for students than those currently measured by government, and that education needs more than money in order to address the challenges before it. 

Picture by Anna Zhu

Gonski describes current funding arrangements as uncoordinated, inefficient and inequitable. He alerts us to two problems with Australian educational performance standards: a recent decline in Australia versus some other countries (we’ve fallen, but only slightly, down the merit ladder internationally), and a widening gap between Australia’s most disadvantaged and most privileged children. 

I wonder if these problems are opposite in kind – on the one hand, trying to beat everyone else internationally, while trying to minimise metaphorical beating-or-being-beaten domestically. Might tackling these issues as one risk tearing educational and social fabrics in opposite directions?

As part of the visions set out by the Gonski Report, funding for public schools is to be allocated on a per-student basis according to a formula called a National Schooling Recurrent Resource Standard (NSRRS). Each child would attract base level funding: at least $8000 for primary students and $10 500 for high schoolers, with some children, such as Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders or those in lower SES or remote areas, attracting additional funds for their school. Non-public schools would attract between 20 and 90 per cent of this NSRRS funding based on anticipations of the local community’s ability to support the school. Charging higher fees would result in reduced government funding. 

The bulk of the $5 billion increase in funding, 30 per cent of which is to be paid by the Federal Government, would accrue to public schools, with funding allocations to be overseen by an independent body (National Schools Resourcing Body) in an effort to maximise efficiency and equity. 

The report identifies weaknesses in current ways of measuring social disadvantage and recommends the development of an improved and more accurate means of understanding and measuring this. The report also envisions that 80 per cent of schools should be performing above NAPLAN minimum standards. This is a vast increase on the proportion of schools currently achieving this.

Allocating more funds to disadvantaged students might make them more attractive to schools, however these schools might still lose out in the other currency, for example, student test performance, by accepting these students. Naturally, schools will wish to maximise their NAPLAN scores, so they may also be tempted, among other strategies, to overstate the extent of their social disadvantage. 

One aspect I’m more cynical and less optimistic about is the political will for the current or future federal governments to provide the funding Gonski recommends. Moreover, I’m unconvinced how helpful and reliable international comparisons are. What proportion of children in other ‘comparable’ nations are immigrants who don’t speak the language of instruction? How many of those countries have first nations peoples who might also be marginalised, trying to straddle two or more cultures and languages? How debilitating, if at all, is the remoteness that besets much of Australia geographically, if not demographically? What costs are incurred in addressing this remoteness?

Devising a unit of quality in teaching and learning is also problematic. It’s difficult to confidently test, measure and compare – and thereby know you’re improving – even the basics. Comparing two cities such as Shanghai and Sydney would have greater credibility than comparing Shanghai and Australia, as this would eliminate some variables and diminish others. 

A culture of learning is arguably another important variable in any education equation. I sometimes lament the contempt accorded to education in Australia – something of a taken-for-granted and a burden. How might a culture of pedagogy contribute to, or detract from, quality learning in various international contexts? 

If we fail to educate our kids well, they’re going to end up costing us more; of that, I’m sure. 

John Buchanan

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