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Comment on Dean Ashenden in Crikey, April 18

April 20, 2013

This is my response to Dean Ashenden’s article in Crikey on Thursday, Gonski? What Gonski? Slaying a mythical giant. I think the article makes two very good points.

  • Gonski doesn’t address a fundamental structural problem with schools in Australia: private schools receive public funds but have no obligation to enrol all young Australians or to make their fees affordable.
  • Competition on the basis of resources and student populations minimises the extent to which competition can drive better teaching and better learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, in addition to these good points, Ashenden asserts (but does support) the claim that maximum class sizes and contact hours is constraining student outcomes.

Thanks for the interesting article. The point is well made that Gonski (neither the report nor the response) addresses what is fundamentally rotten about the structure of education provision in Australia. While public funds contribute to the resource advantage of private schools, there is no associated obligation to enrol young Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thus private schools enjoy relatively privileged student populations in addition to their resource advantage. As the then Cardinal Pell said in 2006 “Catholic schools are not educating most of our poor, especially at the primary level. 72% of Catholic students from families with lowest third of family income attend Government infant/primary schools and only 19% attend Catholic schools. At secondary level 63% of the “poorest” Catholics attend Government secondary schools and 22% attend Catholic secondary schools.” ( The importance of the profile of a student’s peers to their performance is both common sense and has been demonstrated by, amongst others, Chris Bonnor (

Contrary to Ashenden, it’s not altogether clear to me that the Gonski Review couldn’t have addressed this issue, at least partially. After all, its proposal that private schools receive a proportion of the Schools Resource Standard according to the school community’s ‘ability to pay’ has been adopted. Surely, elements could have been built into this principle that imposed certain obligations on recipients of public funding and reduced and/or eliminated public funding once private fees reach exorbitant levels?

Ashenden makes a wonderful point that as long as schools compete on the basis of advantages in the resources and student populations they have, choice and competition won’t drive improvements in actual productivity. As things stand, competition doesn’t incentivise schools to do the hard yards with struggling students but to pass them off to somebody else. In reality, it is our public schools that are always there for every young Australian no matter what hardships they’ve been born into. It’s to be expected that somebody as disingenuous as Christopher Pyne would not acknowledge the point Ashenden makes here. But it’s notable and disappointing that a Labor parliamentarian like Andrew Leigh, deeply devoted to choice and competition but apparently lukewarm about better funding, seems to pay so little heed to this fairly straightforward point.

It appears Ashenden believes that, to help kids who need special attention, a necessary approach is to increase the size of the classes other kids are in. As well as implying that removing maximum class sizes and maximum contact hours would improve student outcomes, he also implies that it’s unreasonable for teachers to negotiate an upper limit on their workload. Some basis for accepting these positions would have been great. Additionally, it would have been nice to see some acknowledgment that, for instance, the National Numeracy and Literacy Partnerships, which have been effectively rolled into Gonski, have succeeded without doing this.

Another problem with Ashenden’s rather sweeping claims here is that they don’t really attend to the reality on the ground. For instance, he says that at present it’s “impossible for each school to do its own mini-Gonksi, to shift teacher time and effort toward the kids who are falling behind.” In the jurisdiction I teach in, the ACT, a new position was negotiated in our last EBA for an Executive Teacher (Professional Practice). Teachers in this position will spend some of their time in the classroom and some time working with and supporting other teachers. Guess where they’ll generally be placed? In schools where there are a number of kids falling behind.

@cnewt27 – Good point about Labor’s timidity in terms of reigning in the Howard largesse to high-fee privates et al. Labor MPs who use the excuse that Latham tried and failed in 2004 should address the evidence that his proposals were popular – .

It took nine months to come up with that?

September 5, 2012

On Monday the Prime Minister spoke with great eloquence about the transformative power of education. And she spoke of the ‘moral wrong’ committed when a country denies a young person access to a rich educational experience.

Today, I am here to talk about our children, their education, their lives and their future. As I speak, more than three million children are at school and millions more will follow them in the years to come. On their behalf, I call on you to join me in a national crusade to give those children a better education and a better future. Education transforms lives. I know because it transformed mine. The story of my parents’ lives is a story of education denied. My parents were born around the time of the Great Depression and their earliest memories are of World War II. My father, despite winning academic prizes and scholarships, left school at fourteen. His family couldn’t afford not to have him working. My mother suffered ill health as a child and her schooling suffered too. Despite their schooling history, both are intelligent and well-read and have lived successful and happy lives. But born in a different era, or into different circumstances, my mother and father would easily have succeeded at university and pursued professional careers. As an adult, I understand their stories aren’t unusual for their generation. But as a child, their stories were my world, the backdrop of my life. Because my parents had hungered for education, they wanted their daughter to enjoy all its benefits. And so as a young girl, I was painstakingly taught to read by my mother before I went to school. As luck would have it the public schools I was zoned to attend were great schools. I liked school and succeeded at it. I had some great teachers, a group of friends focussed on doing well, a family ready to support me in every way. But even in great schools like Unley High, I was conscious of the kids who struggled, who got left behind. Indeed achievement and underachievement were obvious – due to streaming and stigma. I was in the top class, others were in classes routinely and cruelly referred to as ‘veggie class’. We were marked for success – they were marked for failure. And in the days before it was commonplace for children with disabilities to be mainstreamed into schools, the one girl with a disability led a lonely life. I have frequently reproached myself for not spending more time with her. My parents’ life stories are of education denied. And I saw education’s full power denied to some of my school mates. I have always been conscious of being the lucky one – my life story is of education’s transformative power. So from my earliest years, the life changing unfairness of being denied a great education has struck me as a moral wrong. For me, eradicating that moral wrong is what drove me into politics and drives me still.

And yet, noble sentiments aside, the speech delivered very, very little. As Jewel Topsfield tweeted immediately afterwards: “Did the PM say a single new thing in that speech?” The answer, really, is no. In a fine article in New Matilda, Ben Eltham set out just how disappointing it was and what it says about the Labor Government.

Memo to Julia Gillard: an eight-year timeline is not a reform. It’s not even a wishlist. It’s a joke. It has taken Labor a full nine months to come up with its response to the Gonski Review. Julia Gillard unveiled it yesterday. Labor’s “National Plan for Schools Improvement” was released with much ado. There were the usual strategic leaks. There was a Prime Ministerial speech to the National Press Club. A whizz-bang new website has been set up. But where is the detail? The actual funding formulas? The money? There isn’t any. Labor’s “National Plan” is hardly a blueprint. It’s barely a mud map. About the best you could say is it’s a plan to have a plan.

Is Gonski A Game-Changer?

March 2, 2012

Chris Bonnor has written a typically insightful article on Gonski and education policy for Inside Story: Gonski the game-changer. I thoroughly recommend it. Below is a comment I made in response.


Thanks for another interesting and illuminating article. Like Catherine and Jencie (above), I applaud your point about peer effects: “Probably the most important resource allocated to any school is its enrolled students.”

It’s also great to see somebody single out what you describe as the “school-only brigade”. As you say, improving student outcomes is not about either school level or structural reform. It’s about both.

There’s one point on which it strikes me your account of Gonski is possibly overly optimistic. This regards how serious Gonski is about attacking the concentrations of dis/advantage at particular schools and school systems.

Despite the Review noting in detail the negative effects of concentrations of disadvantage on student outcomes, it resists recommending policies that might reduce these concentrations. Indeed it explicitly rules out such an spproach: “The panel does not advocate for incentives that encourage students to move between schools to ‘even out’ the distribution of disadvantage.” (p. 127). Any regulation of fee structure or enrolment policies is not countenanced.

Public funding of very wealthy schools who charge well in excess of the recommended schools resource standard is set to continue. The funding of all private schools at a minimum of 20-25% may even mean funding to high-fee private schools increases. The review’s interpretation of Gillard’s ‘no losers’ guarantee in real terms seems to mean all privates will be funded at the level of the presently most over-funded Funding Maintained schools. Trevor Cobbold makes this point well here.

The significance of the maintained &/or increased funding to high-fee privates is that, despite the loadings for disadvantage, under Gonski’s recommendations, the resources disparities and the consequent incentive to enrol in private education remains. In other words, Gonski acknowledges the negative effects of concentrated disadvantage but endorses our bifurcated schools system that exacerbates concentrations of disadvantage.

I take your point that if Governments start providing financial loadings for concentrations of disadvantage, they would then have an incentive to deal with the root problem. But that seems a long way from effective action. I’d be very interested as to whether you think these aspects of the Review are of concern.

Dear PM, Did You Really Commit to Funding Maintained?

February 29, 2012

Dear Prime Minister,

I write to seek clarity from you regarding your commitment that no school will be a dollar worse off as a result of new schools funding arrangements to be implemented from 2014. Was this commitment intended, and is it to apply, in nominal terms or in real terms?

As you’ll recall, in your address to the Sydney Institute in April of 2010 you said the following.

I also believe this review should be conducted in an atmosphere without fear. So I say today, this is not about taking money away from schools. While enrolments will always change and students will move in and out of schools, no school will lose a dollar of funding in the sense that their school budget per student will not reduce in dollar terms… Today I make a commitment that, following the conclusions of this Funding Review, the same Funding Guarantee will apply to any school. It will continue to receive the same funding as before until its new funding allocation reaches that level and begins to overtake it.

The reference in your statement to funding being frozen until the new funding allocation catches up to that level, by virtue of inflation or changes in the student population at a given school, leads to the conclusion that your commitment was made in nominal terms. This was my understanding when I went to the ballot box on the 21st of August 2010. It was also my understanding when I subsequently discussed your Government’s policy at length with my local member, Andrew Leigh.

However, this understanding has been thrown into significant doubt by the final report of the Gonski Review. As you’re no doubt aware, it relied exclusively on your commitment to determine the recommended minimum amount of funding to be received by all non-government schools; 20 – 25% of the schools resource standard. The Gonski Review’s final report reads:

“On the basis of the Australian Government’s announcement that under a new funding arrangement no school would lose a dollar per student as a result of this review, the panel has recommended that a minimum public contribution per student for every non-government school be applied, set at between 20 and 25 per cent of the schooling resource standard excluding loadings.” (xvii)

The Review considers arguments for and against funding of high-fee private schools but finally returns to your commitment as a rationale for its conclusion in this regard.

The most efficient way to meet the Australian Government’s announcement that no school would lose a dollar per student as a result of this review is through a minimum public contribution towards the cost of schooling in non-government schools. (p. 85)

The Review’s interpretation of your commitment that no school will be a dollar worse off raises two issues. Firsly, it has construed it in real terms. It is no longer the case that funding will be maintained in nominal terms until such time as the new formula catches up to it. Current levels of funding are the basis for the recommended minimum proportion of the schools resource standard all non-governement schools will receive.

Further, the Review’s belief that your Government has committed to maintaining all public funding to private schools in real terms led it to refrain from any independent scrutiny of the merits of these levels of funding. While it acknowledges that submissions made arguments for and against public funding of private schools, it offers no support of its conclusion other than your Government’s commitment.

The Review’s interpretation of your commitment is, to my mind, at odds with a reasonable interpretation of your words in April of 2010. However, in your comments on the day of the Review’s release, you did not repudiate the idea that you had committed to maintaining Howard Government levels of expenditure on private schools, in real terms, in perpetuity.

JOURNALIST: Saying no school will lose a dollar – is that in real terms?

PM: Well we’ve said indexation will be a feature of the system and no school will lose a dollar.

Could you please explicitly state whether your commitment was, and is, to no school being a dollar worse off in nominal terms or in real terms? I fully appreciate that the Government is yet to determine its final response to the Review and continues a process of consultation. However, my question relates exclusively to the commitment you have already made independently of the Review and its findings.

Yours Sincerely,

Tom Greenwell

The Shocker: ‘Funding Maintained’ Maintained

February 25, 2012

My previous post focused on the big positive coming out of the Gonski Review – the recommendation that students from disadvantaged backgrounds should attract extra funding. This post turns to a deeply disappointing aspect of the Review, one that, if implemented, will mitigate against efforts to tackle disadvantage in our schools.

It was the phrase that surfaced during the Review process that had partisans of private schooling accusing Gonski of Marxism . The Review’s Emerging Issues Paper stated that “equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.” Sounds more like classical liberalism than Marxism to me but, in any case, it’s thorough-going language. It was the kind of rhetoric that had the private school lobby worried that Gonski would recommend a serious trimming of the largesse bestowed on them by the Howard Government.

Perhaps the most indefensible aspect of the Howard system was the ‘Funding Maintained’ arrangements. Any private school that would have been worse off as a result of the SES formula had their funding maintained in real terms. Consequently, to this day, only half of private schools are actually funded according to the SES formula that is supposed to determine Government funding to private schools. Was Gonski going to get rid of this anomaly? Would the panel’s commitment to equity lead it to go further? Perhaps it might recommend that schools that charge fees higher than the schools resource standard did not need Government funding. Perhaps it would recommend that along with public funding comes an obligation to make schools accessible to all sections of the Australian community.

Gonski has recommended a continuation of the Howard model.

Not a bit of it. No wonder, the vocal headmaster of King’s, Tim Hawkes, couldn’t hide the smile from his face as he awarded Gonski a B+ on Monday night. Gonski had recommended not less but more public funding for private schools, including the likes of exteme high- feel privates like King’s and Geelong Grammar. The Review’s perverse chain of reasoning goes as follows. The Government has promised that no school would lose a dollar of funding as a result of the Review. It has always, as far as I’m aware, astutely avoided stating that promise in terms of real dollars. But the Review mischievously interpreted the commitment in that way. In order that no school lose a real dollar, all private schools will receive a minimum of 25% and maximum 90% of the schools resource standard. Trevor Cobbold from Save Our Schools spells out the bizarre implications of this approach.

So it proposes a minimum level of funding for elite private schools to ensure that none lose funding. The price is that many of these elite schools will receive large funding increases. This is a hidden implication of the model. What we have is a new “no losers” guarantee which writes the Howard Government’s guarantee into the funding bottom line and indexes it into the future. This sleight-of-hand brings an even greater problem for the future. A major absurdity in the old “SES” scheme is that private schools on the same SES score got vastly different levels of government funding, because of the multitude of special deals that had been done. This was particularly true of the Catholic sector. The Gonski review has recommended continuing a SES funding scheme, but with schools on the same SES score receiving the same funding. The Government’s “no school will lose a single dollar” mantra means that the current funding maintained rates at each SES score will drive the funding rates in the Gonski model. The funding baseline in the Gonski model at each SES score must be that of most over-funded school in order to achieve similar levels of funding.

It may reasonably be asked, so long as public schools are being adequately funded – and the loadings for disadvantage will help that happen – why begrudge the increased funding to private schools. There’s three answers to that question I think.

Firstly, the basic rationale for funding of private schools is so shoddy and lacking in any logical basis. ABC economics correspondent, Stephen Long, has generously suggested that the Review had its hands tied. But it was the Review’s decision to interpret the Government’s commitment so that it meant no school would lose a single, real dollar – and then to insist on this principle. So, instead of giving us a basis for a fair and rational approach, the Review has just reinforced historical anomalies that resulted from deals done with special interests.

Nowhere, as far as I can see, does the Review provide a rigorous examination of when and to what extent public education expenditure incentivises private expenditure. In fact, such examination would undermine its recommendations because clearly government funding of high-fee privates doesn’t do this, ie. parents would send their kids there even without the public funding.

Nowhere in the Review is there consideration of the ample evidence that public subsidies are not reducing school fees, as was claimed by the Howard Government and others. All we get is the recommendation to perpetuate a political fix won by wealthy rent-seekers in the past. What, ultimately, is the point of a schools resource standard, if government then funds some schools over and above that resource standard (without any extenuating circumstance like a particular student population being more expensive to educate)?

The second and more fundamental reason to be concerned about the proposed increase of funding of private schools is that resources are limited. The Government’s muted response to the Review is evidence of this, if it was needed. The increased largesse to private schools, often very privileged ones, are resources that consequently won’t be able to be spent on public schools.

Thirdly, there is a zero sum game between public schools and private schools not just in terms of resources but also student populations. As the Review accepts:

Particularly compelling is the evidence that suggests that all students, regardless of their own background, seem to perform better in schools with a higher average socioeconomic background. Schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students clearly present a unique set of challenges. (Gonski Review 2011, p. 127)

And yet the Review recommends the continuation of an approach by  Government that intensifies concentrations of disadvantage in public schools. Instead of proposing that Government funding minimises resource gaps between public schools and wealthy private schools, it advocates arrangements that will increase the resources gap. Instead of recommending that the fees and enrolment policies of recipients of public funds should be regulated to make these schools more accessible it is silent in this regard.

More money for disadvantaged kids is great. More money for kids who attend schools where there are concentrations of disadvantage is very, very important. But I’m left with the feeling that Gonski doesn’t quite get it. In education, your peers are resources. The propensity of peers to inspire, challenge, distract, obstruct etc. materially affects the quality of a child’s education. Geography will always mean that privilege and disadvantage are concentrated to some extent. But this reality does not justify funding arrangements that make these patterns worse.

Unfortunately, if Gonski’s approach to public funding of private schools is implemented schools will continue to compete with each other on the basis of “wealth, income, power or possessions” in the same way they do now. Supporters of public education and equity in general must fight hard against this aspect of the Review.

The Big Win: Loadings for Disadvantage

February 24, 2012

To my mind, the Gonksi report is a very mixed bag. However, the unambiguous positive is the recommendation that students from disadvantaged backgrounds should receive extra funding over and above the schools resource standard. If implemented, small schools, remote schools, low-SES students, indigenous students and students with low-English proficiency will all attract significant extra funding on a recurrent basis. For various technical reasons, Gonski approaches funding for students with disabilities slightly differently but the principle remains the same.

Moreover, Gonksi and his panel clearly acknowledge the effects of concentrations of disadvantage within a given school on educational outcomes.

Over and above the individual impacts of educational disadvantage, the panel is convinced that the compound and concentrated effects of disadvantage at the school level are significant and require action. Particularly compelling is the evidence that suggests that all students, regardless of their own background, seem to perform better in schools with a higher average socioeconomic background. Schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students clearly present a unique set of challenges. It is clear that these schools require additional resources and other teaching strategies to overcome these challenges. (Gonski Review 2011, p. 127)

As can be seen in Table 20, the Review has recommended that the loadings for disadvantage increases as the concentration of disadvantage increases.

Gonski recommends that the loadings for disadvantage increase as the concentration of disadvantaged students in a school increases. Table 20 Gonski Review 2011, p. 169.

The amounts stipulated in Table 20 are only indicative. The Review suggests that setting the precise amounts requires further investigation. There are a number of other matters that the Review suggests need to be examined in more detail. One concerns which low-SES students should receive an additional loading. Should it only be those students in the lowest quartile or should there also be a lower loading for those in the second-lowest quartile (Gonski Review 2011, p. 168)? The Review also recommends further exploration of whether low-SES and Indigenous status warrant extra funding in and of themselves or only in the context of a school where there are numerous disadvantaged students.

So, the detail remains up for grabs but the principle is clear. Adequate resourcing is needed for harder-to-educate student groups. Public schools that enrol the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged students need to be resourced accordingly. This is a crucial element of any fair and smart funding system. We now need to exert every effort to ensure the recommendation is implemented and that the loadings reflect the full costs involved.

More on other, less positive, aspects of the Review in coming posts…

Please send one last message to the PM

February 13, 2012

With the Gonski Review to be released on Monday the 20th of February, it’s crucial that we keep up the pressure on the Labour Government to deliver. Please go to the For Our Future site and send one last email to the PM. You can send the form message or add your own.

And please ask colleagues, friends and family to join in too. The Government needs to know how important this is to the 65% of Australian kids who are attending public schools.