The price paid for discounting the social and political impact of your decisions is going to be high.

Gonski Futures – Spotlight on the Gonski Report as it has been sold.

Institute for 21st Century Problem Solving

Economic prosperity without moral bankruptcy

Education funding is a zero sum game. No federal government can afford to play favourites for some cynical political advantage. If NSW gets more, then it means less for everybody else which is what all the other states are surely annoyed about. Obviously NSW wants to extract the best possible deal for NSW but what that means to parents of school age children is unclear. In a recent survey of 5360 Australians 18+ conducted by social survey specialists Australian Opinion Research,  parents with school age children were asked what they knew about the Gonski reforms. Sadly, 75% said "little to nothing". (See graph below).

How much do you know about the Ganski changes to education

Over the past twenty years, the cost of education has risen at double the CPI - even faster than health. So talk of increases as low as 3% or even 4.7% appear to ignore history. More to the point, the big money in the present Gonski permutation gets paid some time after the next two elections. There is a bit paid in the next four years, but the lion’s share is projected to be spent by the government in power two elections from now. Two elections hence is a long time in politics. Any advertising about political parties taking away money 4-5 years from now is either naïve or highly misleading.

No one is in a position to predict what our situation is likely to be in 2017. Certainly no business is confident about that, the IMF is not confident about that and it is doubtful any family would be confident about that. Gonski in reality is little more than a wish list in the face of a rapidly eroding financial situation.

In truth, the Australian states are being asked to invest in “Gonski futures”.

Fatal Flaws

New research from Melbourne University provides global evidence for Ben Jensen’s argument that simply spending more money doesn’t get results. In fact it seems to make things worse most of the time.

The Policy Brief entitled “What’s wrong with the Gonski Report…” by economists Chris Ryan and Moshe Justman points out that in the last forty years in Australia, education spending has increased 300% but standards have fallen over that same period. And they find the same situation across the world. The US spends more and more yet its outcomes seem to be forever slipping.

The “What’s Wrong with Gonski” policy brief was released in mid-April, 2013. It argues that the Australian education  system is not broken and that Australia is still punching well above its weight academically in these international tests which fluctuate substantially report to report. The paper further questions why we are basing our entire educational strategy on Top 5 performance in a limited international test and why, as a nation, we are not concentrating on much more important things in schools such as equipping students with a set of skills to operate in the modern world?

Justman and Ryan also point out that our education system provides a balance between private and public education that exists nowhere else in the world.

They note that 40% of Australian families have at least one child in the non- government education system.

The authors conclude that “the Government’s education policy is almost certainly doomed to fail if the expected effect of increasing resources is that Australian students will return to the top five performers on international tests.”

Education is the constitutional responsibility of the states.

The Australian Constitution sets out clearly that the states are responsible for public school education and if we are to continue to follow that fundamental document, then federal government should do all it can to help the states deliver the best possible public education system with minimal interference and maximum assistance.

By the same token we must also respect the choice made by 40% of Australian families with at least one child at a non-government school. Our situation in Australia is fairly unique because we are not talking about the privileged few but nearing half of all families; many of whom have sacrificed greatly to provide an education they believe is best for their children’s needs. That situation is not adequately recognised by Gonski and it needs to be. If 40% of high school children descended upon the public system tomorrow, our education system would be in total chaos for the foreseeable future.

A system that has worked remarkably well for 150 years.

Australia’s unique situation arose from a compact made in the 19th century between the churches and the various state governments. That agreement delivered the most robust education in the western world at the time because church and state looked after the education of the children of those states in concert. That arrangement has worked remarkably well for the last 150 years or thereabouts. Our system has effectively been in balance for a long time. The great iniquities arise out of the cost pressures including taxation on families with school and university age children.

At the moment, if a parent chooses to spend a large amount of money on their children’s education, they are penalised irrespective of their financial circumstances.

The taxation system discriminates against families.

The present fiscal system discriminates massively against all families and that needs to change. Gonski only makes it worse because it fails to fully recognise the underlying reasons in its funding model.

Disadvantage and disability place massive pressure on households. There is even greater pressure for those households with children. However, it is not only families dealing with disability; all families are suffering. If you apply the Australian Bureau of Statistics (equivalised) disposable income index to gross income, it is families who come off worst. For example, after taking take into account the costs of running a family as opposed to operating as an individual or couple, families disappear from the two highest income quintiles at a rate of 35%. In the top quintile (top 20%) the situation is even worse with 40% disappearing once the equivalised disposable income measure is applied by ABS statisticians.4 Families you may think of as well off, suddenly become far less well off. Then, when you factor in elements such as cost of care for children with disabilities, disadvantage due to distance, inadequate local school facilities or school size, cultural and language differences, psychological issues associated with the student body, education level of parents and any number of other factors, the situation is even worse for families. These issues must be taken into account in funding and they are not outside of a basic socio-economic profile.

The solution is hidden in full view,

The solution to delivering effective education is hidden in full view and resides within a number of schools currently operating which, despite everything going on, are getting it right. Within every area of disadvantage some schools still manage to deliver great results. Not all schools are performing badly. Far from it. So we need to find out why some schools manage to post great results irrespective of funding levels, disability, disadvantage, cultural issues, indigenous factors or whatever roadblocks are present. The system still works for those schools. It is our hunch that their success might have more to do with investing in good teachers and motivated students than with new science labs,laptops, and school halls and sports stadiums. Our reasoning is completely supported by the Melbourne Institute’s Policy Brief conclusions. e.g.

The Melbourne Institute policy brief seriously questions the value of international test rankings generally likening a rise to No. 5 on the PISA test to be about as useful for us as Australia regaining the No. 1 tennis nation status. After we have all finished congratulating ourselves - so what!

However, the report goes much further calling into question the entire premise behind Gonski exercise and challenges what education is really about. Is our education future going to be almost entirely devoted to getting a higher ranking on a narrow band international test or should it be equipping young people to be able to more effectively deal with a rapidly changing world? Schools do so much more than just prepare students for international tests and according to lead author Chris Ryan:

“The Gonski Report offers many valuable insights for school reform but considering it is being used to chart Australia’s future course on education, it is imperative that fundamental weaknesses within its assertions about funding are illustrated.”

Gonski was asked to look at a funding solution not an education solution so in fairness to the Gonski Committee, it was forced to act within very narrow terms of reference principally related to funding. Even Gonski itself was critical of the benchmarking tools (i.e. international narrow band tests) by which the adjudication would be made.

The “What’s Wrong with Gonski” authors make a strong case against centralisation of the school system. They see it as a faulty premise producing a “one size fits all clunker system” which will never be able to take into account differing circumstances and is therefore doomed.

Federal takeover of education

Gonski puts too much power in the hands of the federal government.

Consideration should be given to the notion of developing a mechanism to prevent Federal governments from bullying state governments into doing things merely to receive their rightful allocation of funds. It is the role of the people of each state, not the federal government to decide the type of state government they want. If the people aren’t happy they can throw their government out. In fact, that is the reason we have a federation –if people aren’t happy with the service their state is providing they remove that government at the next election or move to another state which agrees more with the way they want to live.

Freedom of choice through a parent-centred approach to education.

Rather than worry our way through a federal control system, the authors argue that freedom of choice is a fundamental requirement of any democratic society and without individual rights there are no rights. At the centre of the educational model we prefer parents – not government. It is parents who are responsible for raising their children and we believe that they are the ones who have the right to choose which schools, state or private, specialised or mainstream that their children attend.

We see little virtue in a government that insists where you send your children to school or worse; that they can’t go to school because they are overweight, haven’t had a flu shot or some other crazy new rule being forced on them. That is not Western democracy but rather a potential authoritarian hybrid. Freedom to make choices so long as they do not harm others, is the cornerstone of any free society whether democracy or constitutional republic.

That is why we prefer an educational model which determines support levels for parents based on their disposable income after taking into account the impact of individual circumstances such as having a child with a disability, living in a remote area and so on, on their financial position.

Equity and fairness in such a model needs to ensure the playing field is as level as possible mindful of the fact that families, when their expenses are taken into account, have far less left over at the end of the week than singles or couples. That situation is not recognised at the moment in the tax structure let alone educational funding models. So any workable educational model must also recognise such considerations if it is to treat families fairly.

We therefore advocate a parent-centred education system - not another government-focused control system where half the money is spent on bureaucrats and policing and at best, the remainder is spent on schools with only a smaller proportion of that amount devoted to the most critical factor of all – good  teachers. We advocate providing incentives for those who grasp the opportunity.


Public education in Australia accounts for only 60%+ students according to the Melbourne Institute Policy Brief. This is far less than the USA, UK or pretty much anywhere in the Western world. The vast majority of Australian parents sending children to non-government schools are not well-heeled and as such depend on support from a system that has worked in concert with the state run public school system for around 150 years. Justman and Ryan recognise this: “The status quo reflects a political balance: it can be challenged directly but it is not likely to be upended by a scientific formula correct or incorrect, devised by a panel of experts.”

The “What’s Wrong with Gonski” authors wonder if there can be any objective basis for determining the appropriate level of public funding of non-government schools? 

“Whatever formula is proposed will be judged by the ultimate subjective criteria: Am I getting as much as others are getting? These concerns cannot be countered “that such changes are necessary for raising PISA scores.”

Presently, there appears to be no real objective resource standard that can guarantee an outcome. There are too many uncertainties and at the end of the day we see with NSW’s agreement with Labor as a political decision as it was for the other states. Barry O’Farrell got in first and got the biggest slice of pie; but given we are in a zero sum game, the other states know that somehow or another they may have missed out.

At the moment parents don’t know enough about the mysterious Gonski to know whether they are getting a good deal or not and for that reason the issue it appears not to have gained the traction at the ballot box it might otherwise have received.

Institute for 21st Century Problem Solving

[1] The Institute for 21st Century Problem Solving is social sciences research institute which was formed from a belief that the pursuit of the social good can also provide significant ongoing rewards for business and NGO’s without bankrupting us morally.

[2] Justman M. and Ryan C. “What’s Wrong with the Gonski Report: Funding Reform and Student Achievement?” Policy Brief 2/13. April 2013, Melbourne Institute of applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne

[3] Jensen B. Grattan Institute, Weekend Australian p13, February 23, 2013.

[4] See graph at end of the document. Source ABS Australian Household Expenditure Survey 2010, released in September 2011.


Copyright 2013 Institute for 21st Century Problem Solving

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