How to maximise Gonski funding for schools

by Peter Goss

Published by The Australian, Tuesday 10 November

Gonski funding — once derided as “goneski” — may be back on the table.

Asked about Gonksi on World Teachers’ Day, Malcolm Turnbull did not rule out more funding after the present agreements expire in 2017. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has acknowledged that improving education outcomes may require additional money.

If Gonski is revived, education ministers should do two things: first, go back to the principles in the original report; second, put in place policies and support to maximise the impact of the extra money.

Today, we lack a logical, consistent and publicly transparent approach to funding schooling, just as the Gonski panel found four years ago.

How did this happen?

In their December 2011 report, David Gonski and colleagues offered a new vision for school funding in Australia. The report described the complexities of the previous funding models and how little they related to educational need. It highlighted the strong impact of student background on educational outcomes — a link that is stronger in Australia than in many other OECD countries.

A core finding was that new funding arrangements should aim to ensure that differences in educational outcomes were not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.

The proposed answer was a “sector-blind, needs-based” model. Schools serving disadvantaged students would get additional funds.

These clear principles have been compromised by both sides of politics. From the start, the Labor Party insisted that no school lose a dollar per student. Post-election, the Liberal Party did deals with Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory that meant they got the extra federal money but didn’t have to contribute their one-third share.

The biggest change came when, having declared a ‘‘unity ticket” before the election, the Abbott government declined to fund the final two years of Gonski. Yet the issues Gonski identified are at least as important now as they were four years ago. In fact, some analysts argue the link between student background and educational outcomes has intensified since 2011.

This brings us to the core question. If Gonski funding is being reconsidered, how can policymakers maximise the return on the investment?

First, they should refer back to the original principles laid out in the report.

Australia needs a logical, consistent and transparent approach to school funding. It will take political courage to get there, but in time it would shift the political dialogue away from funding and towards the things that matter most, great teaching and learning.

Second, and more important, all levels of the system must work together to ensure the extra money is spent well. Simply handing money to schools has not delivered system-wide improvement in the past. There is no reason this time would be different.

Instead, leaders of education systems should give clear guidance on what school excellence looks like, and practical support to help schools get there.

Principals should choose teaching methods that have been shown to work and make sure teachers have all the support they need to implement them. Everyone should minimise activities that deliver little educational benefit but take up teachers’ time.

Probably the biggest single opportunity to improve school productivity is to invest in targeted teaching, the subject of Grattan Institute’s most recent school education report.

Too often, bright students sit in class working on material that they already know, while struggling students wrestle with material that is too hard given their present capabilities. Neither group learns much. This is a waste of time, money and effort.

The best teachers and schools work differently. They focus single-mindedly on what each student knows now, target their teaching to what each student is ready to learn next and track every student’s progress.

Despite pockets of great practice, this level of precision is the exception in Australian schools. It is hard to achieve. Most teachers and schools struggle to implement targeted teaching without external support and resources. Implementation at scale is the key. We can learn from existing models such as NSW’s Early Action for Success program.

EAFS operates in more than 300 of NSW’s most disadvantaged government schools. The NSW Education Department gives clear guidance about how to teach literacy and numeracy in the critical first three years of primary school. Teachers are given the time, tools and training to track and maximise the learning progress of every student. Trust and teamwork are vital.

EAFS-funded experts provide on-the-ground support that builds the capabilities of existing teachers. This model delivers results faster than focusing on initial teacher education, as important as that is. After all, there are many more teachers already in the system than new teachers each year.

The teachers we spoke to said EAFS had improved their teaching, and they loved knowing that their efforts were making a difference to every student. The impact of EAFS on student learning is highly encouraging. It just goes to show: funding does make a difference if invested well in the places that need it most.