Education reforms far from Gonski

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The Gonski reforms are a once in a generation opportunity to change to the way school education is funded in Australia. The tough sell to defiant premiers is on in earnest and the battle is far from over. Matthew N. Donovan delves into the details.
The two premiers standing in the way of national education reform.
The two premiers standing in the way of uniform national education reform — Qld's Campbell Newman and WA's Colin Barnett.

THERE WAS rightly a lot of coverage leading up to Friday's Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is in the midst of tackling serious national reforms in areas that have been neglected for decades.

I assume most of you would be aware by now what the terms Gonski and NDIS refer to? National school funding reform and national disability insurance for the uninitiated.

Both agendas spring out of credible and detailed reviews of our existing systems, and are highly complex areas of policy.

The government has been working for years to bring the parliament legislation that addresses the need for urgent changes in the school education and disability sectors.

The NDIS (now referred to as DisabilityCare) legislation passed earlier this year and will transform the lives of thousands of the least fortunate in our country. South Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Tasmania and Victoria have all signed on to take part in the initial stage of the program and trial sites will start rolling out come 1 July this year.

The Northern Territory has just signed on to launch its own trial site next year.

New South Wales, South Australia and the ACT have all agreed to the terms of the full roll out over the coming years.

These are not easy reforms. They involve months of hard, constant, behind the scenes negotiations between the Commonwealth, the states, and the territories.

I know many Australians would struggle to put into words how much it means to them and what a difference it will make to their lives.

The "Gonski" reforms or National Plan for School Improvement, as mentioned earlier, were the other major agenda item at the COAG meeting.

The review the plan is based on pointed states:
Australia has a significant gap between its highest and lowest performing students. This performance gap is far greater in Australia than in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, particularly those with high-performing schooling systems. A concerning proportion of Australia’s lowest performing students are not meeting minimum standards of achievement. There is also an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds.

It drew a direct link between disadvantage and educational outcomes. Namely, students with disability, low socio‐ economic status students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with limited English language proficiency, and students in small or remote schools were being left behind.

The core principle behind the reforms is to properly fund all schools to allow every child to receive a world class education.

The reforms would establish a national Schooling Resourcing Standard (SRS). This SRS will be set at $9,271 for every primary school student and $12,193 for every high school student.

Loadings would then be applied for disadvantaged students, to allow them to receive the extra attention they need to reach their full potential.

The current funding model entrenches inequality between the top and the bottom schools and would see the gap between them widen as our students fall further behind others in our region.

There has been a serious decline over the past decade in how we stack up against OECD nations.

For all these reasons, Julia Gillard has persevered through all the challenges to get this done.

She says education is the reason she got into politics and it  is clearly something she dearly wants to accomplish.
The Schooling Resource Standard as explained by Labor on social media.
The Schooling Resource Standard as explained by Labor on social media.

Unfortunately, no state or territory signed up to an agreement over the $2 for $1 offer put forward by the government on Friday.

There is however nothing to suggest the states and territories have "abandoned" the reforms as The Weekend Australian stated on its front page.

There are complex and in depth discussions that need to be had over coming months and the prime minister acknowledged that when she placed a June 30 deadline on the negotiations, to allow for that to take place.

To say that because they didn't all sign on the dotted line after one meeting it's all over for reform, is nothing short of ridiculous.

South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT, New South Wales and to a lesser extent Victoria seem to be working through the issues to accommodate the reforms.

The states to be concerned about, as usual, are Queensland and Western Australia. Both Premier Barnett and Premier Newman seem to thrive on national attention and a battle of wills with Prime Minister Gillard, especially in this election year.

Both states refused to fund trial sites for the NDIS and both look set to severely disadvantage their people, yet again, on education.

Premier Barnett just fundamentally fails to grasp the reforms. He believes because his state is being offered the least amount of commonwealth funding it is "grossly inequitable".

In fact, if he took some time to understand what the changes are trying to achieve, he would understand the reason for that is his schools have the least room to move to achieve the desired SRS. Meaning he has, on average, the best resourced schooling system in the country.
Queensland Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek supposedly giving a Gonski during the 2012 election campaign.
Queensland Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek supposedly "giving a Gonski" during the 2012 election campaign.

Labor is trying to create equality, not entrench inequality. A concept, given his recent contribution to the GST distribution debate, that seems to continue to elude Premier Barnett.

Premier Newman looks more likely to acquiesce after much public protest. However, given his recent form on cutting services and denying desperately needed funding to a multitude of organisation and government departments nothing would surprise me.

A poll by Seven News released yesterday showed popular support for Queensland playing its part in the changes.

Tony Abbott has made it clear he would not pursue this agenda as it is "expensive and unnecessary". A line adopted by Shadow Education Spokesperson Christopher Pyne, who prefers to talk about "teacher quality and autonomy", restoring "traditional values" and removing the "black armband" view of Australian history — nothing but empty rhetoric and ideology.

Our nation needs these changes and almost everyone but some of the most important people in the discussion seem to understand that.

Time to put the national good ahead of politics. A foreign concept for Abbott and company it seems.

I'm just hoping this time it's not too much to ask.

(Disclosure: Matthew N. Donovan is a former ALP state candidate and is a Labor Party member.)

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