Stop playing on schools funding fears and get on with Gonski, The Conversation

August 27, 2012

How’s this for a radical thought to start the week – a robust contest of ideas around how we educate Australian students to an internationally competitive standard.

Too quixotic?

Perhaps, but it would be a lot more useful than the juvenile contest of fears on display in the Federal Parliament last week. The Prime Minister’s “Jack the Ripper” charge against Tony Abbott’s initial suggestion (later modifed) that government schools were the recipients of excessive largess from the commonwealth’s coffers.

It was yet more evidence that our national debate is more shrill than sane.

As educators around the country consider the worrying and further delay in the federal government’s response to David Gonski’s Review of Funding for Schooling Report, it might be time for the political class to take a deep breath and consider what’s at stake.

While Australia has a relatively high-performing system, the achievement of our students since 2000 has been in decline at all levels. We’re losing the ascendancy on reading, and maths and science literacy, and there is a 2-3 year learning gap between our best and most disadvantaged students. So concerned is NSW about this equity gap that Barry O’Farrell’s financial loadings for the disadvantaged students who are over-represented in government schools.

If O’Farrell gets it, what’s Abbott’s problem?

Clearly understood in the state that manages the nation’s largest education sector is the importance of building on success – the substantial investment that Julia Gillard made as Education Minister when she directed $1.5 billion to the states through a National Partnership agreement for investment in low socio-economic status schools.

This is the story that Federal Labor should be telling – in some cases shouting it from the solar-panelled rooftops of those BER-funded libraries.

The data from the states is not as comprehensive as it should be but every state education director-general can point to their success stories – turnaround schools in some of our poorest postcodes where ambition and academic excellence are as prized as they are in, dare I say it, “the big independent schools in established suburbs” that the Prime Minister sees “as a great example.”

Maybe it’s time the PM had a chat to Alan Jones. Not the Sydney talk show host but the principal of Marsden State High School on the southside of Brisbane. The surrounding suburbs aren’t and the starting point for the students that Marsden teaches – many from low income Indigenous, Pacific Islander and African families – is anything but promising.

Many come from families where parents or caregivers struggle to provide basic nutrition. Some teenagers end up doing most of the parenting of younger siblings. In other households chronic disruption, even domestic violence is the norm.

But given this socioeconomic dynamic, you won’t find a trace of defeatism in Jones or among his teaching team. As he says, “the more impoverished your community, the higher the expectations need to be.”

When he became principal in 2007, Jones inherited a school community where the police were a semi-regular presence, and where there was an almost settled indifference about low academic results and high levels of absenteeism.

Jones tackled all this with a particular mindset – as he says “leaders have to have the courage to challenge the thinking, that in an environment such as this, teachers can’t make much of a difference.”

Five years later, Marsden is now a safe and respectful place, attendance is at 90% and constantly monitored, school retention rates have gone from 62 per cent to 81 per cent, and there’s been a remarkable 20 per cent lift in the number of students who perform well on the performance band of Queensland’s Year 12 OP scores.

Jones led the way in shaping a major cultural shift but he admits that the big change came via the extra resourcing directed to the states from Julia Gillard’s National Partnership funding.

“It’s been revolutionary” says Jones.

The National Partnership investment, an average of $800 per student on top of the normal allocation for government schools, comes with enhanced autonomy for principals around how they organise structures and staffing. Jones has the authority, for instance, to move up to 10% of his teaching staff each year.

It means that people lift their game. But it’s the extra hires that are making the difference at Marsden – like the two Truancy Officers who ensure that students are in school and not at the local shopping centre. There’s a Head of Teacher Development who works collaboratively with practitioners and insists on continuous improvement – above all, an explicit practice that meets the needs of students, who in some cases, still struggle with basic literacy.

So here’s the bottom line. The National Partnership money runs out in 2013 which is why Jones wants to see the Gonksi report implemented “lock stock and barrel.” Jones says he has no trouble with Independent and Catholic schools receiving government funding, but insists that “the focus has to be on low SES schools and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference for communities such as this.”

The way ahead for federal Labor should be clear – to champion the success it has helped engineer, but also to grasp the historic opportunity to move from short-term investment plans to the Gonski formula of funding growth based on educational need.

Now that’s revolutionary.