Gonski funding: A wolf in sheep’s clothing

School funding comes at the cost of funding universities and TAFE.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell signed onto Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s national education reform agreement on April 23.

Many saw this as a windfall for public education, but little analysis regarding the detail has been made. On the surface it would seem that $5 billion over the next six years will be spent on students in NSW. However, it appears to be at the cost of tertiary education, namely university and NSW TAFE.

Last year, O’Farrell slashed $1.7 billion from public schools and TAFE colleges and sacked 1800 teachers and staff. Now he has been heralded by the media as a “moderate” hero for allocating $1.8 billion to education.

The funding comes with a few conditions, the most controversial being an expansion of standardised testing. Students already have to complete standardised tests on literacy and numeracy in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, known as NAPLAN.

The agreement proposes to expand these tests “by addition of annual full cohort testing of science ... [and] deliver national online assessments that align with the Australian Curriculum [in civics and citizenship].”

A University of Melbourne survey of 8353 teachers conducted last year found that the NAPLAN tests increased crying, absenteeism, stress-related vomiting and sleeplessness in students. It also found that the curriculum was being narrowed and that more class time was being spent on teaching to the test.

Sixty-nine per cent of respondents said NAPLAN had led to a reduction in the time they spent teaching subjects that were not tested. It also found that 39% of teachers held weekly practice tests — and 7% held daily tests — in the five months before NAPLAN.

An expansion of standardised testing will lead only to rote learning as opposed to skill development.

The education agreement also calls for national assessments to be reported against the new standards of “minimum, proficient and advanced”. Each school’s NAPLAN results are now published annually on the My School website.

It would appear that these simplified results would serve to cement the role of the website as a “tool” to effectively compare and contrast schools. Or, as the government phrases it, “provide school-level information”.

When My School was first created in 2010 newspapers and television news programs published rankings of the “best” and “worst” performing schools in the state, usually with little or no context, let alone regard for the communities represented.

An expansion of this website will only place more pressure on schools to perform and teach to the test.

Other changes under the guise of “empowered school leadership” will give more power to principals to hire and fire staff more easily as well as oversee larger portions of the budget.

This may sound like “cutting red tape”, but it will result in an increase in teacher casualisation because staffing budgets will be devolved to a school level, rather than it being a state responsibility to ensure that students have qualified teachers.

The agreement then goes on to increase bureaucratic administration by forcing schools to “develop a plan for year by year improvement, including annual reporting of progress”. In reality, this means teachers will be spending more time drawing up plans and analysing test results — as opposed to assisting students, preparing lessons and developing engaging units of work that challenge and stimulate students.

The increased power assigned to principals transforms their role from one of a school leader to that of a business manager. Ultimately, the agreement uses the abstract terminology of “quality teaching” to break down collective bargaining and the role of teacher trade unions.

By endorsing the certification of Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers it opens the gate to performance pay and starts to erode the bargaining power of teachers over their pay and conditions.

Another significant point that has not been widely publicised is that this agreement does not fundamentally change the federal funding formula for schools. It is additional funding and not a “reform” to the overall federal funding formula. At present, the federal government provides only 15% of the money that public schools receive.

Therefore, private schools will still receive the same amount of funding. In fact some private schools will receive a portion of this Gonski money as well, hence the lack of opposition from the powerful private schooling lobby.

The Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) in the agreement allocates base funding at $9271 for primary students and $12,193 for secondary students. It also adds loadings for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with a disability and students with low English proficiency.

It also provides additional funding for small and remote schools. This is absolutely necessary but it does not really work to solve the longer term problems being faced by public education in Australia — that is, the impact of privatisation.

Ultimately this is at best a short-term fix, and still falls short of the $20 billion that Gonski recommended be allocated.

One concern about specifying base funding and loading is that this could easily be amended to establish a voucher system. This means that funding can be tied to the individual student and could result in the payment of state or federal money to the parents who could then enrol their child in the school of their choice. This money could then be used to offset the cost of school fees, books, or other educational expenses in the private system.

With the reality of an Abbot government seeming more and more likely, this could be the outcome — an expansion of a neoliberal “user pays” system, and expanded funding for private schools.

The privatisation of education in Australia has resulted in the reduction of capital funding and recurrent funding to public schools. Granted, Rudd’s school hall bungle went some way to rectifying the statistics as opposed to addressing need. This is the real elephant in the room, and the real debate that needs to be had.

This funding comes at the cost of $2.3 billion being cut from universities and will equate to a price hike of TAFE fees in NSW.

The immediate losers in this agreement are, ironically, students from disadvantaged backgrounds that will be forced to take out loans rather than receive grants or scholarships to go to university, as well as the students who seek out vocational career paths through TAFE. Instead of an affordable and well-resourced education, both cohorts will be forced to enter a privatised and expensive tertiary system.