The Gonski Review was commissioned by the Julia Gillard government in 2011 to make recommendations about funding for public education.
The review, headed by businessperson, David Gonski, concluded Australia was under-investing in education and not allocating adequate funds to where they are needed the most. As a result, a large proportion of Australian children were missing out on the education they needed due to the lack of essential resources.
The Gonski Review said all schools should be funded according to the individual needs of students for them to acquire a high quality education. It recommended smaller class sizes, additional specialist teachers in literacy and numeracy and greater support for students with disabilities and behavioural problems.
Its findings are supported by research that found that Australia has higher inequality in education than most OECD countries. The OECD report Going for Growth 2015 said Australia lags behind all but eight of the 34 OECD countries in the link between socio-economic status and student achievement and must improve equity in education to redress this imbalance.
In addition to declining school academic performance compared with OECD countries in the past decade, Australia has a significant gap between its highest and lowest performing students.
This can be attributed to governments, both Labor and Coalition, prioritising funding to elite private and independent schools rather than giving sufficient funds to government schools, an indication that both major parties favour the privatisation of education in the longer term.
A major flaw in the Gonski recommendations is that it advocates continued subsidies to wealthy, elite private schools.
The OECD agrees with Gonski that it is essential to give greater weight to socio-economic factors in school funding. Increased funding is vital for students from low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds and children in remote communities.
Increased funding is fundamental to reducing education inequality, but there are also high social returns, especially in the early years of a child's education, in terms of self-esteem, ability to concentrate and enthusiasm for lifelong learning.
For disadvantaged students, equal access to early, primary and secondary education of a high quality is crucial to avoid exclusion from the labour market and higher education.
According to World Bank figures, Australia's spending on education as a proportion of GDP — just over 5% — has been consistent over the past 10 years. Yet Australia's performance in international literacy and numeracy standards has declined in that time. This burden falls almost completely on government schools which have 80% of the most disadvantaged children enrolled across the country.
Contradicting OECD analysis, the federal Coalition government rejects the findings that increased spending leads to improved educational performance. It does not subscribe to equity-based funding and rejects the conclusion that there is a direct relationship between low socio-economic status and low student academic outcomes.
Although the OECD says increased funding is necessary to improve the long term economic outlook, the Coalition's ideological perspective is at odds with the Malcolm Turnbull government's rhetoric about creating a more innovative Australia with a highly skilled workforce.
Nevertheless, according to educators, additional Gonski funding since 2014 has already had a significant impact on student outcomes. The NSW Teachers Federation website is replete with testimonials from school principals that increased funding for disadvantaged and special needs students has already lifted their academic results dramatically.
An example is St John's Park High School in Sydney's western suburbs. Ninety per cent of the students come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and 60% are from low socio-economic families, many arriving in school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. However, principal Sue French, says that for the HSC last year the school had five students with ATARS over 99, 15 over 90, and 146 out of 170 students received a university offer.
Not surprisingly, the federal government is reneging on its election promise and refusing to honour in full the Gonski agreements signed with NSW, SA, Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT.
It wants to end the agreements in 2017 and stop delivering needs-based funding to all state governments. This will deprive schools of the bulk of the funding which would have been provided in the last two years of the program. Consequently, low socio-economic students, children with disabilities and Indigenous children across Australia will continue to be denied the resources they need for a high quality education.
The Coalition has also hinted that it will cut funding to early childhood education, a move that will inhibit the progress of disadvantaged children who, under Labor's 2009 program of expanded access to preschool and kindergarten, have gone on to achieve improved results in Year 3 NAPLAN tests.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has committed Labor to fully funding the final two years of the Gonski agreement. However, there is a compelling moral and pragmatic case for permanent needs-based funding for government schools to overcome generational poverty and disadvantage and to build an equitable society. This can only be achieved by targeting additional money directly to students who need it, and not to already well-equipped and well-funded private schools.
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