Policy analysis by Dr Glenn Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education & Erin Mathews, Election Watch journalist

Apple and books

The Coalition promises to:

  • Cease funding Gonski in 2017, after the fourth year of the reforms
  • Spend $1.2 billion over 2018-2020 to fund programs to improve student performance, as part of a $73.6 billion Student Achievement Plan package 

Labor promises to:

  • Fully fund the six years of Gonski, including $4.5 billion in the final two years
  • This is part of a $37.3 billion Your Child. Our Future package over the decade from 2015-16 to 2025-26 

What is a Gonski?

  • The big difference between the major parties’ school education policies is Gonski. In 2013, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard started the needs-based school funding model we know as 'Gonski', based on David Gonski’s review of school funding
  • Six-year Gonski funding agreements have been struck with the states and territories individually, meaning there is not a nationally consistent model.
  • Under Gonski, the federal government gives these states and territories funding for schools based on individual student needs. The idea is that funding can be channeled into strategies to target disadvantage and improve student outcomes
  • Both major parties have committed to the first four years of Gonski. The catch is, two-thirds of the total Commonwealth funding for Gonski - $4.5 billion - is due in the final two years of the program, 2018-2019. The key difference between the major parties is that the ALP has promised to fully fund this whereas the Coalition will stop funding Gonski after 2017.

The Gonski myth 

“I think Gonski is a myth in some ways,” says Dr Glenn Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. “The 2011 Gonski review was designed to clean up funding arrangements in our nation and to create a more equitable, needs-based funding system. Unfortunately since its release, the ideals of the Gonski reforms have been subject to gross mutation. We never implemented the Gonski ideal. People talk about now we have Gonski funding - we don’t. We have something that resulted from a complex political process that followed the report being released. The second that Julia Gillard said no school will lose a dollar, that’s when we didn’t have needs-based funding.”

Dr Savage says the politicisation of our current ‘Gonski’ funding system has polarised the debate. “We’ve got some people on one side saying ‘Gonski’s the magic bullet, the messiah, it’s going to fix all the problems in Australian schools’, right through to people on the other end who tell us that funding doesn’t matter at all.

“Debates have also been hijacked by what I think is a myopic focus on how much schools are getting. By focusing on amounts of cash, debates have obscured the equally important question of what schools do with the money. There’s a formidable body of international research evidence that tells us that funding is not the magic bullet, but it also tells us that funding clearly matters. We need a more nuanced discussion of targeted investment in schools.”  

The Coalition's policy: Getting some things right

“The Coalition has been flip flopping - they’ve had everything on the table,” says Dr Savage. “Before the COAG meeting in March they were talking about walking away from public school funding altogether. Then within two weeks, when the budget was released, the Coalition suddenly did a complete reversal of its position and said, ‘no, actually now we’re going to increase school funding and we’re going to put all these new conditions on what the states and territories can do with the money.’ So it’s really hard to get a clear gauge on what the Government’s agenda is for schools. This kind of back and forth between ‘we’ll do this’ or ‘we’ll do that’ is really unproductive both for states and territories, who can’t forward plan, and for schools, who don’t know if they’re going to have money linked to Gonski coming in the year after next.”

Despite the changeable policy, Dr Savage says there is merit in the Coalition’s current education funding thinking. “They’ve got partly the right idea in the sense that they’re trying to say ‘look, we’re not just going to give you money, we want to actually try to link that money to strategies that are shown to have a positive impact.’ But in saying that, they’ve put in their policy a whole lot of conditions they’d like to place on money given to the states and territories - like introducing a literacy and numeracy test for year 1 students; they’ve talked about a focus on teacher quality; they’ve talked about linking teacher pay to the levels of the teacher standards. I think that’s a good idea in theory but there’s a bigger problem here.

“The Coalition’s ‘strings attached’ approach, I think, is signalling a new era of federal overreach in education, which could be quite damaging. A really bad trajectory to head down would be to have money from the federal government linked to this whole range of tick-a-box compliance measures, because if you do that, schools are strangled of the capacity to innovate and to experiment and to try new ideas out. Also, states and territories are kind of straight-jacketed into a monocultural approach across the nation, which goes right against the principles of federalism. So I think there are some good things going on with the Coalition’s policy but there are also some pretty negative things.”

Labor's policy: Funding Gonski is a good start

“Labor has benefited incredibly from being able to position itself as the pro-education party while the Coalition’s policy has been in disarray,” says Dr Savage. “The problem with Labor, though, is that at the moment it’s convenient for them to say, ‘look, there we go, we’re just going to fund Gonski.’ But they haven’t taken the next step yet, which is actually thinking more about how states and territories use the money they are getting.

“If Labor were elected, I think it would be interesting to see whether they try to go down a similar path to the Coalition and put some conditions on what states and territories do with this money, or whether they try to promote some sort of agreement between the states and Commonwealth around how the money is spent.”

Dr Savage says the ALP could draw on the school funding policy it had while in government. “We had the National Partnerships under the Gillard-Rudd era and they were quite useful. They were partnerships signed and agreed through COAG and the education council, where states, territories and the federal government essentially got together and said, ‘these are the things that we are going to priorities in terms of how and what we’re spending money on.’ The inital Gonski money was linked to the states and territories signing onto the National Partnerships and a range of other things, like the national curriculum and national teaching standards. I think that was a pretty good approach. It wasn’t the federal government saying, ‘we’re calling the shots and we’re going to tell states and territories what they’ve go to do with the money’, which is what the Coalition seems to be doing now.”

Schools suffer when there's no middle ground

Dr Savage says it’s essential schools funding is depoliticised. “We need bipartisan agreement on the model we’re going to pursue and a commitment of funding over a longer term, so that the funding of schools isn’t just linked to election cycles because it harms the system in doing that.

“We also need a more national approach, where decisions are agreed to by all levels of government.  It is absolutely essential to identify the things that make more of an impact than others and say, ‘these are some of the things schools should be doing’. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t want to see us go down the path where it became so compliance-driven and so prescriptive that schools are essentially ticking boxes and saying, ‘right, I’ve done this, where’s my money?’ Because that takes away the ability of principals and teachers to innovate, try new things and adapt things to their local context.”