NEWS

Tuesday, 02 May 2017

MRC Executive Director Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

The frightful teachers’ unions are at it again, stealing the name of a respectable public figure to lend credibility to a truthless TV campaign. You can’t help feeling sorry for David Gonski, who forever will be associated with an act of policy vandalism that looks nothing like the schools funding scheme he envisaged. There has been nothing like it in Australian public life since the good name of NSW premier Joe Cahill was attached to the world’s ugliest expressway.

Ordinary TV viewers — that is to say those who are not complete political obsessives — may wonder why Labor’s misshapen response to the Gonski review is being dragged out again. It has been rejected twice by voters and, in any case, no one understands it.

Before Julia Gillard messed with the arrangements, a competent expert could explain how schools were funded in as little as 20 minutes. Today the system is virtually impenetrable, built on 27 disparate education agreements, hurriedly negotiated to meet an election deadline, in terms that depart wildly from the simpler, more equitable scheme to which the Gonski review aspired.

Yet the teachers are refusing to let go, and who could blame them? Together with the bureaucrats they were the biggest, and possibly only, winners from Gillard’s National Plan for School Improvement. Don’t imagine for a moment that it did anything for the kids.

The belief that educational standards can be improved by pumping in more money has long been exposed as quackery. Spending per pupil has increased 15 per cent in real terms since 2006 and class sizes have declined. Yet, on ­almost every measure, children are less literate, numerate and scientifically adept than they were a decade ago.

The Program for International Student Assessment results released late last year make dismal reading. The national proficient standard for reading was achieved by 61 per cent of 15-year-olds, down from 66 per cent in 2006. Numeracy was even worse, falling from 67 per cent to 55 per cent, while proficiency in science fell from 67 per cent to 61 per cent. What the heck, we may well ask, is going on?

If money could raise standards, Tasmanian kids should be doing OK; their public schools are better funded than those in Queensland, South Australia, NSW and Victoria. Yet 32 per cent of 15-year-olds in Tasmania are in the lowest PISA band for mathematics, meaning they will struggle to cope in the outside world. In Victoria, 19 per cent are in that unhappy position. The cost of schooling a child for a year in Tasmania is two and a half grand more than in Victoria.

When the dust finally settles, and the false hope of Gillard’s scheme is exposed, Labor’s extravagant response to the Gonski review will serve as a monument to the folly of turning fairness from a harmless abstract noun into the foundation for public policy.

More than a quarter of the money in the Gillard plan was set aside for special payments for “disadvantaged” children. Disadvantaged, like vulnerable, is a modern euphemism for those once ­label­led poor and needy, and even in the richest country in the southern hemisphere it seems there are a lot of them.

Half of all schoolchildren qualify as disadvantaged under Gillard’s rules. An entire school with just one Aboriginal child gets an automatic tick. Ditto children from non-English-speaking backgrounds, despite the evidence they are inclined to accomplish more at school than their monolinguistic contemporaries.

That every child should have a chance in life is the goal of public education. The mistake in the Gillard plan — the one muddle-headed do-gooders have been making for more than a century — is to presume that a benevolent state can compensate for the lottery of birth and iron out society’s bumps.

In the end, the review’s noble aspiration to ensure that “educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions” puts an impossible burden on schools. They cannot possibly be expected to deal with the multiple sources of poverty that hold back some children.

The futility of the task is most evident in remote communities, where poverty of opportunity is at its worst. Spending per pupil in the Northern Territory last year was $24,394, two-thirds more than in Victoria. It was even higher than in Canberra. Yet by every measure, the education system is not providing a pathway out of poverty. It is hard to see how it will ever become one when a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have effectively opted out of school by the age of 11.

We wait to see if a child from a flyblown desert community will feature in the series of alleged Gonski success stories in the fresh bombardment of agitprop funded by the teachers and their friends. They are trying to soften us up for next week’s budget, in which the government will reveal how funds will be distributed when its four-year commitment to the Gillard deal expires at the end of the year.

The campaign’s claim that the government will “stop the Gonski funding” is pure fiction; the ­Coalition has not cut school funding, nor is it likely to. In fact, public schools will receive 40 per cent more from the federal government this year than they did in the final year of Labor and the 2016 budget papers say the commonwealth’s contribution will rise by another 20 per cent by the end of the decade.

The Coalition must change Labor’s booby-trap legislation that locks in another $7 billion of additional schools spending over the next two budgets. It is money the government hasn’t got, and borrowing to fund recurrent spending is a habit that must stop.

The limp excuse from the left that this is not spending but “an investment in human capital” cannot go unchallenged, not least because of the indecency of its inhuman rhetoric. These, after all, are children we’re talking about, not robots.

 

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2019 by Menzies Research Centre