'Brave new world'? The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling

The report of the Review of Funding for Schooling (the Gonski Review) is a blueprint for a major overhaul of federal and state funding for school education. It has proposed a fundamental realignment of the historic funding roles of the Australian and state and territory governments that would see both levels of government provide more balanced funding to government and non-government schools. Significantly, the Gonski Review believes that its proposals will meet the Australian Government’s commitment that ‘no school would lose a dollar per student’.
Through its initial response, the Australian Government has set itself an ambitious agenda for change, with the Prime Minister aiming to introduce legislation for a new school funding system before the end of the year.
The Gonski Review’s key recommendations include:
  • differential SRS per student funding for non-government schools on the basis of their estimated capacity to generate private income
  • additional funding for disadvantaged students in all schools
  • the establishment of a National Schools Resourcing Body and
  • expanded Australian Government capital funding and School Planning Authorities to oversight the condition of school infrastructure and coordinate its development.

The Schooling Resource Standard (SRS)
  • The level of recurrent funding for school students will be determined by the SRS. It includes a per student amount (with different amounts for primary and secondary school students) and loadings for student and school-based sources of disadvantage (socioeconomic background, disability, English language proficiency, Indigeneity, and school size and location).
  • The per student SRS amounts (estimates are $8000 per primary school student and $10 500 per secondary school student using 2009 figures) will be based on the resources used by high-achieving schools (reference schools), as identified by their performance in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), and indexed annually.
  • Government school students will receive the full amount of the per student SRS.
  • The amount for non-government schools will be adjusted according to the anticipated level of a school’s private contribution, ranging from 10 per cent to about 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the
    SRS. Some non-government schools, such as special schools and those that do not have the capacity to charge fees, would receive the full SRS per student amount.
  • The minimum public funding that non-government schools would receive would be 20 to 25 per cent of the SRS. This amount equates to the combined total per student funding that these schools receive from all governments. The Gonski Review considers this amount would ensure the commitment that no school would lose a dollar in per student funding.The loadings for disadvantage would apply equally to all eligible students regardless of their school.
  • The loadings for disadvantage would apply equally to all eligible students regardless of their school.

The Gonski Review estimates that the new school funding model will require $5 billion (2009 prices) in additional funding, about 75 per cent of which will be provided to government schools. Based on the current share of total government funding, state and territory governments would incur about 70 per cent of the additional cost.

As the report states, there is much critical detail to be verified and resolved, and there are many challenges ahead, including:
  • verification of the methodology for calculating the per student SRS amounts. There is concern that the use of NAPLAN data is too narrow a measure of school achievement and others regard the 80 per cent achievement level as too low. The report notes that updated estimates will be needed by mid 2012 to facilitate negotiations and suggests that eventually a broader range of outcome measures be developed 
  • the report has not provided estimates, or a methodology, for the loadings for disadvantage. As with the SRS amounts, the report notes these estimates need to be developed by mid-2012. A key challenge here is to develop a nationally consistent definition of a student with a disability—an issue which has been on the national education agenda for many years
  • the $5 billion additional funding (about $5.4 billion in current prices), is a major challenge in the current budget environment, which both the report and the Government’s response acknowledge. 
  • the report identifies the need for a lengthy transition process but has not provided any detail, apart from stating some general principles and that it will be dependent on what is finally decided for the new funding system and
  • the successful and timely implementation of a new funding system is dependent on the support of state and territory governments who are being asked to make fundamental changes to school funding and to significantly increase their contribution.
The work of the Gonski Review has been widely praised but with so many different stakeholders the responses to its proposals are inevitably mixed. State education ministers have concerns about issues of states’ rights, funding commitments, and the lack of any definite response to the Gonski recommendations by the Australian Government. The Australian Greens and the Australian Education Union (AEU) consider the additional funding for government schools as long overdue and are urging the Government to quickly establish an implementation timeline. The AEU has also expressed disappointment that the Government has not responded more positively to the capital grants proposals. The Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) will remain uncertain about the future level of non-government schools funding until the final outcome is known. However, it has welcomed the funding for disadvantaged students.
The Coalition’s Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, has welcomed the Gonski report but remains concerned that non-government schools may lose funding and has stated his preference for the existing SES system for funding non-government schools. He is concerned about school fee increases, disincentives for private investment, and the implications for parental choice. The Shadow Minister’s belief that the Government will introduce means testing of non-government school parents has been refuted by the National Catholic Education Commission Chairperson.
The Gonski Review found that the current funding arrangements for schooling are ‘unnecessarily complex’. However, there are some who believe the reform proposals present a more complex model that will add to the administrative burden of school systems. The Independent Schools Council of Australia has also warned against establishing an ‘overly bureaucratic process’ that may be a ‘regulatory burden’ for schools.
Given the complexity of the proposals and with much detail still to be worked through, it is understandable that there are many reservations about the Gonski report. One commentator has also observed the way ahead is likely to be difficult, given the Government has chosen to establish a number of working groups through the Council of Australian Governments. Nevertheless, stakeholders have generally expressed a willingness to work towards a new school funding system.
Finally, as the Gonski report notes, the process of school reform and improving student outcomes involves more than funding. Echoing the findings of a recent Grattan Institute report on student achievement in East Asian countries, the Business Council of Australia has reminded us that additional resources, without addressing the ‘key drivers of educational performance’ (chiefly teacher quality) will not improve educational outcomes for all.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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