Gonski review cultural-left
23rd August 2012
In the following, recently published in the Australian, I argue that the Gonski school funding report is cultural-left and hostile to non-government schools.
GIVEN public statements by Julia Gillard and School Education Minister Peter Garrett, it's clear that the federal government's formal response to the Gonski school funding report is imminent, with legislation about to be introduced to parliament.
Non-government school critics - such as the Greens, the Australian Education Union and assorted cultural-Left academics like the University of Melbourne's Richard Teese - argue that the Gonski report is so compelling and credible that the government has no option but to fully implement its recommendations.
There's only one thing wrong with such a course of action. Instead of presenting a credible and evidence-based analysis of Australia's education system, the Gonski report is slanted towards a cultural-Left view - one that is inherently hostile to non-government schools and that ignores the evidence such schools deserve increased funding, not less.
This should not surprise, given a speech delivered by David Gonski last year to a national conference of the left-wing Australian Education Union - released under an FOI request. From his speech it is clear that Gonski sympathises with the AEU's campaign against so-called privileged non-government schools when he states "one of the key drivers (of the review) is about equity of educational outcomes".
The definition of equity offered is one where "differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions".
This ignores the evidence that students' socioeconomic background is not the main factor determining school performance and mirrors the cultural-Left's mantra of equality of outcomes.
According to this view of the world, merit, motivation and ability are secondary to victimhood and, as a consequence, governments are told to redirect funding from supposedly privileged non-government schools to government schools serving low-socioeconomic communities.
Gonski's admonition that "we need to continue to build a strong public school system and investigate and understand the cause and effects of the enrolment shift from government to non-government schools" is further evidence that he sympathises with the AEU's hostility towards Catholic and independent schools.
For years, the AEU has argued that government schools, even those in wealthy areas and charging high fees, must have priority funding and that the enrolment surge to non-government schools must be stopped by cutting funding, financially penalising parents and restricting school choice.
Central to the Gonski report is a deficit view of education where, supposedly, disadvantaged students are destined to failure because of parental education and occupation.
Hence the report's focus on equity and the argument that government schools deserve priority funding because they have higher concentrations of disadvantaged students.
That success or failure is determined by a student's socioeconomic background is taken as given by the cultural-Left, as it mirrors the belief that Australian society is riven with inequality and that non-government schools don't deserve funding because they enrol students from wealthy homes.
The reality proves otherwise. A report this year investigating the factors that influence whether students to complete Year 12 - School completion: what we learn from different measures of family background - concludes parental education and occupation are "less significant than previously indicated". The authors note "material factors, as measured through current family income, have only a small effect on Year 12 completion". Cultural factors were more important, including student aspirations, previous school experiences and involvement in "risky activities such as smoking and alcohol consumption".
Studies carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research confirm that students' socioeconomic background is not the main determinant explaining why some students do better than others when it comes to tertiary entry.
One 2010 study carried out by Gary Marks from the ACER analysing the factors that influence Year 12 success concludes that a student's prior ability is more influential and that "student achievement on tertiary entrance performance cannot be attributed to socioeconomic background" because the impact of home background is "moderate".
An earlier study this year by the ACER looking at tertiary entry also downplays the significance of socioeconomic background when it argues that more important factors include student ability, measured by previous academic results, and the impact of school culture as measured by teaching practice, classroom environment and whether students are motivated and confident.
The Gonski report and non-government school critics are also wrong to argue that Australia's education system is characterised by inequality and inequity because of the high number of non-government schools.
Results associated with two out of the three tests in the Program for International Student Assessment prove that our education system is "high equity". A 2002 OECD study examining levels of educational disadvantage ranks Australia favourably at fifth out of 24 nations.
A 2008 study, also by the OECD and titled Growing Unequal: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, dispels the cultural-Left's myth about inequality when it concludes that "Australia is one of the most socially mobile countries in the OECD" and that parents' level of education "affects the educational achievements of the child less than in most other countries".
One reason why Australia has a high degree of social mobility is that non-government schools, even after adjusting for students' family background, achieve stronger academic results, have higher completion rates and get more students into tertiary study than do government schools.
It's clear that the Gonski report embraces a cultural-Left, deficit model of education very much in line with non-government school critics and, given Gonski's speech to the AEU, it shouldn't surprise that the funding model recommended discriminates against non-government schools.
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