The final report of the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling, released earlier this year, recognises that technology is one of the key drivers of school funding. Ashley Wells is the education practice leader at government relations firm Hawker Britton. He discusses what the Gonski Review, and the Government’s policy response, will mean for the future of technology in our schools.
Early last month, in an address to the National Press Club, Prime Minister Julia Gillard released the Government’s response to the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling, known as the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’. In its long awaited response, the Government embraced many of the recommendations of the Gonski Review, and signalled a brighter future for Australian schools.
The Gonski Review was commissioned by then Minister for Education Julia Gillard, on behalf of the Government in 2010. The Review was commissioned to develop a new funding system for Australian schools that would be transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting strong outcomes for all Australian students. Its aim was to deliver a funding model that ensures that differences in educational outcomes were not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.
It was the first comprehensive review of school funding since 1973, and importantly considered by the government, independent and Catholic school sectors. The Review was undertaken between 2010 and 2012 by a panel of six eminent Australians, led by David Gonski.
The funding Review forms part of the Government’s broader education agenda, which has also included the Building the Education Revolution (BER), the Digital Education Revolution (DER), the National Curriculum, the launch of the MySchools website, and ensuring schools are better connected through the rollout of the National Broadband Network.
The Review Process
Community and stakeholder consultation was a key part of the Review process. Community consultation began in July 2010, with an initial ‘stakeholder listening tour’ that visited capital cities across the country. Throughout the tour, opinions were sought from over 70 groups representing the education sector, including government and non-government education authorities, Indigenous education and special education representatives, as well as parent, principal, teacher and union groups.
Technology as a significant cost driver for school funding was a continual theme throughout the Review. For those operating in the school environment, this will come as no surprise. Indeed, during the public consultations undertaken by the Review Panel, the costs of maintaining and updating ageing technology and infrastructure in schools were key concerns. Changes in the curriculum and a greater reliance on technology in contemporary classrooms compound these concerns.
The Emerging Issues Paper, published by the Review Panel, summarises the feedback received during the consultation process. It found that school groups across all jurisdictions welcomed the DER funding they had received as enabling a significant injection of resources and facilities into schools. However, the one-off nature of this funding risks leaving schools vulnerable to ongoing future upgrade and maintenance costs.
The problem posed by the ongoing costs of technology in regional and remote areas is even more acute. Research undertaken by the Nous Group, as part of the Review process, found that more limited access to facilities and resources, such as technology and internet access, led to higher average operational costs for schools. That regional and remote areas are also typically characterised by lower socioeconomic communities means students in these schools are less likely to have access to these facilities in their home environment, compounding the need for them in schools.
Deloitte Access Economics made similar findings in its research conducted as part of the Review. They found that it was vital any new funding model be able to keep pace with changes stemming from dynamic schooling environments, including the introduction of new technologies into schools.
The Final Report Of The Gonski Review Of Funding For Schooling
The final report of the Gonski Review was released on Monday 20 February 2012. It noted two significant weaknesses in the current Australian school system. The first is that over the last decade, the performance of Australian students and Australian schools has declined across all sectors. The second is that there is a significant gap between the highest and lowest performing students in Australian schools. This performance gap is far greater in Australian schools than it is in many other OECD countries, particularly those with high-performing schooling systems. The Review noted what is described as an “unacceptable link” between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds.
To address these weaknesses, the cornerstone of the Review’s recommendations is the introduction of a new funding model, known as the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).
This SRS, consisting of a set investment per student amount, plus additional loadings, would represent the total resources required by a school to provide its students with the opportunity to achieve high educational outcomes over a sustained period of time. The loadings would take into account socioeconomic background, disability, English language proficiency, the particular needs of Indigenous students, school size and school location.
The set SRS amount will be determined based on the current level of funding per student at the top performing schools across the country. This will represent a significant increase in overall school funding, which the Review Panel believes is a necessity. Modelling undertaken by the Review Panel suggests that this would mean an increase in funding of $5 billion, or 15 per cent, of current school funding (based on 2009 figures).
The SRS will be periodically reviewed every four years so that it continues to reflect community aspirations and, in between reviews, be indexed using a simple measure that is based on the actual increase in costs in schools already achieving the relevant high educational outcomes over a sustained period of time.
Through the proposed new funding model, the final report of the Gonski Review responds directly to the concerns raised around technology as an ongoing driver of schools’ funding pressures. Finding 11 of the Gonski Review was that within the new funding framework, there must be an explicit difference between setting a standard for the resourcing of schooling and indexation for changes in the costs related to the delivery of that standard. This marks a clear difference with the current school funding model, wherein the Average Government School Recurrent Costs (AGSRC) operates as both a funding benchmark and an index. Indexing school funding in line with the real costs of all schools will far better accommodate the dynamic and changing technology needs of schooling.
The Review Panel found that a new funding benchmark, particularly one geared towards improving educational performance, should include resourcing increases over time to reflect, among other things, changes in modes of delivery through classrooms and the use of ICT. Practically, this will mean regular, evidence-based reviews of the benchmark. This will ensure developments in technology do not become a financial burden on Schools, but rather are factored into the funding model.
The National Plan For School Improvement
The Government’s response to the Review, the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’, accepted the findings and the vast majority of the Gonksi recommendations, including the SRS. Prime Minister Gillard outlined a Plan that, phased in over six years from 2014, should see Australian schools ranked in the top five in the world in performance in the areas of reading, science and mathematics by 2025.
While the fact that the Government has embraced so much of the Gonski recommendations is an incredibly positive signal for our schools, the way forward is by no means certain.
As occurs under the current funding arrangement, the SRS would continue to be funded by the three-way partnership between the Commonwealth Government, state and territory governments, and private sources. Therefore, in order to implement these reforms, details of the funding arrangements must be agreed to by these three groups. The negotiations are now under way, and are due to be finalised in early 2013.
The Government’s proposed time frame is for the Plan to be phased in over six years from 2014, with legislation supporting the Plan to be introduced to Parliament by the end of 2012. This legislation will enshrine the core principles of the Plan, but is not expected to provide any further detail on funding arrangements.
Of course, as recent history tells us, negotiations between the Federal and State and Territory governments tend to defy proposed timeframes. We should not expect this negotiation to be any different.
While there is a long way to go, we should look optimistically at the opportunities a new funding model presents for Australian schools. When implemented, the reforms will deliver results across the whole of the sector, including securing ongoing funding for technology in school. The Prime Minister has estimated that to fully implement the Plan would require an additional $6.5 billion investment in total school funding per year. While the Commonwealth Government has indicated it is prepared to make a substantial investment to help realise this ambitious investment target, the States and Territories will also be required to foot some of the bill.
Importantly, all parties involved in this process have agreed that no school would lose funding under the new funding model. When implemented, the Gonski school reforms will mean a genuine transformation of Australia’s schooling system – to the benefit of students, teachers and school communities across the country.
Australian Government (2011) Review of Funding for Schooling Final Report
Australian Government (2010) Review of Funding for Schooling Emerging Issues Paper
Deloitte Access Economics (2011) Assessing existing funding models for schooling in Australia
Nous Group (2011) Schooling Challenges and Opportunities A Report for the Review of Funding for Schooling Panel