Top marks to Gonski review for its focus on children, schools and teachers

27 February 2012

This is part three of a Herald series that asks: ''What could the Gonski review mean for parents choosing a school 10 years from now?''

Even if nothing else happens, the Gonksi review panel has already achieved a minor miracle, writes Helen Proctor.

As someone who has been following the school-funding debate for years, I have been amazed by the outbreak of goodwill since the report's release -it's been nearly universal. At the very least, this ceasefire must be a good thing for the schoolchildren who have been surrounded for years by bitter rivalries and claims and counterclaims of entitlement.

The debate has in the past focused a great deal on parents: their choices, their rights, their wealth or poverty. A good funding settlement should take off the pressure. Parents who choose to send their children to private schools should be able to stop worrying that the rug will be pulled out from under their feet. Parents of children attending public schools should feel that at last they can stop feeling like the poor relations.

Most importantly, the emphasis in the Gonski report is firmly where it belongs, on children, schools and teachers - and the rights of all children, collectively, to good, well-resourced schooling.

Many years ago an acquaintance moved into a famously troubled Australian suburb. Against the advice of her friends she enrolled her children at the local public school. Unbeknown to her friends, she had discovered that the school had become a magnet for special funding, with exciting and innovative programs and teachers who were not only passionate but also optimistic and well-supported.

This is a nice anecdote even if it is urban myth because it serves to show that a disadvantaged school doesn't have to be a bad place. Indeed, there is a lot of wonderful work going on right now in disadvantaged schools, but all too often it's work against the odds.

There are some things we know for sure about Australian schooling. We know that Australia is a low spender on public education compared with other nations in the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. We know that the correlation between socio-economic status and educational outcomes is too high. We know that Australia not only has an exceptionally high proportion of its children in non-government schools, but also a relatively high level of inequity between government and non-government schools. There are kids from rich, poor and middling families distributed across all kinds of schools but, statistically speaking, the poorer and more disadvantaged your parents are, the more likely you are to be in a government school.

Until about 25 years ago school choices were pretty limited. It was basically the local public school or the local parish school if you were Catholic, with a few kids going to the old, elite Protestant schools.

Today there is enormous pressure on parents to seek out the ''right'' school. More parents than ever before are sending their children to private schools and many public school parents send their children to a public school that is not local.

A few years ago some colleagues and I interviewed parents from 64 families, all of whom had considered a range of options before choosing a secondary school for their child.

Some specifically wanted their children to experience a local government high school, so they chose that option. Others had a religious faith that led them to Catholic or other religiously affiliated schools. Others preferred the high-octane competition of an academically selective school. But there were several parents who described themselves as reluctant choosers, who felt that their local public schools had become so rundown as to be untenable, even frightening.

We do not really know how justified these parents were in their fears and we also know that funding isn't everything. But funding is important. It's important because of what it can buy and it's important because of what it symbolises. The Gonski report has said clearly that Australia's school-funding system must support every child and every teacher. Equity is at the front and centre.

Many ''ifs'' remain but it's undeniable that the panel has done its homework and that its proposals are grounded in solid research. If the report were implemented it could mean certainty and security for everyone and a much better deal for those schools that are currently disadvantaged. At the top end of the market (financially speaking) it is likely that nothing much will change. Numbers are relatively small there and parents of children in those schools already pay more in fees than it costs to educate a child in a government school. And a minimum level of government funding is guaranteed under the proposed reforms.

It is hard to say what will happen in the middle, but the many private school parents in Catholic systemic schools who pay only a proportion of the costs of their children's schooling must be breathing sighs of relief.

If the Gonski plan is implemented and if it works in practice, it is the poorer end of the market that might be transformed. This is where government schools currently struggle with the neediest students and where an influx of guaranteed, secure ongoing funding could work wonders. Intriguingly, it is in this territory that the report offers an opening to the private schools to expand their work.

In any case, let us hope that the ceasefire continues.

Dr Helen Proctor is a lecturer in the Faculy of Education and Social Work and co-author with Craig Campbell and Geoffrey Sherington of School Choice: How parents negotiate the new school market in Australia (Allen & Unwin).

Media inquiries: Jacqueline Chowns, 0434 605 018 or