By RACHEL POWER
Is education about treating everyone equally? Or is it about the pursuit of being the best?
My daughter has high level needs.
Her teacher does her very best to cater for our 7 year-old within her class of 25 kids but under current funding arrangements only a tiny proportion of those that need help actually qualify for extra support in the classroom.
Our kids attend their local state school in an inner-suburban area that attracts a lot of new migrants, refugees and a high proportion of Indigenous families.
This diversity is what we love and value about the school — but it also means our daughter is only one of a large number of kids with high-level needs.
It also means that our next nearest school — only two kilometres closer to the city but with a notably better-heeled parent community — can run a community fete that raises ten of thousands of dollars every year, while we struggle to make more than a few grand at our local event.
Just the other day I found myself comforting a mother who was sobbing hysterically in the school foyer. When she calmed down enough to tell me what was wrong, it emerged that her son’s glasses had fallen off and were accidentally trodden on by another kid. She had no idea how she was going to afford another pair.
Recently one of the world’s leading authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, visited Australia. I was particularly struck by his statement that in Finland, the education system strives for equity not excellence — but that the result of equity turns out to be excellence nonetheless.
As a result, Finland continues to blitz the competition on educational outcomes internationally, while Australia has been slipping further and further down the OECD scale every year. Sahlberg’s advice: Start with the equitable funding of the nation’s school system.
Last year, the Federal Government commissioned the most comprehensive review of schools funding in almost 40 years. The Gonski Review found that achievement gaps in literacy between those from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds could amount to as much as three years of schooling.
But what is the Gonski Report?
You can read the full Gonski Report here but in summary this is what it says:
- The shared funding of schools between Federal and State Governments is too complex
- Many Government schools need urgent funding for infrastructure
- There should be a minimum amount of funding that follows each student, with additional ‘loadings’ for students with special needs or certain characteristics
- All of the changes will cost around $5 billion
Its report recommended a comprehensive change to the way schools are funded — directing money toward those with the greatest need — and called for an extra $5 billion to be injected into schools as a matter of urgency.
The message from the Gonski Review was clear: the current funding system is broken, it’s failing too many of our students, and it is harming the prosperity of the nation.
But so far the Gillard Government, hell-bent on achieving a budget surplus, has refused to commit the extra funding or to implement Gonski’s recommendations.
Once I might have been blissfully ignorant about the important of this issue. Now I am acutely aware of what it means. My daughter is lucky enough to have educated parents who can invest time, energy and resources into trying to make sure she doesn’t fall through the gaps.
For three hours every day my partner and I take turns to leave work and take our daughter to a specialised learning program. Costing the equivalent of a family holiday to Bali (which would have been nice!), I am acutely aware that while this is a considerable sacrifice for us, it is a prohibitive price tag for most families.
Does that make those families’ kids, often with far more severe problems than our little girl, less deserving?
Surely we can all agree that every kid deserves the best possible education, no matter their background or the size of their parents’ wallet.
Teachers know that in many if not most cases, school represents a one-off opportunity to maximise a child’s potential and give them a fighting chance in life. Imagine, then, the frustration at not having the resources to give a child the one-on-one attention you know could make all the difference.
This is what Gonski’s recommendations would make possible. Better funding would mean more teachers, smaller class sizes and increased attention for each child.
A society can only be as culturally rich, as productive and prosperous, as its public education system allows. The Gonski Report represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a better future for Australia.
As parents, we have the greatest stake in the quality of Australia’s education system. For that reason, we also have the greatest power to push for change.
Rachel Power is a journalist, mother and author of The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (Red Dog Books). Visit http://igiveagonski.com.au/ if you’d like to register your support for the I Give a Gonski campaign.