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At arm’s length

The most intriguing aspect of the four papers commissioned by the Gonski funding review panel and released August 31 is the fact that neither the education minister, Peter Garrett, nor chair of the review, David Gonski, wanted to acknowledge ownership.
At the launch of the papers Garrett stated that they were "independent pieces of research" and they did not represent "the views of the panel or the government".
Gonski made the same point arguing the papers' findings were "those of the authors and should not be read as supported or endorsed by the panel" and that they should not be "seen to suggest directions the panel might be taking at this point".
On reading a number of the papers, in particular the one by The Nous Group, it's clear that both Garrett and Gonski are right to hold them at arm's length. The papers represent a clear and present danger to Catholic and independent schools, both in terms of reduced funding and increasing government regulation and control.
When discussing why parents choose private schools the Nous paper, instead of supporting choice and welcoming the growth of Catholic and independent schools, details actions needed to "address the 'drift' from the government to the non-government sectors".
Non-government school parents are also criticised, when choosing non-government schools for, supposedly, ignoring the "wider community benefits of having well-functioning schools irrespective of personal considerations around school choice for one's own children".
Echoing the hit list of wealthy private schools taken to the 2004 federal election by Mark Latham, the Nous paper also suggests that there needs to be a "re-think (of) the extent to which schools that are already well-resourced, and which are doing well in large part due to selective enrolment practices, should be publicly subsidised".
In addition to suggesting that such schools (clearly, predominantly non-government schools) should lose funding the paper also argues that higher-SES and higher-performing schools should be made to enrol lower performing students by introducing "a rewards-based funding mechanism".
It should not surprise that the Nous paper adopts a cultural-left view of education, one where choice, diversity and competition are forsaken in favour of increased government regulation and micromanagement.
One of the lead researchers responsible for the paper, Jack Keating from The University of Melbourne, was a senior policy officer for the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association, a union vehemently opposed to non-government schools.
Keating has also been involved in public seminars hostile to Catholic and independent schools and written extensively on the need to integrate non-government schools into the government sector.
The Allen Consulting Group's paper, Feasibility of a National Schooling Recurrent Resource Standard, while not as hostile as that by Nous, also presents a danger to non-government schools; especially their ability to be autonomous and to be able to best meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.
While nodding in the direction flexibility at the local level the funding model explored by the paper, like much of the government's education revolution, adopts a command and control approach to education.
The model of funding discussed, described as a National Schooling Recurrent Resource Standard (NSRRS), adopts a business model based on funding and evaluating schools in terms of "defined standards and outcomes". Under the NSRRS, school effectiveness will be measured in terms of "performance levels" that are "linked to both national policy goals and outcomes for individual students".
The paper mentions Australia's National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), the Melbourne Declaration and the National Education Agreement when discussing the types of outcomes that could be used to decide levels of funding and to evaluate school effectiveness.
It's no secret that schools, government and non-government, are complaining about the excessive bureaucracy and micromanagement represented by national approaches to curriculum, assessment, teacher certification and registration and the way compliance is linked to funding.
Classroom teachers are weighed down with red tape and having to conform to government directives, while schools have to spend inordinate time and resources filling in forms, monitoring outcomes and demonstrating that outcomes have been met.
An added concern relating to the NSRRS is that it is defined as the "level of resources per student from all sources" and the expectation, if accepted, is that the new model will reduce government funding to schools to take account of money raised at the local level, such as school fees.
On the basis that private investment in education should be encouraged rather than discouraged the current socioeconomic status (SES) model does not financially penalise non-government schools in such a way.
As mentioned, both Minister Garrett and David Gonski have distanced themselves from the four papers - only time will tell whether such a response is a genuine one or simply a strategy to mask their real intentions and to lull non-government schools into a false sense of security.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute.

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