The Good #2: Limited funding as an enabler

The billion-dollar question of late in the education sphere, is “Will Gonski pass?” Tied into these three words are:

  • a detailed report on current and proposed funding arrangements on Australia’s school system;
  • state government versus federal government versus school sector deliberations on a myriad of potential funding models;
  • public awareness campaigns; and
  • a discourse that has injected new meanings into the term “Gonski”, such that the man and his report are far removed from where we now stand.

In the debate are issues around equity in student outcomes and the ability for each school to set their students up for success. In parts of the country and for some students of particular backgrounds, to achieve this desired state of ‘equity’ extra funding that will provide additional resources and staffing is required.

Now some schools have it tough. Gonski’s report suggested that in schools where different forms of disadvantage are combined, the levels of disadvantage are compounded. Thus the need for increased funding is even more apparent.

In my own school this is the case. Give me 5 minutes and I could come up with a lengthy list of how extra funding could be allocated. I would start with new desks, extra maths and science staff, updated IT equipment, paint jobs in classrooms, sufficient textbooks for every class, student sponsorship for camps and excursions… and then easily go on.

Intertwined into this discussion around the need for funding, however, is an illustration of public and poorer independent schools that is based on deficit language: what we lack, what we need, the state-of-the-art resources that wealthier (independent) schools have.

In part due to my own cynicism that extra funding will be coming any time soon and also as a means of rising above this deficit thinking, it is important to recognise the achievements that are being made by schools that steadily work within their limited capacities.

For example, by not having sufficient maths teachers, some staff at my school have had to teach across learning areas, finding themselves in front of classes that they would not have otherwise taught. While many of these teachers are subsequently placed in challenging and often stressful situations, they are also in a position of receiving additional professional development. Further, the increased scope of their work enables these teachers to gain a more holistic perspective of many of their students’ learning abilities.

Secondary schools are often criticised for focusing on teaching ‘subjects’ rather than ‘students’ – a criticism that primary schools do not receive – so maybe this practice of teaching multiple subject areas should be more deliberately embraced?

Another opportunity that has arisen due to the availability of limited funds, has presented itself in the form of atypical leadership roles for students. While not all students have the chance (or want) to be on the SRC or to attend leadership programs, often these are the primary forms of leadership development that students are exposed to. Leadership is frequently equated with wearing a badge, running fundraisers and standing up at assembly.

In situations where schools are unable to spend freely on extracurricular activities, however, opportunities then arise for students to take on roles where adults may otherwise have been employed. This was the case at a recent school dance, where one student DJ-ed and a few others were official photographers for the night. By maturely taking on their roles, these students proved themselves capable and in turn earned respect from peers.

While federal education reforms are a necessity, we mustn’t forget what schools are still able to achieve, even when cloaked by the more immediate challenge of mere survival.


5 good things

As a teacher, it can be very easy to focus on what’s going wrong around you: a class that didn’t go as planned, students who are being disruptive, students who are being bullied, staff politics, stress, short time-frames, long hours, etc. Indeed, it seems that this attitude is one that is mirrored more generally in the media’s attitude towards public schools.

An underlying tone suggests they can’t support or provide for students in the same way as wealthier private or their more academically-endowed selective counterparts (e.g.). Public schools are not quite good enough.

Thinking about it, when are public schools ever the ones held in higher esteem with the other sectors striving to be like them? Rather, a discourse around ‘deficit’ magnifies the under-funding, under-resourcing and under-staffing of public schools.

Is a rapidly weakening ‘Gonski’ model going to fix this? Unlikely.

Is the Australian education system ever going to achieve the same results as is seen in the highly regarded education systems of Finland and Singapore? Not unless significant structural or philosophical changes are made to our education system as a whole.

However, let’s not forget we do currently have a system that is working for most of our students and is in fact relatively strongly rated in an international setting. Australia’s high levels of secondary and tertiary educational attainment and scores that are amongst the top in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are a testament to this.

In recognition of these strengths, my next five posts will focus on different successes that are apparent either in my own school or public schools more generally. They will be a celebration of the innovation, collegiality and hard work from staff and students that often goes unacknowledged outside the school grounds.