Will the Gonski reforms mean higher teacher salaries?

Great teachers inspire their students profoundly and provide a foundation from which learning is optimally facilitated. They often do not just teach the required material; rather, they show students the process of learning and thus enable them to achieve academically without as much direct teacher instruction and support. Perhaps the greatest problem facing Australia’s education system is that we simply do not have enough of these great teachers. Worse still, based on the recent widely reported falls in both of (1) clearly-in ATAR requirements for teaching and (2) the number of first round university preferences from those achieving an ATAR of greater than 90, the quality of the average teacher does not seem to be about to improve anytime soon. While a high ATAR obviously does not necessarily make you a suitable teacher by any means, it is hard to see how someone who clearly has not been able to master their own subjects – and also achieve highly in the education system themselves – will have the potential to become an effective teacher. The only way to correct the misalignment between top students’ university preferences and the corresponding demand for teaching from those with a high level of proven ability is to make it a profession of first choice. Status matters when it comes to students’ university course selection and overseas examples such as Finland are a clear example of the exceptional educational outcomes that can be achieved when teaching is seen as a degree on par with law and medicine. A large part of the promotion of teaching as a profession of first choice comes down to pay. Individuals require incentives to change their behaviour and it is difficult to foresee the above-described status quo changing any time soon without a catalyst.

It would be quite reasonable to think that education reform with the hype of the Gonski proposals would be almost certain to address the salary level of Australia’s teachers. The reality, however, is that unfortunately it does not. Currently, teaching salaries are determined at a state level on a state-by-state basis and this will not change under the Gillard Government’s proposed Gonski reform package. So, where exactly will the extra money – $14.5 billion over the next six years if the states agree to the proposed new funding arrangement – be going? The core stated directions are: smaller class sizes; extra specialist teachers in areas such as literacy and numeracy; greater support for students with higher needs such as those with disabilities; and, additional training and classroom support for teachers. These pursuits are undoubtedly worthwhile, but surely some of the additional funds could, and ultimately perhaps should, be directed to increasing teachers’ salaries if we want Australian students to be taught by the best and brightest? While the Gonski package is just the main element of the Gillard Government’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI) – which does make reference in relation to teaching to “achieving higher entry standards for the teaching profession, annual performance assessments and ongoing training and support” – the actual teacher pay paradigm is not an aspect covered by the NPSI/Gonski reform agenda.

Interestingly, more than half of the $14.5 billion figure quoted as the Gillard Government proposed Federal-State Gonski package is not forecast to be allocated to schools until 2018 and 2019. While some are disappointed that the funding increases are only going to increase relatively slowly and, perhaps more significantly, are not as large as what the 2011 Gonski report called for, the structure of the proposal should make it more politically expedient. Fiscal limitations on many of the states are arguably even greater than that of the commonwealth and they have only until Gillard’s 30 June deadline to sign up. Private interest theory – the theory that politicians will make rational choices based on their own objectives when in a decision-making position – suggests that state governments will be unwilling to sign on the dotted line unless there is a lot in it for them politically. While Gillard may be attempting to make education and the NBN the focus of the September 14 election (focus group research is believed to show them as Labor’s two most popular policies), the state premiers have no such interest in education being a positive policy area in 2013.

‘Gonski’ has in recent times come to be seen as a term for all education policy improvements. The Labor party has adopted the (David) Gonski name as a marketing tool that it hopes will become progressively ingrained in voters’ minds.  The drawback with such an approach, however, is that most of the nation has no idea what the Gonski related policy package actually is. The Gonski education reforms – the first major review of school funding mechanisms in Australia for 40 years – are at their heart about allocating scarce fiscal resources. In relation to improving the funding model through the implementation of needs based allocation, Gonski goes as far as what could ever be politically expedient in pertinence to addressing the growing inequality of opportunity currently provided to those individuals immersed in low socio-economic environments. However, substantial more policy reform – going beyond the Gillard government’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI) by setting out policy to ensure teaching salaries increase – is needed to facilitate social cohesion, greater economic growth and the provision of widespread opportunity as all truly great education systems do.

Follow me on Twitter: @lachlanwalden