Gonski Review

Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong

Much has been said about David Gonski’s second review of school funding in Australia. It is a document made up 46,327 words aimed at advising the Australian Government on how school funding can be used to improve student achievement and school performance.

Within those 46,327 words in the 150-page document, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, the term ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘ is only used 10 times. This is less than 0.1% of the total focus within the entire document.

Deficit discourse

It gets worse. When reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is used in the document, it is predominantly based on ‘deficit discourse’, that is discussion that represents people or groups in terms of deficiency, absence, lack or failure. And it sets up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be considered different to the dominant norm.  For example:

“This holds regardless of a student’s circumstances, whether they are students with disability, students in rural or remote locations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,those from non-English speaking backgrounds, low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, or any combination of these” (p. x, emphasis added);

“The review Panel heard from a range of stakeholders that there are common fundamentals needed to support all students – those in capital cities and territories, those in rural or remote locations, students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, academically advanced or less-advanced students, or any combination of these” (p. 4, emphasis added); and

“The strategy seeks to lift students’ foundational skills in STEM learning areas, improve Australia’s STEM performance in international comparative assessments, reverse the declining number of skilled graduates in STEM-related subjects, and address the under-representation in STEM of girls, of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and of students from non-metropolitan areas (p. 37, emphasis added).

By consistently listing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander uniqueness as a deficit, it maintains the dominant norm and perpetuates stereotypes.  The use of “or any combination of these” is also an interesting clause.  It seems a blasé term of reference acting to minimise the varying forms of inequity that peoples face and in turn, dismisses the lack of focus on addressing inequity.


Another mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the report includes an explicit mention of the need to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher representation.  As I see it, this limits the expectations of Indigenous peoples. They are seen as teachers not also as principals or educational leaders.

In the same way the document lacks promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within educational decision-making, even though this is advocated within numerous current policies.  Instead, the reasoning given for increasing representation is that “it promotes student creativity, motivation, deeper learning and problem-solving skills” (p. 73).

The reasoning seems very lack lustre when considering that an entire chapter within the document is focused on “Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators” (Chapter 3 pp. 56-81). This chapter draws on the work of Professors Jo Lampert and Bruce Burnett and their project, National Exceptional Teaching in Disadvantaged Schools programwhich seeks to address disadvantage by seeking exceptional pre-service teachers to fill ‘hard to place’ schools’ staffing issues. Little mention is made of the clientele of these schools or the reason for the schools being deemed ‘hard to place’ except for a mention of low socio-economic status schools.

Missed opportunities for positive acknowledgement

Yet, aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational research is used to emphasise the importance of classroom teachers and their role in education as well as the involvement of parents and community within the classroom setting.  For example, the Families as First teachers programis mentioned to illustrate the important role of parents supporting cognitive development. This program grew from a project within Kuranda to build parents capacity to assist their children in early childhood.

The omission of recognition of this being an Indigenous-led project now adapted within schools nationally, further silences the achievements and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Further to this, the notion of mentoring is also discussed.  While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not explicitly mentioned, the Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students report (OECD, 2017) was used as the substantiating evidence for mentoring.

The needs based funding loading specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is omitted from the actual report but needs based funding is championed as “levelling the playing field” (p.6).

The Review Panel was established “to examine evidence and make recommendations on how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes”, so these omissions are interesting.

One mention only of Cross-Curriculum Priorities

There are three cross curriculum priorities of the Australian National Curriculum. These are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. The cross curriculum priorities are part of the national curriculum, which is made up of three dimensions: specific disciplinary knowledge (such as English, science, maths), general capabilities (such as creative thinking, social and emotional skills) and the three cross curriculum priorities (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability).

Mention of the cross curriculum priorities is limited to one occasion within the report. And on that one occasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures is omitted.  That is, when describing the Australian Curriculum, the report states,

“The Australian Curriculum can be depicted as a cube of three dimensions: disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding in learning areas such as English, mathematics and science; general capabilities such as personal and social capability; and cross-curriculum priorities such as Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” (p. 38).

Why the omission?

I believe the omission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures may have been intentional. Previous reviews and reports commissioned by the Liberal Government by the likes of Kevin Donnelly have argued (paywalled) that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures within the curriculum is “hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that makes this nation unique”.

So is the omission purposeful; to align with the Liberal agenda of shifting focus? At least the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as the lone cross-curriculum priority is interesting. Considering the Liberal’s stance on climate change it is probably not surprising that Sustainability, the other cross-curriculum priority is also omitted.

In its defence, the report does acknowledge the numerous reviews undertaken addressing rural and remote education and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and that it “has sought to complement them, rather than go over the same ground. [Stating that,] our specific focus has been on improving school education outcomes for all students across Australia” (p. 14).

However if the review panel’s focus was on improving student outcomes and school performance, how can the needs of specific groups that are identified within governmental data sets as struggling to meet national minimum standards be so readily dismissed and silenced?



Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.


Yes we can greatly improve the teaching of creativity in Australian schools and yes we can measure it

Creativity is once again front and centre in the call for educating more effective 21stcentury workforces in Australia with the release of David Gonski’s latest review of schooling. It echoes other national reviews in stating that the current industrial age model of school education in Australia must change.

Our national curriculum mandates the development of the general capability of creative and critical thinking. However, achieving this is severely hampered, as the report attests, by inflexible curricula, teaching models that limit differentiation and creativity, and stymied organisational leadership that limits teacher practices and de-incentivises schools as innovative environments.

Today we know that creativity is ubiquitous, that everyone is creative, and that all students deserve the opportunity to develop, learn and maximise their own creative thinking abilities, exploring what leading researchers such as Mark Runco describe as problem-finding and problem-solving. Having progressed through industrial and knowledge economies, we are now propelled into a dynamic creative economy of enormous complexity, interconnectedness and opportunity.

Legendary educational psychologist E. Paul Torrance’s research into intelligence and creativity in school children established clinical links between fluency, flexibility, original thinking and the ability to elaborate on thoughts as markers for creativity. Torrance’s creativity index could predict kids’ creative accomplishments as adults far better than IQ testing.

This is an argument we are still making today through our research at RMIT University’s School of Education, in developing a national Creativity Index that will measure creative skills and capacities alongside literacy and numeracy. Our research also shows an urgent need for a more ecological approach to improving creativity in schools, not just to measuring it. This means approaching schools as ecosystems in which teachers collaborate with other teachers, students and leadership, and teaching and learning is approached interdisciplinarily. It also urges the immediate incorporation of compulsory creativity training in all initial teacher education and professional development across the country.

Today’s creativity research such as the current Australian Research Council-funded study Transforming 21stcentury creativity education in Australasia now focuses on the need to move beyond siloed subject areas or teaching and learning practices, instead developing creative ecologies across school environments, regionally and nationally throughout the sector.

Whilst attention to design thinking and other ‘imported’ solutions grows, we advocate solving the creativity education ‘problem’ from within, with educators ourselves adapting such tools for our own contexts. We believe education reform should be addressed through a holistic systems thinking approach which can incorporate best practice from tools like Stanford University’s famous d-school Design Thinking Bootcamp, but doesn’t stop there.

With support from the Australian Research Council, we are offering new Australian research and practical tools built from the 600+ teachers, principals, and students expressed needs for improving creativity in their classrooms. Large-scale, current and empirical research and tools grown from withinthe Education sector can greatly enhance models like the Victorian State Governments’ Professional Learning Communities model currently offered. The Creative Ecologies Final Report(2016)shares Harris’ Whole School Creativity Audit, Creativity Index, and a Top 10 Creative skills and capacities rubric – practical tools for moving forward at the whole-school level, incorporating creative teaching, learning and collaboration as an integrated and evidence-based answer to Gonski’s most recent call for improving creativity throughout the sector.

Using practical and collaborative approaches like these we believe, can expand user-centred innovation possibilities and have the potential to radically improve Australian education, and more effectively implement the Australian Curriculum’s ‘critical and creativity thinking’ general capability.

Why is this so important?

 Multinational companies such as Adobe are now conducting their own research to stress the need for creative skills and capacities in their recruits. We agree that, while market needs shouldn’t drive education, they play a strong role in determining what gets taught, and how.

Digital technology too is playing an ever-greater role in the how of educational engagements. And we’re not talking about just being able to put an iPad in every learner’s hands, but actually using hybrid reality technologies and emerging digital technology to educationallymeet and extend our own and our students shared creative imaginations. This is not only good education but good business too.  From augmented reality and games development, to immersive world and virtual reality technologies, to smart homes, workplaces and smart cities, creativity and creative ways of thinking are at the forefront of educational needs today.

The dangers of divorcing STEM from arts-based learning

Here in Australia, we dangerously divorce Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education from arts-based inquiry learning, diminishing further opportunities for interdisciplinary, joined-up learning strategies. The worldwide knee-jerk reaction to promoting STEM subjects forges on despite a recent Australian Parliamentary Enquiry outlining that our teachers are placed in STEM teaching situations ill-equipped to deal with this changing role and concept, whilst further acknowledging that interdisciplinary connectivity of utilising arts learningand thinkingin STEAM approaches need to be investigated further.

If governments are going to ensure workforces of the future will be adaptable, creative, and visionary, then they too must adapt to best practice and Australian research, and alter the way they tectonically arbitrate change and coordinate the future visioning of education in this country.

Whilst even countries like the United States have been stalling on creative education innovation, and cutbacks in places like the UK threaten to side-line creativity education once again, our northern neighbours in China,Korea, and Finland are revolutionising the ways they incorporate creativity into their core education, and understand its crucial connectivity to global industry.

Australian chief scientist Dr Finkel in an Education Council Report calls for a reverse in the narrowing trend toward STEM and other ‘baseline’ measures, and opening toward a more contemporary, global skill set. Research is proving that subject interconnection, such as in Finland’s ‘phenomenon teaching’ in secondary schools, Korea’s lead in institutional and industry connectivity, and China’s vision to move significant manufacturing to cheaper labour markets in Africa whist embracing the vision to evolve from a re-creative to a co-creative and entrepreneurial powerhouse, are urgent reminders that Australia needs to change, and change now.

Incorporating Australia-centred, education-adapted design thinking that mindfully intersects with cross disciplinary and creative pedagogies in pre-service teacher education rather than in retrospective and ad-hoc approaches, as well as within professional development plans of our current teaching workforce, can mark significant change forward. And these are changes Australia urgently needs.


Read more in Anne Harris’s book Creativity and Education


Anne Harris is an ARC Future Fellow, and Vice Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow (Research Associate Professor) in the School of Education and the Design and Creative Practice ECP at RMIT University. Her research focuses on the intersection of creativity, performance and digital media at both practice and policy levels. She is the creator and editor of the Palgrave Macmillan book series Creativity, Education and the Arts, and the ABER co-editor of the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy. She is the Director of Creative Agency Research Lab, and for more information on Creative Agency go to: www.creativeresearchhub.com


Leon de Bruin is a Research Fellow at RMIT University School of Education and Creative Agency Lab. He is an educator, performer and researcher in creativity, cognition, collaborative learning, creative pedagogies, and improvised music, and also works in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Brill Publication: Creativities in Arts Education, Research and Practice: International Perspectives for the Future of Learning and Teaching, and co-author with Anne Harris of Creativity in Education in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education.


Gonski’s new plan to reinvent Australian schools for the future has this one big flaw

My favourite episode of the American television comedy Seinfeld is the one titled “The Opposite”. Jerry Seinfeld’s mate, George, was always down on his luck until one day he decided to do the opposite of everything that came into his head.

His natural instincts had gotten him nowhere. He had no job and was still living with his parents well into adulthood. The results of George’s decision to do the opposite were that he changed his whole daily routine, found a new partner who liked his faults and landed an amazing job with the New York Yankees.

I was reminded of George in “The Opposite” episode when the Australian government launched its new Gonski report, Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

The review challenges the current schooling system by calling out the vestiges of the assembly line industrial age of education and the current lack of investment in “individualized” learning and future-focused skills. It calls for new types of online formative assessment (that is assessment carried out by teachers in their classrooms as part of the teaching process) and a different progression of learning schemes to focus on early literacy and numeracy skills. It wants us to reinvent years 11 and 12 of high school, to make them more creativity and innovation-based.

This is sounding like “The Opposite” to me.

The premise of this new scheme is line with the best thinkers on education in the world, from Thomas R. Guskey who encourages teachers to “make well designed assessments an integral part of the instructional process”, to Yong Zhao who wants the public to be informed of the “side effects of sweeping education policies” such school choice. It is also following the type of reforms made in the most educationally progressive nations in the world (yes, sorry folks, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands).

However, disappointingly, the assessment recommendations are a reboot of more of the same, or worse.

The review is advocating for assembly-line type assessments in the early years. That is the opposite of how educators boost literacy and numeracy skills in young children. And here again I think of Zhao and his side effects warnings, as he puts it : “This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative”; or “This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” 

The glaring contradiction in the report, as I see it, its that it asks for massive changes to an assembly-line reality by advocating for more assessment assembly-lines. Ken Boston in his recent commentary speaks to this by advocating that this is a “evolution not a revolution.” What is missing from this argument for learning progressions is the assumption that learning can be standardized across children. Chunking a NAPLAN component a day or week turns teachers into test givers and paper pushers rather than gifted learning scientists negotiating each child’s journey through the curriculum so that they are engaged and inspired, not lab rats.

I also noticed that some of the recommendations on learning progressions in the report have already failed elsewhere and have been dumped for that reason. For example New Zealand’s system, where young people faced ‘a test a day’, resulted in standards that continued to fall anyway in international comparisons. So they scrapped their national assessment program altogether.

What can we do?

I recommend that all of us who work in schools and with student performance data spend time this year advocating for reinventing the opposite of our current systems; not for more government-run assessment but for less.

We want to prepare children to be successful in their futures and to do that they need knowledge, skills and dispositions to be passionate, vibrant, dynamic, curious, open-minded, engaged (and literate and numerate) participants in their own journeys. We can’t assembly-line assess that.

If we are truly interested in improving literacy we need to read more with children. And while I know that this is told to parents and teachers over and over, the reality is we don’t do enough of it. It also means getting more books in the hands (yes, old school books) of infants, toddlers and young children.  Again, we know this, but I believe we don’t to enough to make sure it happens.  There should be at least 50 books in each home (age appropriate) by the time a child is five years old. The secret to literacy is reading more not assessing more.

Most importantly, we need high quality early childhood education for all children, not just the wealthy. Some of the recent practices downgrade early childhood workers to carer/babysitter status in salary and qualifications, just at the time we know so much more about this vital time of building cognitive capacity and hopefulness in the developing brain.

And basic, but usually ignored in education reform debates, is the glaring need for better supplementary health care for working class families in Australia. One that allows affordable dental, eye and specialist care so that these crucial wellbeing issues are not factors that negatively impact a child’s development.

In Australia we have doubled down on entrance and exit requirements for initial teacher education, now we have proposed new standardized formative assessment schemes, and these all piggy back on our mostly failed summative assessment systems (where children are tested at the end of their studies.  The proposed progressions of learning assessments narrowly simplify the process of learning into linear chunks that are not how young people learn. And they will create false measures of learning. Teachers should not have their pedagogical imaginations stripped to conform to practices that are not congruent with promoting learning.

One urban legend definition of insanity is “doing the same things over and over again and expecting better results”. When assembly line schooling is transformed to individualized learning, but the assessment scheme is from the same original mindset, we have the cart in front of the horse. And that is insane. “Stop, drop and test” assessment schemes are obsolete. It is time we in the field called this out and moved forward to build learning centers instead of testing centers. Let’s pull an “opposite George” out of our hats!

Dr John Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at john.fischetti@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @fischettij