This week the issue of the government’s review of school funding finally saw the light of day.

Once again, this rather crucial piece of education reform has been a secret squirrel affair involving Treasury, some tame ministry officials, and a very few politicians.

Thankfully the Herald’s inimitable Kirsty Johnston managed to get hold of documents that show the government is planning to use its ‘social investment’ approach to dump deciles and redesign school funding (a strategic leak? a desperate official who decided to leak? who knows.)

Four criteria would be used to identify children at risk, who would get more funding (child abuse, mother with no qualifications, a parent in prison, or being in a long-term beneficiary household).

The details were relatively scant and the government reacted by making reassuring noises – it won’t be in place until 2019, children wouldn’t be identified, it will only be brought in with agreement from the sector, etc. Once again, the government’s many, many excellent spin doctors managed the leak very well, and by the end of the week the Herald’s editorial on it was pretty positive.

But some big questions remain:

  • the kind of system being proposed would require very complex IT. Hmm, think Novopay and now the failed Early Learning system, among other IT projects in difficulty. To get such a funding system developed, tested and trialled, and ready to go by 2019 or soon after probably means it needs to be in development now. So much for consultation?
  • the government has a poor record on getting sector agreement. It might say it has sector agreement but this may mean it finds a few tame principals and an on-song academic who say, well, on balance, it is probably OK
  • the social investment approach, as the School of Government at Victoria University in Wellington has identified, is really about cutting cost, not about meeting need. So even the Treasury’s own figures show that using the four criteria will only match extra funding to about 50% of children who need it, ie, even though a smaller percentage of children without these criteria “fail”, because there are so many children without the criteria, even a relatively small percentage of them means a large number of children

It’s about here the thirst for a Gonski kicks in. David Gonski, a formidable businessman with close links to the likes of Rupert Murdoch, was appointed by then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in a surprise move, to review the Australian system of school funding.

In turn, he surprised most in the sector by producing a report that recommended a system of fairer funding, and overall higher levels of funding to meet need. Needless to say, subsequent Australian governments have tried to weasel out of the Gonski changes and commitments, which are spread over many years, but those getting through do appear to be improving the Australian system.

Given that commentators are saying a radical overhaul of New Zealand school funding will likely be a very significant reform, possibly the biggest in decades, wouldn’t it have been better for the Minister of Education to have brought some independent thinking to the obvious problems (inequality of opportunity, underfunded inclusive education, unmet need for PLD on cultural competency).

She might have reached across the political divide, as Gillard did, and commissioned some researchers, to be led by someone like, for example,  Michael Cullen or Margaret Wilson, or even David Caygill or – Dr Pita Sharples.

Too late?