Does he still give a Gonski?

David Gonski

A question I am often asked is whether I regret being involved in the review of education funding. Most who ask the question are referring to the enormous use of my name by both those in favour of what we said and those who are against.

Despite losing my comfortable and comparative anonymity, the answer to this question is categorically that I don’t regret it at all.

I am proud of what the review said and stands for. I still believe in the propositions we put.

The 11 months of work was an eye-opener. As a businessman working in an ivory tower I was given what might be a once-in-my-lifetime opportunity to go into schools and associated organisations.

I witnessed the calibre of principals in the school visits I personally made. I don’t believe I found one I didn’t admire and respect. Some I liked more than others. Some handled me better than others but all had a quality of leadership which was both impressive and inspiring.

I saw the difference between well-endowed schools and those in lower socioeconomic areas which is enormous. I found most of the schools happy places — places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.

To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40 per cent of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year — involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.

I was struck by the outstanding professionalism of both the leaders of the Commonwealth department involved in school education and a number of the equivalents in states. I confess that my unresearched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite.

Dealing with the representatives of the various sectors, be they from the Catholic system, the independent school sector, the education unions and others, was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively. This I found very reassuring for the future, and I thank them.

At the time of our review there were 3.5 million children at school in Australia. I felt and witnessed an intensity of interest in schooling in the community and an absolute recognition of its importance to the future of individuals and society as a whole.

Even today I still get stopped in the street with a pat on the back saying “thank you” and egging me on.

Education has played an enormous role in the wellbeing of my immediate family.

My grandfather did not have much, if any, school education and he suffered from this detriment for his entire life.

An intelligent man of humour and interest in culture and life, he sold linen and cloth to keep his family. They didn’t starve but they did struggle. He and his wife wished to ensure that their children had a good education. The direct result of this was that my father, rather than selling linen, became a brain surgeon.

The contrast between the life my father led and his father’s, and the contribution to society he was able to make remains deeply in my mind as proof of what school and tertiary education can do for the individual and for their society.

My life, I might say, was also improved by my father’s education, and I am very conscious of that.

I thought of this enormously while we were doing the review and particularly when I noted how Australia’s comparative results in the PISA tests [the OECD’s Program for International Assessment] was dropping (a fact noted in our report but demonstrated further since our report was delivered).

If the advantage of education had helped my family so much how could I stand by and say nothing when the country I love is dropping in its international rankings in such an important area?

My heart went out in this regard also to the second problem we easily identified: namely, that so many who suffer from disadvantage will suffer like my grandfather.

I personally had two further things to prove by being involved in the review.

I wanted to show that I, like many involved in big business, still had a feeling for society and a want to contribute towards its betterment.

Second, it is a pet concern of mine that we tend in Australia to be involved in one sector and we don’t stray to the others — if you are in business you generally don’t go into government service or the not-for-profit sector and vice versa. We should encourage movements within the sectors. It is good for the individual but also for society as it builds trust between the sectors and can facilitate better cooperation in achieving ambitions for the country.

I would advocate to all that it is both personally and, I believe, for society in general a good thing to move outside the comfort zone of one’s working area to become involved in society more broadly.

I cannot easily forget the differences I saw in the schools I visited. To say that many of the schools in the state systems need further assistance both in money and tender loving care is to me an understatement.

Governments need to embrace the importance of school education to individuals and to the productivity of our society. There needs to be a commitment to a properly funded needs-based aspirational system and a failure to do so will be to our detriment.

This is an edited extract of the inaugural Jean Blackburn Oration. David Gonski AC has also written about his work in I Gave a Gonski (Viking/Penguin Books 2015), available from the Federation Library and from bookshops.