Can Goodooga go Gonski?
GOODOOGA: Even when not flooded, this NSW town, 500 kilometres inland, is very isolated.
Fifty years ago, Goodooga Central School, in north-western NSW, had 200 primary school students, half of whom were Aboriginal, taught in wooden buildings under tin roofs.
By local dispensation, students could go home whenever the temperature in the shade under the veranda reached 105 on the old scale - 41 degrees. This happened about 10 times a year.
Most of my younger brothers and sisters attended, after a two-hour each-way bus trip on dirt roads; I was away at boarding school from the age of 10. Also boarding, from age 12 or 13, were most of the non-indigenous children of the local pastoralists. The nearest high school was about 140 kilometres away. Four or five Aboriginal children were doing early high school by correspondence, under supervision by Goodooga primary teachers. Some of those students - alive or now dead - ended up with university degrees.
For the past 40 years, since the time of Gough Whitlam, the size of the airconditioning plant at Goodooga Central School has exceeded the size of the school my brothers and sisters attended in those days before my father became ill and the family went off to Sydney and serious educational choice.
In the meantime, the population of Goodooga has shrunk, particularly after an all-weather bitumen road brought the isolated little town, on the Queensland border 500 kilometres inland, several hours closer to bigger communities to the east.
That one of the closest of these is Lightning Ridge, with 7000 residents, underlines the change. Most of old white Goodooga now bases itself there.
Fifty years ago, Goodooga, with 400 residents within 50 kilometres, was a metropolis compared with the Ridge, which had about 150 on a good day. Lightning Ridge now has a primary school and a high school with a collective 810 students; Goodooga, by contrast, now has only 56 kids, all but one of whom, at the 2011 school census, was Aboriginal. Goodooga town is now largely Aboriginal; the district identifying Goodooga as its spiritual capital now has at most 300 people within 50 kilometres.
The cost, these days, to the Commonwealth, the NSW government and the parents of the 56 children at Goodooga Central School is $56,000 a student a year.
So far as I can establish, because government and the My School website makes comparison as difficult as possible, that is the highest figure for any school of more than 50 pupils in Australia.
For such a sum, one could send each child to SCEGGS ($25,775 a year) or Kincoppal ($21,477), The Kings School (23,458) or Newington ($21,415) and have enough money left over to send the parents, and their pre-school infants, business class to Paris for a month's holiday each year.
The average income of an Aboriginal male over the age of 15 at Goodooga is about $350 a week; for women in the same cohort, about $30 more.
Perhaps 40 per cent of the Aboriginal children who attended the school with my siblings 50 years ago are still alive. In Canberra, 96 per cent of that cohort would still be alive.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which administers the My School and NAPLAN data, assesses the socio-economic status (SES) of Goodooga at about 606, right near the bottom of a scale which puts the national average at 1000, and top schools such as SCEGGS up at 1207, Kings at 1180, Telopea Park at 1160, and Radford College at 1201.
Goodooga rates well, if that is the word, for remoteness, size, Aboriginality and disabilities: it is up there, or down there, depending on the way one puts it, with Birdsville (571), Lake Nash (548), Kintore (616), Yuendumu (556), Papunya (512) Wilcannia (592), Amata SA (601) Pipalyatjara (672) and Cunnamulla (641).
Yet there is no obvious correlation between how much a school is costing the community, and the indices of disadvantage. It is, for example, a notorious fact that the Northern Territory government has been misappropriating money given to it for remote Aboriginal education, and spending it instead in Darwin. But even after five years of the Closing the Gap program, the cost per student of educating a child at Yuendumu is only $18,800, at Papunya $25,000, at Kintore ($28,600), and Wadeye ($19,700).
Each of these, and many others, is far more disadvantaged and remote than Goodooga.
Comparisons are odious, but it is not apparent why Wilcannia (at a cost of $25,000 a student), Brewarrina ($24,000), or Leonora WA ($20,600) cost so much less than Goodooga; or, for that matter, why Goodooga costs so much more than the schools in the Northern Territory.
It is not a mere matter of size. There are some very small schools with fewer than 25 students at considerable public expense (White Cliffs, with seven pupils costs $60,600 a student, for example); and another of my old home towns, Quambone, had 23 students costing $41,000 a head in 2011). Nor, based on the NAPLAN results, is it a matter of experiments with education, school management or clear outcomes in literacy, numeracy or any other educational achievements. These vary from school to school, but have no apparent relationship with funding, with remoteness or other indices of disadvantage, including the extent of use of English, or the possession of books, at home.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has promised 2013 is the year the federal government will attempt to progress into firm policy and timetables the recommendations made by the Gonski review of school funding. Gonski says all schools should be funded at a base level - indicatively about $8000 for each primary student and about $10,500 for secondary students. These should be topped up by loadings which recognise the need to better support students from poorer, or indigenous backgrounds, those with poor English, those in remote and very remote areas, and those with disabilities.
Gillard says that no school will be worse off as a result of the funding reforms. Reform is focused on greater equity of access to education, and on reducing what Gonski has described as a ''concentration of disadvantage'' in many schools and areas. Such concentrations, he says, affect school performance, but also teacher morale, community alienation from schools, and difficulties in attracting and retaining good teachers and students. As school reputations worsen, middle-class parents often respond by sending their children elsewhere, accelerating the drift.
This is particularly pronounced in many rural communities, particularly in NSW, where the bar, or source of discrimination, is not so much Aboriginality, but dependence on the welfare system.
In some country towns, most of the middle class (including middle-class Aborigines) now send their children to Catholic schools, with government schools increasingly concentrated with children of the underclass.
In Coonamble, in western NSW, for example, the SES rating of the public primary school, with 211 students (82 per cent Aboriginal) is 659. Half a kilometre away is the Catholic primary school, with 166 students (14 per cent indigenous) and an SES rating of 1035, above the national average.
Many rural whites, in short, do not want their children educated alongside people they characterise as ''no-hopers'' without much of a work ethic. The class divide in Coonamble is now such that only an American-style ''bussing'' operation could change it.
A good deal of attention with the Gonski proposals has been on whether the richer private schools - or government schools in well-heeled areas such as the ACT, Darwin or Sydney's northern suburbs - will suffer, immediately or in the long term. Gillard has promised they will not, even if, implicitly, their grandfathered advantage (so far as it is improved by government funding) may recede in time.
But perhaps there should be as much attention to grandfathering any tiny advantages out bush, even if they are difficult to justify. I cannot account for why Aboriginal children at Goodooga have three times as much money spent on them a head as Aboriginal children in central Australia - and nor can I see anything in the way of a dividend from this improved spending, despite the assumptions of the Gonski review. But I am pretty sure nothing will improve for Goodooga, or anywhere else, by removing what it has in the name of some spurious equity.
Goodooga's results - and what our society offers by way of an education for those in Goodooga - are still markedly inferior to those received by children in Canberra, whatever the expense.
The idea of more equity in school funding is obviously attractive and desirable. But an election winner? I very much doubt that the average voter - a declining proportion of whom, in any event, have dependent children, will notice any difference in particular schools as a result of the implementation of Gonski. Goodooga - and Aboriginal communities - certainly won't.
No regression analysis of current funding - intended to set ''equitable'' allowances for disadvantage - will make much difference to evidence of that disadvantage. The disadvantage is not primarily about money or resources, about where the money comes from, or to which schools it goes. It is about teaching, something about which the Gonski review, worthy as it is, says little.
For the record, I note that relatives of mine teach in some of the schools I have mentioned. The record should also state that Goodooga school raises an average of $2000 a student a year in ''fees, charges and parent contributions''.
A check of a random number of ACT government schools suggests that this is about six times as much, per head, as the average ACT government school.
>> Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times' editor-at-large.