Philanthropy putting learning back on the agenda for Australia

Two years ago Australia was on the verge of a unique moment: a consensus across politics, across States, across sectors and across the Australian community that education funding in this country had to change.

A consensus that the divisiveness and dysfunction in funding that entrenched inequality and denied opportunity for so many had to end.

Indeed, there was a ‘unity ticket’ between both sides of politics to provide future funding on the basis of student and school need, rather than the special claims and pleading of the sectors.

Fast forward and it is as though that moment never occurred. The Gonski reforms are further away from being implemented than ever before: with only token commitment from the Commonwealth; and States such as Victoria legislating to guarantee ‘sector shares’ of funding rather allocating resources according to the Gonski principles.

Philanthropy was prominent in getting the education debate that Australia has to have off the ground.

A key player was David Gonski. As well as being a formidable leader in the financial sector and a former chair of a major non-Government school, Gonski is a significant philanthropist.

Less prominent in the public eye is Ellen Koshland, who has had a life long mission to ensure education opens the minds, the eyes and the ears of all people and its capacity to improve well-being and opportunity. Ellen established the Education Foundation in 1989 to support teachers, schools and communities driving innovation in education. Like me, Ellen has often found inspiration for her philanthropy in the USA where organisations like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy have identified how philanthropy can be most effective in supporting progressive social change.

Most especially, in this context, she supported the work of the late Jack Keating to analyse why inequality has become so entrenched in school education, explain what the consequences have been and encouraged him to chart new ways forward. Keating’s work for the Gonski review was crucial and helped to deliver the new consensus that till recently seemed so close.

Ellen’s work is an exemplar of social change philanthropy in action – on the ground, in the public discourse, in advancing the common good. She is leading by example in urging philanthropists to deploy their unique advantages to provide not just multi-year funding but long-term backing for serious change.

Ellen aims for nothing less than changing the way Australia thinks about itself as a learning society. This is bold, challenging thinking, which is backed by a smart strategy.

To help achieve this goal, Ellen has committed to a ten year program of change through supporting the Australian Learning Lecture (ALL).

The focus of the initial lecture later this month is deliberately paradoxical – Joy and Data. It is not a combination that we usually associate with education debates that are vulnerable to the attainment of qualifications; throughput and volume of students as the key measures of success.

But combining the joy of learning with robust measures of effectiveness has the capacity to shift the current paradigm in education from the rigidities of NAPLAN to a richer, more dynamic pedagogy for students and teachers.

ALL will put learning back on the agenda for Australia, from high level thinking to practical applications, illustrated through case studies from national and international sources. The State Library of Victoria is the other principal partner in ALL and will bring its outreach to students and vast resources to the table – to ensure that learning is truly full of joy.

I urge you to attend the first lecture on Thursday 21 May by Sir Michael Barber, one of the world’s leading thinkers on education reform. Quentin Bryce, former Governor-General, will introduce the evening.


Jill Reichstein OAM

Chair, Reichstein Foundation