Monday, 3 June 2013
Australian Education Bill 2012; Second Reading
The recommendations for sweeping reform of education in Australia proposed by David Gonski provide the blueprint for necessary and affordable reform and must be adopted. Like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the so-called Gonski reforms are genuinely nation changing and just the sort of strategic reforms that the federal parliament should be working to achieve. They have my support.
To me, the great attraction of Gonski is not just the promise of a big increase in spending on education in Australia, as attractive as that obviously is. Even more important is the promise to finally get over the divisive public-versus-private dispute and instead to focus on the funding of education based on need.
And need there certainly is. Despite Australia being one of the richest and most fortunate countries in the world, education remains seriously underfunded, and this is increasingly being reflected in any number of indicators. For instance, according to the Australian Education Union, students in disadvantaged areas are up to three years behind those of the same age who live in wealthy areas and one in seven 15-year-old students in Australia does not have basic reading skills. Moreover, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, by the age of 15 more than one-third of Australia's Indigenous students 'do not have the adequate skills and knowledge in reading literacy to meet real-life challenges and may well be disadvantaged in their lives beyond school'. No wonder Australian Education Union Federal President, Angelo Gavrielatos, has said the NAPLAN national report, by highlighting the achievement gap, confirms the urgent need for reform of the way our schools are funded.
The statistical evidence in support of implementing the Gonski reforms is sizeable and persuasive. For instance, the OECD reports that the bottom 10 per cent of maths students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10 per cent of students in Australia. The OECD has also found that between 2000 and 2009 Korea's mean reading score improved by 15 points, which is equivalent to nearly five months learning, while Australia's fell by almost the same amount. Moreover, the Grattan Institute has consistently reported that, even where funding has been increased under the current scheme, educational outcomes have stagnated. In other words, Australia is being left behind—left behind by our economic competitors at that—the result being that not only are our students increasingly ill-prepared for their futures; but Australia as a nation is increasingly ill-prepared to compete in the future global economy.
One of the single biggest impediments to turning this situation around is that for decades now the vitally important area of education policy has been a public-versus-private, have-versus-have-not battleground. But David Gonski has given us a pathway through this by detailing a needs based funding arrangement where all students, regardless of where they are schooled—public, independent or Catholic; it doesn't matter—are treated as equal, with those in special need being given the extra support they need. This is, I suggest, a fundamentally fairer approach and one that removes the ideological stumbling block that has limited funding to a school-centric model for so long.
Despite my support for the Gonski reforms, I do feel that it is important to ring some alarm bells here. For instance, this legislation is flimsy and hardly the sort of detailed material we were all expecting, especially considering the time the government has taken to prepare the bill and the nation-changing scope of it. Another concern I have is that the government is inclined to tinker with Gonski's recommendations. Already some of the settings the Independent Schools Council of Australia, among others, were happy enough with look set to change, the result being a diminishing support for the reforms among non-government schools.
The government really must tread very carefully here because, if the spirit of Gonski's recommendations is lost, then so too will be lost the spirit of goodwill which existed across much of the education sector when Gonski's recommendations were first announced. Frankly, I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough. Unless and until the focus is genuinely on funding all students consistently regardless of where they are schooled and on funding disadvantaged students and schools to fully address that disadvantage regardless of whether or not they are public or private students or schools, we will keep coming back to the bun fight over public versus private and it will be the students more than anyone else who will suffer.
School funding must be according to need. Regrettably, that very essence of Gonski is at real risk of being watered down, and already the public-versus-private debate has crept back into the conversation. This must be stopped in its tracks, and that would be achieved if the government clearly explained how this reform is to be fully funded so corners do not need to be cut or funding priorities introduced. The reforms would also be greatly helped if the opposition stopped politicising the issue and reverting to type on the whole private school issue.
As far as the funding goes let us get one thing straight. By some estimates Australia spends $1 billion a week on education—yes, that is right: $1 billion a week—so what Gonski is asking for here, an additional $6.5 billion a year, as much as that sounds and in fact is, is still only a little more than a 10 per cent increase in education funding, or in other words an additional six weeks worth. Surely, in one of the richest and most fortunate countries in the world, with an annual federal budget of maybe $350,000 million, we can find the money for such a significant and nation-changing reform. If we cannot find such a relatively small amount of money for such an important purpose, then what on earth is public money for?
I said David Gonski recommended an increase in spending of $6.5 billion a year—that is, in fact, the indexed amount; his original recommendation being $5 billion a year, or $30 billion over six years—but the government's proposal is less than half of that and a significant slice comes from tertiary education. That disappoints me greatly because it means that in reality the government is seeking to roll out a much diminished version of what David Gonski expertly judged to be needed if we are to properly fund education in this country. I know money is tight and that means some important areas of government spending must be cut back, but surely we can find the cash to properly fund education. Surely it is just about priorities—the regrettable reality being that the Gonski reforms, being so loudly trumpeted by the government, is but a fraction of what is really needed and what could in fact be funded if there were the political will to do so.
That money should not come from the tertiary sector. The government's decision to strip $2.8 billion from the universities and their students is an appalling error of judgement. For heaven's sake what a truly dumb idea to cut education funding to boost education funding. No wonder the sector is up in arms, and I say power to the arms of the National Tertiary Education Union's campaign to have this cut overturned. In my home state of Tasmania this cut to the tertiary sector will translate into 150 job losses at the University of Tasmania at a time when UTAS is more important than ever for the way it is underpinning a sagging economy. Then there are the University of Tasmania's students, many of whom are disadvantaged and who will be hit especially hard by these cuts.
I note the Greens have suggested an amendment to the bill that would give priority to the most disadvantaged schools in the event funding overall falls short. I see the sense in that and will likely support their amendment but, frankly, it should not be necessary to be considering such a sandbagging of Gonski. The fact that we are, seriously points to the alarming realisation that these reforms are at risk of collapsing or at least being seriously diminished. If Gonski does not go ahead in any credible way the opposition will also have some explaining to do, not just for any refusal to support it in this place but also because of the behaviour of at least some of the Liberal-held states that would much rather play politics with our children's education than work cooperatively with Canberra.
Frankly, I do not care much for who pays for Gonski just so long as the job gets done. I do note that the reform is designed to be paid for by both the federal and state governments, which seems perfectly reasonable to me given the longstanding joint responsibility for education implementation and funding. However, here we are with Western Australia and Queensland in particular carrying on like pork chops, more interested it seems in the Liberal-Labor, state-federal contest than in any sort of meaningful improvement to school funding. Where all this ends up remains to be seen, especially when any number of points of detail are still to be properly addressed. For instance, what is to be done about the non-government schools that are currently deemed to be over-funded but protected by historic promises of never being worse off? This thorny issue is set to become even more problematic as the new funding model is implemented.
In closing, there is no reason whatsoever why Australia cannot have the best schools in the world, populated by the best teachers in the world, producing the best students in the world. The raw truth of the matter is that we do not and in fact we are going backwards compared to many countries. Please let us get behind Gonski and start to turn this around. Our kids need it.