Monday, 3 June 2013
Australian Education Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2012. I start with the statement that we all want better school outcomes, but this bill before the House does not deliver those better outcomes. It is simply not good enough that in Australia today a 15-year-old student has fallen behind their Chinese, Hong Kong, Singaporean, Korean and Japanese counterparts in reading, maths and science—in some cases by more than two years.
This government thinks that if it can say the word 'Gonski' often enough people will think it is doing something for education. The answer is it is not. 'Gonski' has become this government's byword for inaction and this bill, the Australian Education Bill, is symptomatic of a broader problem. There are simply no details or funding, merely aspirational goals. The Prime Minister said that this was the most important bill of the year when she first introduced it, but it is just nine pages and 1,400 words long
It promises that the Australian schooling system will be highly equitable, provide excellent educational outcomes and see Australia placed in the top five countries for reading, science and maths by 2025. Who could disagree with such noble goals, for education is, after all, what Thomas Jefferson once described as the first defence of the nation.
But the weakness of this bill before us today is that it provides no details. What is more, the weakness of the government's position is that it has a track record of cutting government funding to schools. Just look at the last federal budget: $325 million less for schools over the forward estimates compared to what they forecast in 2012-13. The so-called new money promised to schools falls beyond the forward estimates, from 2017 onwards—another three elections away. Just look at the impact that their funding cuts have had: discontinuing the national partnership funding for low socioeconomic status schools, lowering reward payments to teachers and cash-bonus payments for schools, and literacy and numeracy funding cuts to the tune of over $2 billion. Indeed, if one looks at education funding overall, taking into account higher education and vocational education and training as well as schools, there will be $4.7 billion less over the four years to 2016. No wonder Fred Hilmer, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales and a nonpartisan figure, said of the government's cuts to higher education:
With these cuts coming we will have to slow down hiring and slow down our investment in technology. How you reconcile that with the Asian century ambition is just a joke.
On Gonski, the Prime Minister's tactics and package is a lesson in how not to win the agreement of the states and territories. The Victorian Minister for Education, Martin Dixon, has criticised the government saying, 'They should be working with us, not holding us to ransom', while his Premier, Dennis Napthine, has criticised the Prime Minister's cuts to other educational areas saying, 'This is very disappointing that the Prime Minister is seeking to rob Peter to pay Paul.' The Western Australia Premier, Colin Barnett, has said of Gonski:
I would have to be nuts to sign up to something like that … I think it's a disgraceful and shameful pretence by a Prime Minister who is not genuinely looking at education improvement, is simply playing divisive politics.
He went on to say it shows 'a disdain for Western Australia and for Western Australian children'. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has said he has 'serious concerns' about the government's proposal making it 'impossible' for him to meet the 30 June deadline:
I just get the feeling it's a great big mirage in an election year.
There will be no deal on Gonski. The model is a flawed model. It takes too much money out of higher education. It puts the Northern Territory government in a very poor financial position.
The National Catholic Education Commission 'strongly expressed' its concern over the government's funding approach, referring to the 'unsatisfactory situation that still drags on and now threatens to become a political football for several more months'. The Independent Schools Council of Australia said there is a:
… reduction in Australian government funding for schools rather than the increases to school funding that the government indicated would flow to disadvantaged students … without an appropriate level of replacement funding … independent schools will not be in a position to adequately support their disadvantaged students.
Effectively, the government is asking these states and these important peak bodies to throw their support behind the government's unfunded, unclear and unexplained proposal for the education sector. Trust what Labor does, not what Labor says. We in the opposition are simply not prepared to do that. As the member for Kooyong, with 30,000 school students in my electorate attending 52 schools, 30 of which are non-government, I am simply not prepared to trust this government. The government does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Given this government's track record with waste and mismanagement in the Building the Education Revolution, computers in schools, Schoolkids Bonus and, most of all, in declining school education standards relative to our competitor nations, we cannot simply give it the benefit of the doubt.
In contrast, we on the coalition side have a different approach. As effectively articulated by our irrepressible shadow minister for education, the member for Sturt, we have outlined 10 broad principles that guide our approach to school funding and reform. This is the subject of our amendment to the bill. Families must have the right to choose a school that meets their needs, values and beliefs. As I said in my maiden speech in this place, there is bipartisan agreement with Sir Robert Menzies' proposition that 'lack of money must be no impediment to bright minds'—but it is at this point the ideological battle begins.
On this side of the chamber, we believe that parents have a fundamental right to choose the type of school they send their child to. It is a fundamental tenet of Liberal philosophy. It does not matter if it is a government or non-government school—it is their choice and it should be supported by government. In fact, to do otherwise is to deny parents, as taxpayers, equal government support for a non-government school. This in itself is inequitable. Those on the other side of the House must understand that parents who send their children to non-government schools often do so at great personal expense, but they prioritise their tight budgets to choose a school with the right culture and values for their child. And despite the financial constraints, we are seeing an increasing number of parents having to pay more and more for their child's education at non-government schools. Of the nearly 3.5 million Australian school students, 34 per cent attend non-government schools—a figure which reaches as high as 42 per cent in years 11 and 12. In the light of these numbers at non-government schools it is more important than ever that we ensure that this government's ideological approach to education does not see any student short-changed and any school lose funding under a new funding model.
The second principle of our amendment is that all children must have the opportunity to secure a quality education. The third principle is that student funding needs to be based on fair, objective and transparent criteria, and distributed according to socioeconomic need. Currently, there is no detail in this bill as to whether the government's proposed funding model stacks up against this principle. The fourth principle is that students with similar needs must be treated comparably throughout the course of their schooling. The Gonski report did find that students with a disability were funded in an unfair and inequitable manner. This needs to be addressed and we continue to wait for further details from this government. The fifth principle is that as many decisions as possible should be made locally by the school community, including parents, principals and teachers. There is in this bill a reference to a new National Plan for School Improvement, which refers to 'empowering school leadership,' but there is little else. This is a really critical area of reform and one which the coalition has consistently advocated for.
The sixth principle is that school sectors and school systems must be accountable to their community, families and students. Again, the bill makes reference to schools becoming more accountable to the community but little else is provided. The seventh principle is that every Australian school student must be entitled to a basic grant from the Commonwealth government. As mentioned earlier, as taxpayers, all parents have equal rights to government support whether their child is at a government or non-government school. In fact, by sending their children to non-government schools, those parents are cross-subsidising the public education system in the vicinity of $6,000 per child per year.
The eighth principle is that schools and parents must have a high degree of certainty about school funding so they can effectively plan for the future. This bill provides no certainty in this regard and is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed by the government, with more detail. The ninth principle is that parents who wish to make a private contribution towards the cost of their child's education should not be penalised, nor should schools in their efforts to fundraise and encourage private investment. Schools should be encouraged to raise private investment, not penalised for it, as the Greens would like us to do. The government, with its record of school hit lists based on accumulated assets, needs to come clean about its intentions in this important area.
Finally, the 10th principle is that funding arrangements must be simple so that schools are able to direct funding towards education outcomes, minimise administration costs, and increase productivity and quality. Again, there is little detail in the bill to counter the impression among many stakeholders in the schooling system that the government's new proposals will substantially increase the administrative burden.
In addition, our amendment as to definitions in the bill will also provide for a proper definition of both a systemic school and a non-systemic school. That is important because, in the main, Catholic schools are funded by the Australian government through the state or territory Catholic Education Commission, which then distribute the funding among Catholic schools on a needs basis, whereas with the independent schools system, they are non-systemic and funding is provided by the Australian government directly to the school.
Through our amendment, the coalition also calls on the government to give certainty to schools by extending the current funding arrangements for another two years. With the current funding agreement for schools expiring at the end of the year, there is a lot of anxiety in the system with schools unable to appropriately plan for the year ahead and to guarantee teaching places.
In conclusion, education is just so important to the state of our nation's wellbeing and to our level of prosperity, harmony and security for tomorrow. The coalition recognise how important education is. In the event that there is no national agreement, all schools can be assured that a federal coalition government will see schools receive at least the same quantum of Commonwealth funding as they currently receive, indexed to meet the rising costs. We will also continue to empower school leadership, giving principals more autonomy, and increase the focus on standards and accountability.
The Australian people demand that we in this place get the school funding model right. I have over 50 schools in my electorate, with more than 30,000 students attending some of the best government and non-government schools that can be found anywhere in this country. It is my duty to them to uphold good policy, to advocate for good values and to ensure that they, the next leaders of our country, are provided with the best education possible. We deserve much more than what the government has produced for us today: merely pious aspirations with little detail and that is not good enough. I will do all that I can, not just in promoting our amendment to the Australian Education Bill but in all my efforts in this place to ensure that the leaders of tomorrow, the children of today, receive the best education possible, based on their parents' own personal choice.