House debates

Monday, 3 June 2013


Australian Education Bill 2012; Second Reading

1:07 pm

Photo of Mike SymonMike Symon (Deakin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak in support of the Australian Education Bill 2012 and against the amendment moved by the member for Sturt. This bill provides the framework for a needs-based school-funding model that incorporates the work of the Review of Funding for Schooling, better known as the Gonski review. A benchmark funding rate will be established that will provide for the costs associated with providing high-quality education. In addition, loadings for disadvantage will be added to cover the educational costs associated with that. With the stated aim of ensuring that Australia is in the top five international performers in reading, mathematics and science by 2025, this bill provides the legislative framework that opens the door.

The National Plan for School Improvement is the basis for lifting both school and student results by addressing five core reform directions: quality teaching; quality learning; empowering school leadership; transparency and accountability; and meeting student need. In addition, the loadings for educational disadvantage will provide extra funding for those students in need of extra support, covering areas such as: students with a disability; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; students with low English proficiency due to immigration circumstances or ethnic background; students of low-socioeconomic status; rural, regional and remote schools; and small schools that have higher costs due to a lower number of students. This extra funding will be provided as grants to the states and territories to assist schools regardless of the sector—that is, government, Catholic and independent schools across the board. As tied funding, it is dependent upon the individual states and territories agreeing to the National Plan for School Improvement. Upon agreement, each state and territory will continue to run its own education system and the Commonwealth will provide increased funding over what is currently available.

As chair of the Standing Committee on Education and Employment I presented the advisory report on this bill to the House on 29 May. This report was written after the committee had held public hearings in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to hear from witnesses. In addition, the committee received 53 submissions from interested parties—although I must say that, somewhat disappointingly, few were received from state or territory governments. The committee's report recommended that this bill be passed whilst noting that the amendments that have been foreshadowed will introduce a funding formula and a variation to clause 10 of the bill to provide legal enforceability.

It is fair to say that the current model of school funding in Australia is a mess. It is a system that is broken, that does not direct funds to where they are most needed and that does not take enough account of those that it was put in place for—that is, the students. Around $12.9 billion of Commonwealth funding was directed to schools in 2012-13; 64.6 per cent of this was for non-government schools, whilst the states and territories provided most of the funding to their respective government school systems. Although constitutionally the states and territories have the responsibility for school education, the Commonwealth has been providing funding to state schools since 1964 in various forms. This funding initially started as capital grants for science laboratories and equipment but were extended five years later to cover the building of library facilities and then a bit later on to cover general capital works. Commonwealth recurrent funding of non-government schools first occurred in 1970 under the States Grants (Independent Schools) Act 1969. This funding was extended by the Whitlam Labor government as a result of the recommendations of the committee chaired by Professor Peter Karmel. Therefore, since 1974 both government and non-government schools have received a percentage of their recurrent funding from the Commonwealth.

Currently schools receive funding under the National Schools Specific Purpose Payment, national partnerships and Commonwealth own-purpose expenses. These rates vary greatly between the sectors and I think it would be more than fair to say that almost all users of the education system would struggle to identify both the source and the actual amount of funds that are made available to schools. Currently, the Commonwealth provides 10 per cent of the average government school recurrent costs, or AGSRC, for government schools in the states and territories through the NSSPP. This rate was increased by the Labor government as from 2009 from 8.9 per cent to 10 per cent for government primary school students. To my great dismay, my state, Victoria, did not flow this funding directly through to schools. In dollar terms this funding was worth around $100 per student per year, and many of my local schools were counting on this funding as a way of employing extra specialist staff for a few hours per week—staff that were needed to overcome educational disadvantage within their schools.

There are many national partnership programs that provide additional funding for government and non-government schools with different objectives and time frames of operation. National partnership funding is not recurrent funding; it is provided to achieve specific objectives agreed between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. Many of these national partnerships will expire in the near future, having provided the funding to achieve their agreed outcomes. These national partnerships include the Digital Education Revolution program, which has provided hundreds of thousands of computers to secondary schools and which expires on 30 June this year. They also include the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality, which expires at the end of this year; the National Partnership Agreement on Literacy and Numeracy, which expires at the end of this year; the National Partnership Agreement on Youth Attainment and Transitions, which expires at the end of this year; the National Partnership Agreement on Empowering Local Schools, which expires on 30 June 2014; the National Partnership Agreement for More Support for Students with Disabilities, which also expires on 30 June 2014; and the National Partnership Agreement on Low Socio-Economic Status School Communities, which expires on 30 June 2015. Some national partnership agreements extend beyond these dates, such as the National Partnership Agreement on Rewards for Great Teachers, the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program, and the national partnership agreement on reward for school improvement.

The non-government schools receive their national schools specific purpose payments through the Schools Assistance Act 2008. That provides for both recurrent and capital funding. This also includes targeted programs such as a literacy, numeracy and special needs program, the English as a second language new arrivals program and the country areas program. In addition, there is funding provided for Indigenous students through another program called the Indigenous supplementary assistance. There are also loadings for non-government schools in remote areas that range from five per cent to 20 per cent of the school's SES funding rate for general recurrent grants.

Currently there are 46 different funding rates under the SES system for recurrent grants to non-government schools. Introduced by the Howard Liberal government in 2001, this system calculates general recurrent funding for students, on the basis of the SES index that includes the three components: income, education and occupation and also the student's residential address within a census collection district. SES funding for non-government schools can vary from as low as 13.7 per cent up to 70 per cent using these measures. However, special schools and special assistance schools receive the maximum rate as do the majority of Indigenous student schools. Additionally some schools receive different SES funding rates due to the introduction of that system in 2001. These schools receive more than the calculated rate through mechanisms called funding maintained or funding guaranteed. At the start of 2012 there were 1,642 non-government schools funded according to their SES score, 1,075 funding maintained schools and five schools funding guaranteed.

This is a short version of the funding examples that I have just listed and to me it is one of the greatest reasons why we need to change our system of funding school education in Australia. The National Plan for School Improvement has many components but I believe that the transparency and accountability components are just as valuable, if not more valuable, than providing extra funding for the states and territories to distribute among their education systems.

It is even harder to explain or account for a particular dollar of funding than it is to describe the various funding programs that make up our school education funding system in Australia today. If I was to look at that from the ground level, the school gate level, and then what I have just been through in this speech, I would honestly have no chance of convincing a school parent as to what all these acronyms mean, where all these programs take things and how they benefit their particular son or daughter at a school. I really hope that with this bill we manage to simplify some of this jargon that has built up over the many, many years that in some cases have isolated our education system from the users of it because, to me, the most important thing about our education system is that our students get a great education but at the same time the parents and the taxpayers—if that is the right description, and I think it is—know what we are doing with the dollars that we put into education. Just going through the list that I have, and that is only a short list, it is not much of a surprise that most people think they know what happens in the education sphere when it comes to funding but in reality they do not know those sorts of details.

The National Plan for School Improvement introduces the schooling resource standard. This provides a base amount of $9,271 per primary school student and and $12,193 per secondary school student. In addition to these amounts, schools can receive more funding through the various loadings that are introduced with the National Plan for School Improvement. These loadings are: the low SES loading that ranges from $695 up to $4,635 for a primary school student and from $914 up to $6,096 for a secondary school student; an Indigenous loading that ranges from $$1,854 up to $11,125 for a primary school student and from $2,439 up to $14,631 for a secondary school student. There is also a loading for students with limited English skills set at 10 per cent and a location loading for regional and remote schools ranging from 10 per cent up to 80 per cent, dependent upon where the school is situated. There is a size loading for smaller schools that ranges from $150,000 for a primary school with up to 200 students to $240,000 for a secondary school with up to 500 students. There will be a loading for students with disability that will be phased in from 2015, once the required data has been collected.

All of this funding will be indexed every year, but the most important point to make is that none of the above will apply to states or territories that do not sign on to the National Plan for School Improvement. My own state of Victoria, which has yet to sign up, stands to lose $4.2 billion of school funding over the next six years if the current school funding system remains in place. That is around $3 billion less for government schools or an average of $1.9 million per school. It is also $1.2 billion less for non-government schools or an average of $1.7 million per school. These figures are large but they mean so much to individual schools.

There are many individual schools in my electorate—and of course in the electorates of other members as well—that are really great schools that need more on the inside. This government has done some fantastic things on the outside of schools with infrastructure and has had some great national partnerships run, but the recurrent funding of schools is the issue that comes back time and time again. It is now over 5½ years since I started in this job and it has been an issue that I think I have spoken about on every occasion that I have visited my local schools. It is always, 'How are we going to fund the extra teachers we need and provide the services that we need to make sure that the children that come to our school'—whether it be government or non-government—'get the best education possible?'

I do not think there is a huge amount of disagreement with that statement. I think the disagreement comes from how we achieve that. What we have now with the National Plan for School Improvement is a plan that is laid out based upon the Gonski report that provides that pathway to the future. I note that New South Wales and the ACT have both signed up to that. I congratulate both states for being far-sighted and doing that. I certainly hope my home state of Victoria also follows that same path. The Australian Education Bill establishes the National Plan for School Improvement that will fund all schools through a fairer system based on the needs of individual students whilst providing extra assistance where it is most needed. It is warmly welcomed, and I commend this bill to the House.

1:22 pm

Photo of Sharon GriersonSharon Grierson (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the Australian Education Bill 2012. Much like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Broadband Network, the Australian Education Bill is a landmark initiative of this federal Labor government. As a former teacher and principal for 30 years prior to entering parliament, education and the wellbeing of young people is a particular passion of mine as I know it is of yours, Deputy Speaker O'Neill. Gaining knowledge, new insight and experiences are central to the human quest for fulfilment, and our schools play a vital role in prospering that human quest. It is a great privilege to be part of a government that is taking action to strengthen and support that nexus in everyone's lives.

The Australian Education Bill implements federal Labor's National Plan for School Improvement and is core to our education endeavours. This plan is the result of the federal Labor government commissioning in 2010 the review of funding for schooling, headed by David Gonski AC, with the aim to create better schools for our kids. Prior to this Australia had not conducted a thorough review of our schools funding system for 40 years The review team received over 7,000 written submissions, visited 39 schools and met with 70 education groups. The report, therefore, is informed, comprehensive and overall quite critical of our current funding system—one that is inadequate for the 21st century. In my opinion it is not just broken; it is mind-boggling in its complexity and shameful in its ability to be manipulated. In addition, under our current system, the federal indexation is linked to how much states and territories spend on their schools systems each year. As state Liberal governments slash school funding as they have in NSW particularly, Commonwealth funding to every school is impacted. This year, our indexation dropped from 5.9 to 3.9 per cent, which will only worsen. But I am pleased to say New South Wales has now come into the scheme. But it is important to know that, if indexation falls as projected, our schools would have been around $2.1 billion worse off in a few short years.

The review is informing the steps our government needs to take to improve our education system. Our plan requires a multibillion-dollar injection into our national schools education system. Our plan is ambitious; but, in order for our students today to be the global citizens and problem solvers in the Asian century, strong action is required now. It is heartening that the NSW government has officially signed up to the federal government's National Plan for School Improvement, which will deliver an additional $5 billion to New South Wales schools. This will benefit all schools in Newcastle and the Hunter region. Unfortunately, those opposite have committed to scrapping the agreement if they ever gain government, believing that a broken funding system is adequate for the children of Australia.

Regrettably, Australia's performance in international education league tables is in decline. Globally we rank highly in mathematics, science and literacy; however, we also have a wide disparity of up to three full schooling years between our highest achievers and our lowest. World leaders in education such as South Korea, Singapore and Finland show far less inconsistent results amongst peer groups. It is worth noting here that after International Women's Day Australia moved to highest in the world in educational attainment for women. I for one would like that to continue, and I know the extra effort that has been put in to make that so.

The average year 9 student from a struggling family is around two full years behind their peers in the best performing quarter in reading and mathematics. Over the past decade Australia has fallen from second to seventh in reading. We have also fallen from fifth to 13th in mathematics. As countries overtake us, obviously their competitive advantage over Australia increases. Our task is now to ensure that no child's education is neglected and to prepare them for a high-skilled and high-paid employment opportunity that our modern economy will demand.

The Australian Education Bill sets out three broad goals: for our schools to provide an excellent quality of education for all students; for our school system to be equitable; and for our nation to be ranked in the top 5 countries in the world in reading, science and mathematics by the year 2025, providing high-quality and high-equity education. Those are goals that everyone should aspire to and support.

The Prime Minister has rightly dubbed this our national crusade. A world-class education ought to be not just accessible and attainable but an inalienable right in such a fortunate country as ours. Our plan will provide a better funding system based on the individual needs of every student in every school. It will provide teachers and principals the support required to deliver on our key objectives through increased funding, resources and training opportunities from pre-service teachers through to principals. Additional support will be given to schools that require a performance boost, with emphasis on resource allocation for disadvantaged students. Higher entry requirements for trainee teachers will be introduced, ensuring that those in the teaching profession are in the top 30 per cent of Australia's population for literacy and numeracy.

Teaching is a very demanding profession, as my experience shows. I think I spent 12 years as a demonstration teacher and, of course, many years supervising students in practicums, and I can only say that there were times I particularly knew someone was not a suitable candidate for education. The system made it very hard if you made the recommendation that this person was not suitable for taking the lives of children in their hands. I am afraid it was not easy to have that acted on by others, but it is terribly important. You would not like to see teachers come into the system who are not suitable. I really do favour a system that not only looks at attainments but also looks like medical entry schemes such as are at the University of Newcastle, which looks at suitability and the commitment levels of those people.

I also am pleased to see that in our system beginning teachers will have a reduced teaching load, allowing them more time and flexibility to plan lessons thoroughly. They will also be paired with experienced mentor teachers who can guide them, and that really is a fabulous commitment. They will also be trained in the management of disruptive students, ensuring that no students are disadvantaged by the negative dominance of disruptive students. I look back on my first year as a teacher. Due to a flood, I was sent to a local school and became a teacher of a class of 30 students who were behaviourally disturbed. As a first-year-out teacher, I can tell you that was very, very difficult. They were from all different schools. I would never like to see a beginning teacher put in that situation. But in my last year of school I was principal of a school with a behavioural intervention unit. I guess it became a specialty, for obvious reasons.

Teachers will undergo annual performance reviews to meet national teaching standards, helping them to improve their practice and deliver the best results for students. My personal view is that peer review is always a wonderful exercise for teachers. Working as part of a team, peer review is a very positive process and not a punitive process. Additionally, teachers and principals will be able to access ongoing training linked to the national professional standards. There is no nobler vocation or profession than teaching. When done well it is the most generous of vocations. The more we invest in teachers the more our whole nation will benefit.

We have also committed that no school will lose funding. Instead, we will see consistent funding for all schools, with benchmark funding for each student based on the cost of delivering education at high-performing schools. Thank goodness we are setting the base level for education per student that is equivalent to a high standard. Having spent most of my 30 years of teaching time in disadvantaged schools, I know the inequity that exists. If this inequity is not addressed, for example by this education bill, it is an inequity that will see a downward spiral for this nation and for young people.

We will also see that benchmark funding complemented by additional funding based on loadings for low-socioeconomic students, Indigenous students, students with disabilities, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, as well as being determined by the size and the location of the school the student attends. That is just so eminently sensible. You have to wonder why it did not happen before. I think I know why it did not happen before—too many years of conservative governments that were not particularly interested in equity.

Contrast our plan with the attitude shown by those opposite. In a 2012 Lateline interview the opposition education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, denied that socioeconomic background affects student outcomes. I could not believe it. I could not believe that that correlation was not understood by someone who aspires to be an education minister in this country. They certainly do not understand how necessary it is to give those students a boost and be on an equal playing field with their peers. Education should not be about chance, luck or postcodes. A high-quality education is a right for all young people, regardless of their circumstances in life. That is what Labor governments and Labor reform agendas are all about.

Under our plan principals will be given greater powers to run their own schools, like hiring and controlling the budget. I agree that principals know their schools best: their classrooms, teachers, students and resources—certainly better than bureaucrats in another city. There is an assumption that every principal is a great educational leader, an effective business manager, an effective asset manager, an effective risk manager, a diplomat in community engagement and satisfaction, an expert in media and marketing, and an all-round genius. Well we need to make sure that principals have the skills needed to be all of that in this 21st century.

I want to talk about my experience regarding merit selection and developing every teacher. Merit selection is a good process but it just as important to make sure every teacher is the best they can be. That was of vital importance. One of the greatest joys for me was seeing a teacher regain their love of teaching and stay in their career. I am very much for the professional development of every teacher and every principal.

It is important that additional information be added to the MySchool website, including details regarding school finance; the number of teachers accredited at different levels; results of student, parent and teacher surveys; NAPLAN proficiency levels reached by students; post-school destinations, such as work and university; year 12 attainment rates; the school's individual improvement plan; and attendance data. I am all for data, having had a supervisor who insisted on that. I know the benefit of data, but it has to be well-rounded data contributed by every school to give that personal flavour. I always say to constituents who ask about choosing a school: 'Yes, you should look at the data, but then go and visit yourself. Schools have wonderful cultures and a walk through a school will tell you whether that is the right school for your children.' I also say to them that it is far better to enrol at your local school so your child is part of the local community, so make sure you make that a priority. In this country today families experience greater mobility and certainly across states we need more harmonisation, which this legislation also includes.

Our reform agenda comes in the wake of: a $1.7 billion loss out of the state education system in New South Wales, a funding freeze that just happened on Catholic schools in particular, 1,800 jobs lost in education support, 9.5 per cent increases to TAFE fees and significant cuts to TAFE programs. These are cuts that do affect every school and every student in the state. The local state members should be ashamed. We cannot allow those cuts to permeate our communities. Recently we also saw the Australian Education Union speak out against those savage cuts in New South Wales. They urged the New South Wales government to put aside politics and to fund the system—investment 'which thus far has been lacking'. It does take every state to make Gonski real and to put the Australian Education Bill into effect. I urge all states to do that.

Federal Labor has a strong track record when it comes to education. Our government has delivered the greatest investment in school infrastructure since World War II through the Building the Education Revolution program. There is a myth that that was not effective. Every school in my electorate ran an effective program. Every principal stepped up and made sure that those resources were well spent and the outcomes were exemplary. I can only say to those people who bleat about it: 'Why didn't you get involved? Why didn't you make sure it was well-managed in your schools?'

What a wonderful investment. I never saw those sorts of facilities in all of my 30 years of teaching and in education as a principal. It is an absolute blessing to go now into schools and know that children finally have 21st century facilities to match the 21st century new teaching methods that are so important. There are people who think that nothing has changed since they went to school, but the children have changed, their whole experience levels have changed and the context has changed. We are in the Asian century.

I am very proud to be part of a federal Labor government that has already invested over $150 million into Newcastle's schools and the education of young people. I thank the minister for his recent visit to Newcastle and the Prime Minister for her passion and commitment to education. It is a very exciting time for us. I commend the bill to the House.

1:37 pm

Photo of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull (Wentworth, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill, the Australian Education Bill 2012, is a very brief document. At 1,400 words, it contains fewer words than were contained in the honourable member's speech or will likely be contained in my remarks. It sets out some worthy objectives, acknowledging that all students should be entitled to an excellent education regardless of where they live or their income. It notes that, if Australia is to be a prosperous nation with a high standard of living, the performance of our schools must continuously improve and so forth. All of those are worthy goals.

But it does not have a number in it; it does not set out a plan; and it finally says, in proposed section 10—which, I guess, summarises this or discloses that it is essentially a political document—that this act does not create rights or duties that are legally enforceable in judicial proceedings, and a failure to comply with this act does not affect the validity of any decision. It is at best a statement of intent so general as to be barely worth debating, but nonetheless we are here discussing education. I think we should be focusing on the real issues in education as opposed to the warm words and noble goals of this bill which are expressed, as I said, in such general terms that it is very difficult to have a debate about them.

A lot of this debate has been going on in the context of the so-called Gonski reforms. I have to say that it is a matter of some concern to me that my old friend David Gonski has become not simply a leading business figure and great lawyer, but also now a proper noun. Indeed, on occasions he has become a verb. It is a very disturbing development for a gentleman of his standing. Whether he is going to be decapitalised as the next step in his grammatical progression is yet to be seen. But the point about the Gonski review and the Gonski report is that it essentially identified—fairly, I think—the need for additional financial resources to be made available for schools and students who are getting inadequate resources given their particular needs, whether that be not coming from an English-speaking household, poverty, an Indigenous background or so forth. Again, in general terms, who would argue with that?

But the government has gone from taking these valuable insights from the Gonski review to claiming it is implementing them, when what Gonski was saying was that there should be more money invested in education. And yet the government seems now to be employing—this is a government which has promised and failed to deliver many surpluses—what can only be described as accounting tricks to make it appear as if there is more money going into the education system, when there is not. The fact is, over the forward estimates, the government is removing nearly $3.1 billion from education funding through various redirections of national partnership arrangements and reductions in recurrent funding for non-government schools, while only returning roughly $2.8 billion in new spending over the same period. That is giving with one hand and taking with the other, and we have heard Mr Gonski himself lamenting the way in which the government is cutting funding for higher education as part of this shuffling of money from one pocket into another.

Spending money on education is one thing, but it is not enough to simply spend the money without looking for outcomes. The critical issue, if you look at the big picture for Australia, is this: we are moving into a vastly more competitive world than ever before. We are no longer competing with low-wage economies doing low-skill jobs. We now have low-wage economies doing very high-skill jobs and developing very sophisticated products. The internet has made more and more of our economy trade exposed, so not only are higher-skill occupations in Australia being competed against by a broader range of countries—many of them with a lower wage regime and lower incomes than Australia—but the internet has also made many businesses, industries and jobs, which used not to be trade exposed, trade exposed. Think of the retail sector. Ten years ago it would not have occurred to us that retail was competing in a global market, yet virtually every category of retail is now competing globally. So how do we maintain a high-income, developed economy in Australia, with a generous social welfare safety net?

We can only do that by raising our productivity and competitiveness, and that means better and better education and higher and higher levels of skills. But it is not enough merely to throw money at the problem and hope that will solve it. We have tried that and it has failed. The reality is this: under Labor, all we have seen is a decline in Australia's educational outcomes. In Australia, educational spending per student has already risen, in real terms, over 40 per cent in the past decade; yet according to the OECD PISA rankings, our outcomes have declined from among the strongest in the world in 2000 to still fairly good in 2009, but well behind a leading group of five school systems—four of them in East Asia. Under this government's watch, therefore, we have seen education spending increase and student performance fall.

Where Labor thinks it can just throw money at education, cross its fingers and hope it can improve, the coalition knows we can do better. We do better by focusing on the teacher, on choice, on incentivising and on rewarding teachers. I refer to a paper, published in October 2003—so it is almost 10 years old—on this topic by John Hattie, from the University of Auckland. It makes a very powerful point: 'The greatest source of variance in terms of the performance of any student is the teacher.'

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate will be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.