Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Education Funding

4:23 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is just amazing that I have to put up with another rant from the government side in this place. What is missing in this whole MPI debate is student outcomes. I have yet to hear the government, in the six months that they have been elected, actually talk about student outcomes. I am really sad that we had an era of hope and opportunity in this country to improve student performance by finally fixing our school funding model so that not only was it fairer and more equitable but it delivered better outcomes for students but that hope and that opportunity has now been squandered by a government which just want to play politics with education and which has never, ever since September talked about improving student performance.

At the very heart of Gonski and at the heart of Labor's National Plan for School Improvement was improving school performance and having a clear goal of being in the top five highest performing nations when it came to student performance. That was a clear, deliverable and publicly stated goal on student achievement.

The coalition conned the Australian public. They said before the election that they were on a unity ticket. The Abbott government simply cannot be trusted on education. They have flipped and flopped on education. When Labor first announced its plan to lift student achievement, the then shadow minister, Christopher Pyne, called Labor's plan a 'conski'. But, as the election drew near, the rat cunning of the opposition took over as they sniffed the air around them and discovered that Australian voters overwhelmingly favoured what Gonski had to say.

So without a blink and without even an apology, they suddenly adopted Labor's plan lock, stock and barrel. On 2 August, Mr Pyne, as the shadow minister for education, said those famous words:

… you can vote Liberal or Labor and you'll get exactly the same amount of funding for your school.

Mr Pyne signed up for a faux unity ticket with his boss to win an election. The real 'conski' is the con that Mr Pyne took to the election, the con he fed to voters. He obviously never agreed with the Gonski reforms and never intended to honour the agreements that made education more equitable and focused on improving student outcomes, which the government is completely silent on.

Now the truth is out. Despite state premiers signing up to Labor's deal—the unity deal—Minister Pyne has dumped Gonski. It seems Minister Pyne cares more about sound bites and media grabs than he does about student outcomes and a fairer education system. The unity ticket on Gonski was critical to the coalition's electoral success. The 'conski' is the Australia people. This speaks to both the government's lack of commitment to education and the coalition's lack of credibility.

Gonski was a once-in-a-generation reform that would have taken essential steps to turn around the nosedive in disadvantage in public education, which has been instrumental in Australia's fall in international test results. For six years, the coalition has told us that the Howard government's model for school funding, the so-called SES—that is, the socio-economic status model—was working. This was despite plummeting test results in schools and an increasing divide between public and private schools. It was an education model for those who could afford it, not a model of choice.

It was an education model for those who could afford it, a model that has been widely discredited. It was a system that entrenches inequality; a system that entrenches disadvantage; a system that does not produce better outcomes for students; and a system that produces young teenagers, at the age of 15, who are three and four years behind in reading levels compared to where they should be. That is the legacy the coalition have left. That is the legacy of the coalition's unfair funding model and their lack of commitment to student education and student outcomes.

Gonski was designed to make a system that was better for all our children, where funding was allocated on the needs of the students and topped up with additional funding to appreciate the factors—factors which the coalition seem to ignore—that affect student outcomes. They are student outcomes that the coalition do not even bother to talk about. Students are disadvantaged in our schools. We need to further assist our Aboriginal students, refugee students, remote students, regional students and students with disadvantage. We need to advantage those students so that they achieve, regardless of their background, disadvantage and postcode. That is something you never hear the government speaking about.

Minister Pyne claims that his new model will be flatter, simpler and fairer. Again we see this feature of the government—a 'dumb and dumber' model, a dumbing down: 'Let's dumb down the funding model. Let's just think that, if we put some money in, somehow having independent schools will fix that.' It will not, and for the government to rest its case on the Western Australian model is simply to show again its complete ignorance about what is actually happening in schools and its complete inability to focus on what really matters. What really matters is student outcomes and lifting student performance, something the government seems to think will magically happen if you make schools independent. Let us have a look at Western Australia, because there is no academic research to say that the independent model that has been foisted on schools in Western Australia actually works. We do not see any improvement in student outcomes.

Surprise, surprise, Mr Pyne's Liberal colleagues do not agree with him. They want what they signed up for. Mr O'Farrell, the Premier of New South Wales, the largest state in the nation, the state with the most schools, has said this matter has been poorly handled. He says that what the Liberal coalition government is doing with education is unacceptable. He at least acknowledges that we are talking about the educational outcomes of Australia's future generations. Equitable education should not be partisan. It is not something to play politics with. Another Liberal colleague, Victoria's Minister for Education, Martin Dixon, questioned the minister's decision to walk away from the Gonski agreements. Mr Dixon hit the nail on the head when he told his parliament:

We signed the agreement with the federal government, not a political party.

Mr Dixon recognises that all the government is doing is playing politics with future generations of Australians and not focusing on what is at the heart of the funding system, and that is improving student performance.

As I and others have said in this place, before the election the Prime Minister and Minister Pyne said they supported Labor's plan, and now suddenly we have this 'dumb and dumber' plan, this 'fairer, simpler' plan. Again it demonstrates the government's complete inability to understand education in Australia and that it needs to be focused on students. The real failure of the Abbott government is the fact that not once in six months since the election have the words 'student achievement 'or 'student outcomes' been uttered by the Minister for Education—a complete failure.


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