Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Education Funding

4:40 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise with some concern at the funding saga that has sadly become the focus of the government's interest in education. They talk about the money and most of the time they talk about making a lot less available. Senator McKenzie has said, 'Of course the money matters.' We knew that a long time ago and yet we have an articulation of a determination to take money out of education and refuse to invest in it. They decry fantastic programs that have been implemented in schools to revitalise teachers and to renew buildings.

The topic for consideration this afternoon is the failure of the Abbott government to address educational inequality and its failure to deliver a needs based funding model across Australia. I think we need to backtrack a little and think back to what came out of the Gonski report. The report was created by a review panel—which is now embodied by the Gonski bus that is moving around and is in Canberra today—to educate Australian parents and the broader population, who care about education, on what is wrong with the system. After 40 years of funding reviews, Australian children who are born into families in rural and remote communities, who are Indigenous, who are from a low socioeconomic background or who start school with a language other than English are consistently underperforming. Schooling, as it is currently funded, has been unable to make up the gap in life disadvantage.

I do note Senator McKenzie's comments on John Hattie's work. It is a brilliant piece of work, but let's be clear about what he said: the teacher is the most significant in-school factor to change the learning of students. We all know that; we have had teachers who have made those changes for us. The reality is that kids come to school from the context in which they were born. The reality is that there are children who are currently in their sixth or seventh week of kindergarten who have never experienced having a book read to them at bedtime. Their understanding of literacy is best provided by the throwaway brochures that come into the letterbox. These are kids who are hungry for learning but who find that as their only source of visual stimulation. Kids try to teach themselves to read because of their parents' inadequate skills.

We know that not all children in Australia are born with equal opportunity into a family that is going to find those talents and develop them. We have heard comment after comment from an illustrious group of business people, philanthropists, leading experts in university and Australian public life: Ken Boston, Carmen Lawrence, Kathryn Greiner, Bill Scales, Peter Tannock and David Gonski. Through their own work, observation and wide consultation and informed by a national body of literature and international research, they have concluded that children going to school in Australia will find inequity. Those who start at the bottom of the pile will end up even further behind by the time they finish school compared to their cohort who started at the same time but who had advantages. That leads to educational inequality. The reproduction of that inequality occurs year in, year out, as young people are forced into 13 years of schooling by the laws of this land. Education is supposed to be the great liberator, not the great oppressor. We need to invest in making up the ground for kids from low-SES backgrounds, for Indigenous kids, for kids from non-English speaking backgrounds, for kids who live in rural and remote communities and for kids with disabilities. When they have their needs met they can perform at a very high level in tests. But more importantly than that, when we properly fund for need, which is what the Gonski model advocates and what this government is so opposed to delivering, need we give children right across this country, no matter what gate they walk through, whether it is a Catholic school, an independent school, a small rural school—we give every Australian child an equal opportunity to commence and to continue their studies and to find their capacity.

That is a very different vision of Australia's education system from that which is offered by the Abbott government. Firstly, in terms of educational disadvantage and inequality, we have got a constant call of denial. The dissonant voice, as described in the AEU's submission to the funding inquiry that is going on right now, is all coming from Prime Minister Abbott and the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne. In the face of all of the evidence, they continue to assert that there is no equity problem in Australian schooling. When you commence your decision making in government from a false premise like that, you are determined to set up and maintain disparities. The existing systems, they say, are not broken. The Howard government's funding model works well, they say; schools are getting the money that they need and of course money really is not the solution. These are the sorts of things we are hearing from the government. As Senator Lines pointed out, where is the focus in that language on students achieving outcomes? That is not what we hear from the Abbott government, because if they were to talk about outcomes they would have to begin to acknowledge that there is indeed great educational inequality.

Needs based funding is the only way that we are going to get some redress to the current inequalities that exist. In terms of the loadings, I have mentioned a few times that people born in particular situations need special assistance. They are low SES background, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and special needs, and the size and location of schools. To fund for those qualities we were determined to establish a schooling resource standard, which is a base level of funding for every student and loadings that target that disadvantage. What we are seeing from the current government is a determination to break away from that. I think I heard Senator Ryan say that in any of the funding that they are going to give, which is wholly inadequate in sum and wholly inadequate in intent, they simply trust the states.


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