Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:15 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

It is with quite a deal of interest—interest and curiosity—that I am rising to speak to the Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017 today, because I think we still do not yet quite know where this bill is going to land. It is of concern that the government has brought on this bill for debate today while negotiations are still ongoing, for this is a critical issue for the future of Australia and our education systems. Achieving equity, fairness and the best outcomes for kids at all schools across Australian is fundamentally critical to the future of our country.

There is one thing that is clear in terms of the way that the Greens are approaching this: front and centre we are being completely guided by what is in the best interests of all school students at all schools across the country. We particularly have the interests of children who are going to public schools, and we want to make sure, in particular, that we achieve the best outcomes for the neediest public schools. We have a great opportunity to reform schools funding so that it is genuinely needs based and sector blind. That is not where our schools funding is at the moment. Schools funding currently is a complete dog's breakfast. Schools funding under the deal that is supposedly the result of the last reviews led by David Gonski is supposedly needs based and sector blind. It clearly is not. There are carve-outs all over the place. It is not fair. It is not equitable if you are a school student in the Northern Territory compared to a school student in the ACT, for example. So we have a really important opportunity now, and it is up to us to make the most of that opportunity.

There are some good things that the government has put on the table now, such as the changes to the architecture to make it more genuinely needs based and sector blind. But the Greens are not going to support the model that is on the table at the moment, if that is the one we end up voting on, because it is not a model that delivers what we need for our schools. Clearly there is not enough money on the table at the moment. The mechanisms are not there to make sure that the states are going to continue to pay their fair share. In our federation responsibility for education is shared between the Commonwealth and the states, and it is not going to be any use at all if the Commonwealth increases its funding but allows the states to squib their part of the deal—that we get extra money from the Commonwealth, but the states go, 'Oh, that's good. Right. Terrific. We'll go and pocket it and not spend it.' Clearly we have to maintain that nexus. We have to make sure that the increase in funding that is required comes from both the Commonwealth and the states.

The other critical factor that the Greens have been arguing for, which was part of the original Gonski review, is having an independent body to overview schools funding into the future so that it can be genuine and we can trust that we know that it is absolutely going to continue to be fair, equitable, needs based and sector blind. So that is what the Greens are continuing to fight for, and we will continue to fight for that and continue to put the needs of every school student in Australia at the forefront of our negotiations.

As I said, the critical issue is what is in the best interests for all kids in all schools, but particularly the kids of those families who frankly do not have the resources to be paying private school fees. They should not have to. Those children, as much as any other children in the country, deserve a gold-standard education. Our country needs them to receive that gold-standard education because it is in our national interest. If you look at how the Australian education system is currently performing on the world stage, our best schools are up there with the best schools in the world. The kids that are going to those best schools are achieving the outcomes that we can be really proud of. But, sadly, that does not extend through to all of our schools.

What we do not have is equity in education. That is what we need to achieve. The best performing school systems in the world, such as the Finnish system, are the ones that have that equity so that you know, no matter what the background of a child is—what their family background is, how much income their family has or whether they are Indigenous or not Indigenous—they are getting the resources that are required to enable them to achieve their full potential. That is what the Greens are fighting for—improving equity in our education. That means making sure that more resources are going to go to the most needy of public schools.

I have visited many schools across Victoria in my three years as a senator. The most recent one I visited, just a couple of weeks ago, was Tarneit Senior College. Tarneit Senior College is in one of Melbourne's growth areas—the outer western suburbs—and, despite being in a growth area and despite being a relatively new school that has only been built within the last decade, it is struggling. It has not had put into it the resources that are required. Usually, when you arrive at most schools you visit, they at least have the resources and feel that they have to be able to market themselves. There will be a grand entrance, even at a lot of our public schools. But, no, the entrance to Tarneit Senior College is off the car park. There is a little sign on the gate saying, 'All visitors, please report to the office.' You look and think, 'Where's the office?' There is no building that is obviously going to be one that has an office there. You follow the signs, and the office is in a portable building—and they expect it to be in a portable for many years to come. It has been in a portable for the whole life of the school.

I had a terrific meeting with the principal, who showed me around the school and showed me where they are still lacking in funding, where they need more funding to be able to provide the resources to make sure that all of their kids can achieve their potential and what they have been able to do with the extra money that has been put into their school over the last two years. In particular, I met their wellbeing team—their social workers and other staff working to ensure the welfare of all of their students. They told me some pretty amazing statistics. There are quite a lot of issues that Tarneit as a growth area is facing. It is actually an area that has a high turnover in population because of the unaffordability of housing right across our cities, even in growth areas. The people who move to Tarneit hoping to find affordable rent find, after a while, that they cannot afford to pay the rent there, and they move even further out and they move to regional Victoria.

So, there is lots of transience. There are low-socioeconomic families there, and huge multicultural diversity—lots of newly arrived families. There are major, major student needs. This is reflected in the fact that they now have a student wellbeing team of five staff, whereas two years ago they had only one. They have 420 students in years 10 to 12. Of those 420 students, 317 last year accessed the services of their student wellbeing team—three-quarters of the students. This is a school that is struggling, that needs more resources put into it. This is the type of school I have in my mind when we as Greens are negotiating to get the best outcomes for students and families.

The other issue which is, again, so critical—why we need to ensure that schools like Tarneit Secondary College get the level of funding they deserve—is that if they do not we know the pressure that puts on families, feeling that this school actually is not going to give their kids the best education. They have competition from local private schools. Then there are families that can afford to pay private school fees but may have to dig really deep and miss out on other things because they feel that in order to get the best education they have to send their children off to private schools. So then you get the segregation of the wealthier families who are sending their kids to private schools and those that have no option and so are sending their kids to the state high school. That is not in the interests of the wellbeing of our community. That is not going to be delivering the best educational outcomes.

We need to have the resources of all of the community feeding into and supporting our public education system. But in order to do that we have to make sure that schools like Tarneit Secondary College are funded appropriately. As a Victorian senator, that is what I am going to be fighting for: to make sure that those schools get the resources they need, that they are not going to be disadvantaged. Under any needs based, sector-blind model, with an adequate quantum of funding, they are the schools we are going to be fighting for. All children deserve the best education possible to set them up for a bright future. Their educational outcome should not depend on their family's wealth or income or on the state they live in. And parents should not have to shop around because they are worried that their local public school does not have the resources to educate their kids. Public education should be the gold standard, not a safety net.

I experienced this as well. My two kids both went to local high schools in the western suburbs. One went to Williamstown High School and one to Footscray Secondary College. They were great schools, but I was under a lot of pressure when we were choosing schools for my kids, who are reasonably bright kids: the number of my friends who said, 'Oh, you should be sending them off the private schools, because the local secondary schools aren't going to be able to deliver for them.' And we said: 'No, we're going to send them off the public schools. We are absolutely, philosophically committed to sending them off to public schools.' And they did brilliantly.

But many of their fellow students at Footscray and at Williamstown came from families from the outer western suburbs and were travelling long distances, where they could, to go to what their parents thought was a better public school. That is not a good outcome. We should be ensuring that the families living in St Albans, the families living in Werribee, the families living in Tarneit have a school they can be proud of. That is why we really need to have this genuine Gonski model of funding. It is absolutely critical for our students. We need that genuine, sector-blind, needs based model that is prioritising funding to look after the needy schools and kids. And we need to get that investment sooner.

One of the current concerns we have with the government's legislation is that although more funding would be flowing it is not going to be delivering outcomes to the most needy of schools until 10 years into the future. That is not good enough. It means that a kid who is in grade 3 today will not have the full funding going to their school until they are at the end of high school. We need to make sure that we get that greater investment sooner so that we can give every child the opportunity to reach their potential.

We have never had that genuine model. The current Gillard Gonski model is clearly not needs based. It is locked-in funding to the wealthy private schools at the expense of public schools. The current Turnbull Gonski 2.0 is not sector blind. It is offering certainty to private schools but it leaves the neediest public schools little chance to catch up after years of neglect.


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