Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

10:54 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to stand in this chamber this morning and speak to the government's Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017. I chaired the Senate committee that was tasked to perform an inquiry into this bill, just as I sat on the Senate committee that was tasked to inquire into the original Australian Education Bill, where unfortunately we saw the implementation of David Gonski's panel's recommendations corrupted, in the name of panel members, corrupted by a Gillard government desperate to maintain power and desperate to get a deal done with the states and different systems. Now, a few years down the track, that sees Australian students treated very differently depending on where they live.

As somebody who has come from the education sector—I was a secondary teacher and a lecturer in the Bachelor of Education at an institution in my home state of Victoria—I have a deep and abiding interest in ensuring that every single Australian student, no matter where they go to school, receives an excellent education. The people that I represent, the constituency at the very heart of the National Party's ethos, is rural and regional Australia. Of the nearly one million country kids attending school outside capital cities, the vast majority are attending state schools at the primary and secondary level. What we see right now, under the existing act and its provisions, is that state school students in one state, for instance Western Australia, are being treated very differently by the Commonwealth government than students with the same level of need by the New South Wales government.

For us here in the Commonwealth parliament, in the Senate chamber, that brings all states together, that is just is not fair. Let the states argue their specific vested interests in their space and for their specific education budgets; but here in this place we need to take a national review. We need to ensure that every Australian child is treated the same by this place. What we have been able to achieve in the provisions of this bill is to ensure that if you attend your local Catholic primary school, your small independent Christian school, your local Jewish school or your local state primary school, you will be treated the same by the Commonwealth government according to your needs. That is only fair and just, and that is how we should be approaching education policy in this country.

We know that we have been spending record amounts of funding over time. In the report released by the OECD even as late as last week we are not doing well when it comes to quality education and student outcomes. At the end of the day, this is not about staff student ratios; it is not about how long school goes for how shiny your building is or who has the equestrian centre and who has not. This is about the outcomes for Australian students. We need to ensure that they have a high-quality education equipping them for the jobs of the 21st century. It should not matter which school they go to in determining that.

What we do know and what research tells us is that students come into classrooms with a different set of needs. These needs affect their capacity and ability to engage in the schooling system. So Gonski and the former Labor government identified, and indeed it is reiterated in our own bill here today, that there are a series of loadings that ensure that those levels of need are actually funded, so that those students who are of Indigenous descent, who attend rural and regional schools, or who have to attend school with a disability—all of those factors are taken into account in the needs based funding model. The only people complaining about this bill and the enactment of a needs-based, sector-blind funding model of those people who have had sweetheart deals for way too long. Like we stand up and critique vested interests in the business sector and in the union sector, so too we call out vested interests in this area which are actually undermining the delivery of a high-quality, needs-based, sector-blind funding model to every Australian student.

These changes get rid of the opaque and unfair system entrenched by the previous government. I note Dr Ken Boston, a panellist for the original Gonski review in 2011, has described what occurred under the previous, Labor government as a 'corruption of the Gonski report'. You would think the Labor Party would be getting on board the rectification of that corruption right here, right now, today. However, they continue to do what they always do and play cheap political games with the lives of Australian students, and it is simply not on. I commend every senator in this place who is seriously considering why this Commonwealth parliament should not treat every Australian student the same.

To illustrate the consequences of this regime, I turn to a small country primary school in Victoria, 40 kilometres north of my electorate office, with 41 students. It currently attracts Commonwealth funding of $26,731 per student per annum. A comparable school in New South Wales, with 42 enrolments, attracts $11,039 per student per year. That is a massive differential between small primary schools in country New South Wales and those in country Victoria that just should not be occurring but has been able to under the Labor Party's iteration of the Gonski deals. They have similar needs, yet there is a gulf in funding between them. That shows everything that is wrong with the act as it stands and why it needs amendment right now.

Another example is that 530 of the schools with the highest proportion of Indigenous students are in remote or very remote areas. These changes will ensure their particular needs are met.

We need to have a more granular approach to students with a disability to ensure that a teacher in the classroom is able to assess a student's need and the amount of resources required to address that student's learning outcomes, because that is what we are talking about—learning outcomes, not just money from money's sake but how we are going to help those individual students reach their potential and learn to the best of their capacity. And that is by having a much more granular approach to how we deal with students with a disability loading, and that is something we are absolutely committed to.

I also want to go to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry on the bill. We received overwhelming evidence about the need to 'end the funding wars' when it came to education funding in this country, including from the Grattan Institute, who, typically, does not side with our side of politics, but wanted those issues put to bed. I think the most telling evidence was from ACSSO, which represents the parents of the over two-thirds of Australian students that attend state schools in this country. The ACSSO president, Mr Spratt, came to our hearings. Whilst it was great to hear from the smaller sectors and the different systems, it was great to hear from somebody that represented two-thirds of our nation's students' parents. As the chair said:

You have been very clear in your desire to end the funding wars—to get it sorted—

to support this bill.

We have to take on board and ensure that the Commonwealth government treats every single Australian student fairly and justly.

Another issue that we are addressing is the need for states to maintain their contribution levels. Over recent years, while the Commonwealth government has been chipping in more money, we have seen states decreasing their rate of investment in their constitutional responsibility to educate the students within their state boundaries. That is simply not acceptable. If the Commonwealth government is going to invest record funding—I know others in this place have gone into the actual level of funding that will be distributed under these initiatives—then it is imperative that state governments stop playing politics with those students who are attending non-government schools within their boundaries and treat every student the same within their own boundaries. I hope this legislation will put their feet to the fire and help them get on board with focusing on how they can treat all students and maintain parental choice, which is a core fundamental aspect of our education system here in this country.

Again, I could go into the different deals and how they impact time and again on how different students are treated differently. One of the things that struck me about the Senate inquiry we conducted was that there were no questions from the Labor Party senators about public school funding. Every single question from the Labor Party senators was about how the private schools, the non-government sector, were going to fare under the changes being suggested. That beggars belief. I am a public school teacher and a lot of my kids went to public schools and the children of my constituents, en masse, attend state schools, so I want to see a very strong state school system—and this bill does what Labor's bill could never do. They are too busy playing footsies with premiers leading up to an election rather than considering outcomes for Australian students.

I want to put on the record some critiques that have been made in recent days on the guarantee, particularly for those private schools that operate as systems, that private schools will be getting an increased level of investment. We are the side of government that does support parental choice, but we also recognise that that should not come at a cost to investing in all students' education. I specifically go to the Catholic education sector. Between 2018 and 2021 the average annual per student funding to the Catholic sector will increase by 3.7 per cent and by a total of $2.8 billion between 2018 and 2027. That is a phenomenal amount of increased funding, and I am confident, as I travel around regional Victoria and I talk to Catholic principals, I talk to state school principals and I talk to independent school principals, that they are desperate for this money to enter their schools so they can provide the resources that their students need. It is absolute hypocrisy for people to stand up here today and talk about cuts in funding when, in a needs based system, if you have a need it will be funded. That is how it works. If you do not have a need, you are going to miss out. I have no objection whatsoever to ensuring that incredibly overfunded schools under the current system get a cutback. I would much rather see increased investment in rural and regional state schools across this country than see North Shore Sydney privates continue to get the level of funding that they are getting under the Labor Party's agreements right now. That is the level of unfairness that this bill seeks to undo, and I encourage all senators who care about equity and fairness to support it.

People often mention the Finnish system—why aren't we more like Finland? Do you know what makes the Finnish system so great? It is not about the buckets of money; it is about a bipartisan approach to education over two decades rather than this argy-bargy 'he said, she said, we do it better, no you don't' argument. Our future is dependent on the educational outcomes of every Australian student right now. We know we are not achieving in international—


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