Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Education Funding

4:04 pm

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received the following letter from Senator Siewert:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The failure of the Abbott Government to address educational inequality and deliver needs-based funding across Australia.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:05 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In many ways I am saddened to begin this debate on the coalition government's failure to address educational inequality and deliver needs based funding across Australia. I am saddened because, really, the writing was on the wall. The coalition's contempt for a more equitable Australia has always been pretty clear, particularly in relation to schools funding. Certainly it was clear before the election, despite the sleight of hand that was played on the Australian public by the education shadow minister at that time, when Mr Pyne professed that they were on a unity ticket with the previous government.

I am also very proud to stand here again to make the case for a schooling system in Australia where every child will have the chance to succeed and where not one child will be denied a future just because of their background. Since coming to government the coalition have done nothing to address the staggering inequality gap in education in Australia. In fact, their duplicitous policy manoeuvring will further entrench privilege and advantage in some schools over others—just like the Howard government did before them.

Far from working towards a national needs based funding model, the Abbott government has diligently undermined the work of the Gonski review panel at every opportunity, with a distraction here or there, a few blank cheques here or there, and at every step of the way by using the language of command and control to sneakily undo anything that might—just might—give disadvantaged kids in Australia the same educational opportunities as Australia's most privileged children. I want to be clear that there is no needs based school model for Australian schools being delivered by this government. In fact, it has been remarkably consistent in its opposition to funding targeted towards those students who need extra help. So, despite promises of a unity ticket before the election and a whole lot of policy gymnastics afterwards, this government has only ever had an eye to the politics and never made a real commitment to resolving the problem.

The problem is that here, in the land of the fair go, as we like to think, conservative governments have created one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the world. The problem is that the gap between the top and bottom 20 per cent of year 9 students' reading performance, for example, is up to an equivalent of five years schooling. But the coalition government are not concerned about the problem or the social and economic costs of leaving 20 per cent of the population behind. If you look at what they are saying on the record, the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, and the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, deny its very existence. They have consistently denied that there is inequality in Australian schools. This is in the face of compelling evidence from Australian and international sources. So they are being wilfully blind.

Mr Pyne uses falling rankings from PISA test data to justify educational red herrings to distract, but like too many struggling schoolkids he could obviously use some help with his reading comprehension, because what PISA really exposes—and this is the commentary from some of the PISA experts—is a shocking inequality of opportunity in our country in 2014. It is this social segregation, where family wealth in Australia is the best indicator of success, that is driving Australia's educational performance down. There is a clear and evident fix for this problem, and that is needs based funding. It is about directing extra resources to the most disadvantaged students, which will raise educational outcomes for the whole country. Indeed, the OECD say that this type of investment brings economic benefits twice as high as the initial outlay.

Despite throwing cash without conditions at Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the Minister for Education, Mr Pyne, insists on saying that money is not part of the solution. He bleats that money does not matter and says that government spending on education has never been higher. For that I will give him half a mark, because education spending on non-government schools has never been higher in Australia, but we are leaving literally millions of students behind by failing to properly fund public education. It is no surprise that all the extra money coalition governments have funnelled into private schools has made no difference in lifting educational outcomes. Giving more money to the wealthy has not worked. That coalition policy is a complete and utter failure.

So let's try something new; let's try something novel. How about investing in the most needy in accordance with the recommendations of Australian and international evidence? Too often in this place I hear those on government benches talking about the Gonski school funding system as throwing money at a problem, but let me make it clear to everyone on the government benches: the Gonski reforms are about targeted spending; they are about spending where there is disadvantage on evidence based programs to help those children in those schools reach their potential. There is no throwing of money and there are no blank cheques. Well, there were not until the coalition came to government and set about actively avoiding needs based school reform.

So let's be really clear. The Abbott government's failure to deliver needs based funding in Australia is not a mistake; it is not incompetence; it is because many—too many—on the government benches, and particularly the education minister, do not want a meritocracy in Australia, because a needs based funding system turns our schools system on its head. It does away with our longstanding sector-against-sector war. It will put kids first—not lobbyists and not the most privileged. In the words of Gonski panel member Ken Boston, Gonski requires a fundamental reimagining of Australian education. He said:

If school performance is neither advantaged nor disadvantaged by parental income, ethnic background, religion, school size and location, or whether a student attends an independent, Catholic or public school, success at school will be determined essentially by the student's ability, application and hard work.

So if we reduce disadvantage we also reduce privilege, and the Abbott government is frightened of a future where privilege is challenged. From day one, Minister Christopher Pyne understood that the recommendations of the Gonski panel, if they were taken up, would turn the system on its head. That is why he opposed the Gonski reforms from day one, and he is doing everything he can now to tear up the even playing field that true needs based funding would create.

Let me quote Ken Boston again:

At present, it is mainly the hard-working and talented children of the privileged who have access to the very highest levels of educational achievement. If Gonski is implemented, such access will be available increasingly to the similarly hard-working and talented children of the socially disadvantaged. This is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes: differences in outcomes will inevitably exist between children, but they will no longer be the result of factors such as poverty, religion or sector of schooling.

The Australian Greens are on the record as saying that what the previous government delivered is far from perfect, but the basis was there. The school funding system was based for the first time on the needs of students and a plan to make a big investment in the future of our country by boosting funding levels.

What the Abbott government must grasp is that this is more than a political game. The future of millions of students is on the line, and our country's future is also on the line. To reject needs based funding is to lock in current disadvantage—the disadvantage faced by Aboriginal kids, country students, those with a disability, children with English as second language and low-income families. Rejecting needs based funding means that too many public schools will struggle for the basics while the most wealthy schools will prosper. To reject needs based funding will also mean rejecting improvement to our economy. PricewaterhouseCoopers have done an analysis which suggests that we stand to lose as much as $1 trillion by the end of the century if we do not make the investment in education in the areas where we need it in a timely way.

The Australian Greens believe in a future where education outcomes are achieved by hard work and talent, not by wealth, power, income or possessions. We want to live in a country where every single kid can achieve their potential, no matter where they live and whatever their background. The coalition government's failure to address educational inequality and deliver needs based funding across Australia, their passionate defence of the already privileged and their push to maintain the status quo are denying many Australian kids a future and are making our country immeasurably poorer.

4:15 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

After that particular contribution, it is quite apt we are debating education because that was a great contribution in creative writing. We simply heard the classic Greens phrases, where they threw around the word 'privilege' and made accusations about the Liberal Party, such as that we have a contempt for equity, but do not base them on fact or reality. Let's look at this. The Greens have a contempt for equity when we consider what is a very important value to the coalition and has been since the 1960s—and that is choice in education. Their contempt is for the equity that provides for people to choose an appropriate education that reflects their values and their family's desires. The Greens do not care about choice; they do not care about diversity. They just throw around phrases.

Their record is one of removing choice. It is not just about the ongoing assault on the non-government and independent sector; the Greens supported the abolition of the only Commonwealth schools, the Australian technical colleges. They were about choice. They were about equity. They were about re-creating a vocational pathway in schools that Labor governments all around Australia had closed down in the 1980s. They provided real equity and choice. But the Greens opposed them when the Howard government tried to bring them in and then supported the Labor Party in their abolition. The only people in this place who have voted to close down schools are the Labor Party and the Greens when they closed down the coalition government's Australian technical colleges.

The Greens do not want needs based funding. They want penalties for people who choose. That is the record of the Greens. They criticise our concern with command and control, as the minister has described it. Apparently, according to the Australian Greens, all wisdom resides in Canberra. We actually trust school communities to run their own schools. That is why we support all sectors of the Australian school system. We also support public schools in doing that, which is reflected in our support for independent public schools.

Before the Labor Party rail against those, I will say that they did not do anything about school autonomy in Victoria when they were in office for 10 years. The autonomy that was set up by the previous Kennett government under Schools of the Future was, in the main, left intact. I have not heard the Greens complaining about that in the Victorian parliament. But when they come here they accuse us, on the one hand, of not funding enough but then, on the other hand, of not tying the hands of the organisations in Queensland and Western Australia where we said, 'Canberra doesn't know best.' We trust the states and school communities to run their own schools. They know a lot better than the 76 people in this place and the 150 people over the corridor.

There is a role for the Commonwealth, and I will turn to that. It is a role to support institutions, structures and funding. Let's go to the Commonwealth's record. The coalition government is providing $2.8 billion of additional funding to schools over four financial years, beginning this year. That is $1.2 billion more than the Labor Party committed to when they ripped out funding from Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

Senator Lines interjecting

Before we listen to the interjections from those opposite and their then buddies in government, the Australian Greens, again I will say that the only people in this place who have cut funding to schools are the Labor Party. They cut funding to schools before the last election. They hoped no-one would notice. But everyone in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory knows that their students and families were considered not as deserving of support because they had not signed up to Labor's particular plan. Only the Labor Party have cut funding to schools in this parliament.

Total Commonwealth funding to schools is estimated to be $60 billion over the next four financial years from 2014 to 2017. The coalition government is providing 75 per cent more in additional funding to schools compared to the previous government—$2.8 billion of funding versus $1.6 billion provided by Labor because of that sneaky funding cut that said that Queenslanders, Western Australians and Northern Territorians did not count in their grand education plan. Commonwealth funding for government schools is increasing, on average, by 10 per cent per student per year over the coming four years—an almost 50 per cent increase in total. Total Commonwealth funding for non-government school students is increasing by an average five per cent per year over the same period—just over 22 per cent. Are the Australian Greens and the contributions we will soon hear from the Labor Party saying that it is unfair because non-government schools are getting half the funding increase of government schools? Is that unfair?

Too often in this debate the language of equity is used as a cloak for that 50-year debate that we thought had ended—the school wars that Senator Wright mentioned. Too often it is used by those who wish we did not have the unique education system we have in Australia that provides parents with choice, that reflects their values and that allows school communities in many places to run their own schools. The truth is that many on the other side and in the Australian Greens do not believe there is a role for public funding of non-government, independent and Catholic schools. That is a principle that we stand behind. Choice in education is a tenet of the coalition's faith. It is not something we will run away from.

But we will hear soon, as alluded to by Senator Wright, that somehow the promises of Labor and the Greens about education were significant. I am sick of hearing this, because in the last parliament the Labor Party and their Greens government partners were expert at making promises, but they were pathetic at delivering, such as with the promised increased higher education funding that was stripped out last April, allegedly to fund schools. But then they stripped out the school funding in the dying days of the government in August before the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook update and they were sprung because of the Charter of Budget Honesty.

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

$1.2 billion.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, $1.2 billion. I do not know where that money went under the previous government. That is a question we will be examining for decades, I imagine. With the funding for Senator Carr's favourite plan, the Green Car Innovation Fund, half a billion dollars was stripped out overnight. We do not know why. Promises were made, promises were breached and promises were never delivered.

So can I say to the people of Australia that a Labor promise is not worth the paper it is written on. Even less so when it is a promise made off the forward estimates. We know the only reason the Labor Party made all the promises for years 5 and 6 was that no-one had to count them. They were not in your budget estimates, they were not in any of the fiscal updates and they were meaningless promises. They were as meaningless as everything else you did in government.

The record of the coalition supports parents and believes in the importance of teacher quality, because we know that what matters more is not just what school a child is in but what classroom they are in. I come from a family of teachers. I know how important good teachers are. So we are supporting teacher quality. We are supporting a school economy that underpins teacher quality. But, to the Labor Party and to the Greens, all that matters is how much money we pour in. They do not care about what happens next.

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.

4:33 pm

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

It would seem that both the Greens and Labor have a complete tin ear when it comes to the evidence that we have heard on the subject of this MPI—educational inequality and needs based funding—in the Senate Select Committee on School Funding. Labor and Greens speakers here today sit on that inquiry. We have heard from the department, the Catholic school system, the independent school system and the AEU, and the evidence that we have been given has made it very, very clear that the claims by Senator Wright that there are no needs based funding models are completely erroneous. State governments have needs based funding models. We have heard from the Catholic Education Commission. Their model distributes money from within their system appropriate to needs, to Indigeneity, rural and regional, disability et cetera. Loadings apply from within each system to ensure that funding flows where it is needed. So to say that there is no such thing as a needs based funding model in existence in our nation at the present time ignores what is actually going on in state education systems. In fact, from the evidence we were given last week, the only sector operating under the failed Gonski—'I've walked away from my own model'—system is the independent schools sector. They are the only ones operating under that model, and they do not like it.

Another claim made in the debate today is that those of us on this side of the chamber do not think money matters in education. That is just ridiculous. Of course it matters.

Senator Wright interjecting

Senator Wright, I hear you badgering me from the side, but of course it matters. But the reality is: it is a case of diminishing returns. In a constrained fiscal environment, we need to make sure that we get the biggest bang for our buck. Again, that comes from the evidence, but I will go into that later. We have heard that on this side of the chamber we just want to throw blank cheques at education. Could there be any greater and more failed experiment in throwing blank cheques at education than Building the Education Revolution and the $16.2 billion that was wasted?

Senator Wright interjecting

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

That was a brilliant investment.

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

That is a lot of schools, Senator Wright. That is a lot of teachers, Senator O'Neill. That is a lot of infrastructure that could have been done.

I would like to put some facts onto the Hansard record. The Abbott government is providing $2.8 billion of additional funding to schools over the next four years, beginning in financial year 2014. Total Commonwealth funding to schools is estimated to be $60 billion over the next four financial years. The Abbott government is providing 75 per cent more in additional funding to schools compared to the previous government. I know you do not like to hear it, but it is a fact. We are also increasing Commonwealth funding for government schools, on average by 10 per cent per student over the four years. Senator Wright, I hope you are listening. We are only increasing funding to non-government schools students on average by five per cent, so those students in state government schools are receiving more of our attention, because we do recognise a parent's capacity to pay.

We have made a mockery of the claim that Gonski exists. What we inherited—contrary to the false claims perpetuated by the $20 million education media campaign prior to the election—was different funding arrangements across the three schooling sectors, public, Catholic and independent, and 27 different models. There was not one Gonski model at all, and we had nine governments which had been unable to come up with an agreement with the previous federal government because of the dysfunctional way it approached this particular vexed question.

If we want to go to international comparisons, it is about all of us as a nation deciding the things that need to be done—based on evidence, based on research—that will have a positive impact on the educational outcomes of Australian students. Simply boiling it down to it being all about more money, Senator Wright, ignores the international evidence.

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It depends where you target it.

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

If we go to the international results, the latest results are a serious wake-up call for Australian education. They show a serious downwards trend since 2009 in our student performance, Senator Lines, under the previous government. Mathematical literacy in Australia fell from 15th to 19th; reading literacy fell from 9th to 14th; and scientific literacy, of particular importance, fell from 10th to 16th. So under the previous Labor government our international results decreased, but the international evidence also shows that other nations are investing a lot less in their education systems with larger class sizes but are achieving better results—better student outcomes, if that is how you choose to measure educational quality.

But comparisons can be made in our federation. If we look at the states: the amount spent per student in my home state of Victoria is one of the lowest and yet we achieve one of the highest NAPLAN results. That is because we have had a long-term focus on school autonomy which ensures that local principals and communities can make decisions about what works best for their schools and students. We know what works and it is what you do not want to admit—because your benefactors, the AEU, hate it—and it is that teacher quality, which, as Hattie, who did an extensive review of literature, said 'is the single most powerful influence on student achievement'. It is the single most powerful influence, and yet we refuse to look at performance based pay.

I do want to turn briefly to Senator Lines's commentary on the WA election to recognise that under the coalition government in WA teachers are the highest paid in the country and funding to public schools is the highest per capita in the nation. That is a good story. They have independent schools with locals in charge of what occurs in their own communities. That is what 'empowering community' actually means and it can be delivered by a government that is focused on real outcomes in education.

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.

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's good federalism.

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

They are going to hand over federal money to states that they call now non-participating states without any accountability mechanism to make sure that that money, that Australian taxpayers' money, is going to address those clearly identified needs. We just trust the states, they say. While they are trusting the states, we are already seeing that money is being pulled out by those states, which no longer have to account for what they are spending the money on that they receive from the federal government.

In contrast, we do have participating states, and I would like to address New South Wales because that is the state that I represent here in the parliament. I have to give ticks, not crosses, to Premier O'Farrell and the Minister for Education in New South Wales for signing up to a deal that is going to advantage the students of New South Wales, for signing up to a deal that means that they are willing to commit $1 of state funding for every $2 that they receive from the federal government, for signing up to a deal where they will be advancing plans and be accountable for responding to student need, to sign up to a plan where they will be accountable for the money they receive from the federal government in their determination to address educational inequality. How can it be that children in New South Wales have a government that could see this disadvantage and is now going to provide them with further opportunities, while students in the Northern Territory and Western Australia are going to have funding just ripped out of the bottom of the system and their disadvantage grow?

We talk about federalism, and I heard the interjection from a senator opposite. Federalism to me means that every Australian has a series of rights that are not different because you are born into the wrong state at the wrong time. Our vision, Labor's vision and the Gonski vision, was about equity that enhances the lives of Australians and improves our whole country in terms of its wellbeing and also its prosperity. (Time expired)

4:50 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As I am sure everyone in this chamber and those listening know, the Australian Greens have long been advocates for all Australian children having access to high-quality education. We realise that having access to high-quality education is vital to a child's future. From early childhood education through the schooling system to options such as TAFE or university, we believe that Australian kids have a right to educational outcomes that do not depend on wealth and location.

With the portfolios that I have, which include community and family services, disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, issues around education are always present and always on my mind. We know that for many of the people and the children that I deal with, who often come from disadvantaged families, having access to high-quality education is absolutely essential to their future. That is why the Greens are so passionate around education, because we know what the value of a good-quality education is. It is absolutely critical for ensuring that our children have the capacity to choose their own path in life.

I should acknowledge that I am the product of a good education and also that I had access to free university education, and I am always aware of that. There is absolutely no doubt at all that my family could not have afforded to send me to a private school or university if I had not had access to the system that was available in the late seventies and early eighties.

Decades of underinvestment in Australian schools has caused deep inequalities between our most advantaged and disadvantaged schools, and unfortunately these gaps keep getting wider. We know that high-quality public education is crucial to realising our vision of a smart and innovative Australia. We believe that the recommendations that Gonski made are critical to delivering our vision of a smart and innovative Australia, and part of that has to be high-quality public education. We have in fact been lobbying for reform to the funding model for decades. For many years we have been advocating for fairer school funding and urging governments of both persuasions to reform the funding model. We have been advocating very strongly for the implementation of the recommendations of the Gonski review to ensure—and this is absolutely fundamental—that every Australian child has access to a good education, no matter where they live or how much money their parents have. This is absolutely critical. In my home state of Western Australia, we are deeply concerned about the future of education—in particular, the cuts that Mr Colin Barnett intends to make to our WA schools. We are very concerned about disadvantaged kids who have no other way of getting an education other than through the public education system, particularly Aboriginal children in rural and remote areas in Western Australia. We need more investment, not less.

In August last year, the Western Australian government announced that a new funding model would be implemented from 2015. Under this model, schools will have a one-line budget item comprised of a salaries component and a cash component, with the capacity for resources to be moved between these two components. In his announcement, the Western Australian minister for education stated that the new model would be accompanied by 'reforms to improve the efficiency of WA's public education system, which include staff reductions where positions could no longer be justified'. Needless to say, that is causing some concern. While overall teacher numbers have been maintained in 2014, there have been reductions in central and regional office positions, particularly those of educational assistants. This is cutting very hard. I have had representations from constituents who are deeply concerned about the cuts to school aides—in particular, Aboriginal school aides in regional and remote areas.

The feedback that we have had is that it is often the school aides, particularly the Aboriginal school aides, who have been in schools in regional areas the longest. I am sure it is the same situation for schools in other states as it is in Western Australia, where teachers who have not lived in regional areas tend to come and go. We have teachers for a couple of years and then they go, but the aides are more often than not from the community, so they are the ones who have been there long term. They know the history of the school and the history of the students, which is particularly important when it comes to Aboriginal educational aides. Their funding has been cut. People have been moved from perhaps full time to part time. This is having a fundamental impact on children's access to education. Those aides are there for a reason, and that is to improve children's access to education. The story that we are hearing in Western Australia is that, because of these cuts, schools are losing this knowledge—and that is a tragedy for those students.

In Western Australia, there have been reports that the new funding model will result in class size increases, school closures and amalgamations. The school support program resource allocations, which provide students with additional support in literacy and numeracy skills and in dealing with behavioural concerns, will also be cut by a third. This is extremely concerning. It has also been reported that the education department has put a new levy on schools to cover the cost of long service leave liability. This is now impacting on parents. They are concerned about the future of education both in my home state of Western Australia and in other states. I would like to quote from Jane, from Western Australia, who says:

I have a year 6 and a year 9 child and am strongly committed to the public education system.

I have been increasing alarmed at the lack of funding for basics at the children's primary schools even extending to insufficient teachers, and longstanding teachers' aids being forced to leave even when they are an integral part of the community and workforce within the school.

Fiona, who lives in a small town in the south-west of Western Australia, says:

I have three children, two of whom are school age, the third is awaiting her big chance. The school they attend is a district high with less than 100 students from K to Year 10. It is staffed by fantastic teachers, professional and enthusiastic. I am concerned that with insufficient federal funding support our school will suffer loss of resources. We are small, but we are not insignificant. In the lives of our children and in the lives of those in our community the school is mightily significant. In fact there is talk of somehow making it possible for students to attend Year 11 and 12 through the school here (instead of kids having to commute two hours a day to the nearest regional high school.

I am very much in favour of the Gonski report and would like to see the recommendations tabled in that review put into practice. I'm sure our school and our students would benefit.

Of course, they would benefit significantly if they did not have to travel two hours to school. Again, when you live in a town where the students can only go to year 10, it is highly problematic for them when they have to leave town to continue to go to school.

Phillipa from Western Australia says:

I want a great public school system for all kids. I find myself in the difficult situation of needing to buy my first home and therefore knowing i will be moving from my current rental and my kids will change schools. Where housing is 'affordable' the schools are of a low standard. In a country with resources and relative wealth we shouldn't be questioning funding for a good school system.

These are the accounts of parents in Western Australia who are extremely concerned about the future of the public education system in Western Australia. It is time we got absolutely serious about how we fund education in Western Australia and how we fund it on a needs basis. I am passionate about education for the most disadvantaged. It is absolutely critical that we get this right for future generations.

5:00 pm

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

First, I would like to acknowledge the group of students who have only just left, in the last two minutes, the gallery above us here and to commend their teachers, who have brought them to this place to further their education about the democratic principles—they were in the gallery in front of you, Senator Scullion—that underscore our great country and, in particular, this place. But how confused must they have been while listening to some of the contributions made in this debate. They would be saying, 'Who were they actually talking about?' Here we had some students who had been brought here, clearly, by great teachers, who consider it important to teach them about the importance of this institution. I also think about those who are listening to the broadcast, because what we have heard in so many contributions on this matter of public importance is, sadly, a denigration, trashing and talking-down of the education system that we actually have in Australia—that is, a great education system.

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Except for the gap. Except for the gap.

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is not perfect. It needs to be improved. But how lucky are we in Australia to have the education system that we have today? We are very lucky. To sit here and listen to people trashing it and talking it down does no credit to those who have engaged in such ideological ranting as we have heard here today.

Senator Wright interjecting

That is the perspective—and I take the interjection from Senator Wright—that is supported by many international reports. I refer to just one of them because I have only three minutes left to speak, and that is the PISA 2012 report. It says, to take a very quick point out of it, that Australia has a high-equity education system. What the report highlights is the importance of quality teaching, principal autonomy and parental engagement in lifting educational outcomes. So, when we hear from people like Senator Lines, on the other side of the chamber, I wonder: what cave has she been living in? She said that the Abbott government never talks about student outcomes—that Christopher Pyne, the member for Sturt, the Minister for Education, never talks about student outcomes. What cave was she living in when he was announcing and talking up his Students First policy? The Abbott government Students First policy is all about focusing on four pillars, and they are: developing quality teaching; promoting school principal autonomy; engaging parents so they are more actively involved in education; and, lastly and most importantly, ensuring that there is a rigorous and relevant curriculum.

In their contributions, Senator McKenzie and Senator Ryan covered a lot of those issues already in terms of the importance of those four pillars. But, with Senator Scullion having just arrived in the chamber, I am reminded of the wonderful op-ed piece he wrote that was in the paper—I think it was in November 2013—on the critical need to get Indigenous children to attend schools. So we hear about inequality in education and that nothing is being done about it, but the minister sitting in front of me is actually going to the heart of the issue in Indigenous communities and ensuring that it is fixed. The Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council has been convened. It is so important that it is now run out of PM&C. Whilst the council's remit is broad, one of the critical aspects of its role is to focus on improving school attendance and educational attainment. Minister Scullion, I commend you for this. You mean this; it is not ideological rhetoric, and I commend you for your efforts and support you in your endeavours.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.