Address to the Christian Schools National Policy Forum, Canberra 

Simon Birmingham:     Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for the chance to be back here with you. This is my third opportunity to address this wonderful gathering here in the Great Hall that happens annually in Parliament. Last year, it was my first as the Minister for Education and Training and I was fortunate to have an apprenticeship run, not only having served as the Assistant Minister for Education, but indeed having an apprenticeship run at this dinner at the previous year in representing Christopher Pyne. But it’s brilliant to be back here this year, in particular to be back here of course with – I think – good, strong, exciting news about reforms in Australian schooling and particularly in relation to school funding.


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you. My colleagues- thank you. But can I acknowledge all of the leaders of the different Christian school entities represented here tonight? I have a long list in this [indistinct] speech and I won’t read out all of the different names but I do acknowledge that there is a broad spectrum of different organisations who come together in this gathering to discuss the important work of how to advance education, quality education, faith-based education in Australia and how to do so in a way that is as accessible to as many Australian families as possible. And I pay tribute for all that you do in that regard across all of your different associations, entities, and most importantly, in your schools to give such outstanding opportunities to so many young Australians and their families. So thank you, first and foremost, from me.

This is an important week in the history of Commonwealth school education policy and in particular in relation to the Australian Government’s funding arrangements. This week the Australian Education Amendment Bill will be debated in the House of Representatives. It is only three short weeks ago that I stood with the Prime Minister and with David Gonski in Sydney and announced the Commonwealth’s new funding arrangements post-2017 which are reflected in the legislation now before this Parliament. The process for the Senate Committee to review the legislation has already started and is expected to report by mid-June. 

Our goal is to have the legislation passed this Parliamentary session – to give certainty not only for next year, but for the next ten years and beyond. Our legislation is not just about any old funding model. This is not just another short-term fix to get a government over the line before an imminent election. This is not just a set of arrangements moulded by back-room deals, meeting narrow or particular interests; nor is it about keeping the status-quo. Finally, the Parliament is debating schools funding legislation that is about delivering real reform in a timeframe that people can see and realise in the future.

It’s about delivering what I outlined when I first became the Minister that a post-2017 funding model had to be based on the principles of affordability, need, fairness, equity and transparency. It’s about delivering what the Turnbull Government promised ahead of the last election last year in our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes document that indicated the Commonwealth’s record levels of investment in schools must be tied to evidence-based reforms to address and reverse issues where Australia’s education performance is sliding. And it’s about delivering on what the Gonski Report actually proposed and argued for: to replace the messy funding arrangements, corrupted by special deals, trade-offs, and a lack of transparency. And indeed it is about truly going back in time and delivering much of what the Karmel Report into school funding proposed in May 1973, but was never quite implemented.

Six years on from Gonski and forty-four years on from Karmel, the new legislation and our recent budget announcements are about delivering for the first time in Australia a funding model that is affordable, supported by realistic funding levels, that is fair, that is genuinely needs-based, that is transparent, sector-blind and, with its ten year transition and enduring framework, can provide unprecedented certainty to Australian schools. 

Perhaps the best way to sum up what the Turnbull Government is delivering is to quote from a recent letter I received from one of your leaders. That letter acknowledged some challenges for a small number of schools in your sector from our reforms, but nevertheless it strongly embraced the new proposals. It said, and I quote: “that they were providing a long-term funding model…providing a model that can be applied fairly across all sectors and jurisdictions… addressing deals and inconsistencies…affirming a needs-based and sector-blind approach…providing a consistent application of the SRS funding principles and formula…developing a policy framework that has a good chance of legislative success” – and I hope your political analysis is correct in that – “tackling the timidity of no school will lose a dollar by offering 10 years of adjustment and even extra transition arrangements where there’s a reasonable case, and continuing to provide a generous measure of most reasonable funding for the Commonwealth’s part”. I could not have said it better and I am grateful, immensely grateful for the support that we have received.

Our proposal seeks to ensure that students and schools with the same need attract the same support from the Commonwealth regardless of where they live or which state they live in and regardless of what type of non-government school they attend, but based on the need of those students, of those schools. We are transitioning all schools to an equitable Commonwealth share of the Gonski-based Schooling Resource Standard – 80 per cent of that Schooling Resource Standard for non-government schools and 20 per cent for government schools – reflective of the historical relationship the Federal Government has had as the primary funder of non-government schools, but representing a historic high in federal support for all school systems, especially, particularly, a historic high for federal support for government school systems which comes to a new high of 20 per cent having not that long ago been less than 10 per cent in the share of support provided.

So, by 2027, all schools in their respective sectors will receive the same Commonwealth share under the same methodology in an entirely needs-based consistent manner. They will undertake this transition over a decade, unlike the existing legislation which still wouldn't even achieve equity of treatment after 150 years operation. For the first time since the Commonwealth became involved in school funding there will be a true level-playing field about how funds are allocated to schools and much greater transparency about who receives what allocation from the Federal Government. And by having these changes enshrined in our new legislation – all of the changes enshrined in legislation and as regulatory frameworks – any future attempt to tilt that level playing field back to where it once was, by reinserting any special deals, would have to be legislated and transparent for all to see.

While we are confident about these changes, we have at the same time built in some safety measures. We adopted a 10 year timeframe that ensures changes can be managed progressively and effectively. Our transition fund for those schools who believe they may be vulnerable is a proper safety net. And as we implement these new arrangements we will be working with all sectors and listening to schools across Australia to understand on the ground impacts and, if need be, to respond to them. Also, we will use this opportunity to address some existing concerns; including some within particular segments of your sector, such as Distance Education, will be reviewed in this context of these changes. 

In terms of funding- and I gather you’ve heard a thing or two about the quantum of funding tonight already. In terms of funding, the Commonwealth is delivering record investment into Australian schools. In addition to the extra $1.2 billion announced in last year’s Budget a further $2.2 billion has been added over the next four years, a further $18.65 billion added over the next 10 years. That means that from 2018 to 2027, Commonwealth funding across the decade for Australian schools will hit a record $242.3 billion. More particularly, it grows each and every year, starting from $17.5 billion in 2017 and progressively and steadily increasing to $30.6 billion by 2027.

Importantly, we are honouring the commitment we gave prior to the last election, to grow the funding standard by 3.56 per cent for the three years from 2018 to 2020. This gives immediate certainty of funding – and that funding growth, of course, is above any current measure of wages and inflation growth. There’s additionally to that funding growth because pretty much all systems, all schools are largely transitioning up to a higher share of that standard, as well.

From 2021 we will move to a floating indexation rate, but also guarantee in legislation that funding not only keeps up with the wages and inflation growth based on our indexation formula but also will have an added safeguard  for certainty of school planning that such indexation cannot fall below three per cent. 

Commonwealth school spending for all sectors – government, Catholic and independent – grows faster than costs across the life of our proposal. And to ensure that there is no cost shifting, we will require that the states and territories maintain their real per student funding to both government and non-government schools. With real consequences for the first time ever, if they do not.

Through our Quality Schools program, we’re delivering, not just more funding, but also seek to ensure that the funding is linked to evidence-based reforms to address Australia’s declining performance.  As the nation’s single largest contributor to school funding, the Federal Government must ensure that our education dollars – the education dollars of Australian tax payers – have an impact. Funding alone is not the answer. And I know that in this room, everybody appreciates that. And there is no doubt that we all want to see improvements and there have been many attempts to make improvements. But too often, in working with state and territory governments these attempts have been stop-go in nature, or have suffered from poor implementation. 

Our new approach will also seek to deliver a long-term, coherent school education reform package that holds all to account.  That is why we have appointed David Gonski, to lead the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. David, along with other experts and practitioners whom I will soon announce, will advise the Commonwealth of how just where we should invest our extra education dollars to improve our nation’s education performance, how it is that systems in schools can make the decision out of true needs based funding that they are receiving to have confidence they’re making the wisest decisions to get the best results for their students. They will look at what, if any, new institution or governance arrangements might be needed to help guarantee the best advice and the best information for the best use of the record funding. I know that many here will have important contributions to make to this new Gonski Review and I encourage your active participation.

Governments, of course, can only develop effective policies to tackle problems if they are based on the right values. Values are the bedrock of good policy, just as they are the foundation of a strong family or a good life. The values underpinning our new school funding arrangements – affordability, need, fairness, equity and transparency – are the right values for the future. Our funding policies are transparently there for all to see, developed following appropriate analysis of current arrangements, consultation with different sectors, analysis of feedback from a whole range of different fora. But ultimately developed in a way that was not distorted by a bidding war with opponents or vested interests but instead with the interests of common, fair, equitable, transparent, treatment in mind. 

Our reforms provide solid foundation to ensure we have a level playing field in allocating Commonwealth funding and driving evidence-based reforms. Our reforms will, for the first time ever, deliver funding fairly, equitably, consistently and according to need. Our reforms will ensure those students and schools who need the greatest assistance receive the greatest assistance. Our reforms will, by treating each state and territory equally according to the need in their individual schools, they will make those states who choose to invest less in their school systems – relative to other states – accountable for their funding decisions. And our reforms will embed parental choice by ensuring families in our lowest income communities receive the greatest support to choose the school that best suits their families’ hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future and for their children. 

Your sector knows, from one of the famous parables, the importance of building on a foundation of rock, rather than sand. Because our reforms are based on a solid foundation of integrity, I am confident that unlike the house built on sand by the foolish builder, they will not be swept aside by the storms of intransigence, the winds of exaggeration or misinformation.  

However, in government, as in life, having good intentions and great ideas are not always enough. Delivering is what counts. Unless we deliver our reform policies then the funding inequities will continue. Unless our education reforms are delivered, then our nation’s education system risks continued decline.

But delivery is not just in the government’s hands or the government’s role. It, of course lies in the Parliament’s hands. And to enact the legislation, yes, we must discuss, sell and explain the reforms. But in a democracy, our best chance of delivery lies if citizens motivate their representatives to support those changes. That’s why I am so very grateful for the support and encouragement we have received from so many in this room.

I hope tonight that we will leave here committed to working together, to achieving reform and to delivering for the children and families who rely upon us. Together, we can make a lasting difference. I look forward to working with you. I thank you very much for the chance to be with you tonight. And I look forward to many exciting successful days ahead. Thank you.