Conference – CEWA
31 July 2017

Moderator: When we picked up The Australian paper today, front page there was an article about the fractured relationship between the Government and Catholic parents and Catholic educators. Tim Dodd wrote in the Financial Review this morning an article about explaining the $1.1 billion funding shortfall to Catholics. Well, I’m wondering, Minister, given there’s 200 people here, Catholic educators with wisdom and expertise, how are you going to a. build bridges with the Catholic sector, but also how do we tap into the wisdom and the expertise of Catholic educators across Australia in your portfolio?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Tim. A few quick answers there – firstly to make sure – I’m certain you appreciate, there’s [indistinct] in your schools who have got far more important things to do in your day-to-day roles than worry about funding models that come out of Canberra, we can rely and trust people like Tim to deal with those discussions. But I want to reassure you that projected funding flowing into the commission here in Western Australia sees probable growth of $583 million this year and $616 million next year, and right up over the course of the next ten years to grow from that $583 to be more than $1 billion at the end of that timeline, so growth each and every year in the order of 4 per cent or thereabouts.

Secondly, though, that there are absolutely some issues around whether the type of model, data, etcetera that drives funding is universally accurate best practice, or can it be improved. And that’s why we’re setting up the National School Resourcing Board to be able to look at things like the SES data methodology and answer those questions so that everybody can have confidence in the funding model. We want people to believe, to trust that it is a fair, consistent needs-based model, and that’s exactly what we’re seeking to apply. And Catholic Ed will have a seat at that table as part of that National School Resourcing Board, as will other parts of the education sector, to make sure that everyone is at the table shaping those improvements to those parts of the funding methodology.

But it is about much more than funding. It’s then about how it is we work together to achieve educational excellence. And in appointing David Gonski to undertake a further piece of work, not about funding, but about the type of evidence-base we can rely upon in the future to really lift school performance and outcomes. We again invited every party, every part of the education sector to the table there, and I’m pleased that Tim’s counterpart, Dr Lee-Anne Perry from Queensland, is one of the members of that panel. Lee-Anne comes as a former principal with a background particularly in areas of regional education as well. We’re confident that that type of collaborative basis can help get the best possible outcome. But it won’t just fall upon Lee-Anne’s shoulders; we’ll be looking to Lee-Anne together with Gonski, that entire panel, to really engage with all of the expertise that I know sits within Catholic education. You achieve incredible things across your individual schools, as a system in terms of your work, to help some of those who have some of the greatest of challenges – the mission, as such – to reach out and provide educational opportunities to all, and we want to make sure that through that we work together cooperatively, collaboratively towards positive outcomes.

Moderator: Thank you. Let’s open it up to the floor and see if there’s some questions from our principals. It’s hard to see, so let’s- Thank you, Decklin.

Question: Thank you, Tim. Minister Birmingham, a key concern for Catholic education nationally has been the use of SES as a measure of parents’ capacity to pay fees. If schools charging a few thousand dollars in fees have the same SES as schools charging five or ten times as much, doesn’t that show that the SES and the capacity to contribute model doesn’t work? How does the Government’s newly formed National Schools Resourcing Board, to which you’ve just referred, intend to address the crucial issue? Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Decklin. So the National School Resourcing Board’s first piece of work will be reviewing the SES methodology. Let me tell you the reason why we have an SES methodology and use it in the sense of capacity to contribute. The reason is because, in providing and wanting to empower parents and families to have a choice of non-Government education, to choose to pursue a faith-based education or a non-Government education for other reasons, we do that in a way where we want to of course provide that access to as many families as possible. And that means the Federal Government, being the dominant supporter of non-Government schools, that we provide the greatest support to those school communities who can least afford to pay the fees.

That’s the intent and the rationale as to why the SES methodology has been used to help drive and determine funding for close to 20 years now. It’s been a significant part of the funding model and arrangement for some period of time, and we put that in place because what we want to see is that schools where parents would otherwise not be able to afford that choice of faith-based education, or a non-government education, can reach that because they get, or their school notionally receives, the largest amount of Government funding and support to offset those fees, whereas school communities who can better afford to do so might receive less.

Now, obviously we then have to make sure that the data itself backs that up. The Gonski review was quite clear that just using school fees is not a good proxy for that because, of course, if you said school fees were the proxy then everybody would keep their fees as low as they can to get the maximum dollars, and it wouldn’t necessarily reflect what the capacity to contribute of those families were. So, looking at whether we can better use other data sources – be that tax income or direct parental income – are the types of things that I’d imagine the School Resources Board will consider.

In the interim, we did acknowledge, as a result of some representations, that next year there’d be some interim funding while that work was undertaken. But also, the really key [indistinct] made clear in the legislation that the autonomy of systems, like WA and Catholic Ed, to receive the sum of all of the parts. So we might calculate the funding for each of your schools, but we then aggregate it and give a lump sum over to the commission, who we know have a more detailed understanding of the needs in each of your schools. No model sitting in Canberra will be able to replicate the individual knowledge of systems working more closely with each of their schools at a local state level. That, of course, is the reason why school education is in unison at those local [indistinct]. We think it’s appropriate we have a consistent, fair, needs-based funding model, but then we will back the judgement, absolutely assist them to make their calls about different needs and different circumstances.

Question: There’s a lot to [indistinct]. One of the unintended outcomes I think of the SES model within Western Australia was that we, for many years, have prided ourselves on low fees in our schools. So similar schools, who might be independent schools, charge much higher fees with the same SES. I think what the unintended outcome of [indistinct] – although we have a gap in this year – into our transition is that our schools will have to increase fees at an incredible rate because of a reduction in funding and the six years [indistinct] in Western Australia, and particularly those schools that are matching SES. And I suppose we were held captive really to a previous government, where Julia Gillard [indistinct]. We were faithful to that and that funding allocation model, which would’ve had us transition to 2025 to a pure SRS model. One of the challenges we know about schools, one of the challenges of a federal policy, is that that will cause us some pain, which we will manage [indistinct] distribute in our system.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, and I guess, Tim, there’s a definite call for [indistinct] the system in working through that. The average per student growth we estimate across your schools is 4.3 per cent growth next year. Now, obviously if you choose to have less of that flow through to some schools, more will be flowing through to other schools. So that’s the call, of course, that in backing the judgement of systems to make. We back you to do so. Equally, it could be a decision to say we will increase everybody by 4.3 per cent and maintain the status quo. They’re internal judgements about your decisions around how need is reflected in your schools. That’s why, in a sense, I’ll highlight the average figure, because the ups and downs from that of course have to be based on your personal knowledge of that need. But I emphasise, I guess, for everybody there is more money to go around, it’s just a case of how you choose to cut it up.

Question: We’re good at that. Thank you.

Moderator: Next question.

Question: Minister, you’ve just made reference to the recently established Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, to be chaired by Mr David Gonski. You’ve stated that the review will examine evidence and make recommendations on the most effective teaching and learning strategies and initiatives to be deployed in schools. One of the fears we have as system leaders is that this review will be another way for the government to impose further regulations and red tape on our schools. International research points to the Catholic schools as the best place we trust to hold themselves to account, with [indistinct] to our accountability as has been required. Is there too much compliance and regulation in our schools already, and will in fact the Government, through the review, seek to introduce more?

Simon Birmingham: I certainly don’t imagine introducing more compliance, red tape, or regulation, and if the opportunity is there to reduce that in ways, they’re very open to hearing good, sensible, practical ways to do so. And it may well be that findings out of this review seek to empower greater autonomy and greater individual determination, less areas of red tape in one way, and more of a focus on simply the outcomes and expectations to meet that. Maybe in other ways, that the review better identifies ongoing, systemic evidence-based ways to improve pedagogy, improve the curriculum, that hopefully make it easier for school leaders, teachers to, in a sense, pick up off the shelf the latest practices that can make the biggest difference and impact to their students in their circumstances, based on the type of robust evidence and assessment. If this were a gathering of general practitioners in health care, we’d know full well that the National Health and Medical Research Council rightly undertook all the types of evidence-based reviews of diagnostic techniques, right through to treatments, practices, and medicines and everything else.

In education, we all keep striving for the same type of high-quality, evidence-based decision-making and to ensure that, as the equivalent of general practitioners, our teachers in the schools know where they can turn to help their school leaders to always be able to access the best proven techniques to be able to improve outcomes.

So, no, I certainly don’t expect or anticipate that this review is going to result in a shopping list of new conditions that must be met and will apply more red tape in schools. I hope we can elevate it in terms of the type of outcomes that we want from it, and I hope in many ways it helps to shape and frame identification of best practice [indistinct].

Question: Just on that, Minister, I wanted to ask for your personal take. With your two daughters, you talk about best practice and outcomes for students; what are you hoping to achieve as a Federal Minister? When you leave, what will they say about you about improving teacher and learning quality?

Simon Birmingham: I hope – and it perhaps really does touch on the comment I made just then – I hope that we can put in place some systemic processes where Australia seems a true world-leader in identifying, seizing, and rolling out, utilising true evidence-based practices in schools and classrooms; that around the world they say that Australian schools find it easiest to identify the best way to lift literacy skills in the early years, the best way to teach coding of technology in middle years, the best way to teach resilience and collaboration in senior years, whatever. Of course, all of those four outcomes that we need to have, I hope that, as a national Minister – where I don’t run specific schools, specific school systems – we set the overall policy framework agenda. I hope that we can set that overall policy framework agenda where my state colleagues, state ministers, through to leaders of major systems like Catholic Ed around the country, through to individual standalone schools, all see that we have a much better integrated national framework for evidence-based decision-making. Achieve that and [indistinct] a step forward and something enduring.

Moderator: Thank you. Do we have another question from the floor?

Question: Minister, your portfolio of work is instrumental in shaping the future lives of almost 4 million students – and you’ve mentioned your own children. Where do you seek your inspiration from in determining future strategy and policy, and which countries and practitioners around the world influence you the most?

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. Inspiration, I guess, comes from many different sources, and the best part of the job unquestionably is the chance to get out and meet with educators and to hear the different views and different pressures they face, and to get their ideas and thoughts. This morning, at a roundtable in Ken Wyatt’s electorate with a number of his school principals, and hearing from them a particular focus on mental health issues and the need to see a better integration of all areas of Government services and support that help students with disability, help students with mental health challenges, to ensure that it’s integrated, rather than there’s a support [indistinct]. We’re finding a lot of the inspiration, I guess, are drawn from individual educators, in individual schools.

But we have clearly some locally inspirational, high quality leaders in the likes of John Paddy and the work that he has championed, and particularly a focus around using again information, evidence, to measure student progress and to look at that individual student progress – a year’s worth of learning for a year’s worth of teaching for each and every student in a classroom – I think really is a key factor that we need to be championing and working as a nation to how again we make that easier, simpler, possible for schools to be able to roll out in their own individual environment.

It can sound sometimes simple, and in some ways daunting, to talk about how it is you take each student across all of the different starting points that they have at the beginning of the year and progress them to the maximum of their abilities by the end of the year, noting that each of them will have a different trajectory in terms of the speed of their learning and knowledge over that time. But that, of course, has to be [indistinct] stretching each student to their maximum of their capabilities, helping them achieve all they can, and I think it is hopefully through that type of inspiration and focus that we can then look at different techniques, use of data, and other things that can be done to actually help us get there.

Moderator: Thank you, and Minister we’re down to our last five minutes. Can we have one more question?

Simon Birmingham: Lady in the pink, straight in front.

Moderator: Two more questions, sorry.

Simon Birmingham: Sorry, sorry, I should leave this to you.

Moderator: That’s okay, you can keep going, it’s good. Is there a final principal?

Question: Good afternoon, Minister. Every school in the country would like to address funding for students with disabilities. You’ve recently stated that the model for funding fails basically in every test. Could you please explain the context behind your statement, and what do you think the way forward is for students with disability funding, given that the [indistinct] has a significant impact on the funding for our schools?

Simon Birmingham: So I’ve committed that we’re going to transition to use the nationally consistent collection of data on students with disability, and we have to make sure that we make it work by investing in moderation and improvement in the way the data is collected, and we’ve seen really good improvements year on year, including in the last set of data. We have to continually work to enhance that.

The reason I’ve committed to using that methodology really is twofold. One is that it’s based on your judgement, that rather than trying to apply a medical definition to disability funding that is determined outside of the school environment and may not reflect the actual need of adjustment assistance [indistinct] the school, the NCCD methodology relies upon teachers, principals, and schools reporting through the level of adjustment assistance each individual student requires. Some, logically, require more help than others. The historical framework is a one-size-fits-all loading, and if it’s not enough for some kids that’s too bad, and if it’s too much for other kids good luck to you.

This is about having – the second point of this – having three graduated levels of assistance so that those who need extensive assistance can actually receive it, so that when you’re making a decision to enrol a student in your school and you know that they are going to require really extensive support, you should have confidence that, to your school system, the type of funding will flow to that system that that student deserves and warrants in terms of meeting their need to be included in the classroom, in the learning environment, in the school community.

So, is NCCD process something that is right now completely bulletproof? No. We need to keep working to get it better. But the previous model was flawed, with different disability definitions across each state, a one-size-fits-all flat loading, whereas this is about having three different levels of loading to reflect the different levels of adjustment systems individual children need, and backing you as leaders and as teachers to get it right in your schools in terms of identifying what level of support is required.

Moderator: Thank you, last question.

Question: This is a national question, as you’re a Federal Minister. What would it take for you to- I’m sorry, for Australia to achieve the goal of [indistinct] of every eight year old being able to read from [indistinct]? So what would we have to do to have [indistinct] across the country [indistinct] and what it would take for you to name it as one of the requirements of the work that Mr Gonski now does?

Simon Birmingham: Ultimately, to have every eight year old child read it would take the closest investment in the early years, pre-school years, in terms of preparedness for school, and it would take clear work in terms of the training and the skillset of teachers to be able to – whether they are new graduates, historical graduates – be able to access the different techniques that are necessary, including appropriate use of phonics to be able to reach that point. But there’s not, again, a single silver bullet answer. I recognise that there are a range of different techniques that teachers need to apply in order to get every child to that point. No doubt it would take then additional support outside of the classroom to those who need technology services and the like.

I’ve spoken a fair bit as Minister about seeing the basic building blocks as being absolutely essential. You can’t have children reaching eight years old and not being able to read, and then the costs on your education system and on your schools in terms of remedial action are enormous. The ability to catch those kids up is challenging and sometimes frequently, sadly, you don’t necessarily get there and you have a life-long of educational underperformance ahead as a result of not having the building blocks right at the outset.

So, do I expect that it’s something that David and the panel will look at? You bet, because it’s certainly a passion of mine, perhaps it’s a passion influenced by having a four year old and a six year old at home that ensures early learning is a core part, I guess, of what I go home to think about in my household, but it’s logical that the building blocks are essential to achieve success.

The rest, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. Again, final question, your input into the next Gonski review, into other processes to say what does it take to achieve these essential outcomes, is something that I’d really welcome and value, and I hope that you choose to participate. Thank you very much.

Moderator: Thank you, thank you very much.