Thank you so much Martin for that thoughtful and generous welcome. Stephen, thank you for having me along again this year, indeed for breaking me in to be the Minister for Education at last years dinner. It was a very good trial run and I’m please that it obviously went well enough that I was not disqualified from holding the office when reshuffles came around. You joked, Stephen how did I feel having to follow Natalie on the stage? Well I think inadequate barely sums that up. Natalie, that was an amazing and wonderful performance, you are indeed one of Australia’s great talents and it is just phenomenal to get to follow the stage with you, although I do assure all of you that you will not need to hear my singing tonight. Martin, your comments about Patrick Dangerfield will of course not be forgotten either when it comes for carving out any Ministerial largess that I’m able to deliver upon later. Can I acknowledge my Parliamentary colleague Senator Deb O’Neil who I see here tonight as well as any other distinguished guests and also recognise Australia’s Indigenous owners whose lands we meet upon and as Australia’s Education Minister I acknowledge their traditional knowledge about which we continue to learn much, to learn from and to build upon as a nation.
We are, as you all know, in an election. I could come here tonight and give you the expected lines, sing the government’s many virtues, decry the Opposition, plant some seeds of doubt about some policy or another and rattle off what you have all heard ad nauseum through an election debate that has been somewhat long held already in this Parliamentary term. Now, there may need to be just a little of that in my comments tonight. We have kept our 2013 election promises on funding through the life of this Parliament through the budget cycle. We’ve launched many new initiatives across teacher education, school autonomy, the curriculum and parental engagement.
As many wanted, we have announced in this year’s budget that for the future budget cycle comprising all of the school years through until 2020, Commonwealth recurrent school funding will grow by an education specific indexation rate of expenditure of 3.56 per cent plus enrolments; growth that is ultimately well above current inflationary activity and will be ahead of enrolments.
This brings the Commonwealth’s total commitment for school funding to a record $73.6 billion over the Budget and Forward Estimates period – a 26.5 per cent increase over the proceeding period; that’s growth of no small or insignificant amount. From this year in 2016 we will see Federal Government funding of schools grow from $16 billion to, if the Turnbull Government is re-elected, more than $20 billion by 2020.
We also announced in the Budget and released our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reform agenda, evidence based reforms to lift student outcomes. I know that, of course, in relation to school funding you’ll have questions. How much is our sector going to get? Will the Government match the Opposition’s spending? What about the loadings? Will there be consultation after the election about funding and allocations and who will be at the table to represent our particular sector?
And I could give you the expected answers and I will touch on some of those questions. But tonight at this Christian schools forum, I want to make sure that I address some truths. The Christian message has many examples of speaking truth to power, such as when Nathan confronted King David over his actions causing Uriah’s death and Paul’s often uncompromising letters of advice to different Christian communities. In the 8 months since I’ve been the Education Minister, I know that different representatives of the education sector have no trouble in speaking truth to power if as Federal Education Minister I am the representative of power in that occasion. My approach though, is also to be as honest and open as I can be in return. To speak the truth, to tell the truth, to explain why it is that some things are as they are, what can be done and what cannot be done, what is affordable, what is not affordable, about what responsibility or capability may end and about what the evidence truly tells us.
Tonight I want to touch on five truths.
The first truth is that the Australian schooling system is not in crisis and overall continues to perform above the OECD average in all categories.
However, there is room for improvement as our PISA and NAPLAN data shows. There are some serious areas of concern such as poor literacy levels, the decline of our high performing students, as well as the persistence of the “long tail” and the need for more students to be studying STEM subjects.
However, too often these days, problems are exaggerated and almost everything when it goes in to the media cycle of reporting becomes a ‘crisis.’
Many have contributed to this – the hard pressed media and the 24X7 news cycle, governments, oppositions and interest groups.
The result is rushed decision making, over-reaction, and a misdirection of resources as extra funds are sometimes or all too often channelled into addressing the latest ‘crisis’ to the detriment of tackling more fundamental, persistent or ongoing problems.
For some, our education performance ‘crisis’ has become almost solely a funding crisis, even though Australia is not a low school spending country. Listen to some and there are cuts even though spending, by all governments, but especially by the Commonwealth Government, has long been increasing in real terms, grown over decades, is at record levels now and is forecast to keep growing in to the future whoever wins the election on July 2nd.
So, as we squabble over funding levels and formulae and shares of the education cake, we have been distracted from really tackling the underlying and long term causes of our declining education performance in certain areas.
Which brings me to the second and often the most unpalatable of truths when confronting the questions around funding. That is that resources are finite and that Australia’s economic fortunes have changed.
The big resource boom which has been driving Australia’s prosperity and filling Government coffers is over – at least for the immediate foreseeable future.
It is not calamitous, but it requires caution, readjustment and a moderation of future government spending. It also requires us to focus more on job creation and policies to support business growth that will create jobs for Australians today and for the students in schools today.
All areas of public policy, including education, have to accommodate this new reality of spending constraint. This doesn’t mean living with less, but it does mean reducing future growth so that we can live within our means and that we must become more innovative and efficient in using available funds.
Now some think that deficits do not matter, that this is just an ideological fabrication, that public expenditure should continue to increase as much as in the past and that education is a special case to be exempted from any restraint.
However, since some during this election have been quoting from OECD reports let me quote from one myself on this very issue:
“A conservative approach to public debt is important for Australia. Exposure to external risk, particularly from resource markets, implies possible shocks that would require substantial fiscal fire-power to offset. In addition, the substantial private sector debt, despite mitigating factors, also highlights the importance of a strong public sector balance sheet.”
The message is clear and was repeated last week-end by heads of Treasury and Finance, we must have better fiscal management as a buffer for the next crisis.
You all know that Australia is a remarkable country. We have living standards and enjoy a quality of public services and infrastructure comparable to the best in the world. Our welfare system is targeted and fairer than almost any other nation. We have enjoyed twenty-five years of unprecedented and uninterrupted economic growth.
This has not been luck, but has been a result of prudential economic management, a willingness to address long term endemic problems, and targeted spending. To afford to maintain our lifestyle and our public services including especially education, we must maintain this prudent and careful approach.
It means governments, education departments and schools must prioritise, invest better, and at every level tackle those reforms, much talked about, but to date never quite delivered, put in the ‘too-hard’ basket for too long.
As Professor John Hattie recently said:
It is a common plea for more money to be added into the education system, but there is less a plea to account for the efficiency or effectiveness of how the money is to be spent to improve outcomes. The program logic stops at some point in the causal chain: add more money to get more teachers, lower class sizes and more teacher aide support, but where is the evidence that all these extra resources lead to improved learning?
Hattie argues that “how to spend money effectively” should be one of the key future drivers of education policy. He is right.
Which brings me to my third truth – that we need to act on what the best evidence informs us we should be doing in our schools and in our education systems.
While there is overwhelming evidence on a number of key areas ranging from: teacher quality, school autonomy, class sizes, the value of private investment and choice, the limits of increased spending, and how best to teach literacy – too often the evidence is ignored or side-lined because of ideological dispositions, self-interest or because it just plain hard to do.
Examples include resisting proper teaching of phonics despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of its value and public reports of more than a decade in age demonstrating the type of reforms that we should be pursuing.
So in our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy statement we have genuinely sought to identify only those reforms where there is clear evidence they can have a positive impact and where public funds can be best invested to lift student achievement.
We have avoided a scatter-gun approach, of trying to intrude into every area of education, from classroom to playing field or swimming pool, or to meet every whim that every person may have. Our focus is specific, to lift the basic outcomes in reading and literacy, in numeracy, maths and STEM, in foreign languages, in teacher quality.
We also, and this is the fourth truth, recognise the limits of the Commonwealth and of the Federal Minister to influence education outcomes.
You all know the states are responsible for the day-to-day running of schools and the quality of our school education system.
It is not only that the Commonwealth runs no schools, employs no teachers and is only a partial funder of the whole school system, but also the levers to deliver reform are limited in our case.
Nevertheless, given Commonwealth spending on schools will be nearly $120 billion between 2014 to 2020 it is understandable that we want our funds to be spent effectively and I am determined, for as long as I am a Minister, to leverage that funding to get the best possible outcomes especially from the states and territories.
For instance, further improving teacher quality will, if we are successful, be achieved by utilising existing professional standards and processes that are already operating in several states but could be put to much greater use across the nation and in terms of driving the right incentives to reward our most capable teachers, our most highly accomplished teachers and to encourage them to ensure that they go and work in some of our most needy or disadvantaged schools. We are setting timeframes, but realistic ones, to improve the take up of STEM subjects in years 11 and 12 because we know other measures have to be taken to implement this initiative, but we know having that clear requirement and ambition in those final years is central to ensuring that students have a commitment and maintain their interest in those subjects through the middle years.
We believe data and greater transparency, some improved reporting arrangements, but not high stakes testing will improve accountability, policy choices, parental awareness and education outcomes.
These proposals for reform and our funding arrangements proposed from 2018, will all be subject to proper consultation with all groups including yours.
We will seek your advice to ensure we get the delivery of the funding and the implementation of the evidence based reforms right.
The last truth is that in some instances we seemed to have lost sight of the core purpose of education.
More and more schools are being asked by governments to add activities of an increasingly social nature that go beyond normal and expected curriculum.
This is not only overloading the curriculum and asking teachers to perform tasks for which they may not be properly trained, but also in some cases these issues are challenging the values of some schools and their parents.
We want to make sure that we actually have an education system that focuses on the provision of core knowledge and the skills about how to think critically. We do need to get the basics right. We need to return our education system to make sure that first and foremost our children in their earliest years are successfully learning to read and from that foundation they are able to engage and participate right through their schooling life.
As a Coalition, we will stand up and fight for the types of reforms that can support schools to get the best outcome for their students. As a Coalition, we will also stand up for parental engagement and parental choice in relation to schooling. As a Coalition, we will continue to stand up for freedoms, not just freedoms in school choice, but of course, religious freedoms that need support for the successful operation of school sectors like yours.
We ultimately will be standing up to deliver an education system that builds off of a great and outstanding basis. As I said before in the first truth, are education system is not in crisis, it is an outstanding education system upon which we can build even better things in to the future.
I am very optimistic that with record levels of funding we have proposed, needs based distribution of that funding into the future, growth year on year, but a strong, evidence driven determination to ensure reforms in our schooling system that get the best results for our students, that our education system, government and non-government, can succeed in helping our economy to transition, in giving students the skills they need for the future, in ensuring they are equipped for the STEM jobs in which 70% of the fastest growing occupations occur, in ensuring they are well rounded citizens who are capable of critical thinking, but also compassion and care within society.
I have two small children, a two year old and a five year old, I have a personal interest in our education system, but I have a personal conviction as Education Minister that all children should be afforded the opportunities that I’m confident of being able to provide my children, that we need to do the best we possibly can, to lift parental engagement to support parents and their rights, their choices, their responsibilities, that we can give the same support to schools of all different varieties to deliver what their parents and their communities need and want in the future. I hope that over the next year, post July 2nd, I will be able to sit down with your sector or others to negotiate long term arrangements that give you funding certainty, that deliver on our commitment to funding distribution according to need, that supports you in having the confidence to keep growing and investing in your schools, that support your parents to keep making the choice to enrol their students in your schools and that build an even great education system in to the future.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to be with you tonight, I look forward to taking your questions and to being with you for the rest of the evening. Thank you very much.
Q and A
QUESTION: The Federal Government is the major funder of non-government schooling, and that’s an important factor for us as an independent school, stopping the Gonski style of funding early in terms of its process will mean that there will be significant inequity in terms of the level of Federal funding for students in different states and this is most crucial in South Australia where after the fourth year we only get 10% of that funding. At this stage, that is now going to be ingrained and we’re only going to get indexation above that and so that’s a huge amount of inequity. Is there any move from the current government to try and address that inequity in any way?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks Marcel and as you’d appreciate as a South Australian, I’m well aware of the problem and it’s a problem that stems from the reality that we have not a single national system of funding that we inherited as a government, but 27 different agreements that created all manner of inequities or special deals around the country. I’m determined that we move to a model that does move away from that and is consistent and treats schools fairly across the country. States and territories make their decisions to fund their systems at a different level. That’s their right, but I want to make sure that we treat students equitably and schools equitably as a Commonwealth Government. So yes, it is absolutely my determination that the type of issue you face is not one that will be ingrained from 2017, but one that will be fixed from 2017 which is why when I say I want us to sit down and work with all of the non-government school sectors, as with the states and territories to adjust the funding models that are there to ensure we do get that equitable delivery of funding in to the future, that we use the growth that is built in to the funding models that are there to ensure it is fair whether you’re in South Australia or whether you’re in New South Wales or anywhere else across the country.
QUESTION: For the last three years I’ve had two education support coordinators and a couple of education support teachers beavering away on the nationally consistent collection of data of students with disabilities, really important work. I’m wondering whether you could give us an update of how things have been progressing towards actually using that data to link it to the funding of those students?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The NCCD process is a very important one and upon becoming Minister, I have to say, I was very engaged in how quickly could we move to see funding distributed based on the NCCD data. It is also perhaps one of the greatest frustrations I’ve had in my short time as the Minister because as the data came in it became apparent, which many of the state and territory Ministers of all political persuasions were quick to highlight, that there were some real inconsistencies in the data. If you have a look at it, Tasmania reports around 10% of its students as having some form of disability requiring adjustment, Queensland reports around 25%. Obviously, that does not pass, to use a scientific term, the sniff test. So, that set back my ambitions as to how quickly we might be able to move in terms of using the currently reported data. My predecessor though, had committed that funding this year would be informed by that data. What we did in the budget this year was we allocated an additional $118 million spread across this financial year, or this year and next school year, which will be delivered on top of the existing loadings formula for students with disability in a manner that is informed by a national aggregate of the NCCD data. So, we’ve sort of tried to take out some of those state by state differences that don’t make sense and at least use it as a benchmark to distribute that additional funding. In the meantime, obviously the pressure is now on to work out whether we can get that data set to a point where it is robust enough for governments state and federal to have confidence in using it as a distribution mechanism from 2018 onwards. I’m determined that we have a fair, identifiable loading formula for students with disability from 2018 that is fair for non-government schools as well when they choose to take on students with disability, enrol them and therefore need and warrant that additional support to help those students, to help those families, to ensure they are given the adjustments and support necessary to fully participate in the classroom and in school life, but we do have to make sure that the data we rely upon is also robust and evidence based and I do look forward to perhaps getting your views and any others from the sector about how we can make the system of collection more credible so we get consistency across the country and so we get something that we can rely upon.
QUESTION: Minister, with respect, we’ve been hearing that for a very, very long time, not just from you, in fact, not at all from you, you’re fairly new in the job, but from your predecessors, will you tell us what Christopher Pyne told us, which is that he’s committed to the idea as Minister that if a child got a certain amount of additional funding in a government school and they went to a non-government school, that same amount should follow them, are you committed to that principle?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think that is a principle that absolutely should be applied. Now, we’ve put two caveats on it though because I’ve said I’d be truthful with you all! Caveat 1 is that the Commonwealth is not the only funder of loading for students with a disability. So, there is a limitation as to how much I can manage to get the states and territories to agree to their funding following a similar approach of sector neutral, sector blind following of the student. Caveat 2 is that there are probably some nuances in terms of if you’re looking at adjustment need for students, there are circumstances perhaps where clusters of students may require different levels of support compared with an individual student. So, we need to just think about some of those technicalities that I want to talk to the experts on, but as a principle, absolutely and hopefully as the Federal Minister post July 2nd and trying to negotiate where we can go from 2018 onwards, that would be a principle that I would be seeking to implement from a federal perspective and to get support from the states and territories to do like wise.
QUESTION: We want to put a lot in you because we need somebody who’ll go to the Ministerial Council and indeed with the departmental representatives present, knock heads together and say to them “I just don’t want to cop the fact that for ten years or more you’ve told me that I cannot get consistent data” I mean, does it pass the sniff test to you, Minister?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well –
QUESTION: That these bureaucrats cannot come up with one simple way of measuring disability across our country?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No. Short answer. I said that it was perhaps my greatest frustration in my 8 months as Minister because it really was a case that I had my first briefing on this process, I said “surely we can just get on and do this, I’m confident that I can push through the cabinet processes and actually get this done” and then I was profoundly disappointed, to be polite, when I discovered that there were reasons, good reasons, why I should not do that. Now, we’ve got to find an alternative way to fix that problem, to fix it quickly and if the current approach to NCCD needs changing before 2018, then change it we must and that would be one of my top priorities for conversations at the Ministerial Council post July when I get a chance to say “how do we fix it? How do we make sure that everybody can have confidence from 2018 that this is a model that we can use?”
QUESTION: You’ll have the support of this room. Thank you for sharing.
QUESTION: I’d greatly welcome your comments regarding equity. In Australia there are 4,000 students in 11 Christian schools in 4 states who are excluded from the needs based schedule with a legislated cap on their SRS of 35%. This prescribes a teacher student ratio of between 1:50 or in some cases 1:70 and excludes the students from needed educational resources. Over the years I have informed Senate committees, Ministers, Politicians, Judges about this and they all initially ask the single question, and it is a one word question: Why? So my question tonight, Minister is why is there a legislated 35% cap on the SRS of non-government, distance education school students?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is a problem that – or an issue that only came across my desk the first time that I can recall within the last month or so. It was in the last couple of weeks before the election was called and that I became aware of, at least, the details of the issues surrounding those students in distance education. Yes, my response initially was probably much the same “why? Why is that the case?” Now, there obviously are some answers that I can give, despite the fact that I’ve not yet had the benefit of the full analysis coming back to me to give me an answer to my question. Some answers would be the provision of capital and resources are matters that, in distance education, differ for students in a school setting, that the hours of teacher contact my be assed to differ, but being honest, I think the way in which that differential has been set does seem to, at the very least, be extreme. Even if you accept that there are rationales for why there might be some difference, and I’m not saying I fully accept that, but I can intuitively or instinctively see there are some arguments, and I want to see some evidence around those as to what that really stacks up to, but even if you accept that, the scale of the difference does seem to be extreme. As you pointed out, it is a legislated arrangement so, it is one that cannot be changed until such time as we make amendments to the Australian Education Act. So, even if we’re re-elected, I can’t promise you an instant fix on that because the legislative process is a slow one, but I can promise that I’ll talk to you, that I’ll engage you or your colleagues in working through what the rationale is, what the evidence is, whether it needs to scrapped altogether, whether there is a different adjustment figure that should be applied and that when we get to the point of bringing amendments to the act, that that will be one of them.
QUESTION: One thing’s for sure, both you and Deborah are in the right place, which is the Senate, which is a whole other set of problems. Thank you very much, Minister. I’m going to ask Rowan McClure, he is the school captain of Brindabella Christian College right here in Lyneham in the ACT to thank you and pray for you. Put your hands together for Rowan McClure.
ROWAN MCCLURE: I’d like to thank Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham for choosing to speak at the National Policy Forum for Christian Schools Australia. We’d like to thank you in particular for your commitment to Christian education in Australia and your service to this country as a whole. Your care in addressing the stewardship of our greatest asset, which is Australian people, is much appreciated and with two STEM teachers for parents, I must thank you for your attention towards teachers. My Mother enjoys, most of all, her freedom which is to be as a teacher in Australia to ask people interesting and not unintellectual questions of the splendour of a God who created the world through intelligent design and how extraordinary it is that he would lift up his arms and say he would do that all for our forgiveness. Let us bow our heads in prayer for the Minister. Dear Lord God, thank you for your good leadership and thank you for the good leadership we are blessed with in Australia. We pray that in your complete wisdom you will guide the Minister to perform with wisdom and discernment through all the decisions within his service. We pray and thank you that he is in safe hands as he travels through the country in light of the upcoming election campaign. We place in your hands the Minister’s family and particularly thank you for his continuing commitment to his two children Amelia and Matilda and for his model of integrity to them. In all things I pray that you would invite us to all trust in you fully and in your plans for prosperity within this nation. Amen.