Doorstop interview, Berwick Victoria, Hillcrest College
Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding, higher education reform and same-sex marriage.

Jason Wood: Yeah, I’d just very much like to welcome the Minister Simon Birmingham here today at Hillcrest College and I’d also like to thank principal, Geoff Grace, for having us here and the students. This is a fantastic school. What the Gonski 2 does for this school, it actually gives, per student, $3600 each year to help the school and to help the students. Over a 10 year period that’s roughly $27 million. So the feedback I’m getting from the school here today, from students and parents, is that this is a fantastic initiative and again I thank Minister Birmingham to make his time here today. Thank you very much.

Simon Birmingham: Well thanks Jason. I’m thrilled to be here; it’s the fourth day of this week, the fourth different state and different schools that I’ve been visiting – all of them set to benefit under our needs-based funding arrangements for the future. The Turnbull Government’s implementation of the Gonski reforms ensures that all schools are treated fairly, consistently, equitably; whether they are government schools, non-government schools, primary schools, secondary schools, integrated schools that are combined, all of them receive according to a fair, consistent, needs-based formula a fair share of funding from the Federal Government into the future because of the reforms we put through the Parliament last week.

Now, here in Victoria it’s going to see around $3.6 billion of additional support over the next decade flow into schools with the fastest rates of growth occurring across the public school system where needs are very, very high but also fair and equitable treatment across all of the different types of non-government schools to ensure that everyone receives their fair share of support. But most importantly, it’s about ensuring then that that funding in the future gets the best bang for our buck and that the record investment in schools delivers the best possible outcomes for school children and school students. And what we’ve seen here today in terms of innovative practices of early learning, advanced technologies like robotics, a focus on the well-being of the whole child is, of course, a commitment to getting the best possible outcomes for students. And I know in schools right across Victoria, right across Australia, there is that strong commitment and focus to get the best possible outcome for students and what we want to help ensure occurs in the future is – through our record and growing funding, based on the work that David Gonski and his panel will do over the remaining course of this year – we actually have evidence-based measures in place that schools can manage to roll out to help them let their students be their best.

Journalist: You’ve got good feedback from this school and this sector; are you still in discussions with the Catholic sector?

Simon Birmingham: We’re going to keep working with all schools, all sectors to make sure that we get the best outcome for the record investment and to make sure that they truly understand the benefits that are flowing through. Here in Victoria, Catholic education systems will see an average per student funding growth of around 3.5, 3.6 per cent per student over the next few years. That’s real growth on top of what is being received this year, each year into the future, to help those hard-working Catholic systemic schools to help support the parents who make a sacrifice to choose those schools and to help their students be their best as we want every sector, every school to be able to be its best.

Journalist: The head of the Group of Eight was highly critical of your universities plan yesterday; are you ready for a fight on that front?

Simon Birmingham: Australian universities have been enjoying a serious flow of money – rivers of gold, if you like – since the demand-driven system for universities was put in place a number of years ago. There’s been significant growth in funding to universities – some 71 per cent growth since around 2009, growing at around twice the rate of the economy. Nearly any other sector of education or public policy would only dream of having seen such significant growth in their revenue. What we’re asking for in the future is that over the next few years, to help with budget repair, to ensure that funding for universities is sustainable, that funding growth to universities is a little bit slower than it would have otherwise been. There’ll still be about 23 per cent growth in terms of taxpayer subsidised and supported funding for teaching and learning into universities; there’s no change proposed to research funding, which we boosted through the Innovation Statement last year. And so I think the university sector, whilst maybe wanting to cling to every revenue stream it can, needs to be realistic that they’ve been on an incredibly good wicket; they’re going to continue to receive strong levels of government support in the future, but we have to make sure that that is sustainable so that in the future every student can continue to access university courses without restriction, without up-front fees which is what we’re trying to ensure can be the case.

Journalist: You’ve shown a willingness to negotiate on the Gonski changes; are you able to show that same willingness in the university sector? It sounds like you might be a bit less willing.

Simon Birmingham: The Turnbull Government’s demonstrated that we’re pragmatic about getting things done. The Australian people don’t want governments that simply stand there and fight on ideological lines or otherwise; they want pragmatic governments that operate in the best interests of all Australians. We’ve delivered fair, needs-based funding for schools because it’s the right thing to do. We’re working to repair the budget because it’s the right thing to do. And, of course, when it comes to the university reforms, we’ll make sure we have sustainable funding for universities, ongoing equitable access for students, and a contribution to budget repair and we’ll, as always, be pragmatic in working with the Senate to get that done.

Journalist: There’s a phonics program that’s being trialled out of Melbourne; what is the benefit of that? Will that improve literacy rates?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think it’s essential that in the early years we create the best building blocks for student success. You know I’m the dad of a four-year-old and a six-year-old, I spend time when I possibly can at home and Woody here’s the dad of a three-year-old. So we both have young children and we spend time at home helping them to learn the basics to succeed. And in schools it’s essential that those basic building blocks are applied and there’s a wealth of evidence in literature out there that demonstrates that phonics instruction is a core component of learning in terms of the different building blocks for success at reading and literacy into the future. And I hope that we see all schools, all systems, work together to apply evidence, to listen to advocates and experts from the dyslexia sector and elsewhere, understand their concerns and guarantee that every child gets the best possible start, which begins with, of course, learning the basics at school so they can excel elsewhere throughout their school education.

Journalist: The Australian Education Union has come out and said that under this new Gonski plan, schools like Berwick Secondary College could lose up to $1.1 million. Can you explain why the private schools are likely to get funding increases where the government schools are likely to see a drop in their funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s just not true. The public education in Victoria will see funding growth over the next few years of around 6.7 per cent per student, whereas growth into the non-government sectors hovers closer to the 4 per cent per student mark. So you can see from that that the rate of growth under the needs-based model is stronger into the public education sector. But ultimately, we’re seeking to provide equity of treatment across the board, based on individual need and different circumstances; and that means by applying the Gonski model consistently, that there’s more support for students with disability, more support for indigenous students, more support for students from lower socio-educational backgrounds. It’s about applying it where need occurs. And frankly, the Education Union should be embarrassed of the campaign they’ve run, having run around the country for the last six years wearing tokenistic green I give a Gonski t-shirts, to then actually stand against the legislation and oppose the legislation that David Gonski endorsed is frankly embarrassing.

Jason Wood: Can I just say, with Berwick Secondary College, they need capital funding, and the federal Government is very generous with funding to the State Government. The state Labor Government must commit funding to both Berwick Secondary College and Emerald Secondary College as a priority. We’ve taken the Minister down there before. Both schools do a fantastic job. We need the state Labor Government to make that funding available.

Journalist: Just back on phonics; the Teachers’ Union again, they’re opposed to the trial, and saying that it’s just extra workload for them. What’s your response to that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, every teacher that I meet wants the best for their children. And I think we should be encouraging teachers to be armed with evidence, and the evidence is pretty clear that phonics instruction is a core component in relation to learning to read and learning basic literacy skills. It’s not the be all and end all, but it is one important building block. And rather than teachers unions wanting to play politics with this, let’s follow the evidence trail, let’s back the right methodologies for kids to learn and succeed at school.

Journalist: On another issue, Christopher Pyne has apologised for his comments on same-sex marriage. Was that apology appropriate do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Ah well, I hope that this draws a line in the sand on this issue, and that we can actually all get on with focussing on the things that matter most to Australian people. Every day this week I’ve been visiting schools, talking about school funding, talking about how it is we use that funding to help schools be their best – that’s going to remain. My focus is with other important issues – in early learning, in childcare, university reform and elsewhere – and I hope and trust that every member of the Government can now focus effectively on their portfolios on the issues that matter to Australian people and not be distracted by late night gossip or conversations. 

Journalist: Do you think that apology will be enough to draw that line in the sand?

Simon Birmingham: I’m sure it will.

Journalist: Thanks very much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.