Doorstop interview, Canberra 
Labor Party’s bombshell backflip on their schools funding policy; Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding; Ensuring funding certainty for preschoolers

Simon Birmingham: Today, on the hustings for the Labor Party in relation to their schools policy, a day of absolute chaos for Labor in terms of what their school policy is and in terms of their school scare campaign. First we had Bill Shorten out on the hustings today, trying to launch a scare campaign around schools and claiming there are school cuts, only to be caught out standing at a school that is going to, under the Turnbull Government’s reforms, receive an extra $4.3 million over the next ten years. Humiliating, embarrassing for Mr Shorten. But of course, if he keeps up his school scare campaign, he’s going to get caught out almost every single time because, of the 9,500 schools around Australia, 9,000-odd of them are all getting substantial growth under our new $18.6 billion worth of investment.

So Mr Shorten should desist the campaign, because of course it’s misleading, and he’s going to get caught out time and time again, every time he goes to visit one of these schools.

Now, we have a bombshell announcement from Tanya Plibersek, who has failed to confirm the Labor Party’s $22 billion school promise. In fact she said everyone’s going to have to wait until the next election to find out what it is that Labor will do in relation to schools policy in the future.

Well, Australians don’t have to wait until the next election to know what the Turnbull Government’s schools policy is: it’s $18.6 billion in additional investment and it’s cleaning up Labor’s mess of 27 different school funding agreements, broken models based on ancient sweetheart deals, and transitioning everybody to a true arrangement in the future. 

Tanya Plibersek said, in relation to some aspects of what the Turnbull Government’s proposing, that it’s a deal done; that they will actually help us in transitioning some schools. Well, I call on the Labor Party: if they’re willing to help us in doing some of the hard yards to help us in delivering comprehensive reform, to back us in to make sure that, in the future, every state is treated equally by the Federal Government, that every school is treated consistently under a common needs-based funding model. I call on the Labor Party: if they’re now fair dinkum about working with the Coalition, about making sure that, actually, they do address problems in the system, and, in the absence of them having any policy and given the risk to them that their scare campaign will continue to blow up in their faces, that every single time they go out, we’ll be able to point to the fact that this is another school that’s going to be a beneficiary of the Turnbull Government’s policy, then they should come to the table, work with us to pass the legislation that can give effect to the real Gonski reforms that were recommended of a single, national, needs-based, sector-blind funding model for Australian schools.

Journalist: The 353 schools that Tanya Plibersek is saying that she will back changes to, that could be worse off, wouldn’t they include some of the Catholic schools that Bill Shorten has been complaining about?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Sam, that, in terms of the 353 schools that would be adjusting under our proposal to take everyone to a common share of the Schooling Resource Standard, some of those will be Catholic schools; some of the 24 schools that have minor levels of funding reduction under our transition to a common funding model would be Catholic schools. I again emphasise, because it’s really important given the scare campaign the Labor Party’s been waging, that Catholic school parents and principals around the country should be absolutely reassured they’re going to keep seeing strong growth in funding to Catholic school systems, that within systemic Catholic schools they’ll see 3.7 per cent growth in student funding on average around the country, and that there’s no reason that they should fear or expect fee hikes. 

But indeed, the hypocrisy of the Labor Party’s position has been called out now, where firstly Bill Shorten fronts a school to talk about school cuts that’s actually getting $4.3 million extra; secondly, they go on war against alleged unfairness towards the Catholic system, only of course to then say they’ll back us in fixing part of that problem; and thirdly, they keep talking about how we should be investing more, which we are, but then they won’t confirm what their policy would be.

Journalist: But let’s go to the Victoria Catholic sector, then. You have said that they’re going to get 3.7 per cent nationally. They were pleased they were going to get 3.56 per cent last year, and they’re now complaining about 3.7. That’s misleading, isn’t it, because you’re actually going to take them down to 3.5 per cent growth over the next four years, and over the next ten years you’re taking them down to 3.3. Do you now accept that you are actually delivering a funding cut in terms of those growth figures to those Victorian Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. Departmental modelling is clear that the Victorian Catholic schools, under the reforms we’re proposing, will receive $19 million extra over the next four years than would have been the case under last year’s Budget position. Now, that’s driven by a range of different factors because, of course, we have proposed changes to elements of the model from last year to this year. Those changes include some of the things that they’re concerned about in terms of the proposal to transition away from the system-weighted averaging that allows them to change the model from one that is built on individual schools to one that averages socio-economic score across a whole state or, in the case of the ACT, across the whole nation. 

Those types of changes, as well as our commitment to shift to an 80 per cent Schooling Resource Standard share, mean that just comparing the indexation rate of the total funding pool or of the Schooling Resource Standard from one year to the next, is not an accurate reflection. You have to put it all together, and when you put it all together, of the changes to the model we’ve put in, the Catholic school system in Victoria gets $19 million more over the next four years than they would have under last year’s Budget proposal. And, of course, last year they said that the funding that was proposed was adequate and more than adequate to keep up with costs in schools. If that’s the case, then there’s absolutely no reason, again, to concern parents about unnecessary fee increases, because, if it was adequate last year, it’s even more than adequate this year.

Journalist: Your colleague Michael Sukkar said tonight that he believed that over the coming weeks and months, that the Catholic schools would be, in quotes, very satisfied with the final outcome. Now, they’re clearly not satisfied at the moment, so is your colleague Michael Sukkar assuming that there’ll be a negotiation with those Catholic schools to get a modification?

Simon Birmingham: I caught some of Michael’s comments and what Michael acknowledged was that today he thought there was a stronger understanding in the Catholic systems that one of the things they were worried about is not the case. That’s the concern that they still at least be paid as a system. And we’ve been crystal clear, I thought, all along but if there was doubt, I’m pleased that that has been cleared up for them that we will absolutely give them the funding as a system and just like state governments, they are free to then choose to redistribute between their schools as they see fit to deal with different cost pressures at different times.

The only difference is we’ll build that from the ground up. We’ll give them funding according to a consistent model of the identified need of each individual school within their systems and then we’ll aggregate that and hand over the funding to them as is currently the case. So, I think what Michael was reflecting there is a reality that as people come to appreciate it more, when the online estimator goes live and individual small parish schools are able to see how much extra funding they’ll be entitled to under our proposal, that will dampen a lot of the concern, if there is any from any of those school leaders.

Journalist: Minister, it’s one thing to get Labor on board, but I suppose what about from within your own party. Tony Abbott’s been out there speaking to the Catholic sector about their concerns.  He’s published what, he’s been doing on Twitter. I suppose, are you concerned you’ll face a backlash from within your own party?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I trust that Tony has been explaining what he understands to be the Government’s policy and I’ll look forward to chatting with him and making sure that we have a clear explanation to all school systems, including the Catholic school system, of how it is that our policy will treat all of them fairly and how it is that our policy will deliver for them all across the nation on average strong growth into the future. 

And I note that Tony was over in WA and there’s really strong growth for Western Australian schools across all three systems there and I hope and trust that the independent system, the Catholic system, and the government system in WA recognise and celebrate in the end the fact that our Government is proposing to treat Western Australia far more fairly than previous deals have done by of course recognising the fact that the Federal Government should fund schools on need everywhere around the country evenly, not penalise those schools and systems and states because a state government might do something different.

Journalist: But on his point, what’s the point of giving schools more money if you don’t tie it to outcome? You yourself have argued that we’re spending more on schools than ever before, performance has gone backwards, so why on earth would you give them billions of dollars more money?

Simon Birmingham: Sam, we intend to continue to ensure that there is a link to outcome in the future. We were clear about that in our policy at the last election. That’s indeed what is intended from the work that David Gonski and his panel will do, that they’ll report back by the end of the year. I invite you to have a look at the terms of reference of that and you’ll see, I think, on the bottom line of the terms of reference, they’ll report back by the end of the year, their findings will then inform future school funding agreements- or not funding agreements, future school agreements with the states and territories that will be negotiated in the first part of next year. But entering into those agreements will be part of the conditionality of funding into the future.

Journalist: And just on the Catholic system, is it the case that until now you have not been able to see school by school how much federal funding is contributed; has that not been transparent in the Catholic system? And do you believe that is one of the reasons why the Catholic sector is unhappy with these reforms, because they don’t want that transparency to be available to parents?

Simon Birmingham: It is the case that the way in which funding is calculated at present- or, at least, notional funding because I note that we don’t really have any type of application of the needs-based funding model in some ways at present. Schools are simply indexed off of old, historic deals. However, if you look at the way the previous Labor Government theoretically structured the model, it creates a circumstance where an entitlement of a Catholic school is calculated based on the socioeconomic status of the entire state. Or here in the ACT it’s calculated based on the socioeconomic status of the entire nation. 

What we do for all other schools in the independent sector – standalone independent schools, non-government schools that are standalone – is we look at the socioeconomic status of the parents and families at that school and that helps to drive and determine their funding. And this is provided because of the way in which the model applies an advantage to some sectors and systems over other schools. Our view is that a parish school in regional Victoria and a low-fee independent school in regional Victoria, if they have identical enrolment should receive the same level of funding, that if you change the sign on the school gate and otherwise keep all the enrolments exactly the same, they should have identical federal funding. It seems terribly unfair to want to try and perpetuate a system where a school can get a different level of funding just because it happens to operate in a different system.

Journalist: But they’re saying that they are different because they have to run all the support and administration of a school system like the public education system does. Is there some way that you can accommodate that concern without changing the fundamental structure of the schools funding proposal?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not for me to speak to the operation of one school system versus another school system. At Commonwealth level we don’t run any school systems. We provide a basis for funding support for all of them. But I’d note that every school needs to, of course, ensure that payroll services, back office services, et cetera are provided to their schools. Now, state governments do that for public schools, Catholic Education Commissions do that for Catholic schools at a systemic level. Independent standalone schools have to fund all of those same things themselves on an independent basis which is why, frankly, they all have to do the same things, we expect the same standards, why wouldn’t we fund them the same way?

Journalist: Just quickly on the National Partnership Agreement announced today, the criticism to that announcement is that it’s only one year. Given there’s only going to be one year funding announced in the Budget, is that it? Is it just one school year and then it’s over?

Simon Birmingham: No, Sarah. As I alluded to in my Press Club speech today, the changes to our child care model mean that in addition, in essence, to the National Partnership Agreement being extended, there’s now a higher level of support through child care subsidies that will be paid towards preschool payments where preschool is delivered in the long day care sector. Now, those changes take effect in the middle of next year. National Partnership for preschool is delivered on a calendar year basis. My view is we need to have a proper discussion and analysis undertaken with the states and territories to look at how it is that preschool and access to 15 hours can be supported in an enduring way that takes account of the fact that the new child care subsidy model is going to provide greater support for people in preschool in some locations but not necessarily in others who sit outside of the child care model.

Thanks everybody.