Doorstop interview, Nazareth Catholic College, Adelaide
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model

Simon Birmingham:                I’m thrilled to be here at the Nazareth Catholic Primary school and I thank Principal Michael Honey and the teachers and staff and students for making me so welcome today as we come here to talk further about the Turnbull Government’s implementation of the Gonski school reform plans, and that we ensure across Australia we deliver a model of school funding that treats everyone equitably and fairly, that ensures that we have continued choice for parents across different school sectors and systems, but that ultimately we deliver funding on methodology that is based on need and is based on a sector-blind approach that treats all sectors equally, all states equally, and guarantees though that we have ongoing record levels of investment to be able to lift the performance of schools right around Australia.

Here in South Australia we see very strong growth across all three school sectors; government, Catholic, independent schools will see significant growth under our needs-based funding formulas. This school here, the Nazareth Community College, which operates across a primary school campus and a secondary school campus, will see funding grow next year by $613,000 for their different students. They have 700 primary school students, 1100 secondary school students. Significant funding growth to support a school that is in an area with a number of special challenges and circumstances in this part of Adelaide. It’s a school that serves a diverse mix of communities and children from all backgrounds. It is of course a local parish school, a Catholic school, backing and supporting parental choice and empowering that choice across different communities and this is the type of school that under the current hodgepodge of different deals and different funding models has been disadvantaged in the past but it will be brought up to a consistent standard of school funding, like every other school around Australia, to make sure that we have fairness, equity in our school funding formulas. 

That’s why the Turnbull Government is investing $18.6 billion extra over the next ten years. We’ve laid out a plan that takes the difficult decisions that the Labor Party squibbed when they were in office. We have a clear and consistent plan, unlike our political opponents whose position seems to keep changing. They’re not sure how much they’ll spend in the future, they’re not sure which bits of our reform proposal they do or don’t support. They don’t of course have a clear idea on it because their policy was built on a legacy of 27 different funding agreements all embedding ancient sweetheart deals, whereas our policy is clear, consistent, transitions non-government schools and government schools to consistent treatment across Australia in a basis that ensures the Gonski formula gives extra support for students who need it from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, from non-English speaking backgrounds, Indigenous backgrounds, students with disability, small or regionally-remote schools all receive additional support whether they’re government, Catholic, independent.

I call on the Labor Party to stop the scare campaign and support fair school funding into the future, to stop worrying principals, teachers, parents, or others with needless lies. We see again Mr Shorten is standing up at a different school this morning. The school he’s standing up at will receive $3.5 million extra over the next ten years. It’s another Catholic school, it’s funding will grow, just as here at Nazareth, a school of particularly high need and a school that has had real disadvantage in funding formulas previously would receive around $37 million over the next decade in additional funding that grows each and every year, starting with more than $600,000 next year.

So, these are strong growth figures, backing school choice, and a model driven by equity. We urge all political parties to end the squabbling, end the school funding wars, get on board with the implementation of the true, real recommendations of David Gonski.

Journalist:                               Senator, it seems that the squabbling has been coming from within your own party with Tony Abbott saying that this package is discriminating against Catholic schools. Is he wrong?

Simon Birmingham:                That is certainly not an accurate reflections of the reforms that we’re proposing. Our reforms will ensure that Catholic schools, independent schools are treated completely consistently. They will all transition to an 80 per cent share of the Schooling Resource Standard funding by the Federal Government under exactly the same formulas as each other. So that if this school here, if the Nazareth Catholic Primary School changed the name on the front gate and became a standalone independent school of a different faith it would still, if it had exactly the same enrolments, receive exactly the same money. And vice-versa, because of course it should be based on the needs of a school, the needs of the students, the needs of the community the school serves, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Journalist:                               Are you expecting rigorous debate in next week’s party room meeting?

Simon Birmingham:                I’ve been really encouraged by the reaction to our school funding reforms from a whole range of quarters. Many of my colleagues are very enthusiastic to be able to talk about the fact that schools like this one, this one being in a Labor-held seat, will see strong growth in the future and they’ll be able to go out and talk to their schools about how our funding model will deliver for each and every one of them around the country – more than 9000 schools who will receive additional funding flowing through.

But it’s not just my colleagues who have welcomed this. I see today that the former Premier of New South Wales Nick Greiner has acknowledged that we’re ending the different treatment of states to instead have a consistent treatment of states. I see that we have support from the Mitchell Institute, the Grattan Institute – independent commentators – as well as different school representative bodies, such as the Primary Principals’ Association, many different independent school sector representatives, parent groups, this is all warmly welcomed. The only real critics that seem to exist are either the Labor Party playing oppositionist politics, or indeed some of those trying to cling onto different sectoral vested interests from the states or others which, frankly, they should give up on and support a true, equitable, needs-based funding approach.

Journalist:                               But the Catholic schools seem to be waging a campaign against this school funding plan. How worried about that are you?

Simon Birmingham:                Well, I think that individual schools, including Catholic schools, when they see the details of the school funding approach, when they understand what it means for their school and the growth they will receive, will be quite supportive of it. I’m here today at a Catholic school that will receive $30-plus million extra over the next ten years. Bill Shorten’s at a Catholic school that will receive more than $3 million extra over the next ten years. They’re different amounts because they have different levels of need and they’re starting at very different points in terms of one school already receiving greater funding than another school.
So, we want to transition everybody to an equal landing point. I’m confident that principals, teachers, parents will see through the claims of some lobbyists or advocates when they actually look at the details themselves and understand that funding for their school continues to grow up.

Journalist:                               Will you back down from the model that you’ve proposed for Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham:                Well, the model we’ve proposed is not a model for Catholic schools, it’s a model for all schools. It’s a model that ensures schools are all treated consistently, fairly, equitably. What we don’t want to see is a reintroduction of different special deals, different treatments for different schools based on legacy arrangements or the school type or background. We want to see a funding model that treats schools based on their students, their student needs, and the local community needs for those students.

Journalist:                               So, you won’t alter the model for Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham:                We don’t want a special deal for anybody. Our model is about treating everybody under a consistent, needs-based approach that is blind to state boundaries, blind to religious boundaries, is actually about delivering what is necessary for schools.

Journalist:                               What do you make of the report by Kathryn Greiner that suggests taxpayer funds aren’t being fairly distributed in the Catholic education sector?

Simon Birmingham:                Well, we have certain safeguards in place already and those safeguards are requirements that ensure that different school systems who receive government funding must verify that all of that money is used for the benefit of students, and they publicly report on the My Schools website a range of different information in relation to their school funding. And we have different processes that are applied to make sure that if there are concerns that money is being misused, then that funding- then we take action in relation to that as we’ve done with a number of schools.

However, in terms of the distribution of funding, I’ve been very clear all along that our proposal is to still provide Catholic education systems with the capacity to determine how they carve up the funding across their schools. If they choose to redistribute, that’s a matter between them, their principles, their parents, their school communities about the formula in which they do it. But we want to make sure those Catholic school systems are funded based first and foremost on the individual needs of each school and then they can choose how they make any adjustments from there.

Journalist:                               The Catholic school system- the Catholic lobby, I guess we could call it now, said they weren’t consulted on this latest model. Is that correct and if they were consulted did you show them what the model was going to be, the final model?

Simon Birmingham:                Meredith, there were numerous meetings between myself and representatives of Catholic education systems, my office, my department, and various discussions. And we talked through the different principles as to how you should fund schools, and they made representations in that time about the type of things they thought were important to the model, and I spoke to them about areas of concern I had about parts of the model and how we needed to ensure there was consistency and equity across all schools. It was a consultative process. 

I appreciate that people who don’t always get everything that they’ve asked for sometimes then complain about the process afterwards but this is a genuinely fair approach and it’s a fair approach and that I am confident will give a good outcome for all schools, including Catholic schools around Australia, who on average will see 3.7 per cent funding growth per student over the next four years. But states that have been more disadvantaged in the past, such as South Australia in the Catholic system, will receive slightly higher funding growth of 3.8 per cent funding growth per student over the next four years to ensure that at the end of our transition period, all states and territories and all schools in those states and territories are treated in a consistent way.

Journalist:                               Did you expect this level of concern and outrage, so to speak?

Simon Birmingham:                School funding has always been a topic of controversy and it’s never easy to step away from people who have enjoyed special arrangements or special deals in the past, but our Government is determined that we will, as Malcolm Turnbull said standing alongside David Gonski earlier this week, end the school funding wars and ensure we fix these issues once and for all.

Journalist:                               And did you expect this criticism from Mr Abbott?

Simon Birmingham:                I am confident that all of my colleagues will, as they see the details and how it relates to each individual school, realise that this is a model that delivers fairness and continues to empower parental choice. 

Journalist:                               Would you say his contributions are helpful?

Simon Birmingham:                I welcome contributions from all of my colleagues as we work to make sure everybody understands that this is a fair model based on the principles of the Gonski report that will embed and empower choice for parents across government, independent, Catholic school sectors well into the future.

Journalist:                               Just on same of the claims from the Opposition, I heard that Tanya Plibersek has said this morning that under your plan only 15 per cent of government schools will reach the Schooling Resource Standard in the next ten years. Do you have a response to that specifically?

Simon Birmingham:                Under our plan, what we are going to do is ensure every government school in Australia reaches a common share of the Schooling Resource Standard from the Federal Government. We’ll treat every government school as we will every Catholic school and every independent school in a consistent manner, rather than having a model at present that sees students in South Australia or Western Australia receive less from the Federal Government than they do in other states of Australia. That’s not fair, that’s not an appropriate arrangement. We need to, though, recognise that school funding for state government schools is historically a state government responsibility. You don’t have to go back too many years to find that the Federal Government was only paying around 8 per cent of the costs of state government school systems. It’s currently about 17 per cent. We’re proposing to transition that up to 20 per cent, paying more than ever before in terms of funding for government schools, and we’ll do that and we’ll pay that 20 per cent share for every government school in every state and territory right around Australia.

Thanks everybody.