Ali Clarke: Now though, there was a report out yesterday that nine out of ten government schools are siphoning money from maintenance and library budgets to help students with disabilities. To find out more, I am joined by Correna Haythorpe, who is the Federal President of the Australian Education Union. Good morning Correna.

Correna Haythorpe: Good morning Ali.

Ali Clarke: Can you talk to me a little bit about this report, and who took part in this survey?

Correna Haythorpe: Yes, this was a national survey and we had over 9000 respondents, principals and teachers, and our research has shown that 87 per cent of the principals say that they need to divert funds from other areas of their budget to support students with disability. So for us it highlights the urgency for schools of the need to secure the Gonski disability loading that was promised by the Federal Government in 2013, and again last year by Christopher Pyne. Its funding was meant to be in our schools this year but hasn’t been delivered, and we know it’s funding that can make a huge difference for our students.

Ali Clarke: What else did it show, and is this also being exacerbated by an increasing number of students needing help for special needs?

Correna Haythorpe: Well that’s correct, and our research has found that we have around 17.7 per cent of students in our public schools who have a disability, or learning difficulty which requires funded support. And that is placing significant pressure on schools in terms of the programs that they can provide for their students. If you think about a year one student with a serious speech difficulty, that early assessment for that child and one to one support, which they should start, can absolutely be life changing, and we want to make sure that every child who needs that help can get it. That’s why for us it’s very important that the Federal Government commit to fully funding Gonski, and that includes the disability loading that was promised.

Ali Clarke: Well I might now introduce Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education. Good morning, Minister Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Ali, great to be with you.

Ali Clarke: Well how seriously do you take this feedback from your teachers that took part in this survey, the principals and also the support staff?

Simon Birmingham: Oh look Ali, look I really take feedback from the ground level in terms of what schools and principals and teachers and parents say very, very seriously. We are quite committed to bring growing support for students with disabilities to ensure they get the adjusted [inaudible] they need in a school environment. In the 2016 school year, the Federal Government’s providing some $1.3 billion in adjusted assistance for students with disability. In 2017, that will go up to $1.4 billion, and that will keep growing into the future. So we’re certainly keen to do our part – of course the states and territories have a major role to play – and then ultimately there is of course an allocation decision that ought rightly be left to some extent to principals and school community as to manage their budget as to best meet the needs of students within their local community.

Ali Clarke: Correna Haythorpe, how do you respond to that? Is that enough, and what is it like on the ground, if you are a principal trying to manage those budgets?

Correna Haythorpe: Well the reality is that one of the Government’s responses has been that they’re putting in record funding. Well, we would say that that was always going to be the case, given that funding would increase as they’ve honoured the first four years of Gonski. But, on the ground, without this disability loading, without the funding that our schools need, we see groups of students with disability whose schools don’t have the resources that they need to equip them for life beyond school. Now that’s things such as in-class support, speech pathology, occupational therapy, and it makes a huge difference for our students but it requires resources, which many schools don’t have.

Ali Clarke: Minister Birmingham, do you think, given what we’re hearing, an increase of children that are needing help through not only mental and physical disability but also those who are affected by domestic violence or neglect or substance abuse, do you think that there is really enough money in the pot? Because it sounds like your teachers are saying well, we’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul.

Simon Birmingham: Ultimately what reaches a local government school is a matter that a state or territory government makes the determination on. So it is hard to say completely as to what a school gets without knowing exactly how that state minister, that state government is carving it up. But what I can give your listeners, and importantly, school communities and school stakeholders who are listening absolute assurance of is that our funding is growing, and we are growing it to keep up with demand from students, we are growing it to keep up with the expert evidence in terms of what type of adjustment is required, and that is why we’re seeing that significant $1.3 billion investment this year, which is $100 million more than it was last year, and we will grow that by a further $100 million next year. So this is a significant growing area of Federal Government support and investment going straight into the state and territory and non-government school systems to support them to then provide the level of adjustment that is necessary in their schools as to what students and families require.

Ali Clarke: But Minister Birmingham, given that the schools are always going to find a need for more money, the pot of money is continuing to grow, by your assertion there. How much time has the Federal Government spent at looking at different schooling paradigms such as the world-leading Scandinavian schools, or Finnish schooling system, and how it works over there?

Simon Birmingham: Well because we have a vast disparity in terms of the way our states and territories run their school systems already.

Simon Birmingham: Some states offer more autonomy to their schools than others, some provide greater funding to their schools than others. So we don’t just need to look overseas at different models of how schools operate, we have that living example here in Australia. For example, Western Australia spends around $17,000 per student in their school system, Victoria spends around $12,000 per student. Victoria has quite good outcomes in their schools so we have to appreciate that money isn’t always the thing that makes the difference, money is important and we are committed to investing as much as the nation can afford and needs to invest to get good school outcomes.

But of course it is how it’s used that is critically important and we certainly base our reforms on teacher quality, teacher training that we’ve been driving from a federal government level right across the country, on expert evidence garnered from overseas and reforms that we are confident will lift the abilities of our teachers in the future to cater for all students including those with disabilities.

Ali Clarke: Correna Haythorpe, federal president of the Australia Education Union, does that satisfy you or do you find it a frustration that there is an easy out where the federal Minister can say well, it’s up to the state ministers and the state ministers can turn around and say well, we need more money from the feds?

Correna Haythorpe: I think that is quite frustrating, to be honest, I mean, the key- one of the key recommendations from the Gonski Review was that this is a joint and state- joint state and federal responsibility and I think if I can just go back to some data that’s on the public domain from the Federal Government’s own data collection shows that 13.6 per cent of all students who need funded support at school, only 6.2 per cent are getting that funding and this amounts to over 270,000 students so I think this is a real wake up call for the Federal Government.

They made a promise to implement this disability loaning for our schools and that promise has been broken and we’d like to see them commit to that funding.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, your response?

Simon Birmingham: Correna Haythorpe there is referring to a process that’s been undertaken jointly with the states and territories around a nationally consistent collection of data on students with disability. Now, this is a national process and a number of the state and territory ministers, including Labor minister so this is not a one-sided politics affair, have expressed concern about the credibility of some of that data which is slowing down progress in terms of that reform. I’m frustrated by that, I’m disappointed by that and I am trying to work through those issues as quickly as possible but I assure listeners that in the interim, we are increasing that investment from a federal government level to help students with disability, giving that money to the states and territories and to the non-government school system so that there is more support there while we try to get some of the issues of this data ironed out.

And just to give your listeners a sense of that in terms of some of the data that has been publicly reported already, it reports that in Queensland, for example, one in four or about 25 per cent of students have been reported as having some form of disability that requires adjusting in the classroom yet in Tasmania that figure is only around 11 per cent. Now, obviously that’s enormous disparity in the data between different jurisdictions and clearly doesn’t pass the common sense test in terms of what you would expect is a more common level between different states and territories of the number of students requiring assistance.

So, we’ve got some real wok to do to try to iron out those problems in the future.

Ali Clarke: Correna Haythorpe from the AUE and Minister for Education Simon Birmingham, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you for your time.