Simon Birmingham: The Government’s now making clear the determination in relation to the four remaining schools affiliated with the Australian Federation of Islamic Colleges. As people are aware, last year six schools were served with notice in relation to the continuance of Commonwealth funding to support those schools because of concerns about the independence of governance and financial accountability within those schools. Over recent weeks, a determination has been reached in relation to the school in Sydney and to the Canberra school, and in both of those instances the decision has been made to end Commonwealth funding to those schools at the conclusion of the current school term, because we continue to have concerns about those independence and accountability issues and because the responses from those schools has been completely unsatisfactory.
In relation to the remaining four schools in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, we have received co-operation from those schools. They have indicated that they are making reforms to their structures, reforms to their constitution, that they are fixing issues in relation to financial accountability. As a result of that, the Department has determined that they will suspend the determination in relation to those schools until 11 April. This gives those schools every opportunity to follow through on the commitments they’ve made to the Commonwealth Government and to ensure that they implement those commitments in full so that they can continue to receive financial support for the operation of those schools.
School choice is an important part of the Australian education system, and the Commonwealth Government provides support for many schools right around Australia, but Australians expect, rightly, that every dollar of taxpayers’ money that goes into school education is used on school education and that it is administered appropriately. And it is very clear that this is a last chance and a final warning that these four schools must ensure they comply with the conditions that they have offered to the Commonwealth, that they deliver on the reforms that they’ve promised to make, and if they do so then they will be granted the opportunity to continue to operate in future. If they do not then we’ve demonstrated in the Sydney and the Canberra incidences that of course we are willing to take the tough action of withdrawing funding.
Question: Have we referred any of these schools to AFIC or the AFP?
Simon Birmingham: The Commonwealth Department of Education and Training has undertaken its investigations, and its investigations are specific to guidelines and operation under the Australian Education Act in ensuring that the schools are operating in a manner that is appropriate, that the schools and those running them are fit and proper persons, that we actually have appropriate governance arrangements and financial accountability. It’s an internal matter that the Department has determined, and that’s where it stays at this stage.
Question: Minister, can you explain the extent of the financial mismanagement – how these schools, these two schools were [indistinct] inappropriately?
Simon Birmingham: The concern is that there are inappropriate loan structures or financial arrangements that may exist between those schools and external entities and, in particular, AFIC in this case. Concerns have been expressed that not all funds that are meant to be going to the educational benefit of students have necessarily been going to the educational benefit of students, and that’s why we’ve been very clear through this process that the authorised operating entities for these schools is not AFIC. Each of these schools is meant to have their own approved, authorised entity that oversees the governance of the school and the financial accountability of the school, and the types of constitutional changes that these four schools who are being given a reprieve at this stage are promising are of course changes that will ensure the independence of those schools to operate purely and solely for the benefit of their school community.
Question: So Minister, is the difference between the schools that have had their funding scrapped altogether and the ones that are under review at the moment the fact that there’s compliance issues, that those schools that have had their school funding scrapped haven’t really been forthcoming with the investigation, is that the difference?
Simon Birmingham: So, there obviously were compliant school- compliance issues in relation to all six schools. What we’ve seen through the process since the initial determinations were made is that two schools have not cooperated with the process properly, have not cooperated independently, and had not offered to make real and meaningful changes to the way they operate. Four schools have cooperated and cooperated in an independent way and are making to make meaningful changes to their operations and if they follow through on that than of course we will support those schools as we would any in the country.
Question: The Canberra School previously said that if they lose the Commonwealth and the ACT funding that they would want to self-fund, would you be comfortable with them heading down that path?
Simon Birmingham: Well, really that is a matter for schools themselves, if they are capable of self-funding then they are entitled to self-fund. Of course they still need to meet all of the registration requirements in the state or territory in which they’re operating. The Commonwealth funding is provided as an assistance to schools and in recognition of the value that’s existed through the Menzies area that every Australian child deserves a degree of taxpayer support for their education, regardless of the choice of school their parent makes. But if a school chooses to operate without funding, if they can afford to do so and they still meet all of the educational standards that are required for school registration, than that’s their business.
Question: They’ve also said they want to appeal for an internal review. I mean, do you think there’s a possibility of a different outcome in that situation?
Simon Birmingham: Well, there are review options available to the two schools who’ve had funding withdrawn and the first step in that is an internal review process. They can also take the matters to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. There are of course matters that will flow through in the normal course of procedure.
Question: Given the history, how confident how are you that these four schools will be able to comply?
Simon Birmingham: I’m hopeful, these schools have cooperated with the work of the department. They have been responsive to it and they have, of course, engaged, as I said, in an independent manner and have promised to make meaningful changes to the way in which they operate and to their financial accountability. So, I am hopeful that they will follow through on the promises and the commitments that they’re made but that is up to those schools.
Question: Minister, you spoke briefly before about it but can you provide an exact example of how money is being misused or not being used in a more appropriate way?
Simon Birmingham: I mentioned as …
Question: [Interrupts] Is there any [inaudible]?
Simon Birmingham: I mentioned as one of the concerns, the nature of loan and funding agreements that are struck between the schools and other entities in particular, the Federation of Islamic Colleges. And so it’s that type of financial instrument or financial undertaking between the school and an external entity that has led to concerns of the way in which it’s structured and the way in which it’s operating, is potentially seeing some funding that should be used for the benefit of students going into other purposes.
Question: So, has AFIC said anything about this? Have they responded to your concerns on this matter?
Simon Birmingham: This is really not a matter between the Commonwealth and AFIC. We fund six approved authorities who operate six individual schools, none of those approved authorities is AFIC. AFIC is a separate entity and it is up to those schools to operate independent of AFIC or any other entity and in compliance with the law.
Question: Minister, can I just ask you about Safe- on Safe Schools. The Safe Schools program’s been running for two and a half years, over that time Tony Abbott was Prime Minister. How, I suppose, appropriate is it for him to ask for this to be reviewed given he was Prime Minister and had the power to review it himself?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s really for Mr Abbott to answer. The actions I have taken have been firstly to be crystal clear that the objectives around Safe School are reasonable objectives to ensure the safety of children, to end bullying, to provide support to children who are struggling with issues. But equally, there’s a fair question to be asked about the content of some of the resources produced and in some of the programs and we need to make sure that content is age appropriate, educationally sound and in line with the national curriculum and that’s exactly what the review I’ve commissioned will do. Thanks guys.