Interview on 2GB Afternoons with Chris Smith
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model

Chris Smith: Well, I think it’s safe to say that the Prime Minister and Education Minister’s sudden announcement yesterday on education funding wasn’t what anyone expected, especially when David Gonski walked out to the stage standing alongside Malcolm Turnbull and Simon Birmingham. And, in particular, given the fact that the Coalition was extremely critical of the previous Labor Government’s Gonski reforms. Too much money, we were told, not enough reform. But the announcement is an increase to Commonwealth funding for schools to $30.6 billion over the next ten years, with a focus on delivering what the Government has referred to as real, needs-based funding. We’ll find out about that in a second.

But there’s been some criticism today, particularly from Catholic schools, so I thought we’d try and work out who the winners and losers really are. The Education Minister Simon Birmingham is on the line right now. Minister, thank you very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Chris, good to speak with you.

Chris Smith: Whose idea was it to bring David Gonski back into the fray?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David Gonski has been very generous every since I became Education Minister and Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister in speaking with both of us about what his report really meant, what he had recommended and intended from his work there, which was wildly different in many ways from what the previous Labor Government then went on to do and to call Gonski deals.

Chris Smith: Well, hang on, just before you go, you leave it, you said it was wildly different. What was wildly different from what David Gonski recommended and what Labor was promising?

Simon Birmingham: David’s proposal was really more about consistent methodology for how it is that schools should be funded across Australia. What Labor ended up doing was they stitched together 27 different special deals, funding agreements, and approaches which were built on the legacy of a whole lot of ancient sweetheart deals, which left us really no further advanced in terms of a consistent, needs-based national approach to the school funding, but just spent a whole lot more money.

And so, David really helped us to unpack the difference between all of those different agreements that we’d inherited, versus where it is that we should be going as a nation and what it is that his report had actually recommended and suggest that we do. And even …

Chris Smith: [Talks over] So, David Gonski wasn’t just dragged along for the ride here, he was instrumental in saying, no, you’ve got to do it this way?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David is a man who offers his advice cautiously and so he was generous with his time in meeting with me and with the Prime Minister at different junctures and talking to us. It was of course at our initiation to have those conversations, he didn’t seek to force us into anything, but we wanted to make sure that we worked out something for long term that addressed the school funding debate in Australia that, as Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday, that ends the school funding wars and gets us to a point where we have sensible, logical arrangements for school funding and not a hodgepodge of special deals and backroom agreements.

Chris Smith: Okay, you’ve upset your colleagues in the Liberal Party of New South Wales, they want to take court action?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Rob Stokes has indicated this morning that won’t be the case so I’m pleased that he’s done that. [Indistinct] …

Chris Smith: [Talks over] But he wants to safeguard what the Federal Government had already promised him.

Simon Birmingham: I appreciate that people who, back in 2013, thought they had struck a pretty sweet arrangement with the outgoing Labor Government, would like to preserve the different special arrangements they had in place. But we said at the 2014 budget that we would honour four years of those deals and then we would move to something different. And what Malcolm Turnbull and I announced yesterday is a completely new approach to ensure that schools in New South Wales are treated the same as schools in South Australia or Western Australia or Queensland in terms of their federal funding, with the only differentiated factor being the individual need of those schools; are there more students with a disability in that school, or are there more students from low socioeconomic circumstances or the like?

Chris Smith: Okay, so the schools with high socioeconomic circumstances will lose out?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the modelling on our reforms shows us that around 24 schools across Australia will see a small reduction in their funding, around one or two per cent in the main, and some of them as little as one or two dollars per student.

Chris Smith: And, what, they are the high socioeconomic schools?

Simon Birmingham: They largely tend to be high socioeconomic independent schools. But of course, all the 9000 schools are going to see significant real funding based on the individual needs, circumstances of those schools. So, in New South Wales, we expect to see per-student funding growth across New South Wales at an average of 4.1 per cent but higher in the government school sector at an average of 4.9 per cent.

Chris Smith: Alright. As you’ve admitted in some of the notes on this policy, it’s $22 billion short of what Labor promised four years ago, right? Three years ago.

Simon Birmingham: Chris, we’re being pushed from both sides in some ways, that there are those who are concerned about the fact that we’ve committed an extra $18.6 billion and of course the Labor Party’s saying, well, we should have spent as much as them. But the difference is we don’t need to spend as much as Labor proposed because we’re fixing the flaws in what they did. We’re not having special deals that buy off different states or different sectors, we’re proposing a common approach. We’re not failing to address ancient sweetheart arrangements, we’re bringing everybody onto a common standard in terms of the way in which the funding will work and over ten years, taking out of the system all of those special deals and arrangements. And we’re fixing the fact that they built a system that was internally quite inflationary and expensive to run by having a standard that genuinely adjusts to reflect the real cost pressures in Australian schools such as their wages growth.

Chris Smith: Okay, the Catholics. They claim that they’re unhappy because their schools predominantly teach students from low sociodemographic or economic families and they need consideration for that. You don’t consider that any more important than, say, for an Anglican school anymore, do you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we don’t consider it important to distinguish on the basis of faith. What we think is important is to distinguish on the basis of student composition. So, where Catholic schools are absolutely enrolling students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, they will receive increased funding as a result of that. Where they enrol Indigenous students, they will receive increased funding. Again, our estimates for New South Wales are that the Catholic school system in New South Wales sees per-student growth of 3.8 per cent. That’s much faster growth than most household budgets are experiencing at present, it’s much faster than inflation or wages growth or any other factors. 

So, I’ve heard the concerns from parts of the Catholic sector but I struggle to understand why they are expressing such a degree of angst when, in the end, there’s very significant real-funded growth. Over the ten year horizon, we expect that New South Wales Catholic schools will see their funding increase on a per-student basis from around $8700 this year to more than $12,500 by 2027. That’s obviously very big growth. Well above, as I say, inflation or wages and it means in four years they’ll get $332 million extra, over a decade they’ll get around $918 million extra.

Chris Smith: Okay, we’ve had a discussion before, especially late last year and early this year, about the various international reports that came down which painted a very bad picture for students’ academic skills in this country. And we spoke about the fact that the teachers need to be made better teachers, that the curriculum needs to be diluted somehow to make it more commensurate with what kids will need when they leave school. We’ve spoken about the political bents that some education departments profess to. How will these three areas change under your approach and this review?

Simon Birmingham: There are firstly the things we’re already doing and we won’t stop doing them. So, we’re making changes to teacher training that is requiring future primary school teaching graduates to have a specialisation, where we get more specialist maths or English teachers in our schools. There are good things equally that school systems, like the New South Wales Government are doing, in terms of hardening up elements of their curriculum, making sure that Year 12 school leavers actually have to meet really much improved standards in terms of especially their literacy and numeracy capabilities and the like. 

But what we announced yesterday is that whilst accepting the bulk of the recommendations and approach from David Gonski’s 2011 review of school funding, we’ve also asked and David has agreed to share and oversight a new review, completely separate, not looking at funding, how much money there is, but looking at how it is that the money we have in the system and the growth that there will be is actually used by schools and systems to improve student outcomes. 

Now, why are we getting David to do that rather than just dictating what the things should be? Well, in a sense, to fuel the evidence base and I hope the political support, that state education ministers and teacher unions and others have put a lot of confidence and faith around David’s work and advice in recent years and I hope when he hands down a report about school reform and school improvement they will be as welcoming of that as they were of the report in relation to school funding.

Chris Smith: The Prime Minister says that after ten years, it will take students to the top of the academic tree internationally, words to that effect. Are you convinced of that too?

Simon Birmingham: I believe if we work together we can make a difference in ten years and, yes, turn around Australia’s declining international performance, make sure we have core literacy and numeracy skills fixed across our schools which then gives kids the capability from their early years to succeed in their other subjects. And that’s what it’s all got to be about. It’s not about how many dollars are spent in schools, that’s a budget equation for bosses in Canberra and Macquarie Street to work through. What is important is actually the outcome in our schools and that’s where we want to really focus attention to end the funding wars, spend our time as ministers and policymakers focusing on how we get the best results from those dollars.

Chris Smith: I hope you’re on the right horse this time. Thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Chris, a pleasure.

Chris Smith: Okay, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.