Interview on 2GB Money News with Ross Greenwood
Topics: High Court rulings and continuing the business of government; Delivering real needs-based schools funding

Ross Greenwood: Let’s start however talking about education, and in particular what’s taken place in Federal Parliament. Our Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, is on the line right now. Many thanks for your time, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Ross, great to be with you again.

Ross Greenwood: Would you anticipate in Canberra right now that Labor will make merry hell with the current state of politics in the House of Representatives? With Barnaby Joyce absent to fight that by-election, it’s quite clear that Labor will try and make the most of that as it possibly can. Do you think the Government is prepared?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I have no doubt that Labor will play as many political games as they possibly can, because that’s been their MO their entire time in opposition. But it’s important to remember that with Barnaby Joyce and the vacancy in the seat of New England, there are now 149 members of the House of Representatives. The Coalition parties hold 75 of those seats, so 75 remains a majority in the house of reps, even if every single one of the five independents and crossbenchers were to vote with the opposition.

Ross Greenwood: Okay, but that also includes the Speaker, though. We should point out to people that includes the Speaker, and of course the Speaker of the House of Representatives in certain circumstances can vote to continue a debate, it’s not necessarily that they will vote in favour or against the motion brought by the Labor Party. So from that point of view, we could see record debates take place for the period of time that Barnaby Joyce ends up out of the House. That of course is providing that the five crossbench members of the House of Representatives do side with the Labor Party.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, and Ross I think we will see that the crossbenchers are far more interested in us continuing to get on with the job of government and supporting the government in focussing on policy issues, such as energy market reforms that drive down electricity prices, than they are the types of political games that the Labor Party may want to play. So look, I understand the fascination with the ‘what if’ and ‘what could happen’ type scenarios, and I certainly get that the Labor Party are out there stirring up all sorts of talk at present and they’ll have their friends in GetUp! out there trying to fund all type of potential legal challenges or the like, all of which will be a probably glorious distraction to the media, but in terms of the Government, we’re going to try to keep on focussing on the job the Australian people elected us to do: to care about people and policies and the interests of the nation, rather than let these types of distractions get to us.

Ross Greenwood: Okay. Could you give me some insight into the conversation inside Cabinet? I know it’s all confidential in Cabinet, but much must have been made inside the party generally about making certain that people don’t disappear for whatever reason, that they turn up for each vote on the floor, because we have certainly seen Labor already this year exploit moments in the Parliament where people are missing. So as a result, I would presume – at least certainly for the period of time that Barnaby Joyce is absent – that everybody would need to be on notice and really on the floor of Parliament, because if anybody is missing, Labor is going to leap upon that, and you would have to imagine that might be the time where they potentially could play the most merry hell.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Ross, there are a couple of sides to the Parliament. I’m a senator, so first and foremost those of us in the Senate have pretty much always lived our careers knowing that one vote either here or there can determine an outcome in the Senate, so discipline goes as expected for every single one of us there. In the House of Reps, look, I think there was very early in this parliamentary term an incident where not everybody was available at the time of the vote. That lesson was well and truly learned and people have been far more disciplined since then and I’m sure they appreciate the importance of what’s to come.

Because it is important, I guess, that we don’t let Labor’s stunts and pranks and so on rattle the Government in any way, and they certainly won’t in terms of the policy approach we take; in terms of the focus, as I say, on continuing to implement energy market reform; on keeping a focus on good policy initiatives, such as the work on research into brain cancer that was announced just yesterday, a whole raft of areas that we’ll keep a focus on as a government. We don’t want to give Labor any additional opportunity to wield any more political stunts or games than they will already seek to do.

Ross Greenwood: Okay. Let’s get to your portfolio now, and the reason for that is, as I indicated earlier, Victoria’s Catholic education body is warning that there are more school closures to come. Already it has closed a relatively small school in Malvern East, the Holy Eucharist Primary School, and also the Mother of God Primary School in Ivanhoe East. Now, effectively they have indicated – this is the executive director Stephen Elder – as matters stand there is a very real threat of future closures and the dislocation that it will bring. He’s also indicated that this is as a result of the Government rolling out Gonski 2.0 and that funding of Catholic schools in particular is very much in some jeopardy. Is that the way that you would see it at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no. I certainly don’t see that funding is in jeopardy. I think I’ll let listeners listen to the facts and then they can make up their own minds. Of the two schools that were closed, my understanding is one of them – or have been earmarked for closure – one of them has enrolments of about 100 students, and the other has enrolments of just a couple of dozen students or thereabouts. Now, our estimation under the school funding reforms we’ve passed is that funding to the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria will increase by around $86 million next year relative to what they received this year. To put that in the very big numbers that is involved, this year the CECV will receive around $1.84 billion, next year they’ll receive around $1.93 billion, and that will keep increasing over the course of the next 10 years under the reforms that we’ve legislated. In fact, by 2027 they will be receiving some $1.1 billion more in 2027 than they are today.

So there’s real funding growth, funding growth that on a per student basis sits at around 3.5 per cent per student, and so clearly that is above current growth in wages, inflation levels, so it’s real growth into the school system. Of course, how they choose to allocate that is up to the school system, and obviously then how they choose to manage their schools, and particularly very small schools where viability might be questionable, is a matter for them.

Ross Greenwood: So just to take that one step further, is it true that specialist schools or relatively small schools are effectively discriminated against by the system the Government is bringing in? So in other words, the weighting is towards schools of a reasonable size where they can get technically more bang for their buck in the number of students being pushed through? Parents, I think, if that’s the case, would be concerned about class sizes, and also even pressures on teachers where specialist skills and specialist tuition might be required.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. So the model actually works to provide additional loading for a whole range of categories. Firstly, for students with disability, obviously everybody would expect additional support there, then loading for areas of socio-economic or socio-educational disadvantage, loadings that deal and provide additional funding for students from Indigenous backgrounds or the like. Then, importantly, there are also additional loadings to support smaller rural and regional and remote schools, so that we guarantee that in those instances where a small school is the only option, there is additional support recognising those small schools.

When it comes into a more urbanised setting, well, then the funding formula certainly doesn’t discriminate against smaller schools, but it does tend to treat each student on a per student basis just the same, regardless of the size of the school. So if a small school operates in a metropolitan setting, it receives its funding on the per student basis, the same as any large school, all of it, though, based on the individual need of those schools. So if it has more students with disability, it attracts more funding under the disability loading. If it has more students from backgrounds of social and educational disadvantage, it attracts more funding to support those students.

Ross Greenwood: Okay. So is that really about trying to get better educational outcomes, or is it simply about trying to run the school systems more efficiently by doing it on an allocation per student? And yes, there might be differing needs, we understand that, but is it really about ultimately having Australia produce smarter students who are better equipped for the workplace and the future workplaces as Australia might require it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, isn’t that the most important question? And yes, ultimately that’s what we want to get to. Now, Australia has spent so much of the last six years or more talking about how schools are funded. Now, we’ve put through the Parliament this year a fair, needs-based funding model that will see an additional $23 billion flow into Australian schools over the next decade. That’s a huge amount of money, and it comes on top of already significant growth. But what’s most important is we make sure that that funding, whether it’s a Catholic school, a government school, an independent school or whatever their background – is used effectively to lift student outcomes; that there are targeted interventions to support children who most need it; that there’s effective training and ongoing professional development for teachers.

And what we’ve asked David Gonski to do with a panel of education experts is not to look yet again at funding, but to do us a separate piece of work by the end of the first quarter of next year looking at precisely how the extra funding going into schools can best be used to lift student outcomes; the different ways in which we can better support teachers to achieve more, to better target assistance; the types of programs they can undertake to boost basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early years, which then provides the foundation for students to excel at the more technical and complex subjects in the later years of their schooling. All of those types of things; the impact that technology is having in classrooms and how teachers can better use and leverage data in terms knowing, as students shift through school, what their level of attainment is, how much they’re progressing each year, and what strategies are truly working to get the best outcomes for those students.

Ross Greenwood: Tell you what, good to have you on the program, Simon Birmingham. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training in Australia, and remember, that is the ultimate aim, to have better, smarter, brighter students coming out the other end that create better businesses and pay more taxes. That, long term, is what Australia would really like out of its education system, and Simon, we appreciate your time here on the program this evening.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Ross. A pleasure.