Interview on 3AW Drive with Tom Elliott
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model

Tom Elliott: Now roughly this time yesterday we interviewed the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the Federal Government’s new school funding program. It’s called Gonski 2.0, because David Gonski, the man charged with writing the report, wrote in my view a very similar report for the Labor Party going back 6 or 7 years. 2011, I think that came out. 

I still have some unanswered questions like how much money, but more importantly, what are we going to do with the money? You know, does the Federal Government just hand over money to, I don’t know, state education departments or to individual schools? What are they actually supposed to do with the dough? 

So joining us on the line right now is the Federal Minister for Education, Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Tom, good to be with you.

Tom Elliott: The Prime Minister yesterday referred to you, and he called you Birmo. Is that only a term a Prime Minister can use, or can other people use it too?

Simon Birmingham: No, look it’s been widely available for people to use since high school days, and I guess it’s stuck. And yes the Prime Minster does use that in the Cabinet room and in press conferences and just about anywhere else.

Tom Elliott: It’s not the most imaginative nickname though, is it?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah look, it’s not really, but you were just having a conversation about footy clubs and everything else. So it probably fits pretty well in that context.

Tom Elliott: Yes I played football with a few Birmos myself. Okay, now onto marginally more important things. Gonski 2.0. Now, why have you got David Gonski to do a new report when just 6 years ago he already wrote a report on how to change the funding or the Federal funding for second education around Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Because I’ve noticed a bit of misinterpretation, especially in a couple of the Victorian newspapers about this. Because what David did 6 years ago in 2011 is he wrote a report about how we should transform school funding. Now that report was largely ignored, and then it was misrepresented being about simply pumping a lot more money into the system whilst in fact the report was about how you had fair needs-based distribution with the funding in the system. We are largely adopting and accepting the recommendations of that 2011 Gonski report.

Tom Elliott: Okay so that report was all about how you look at or you measure relative disadvantage between schools and direct funding in an effort to try and overcome that disadvantage. Correct?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right Tom.

Tom Elliott: Alright, so what will this 2017 report do differently? How does it scope different?

Simon Birmingham: So this new piece of work we’ve asked David to do is not to look at funding at all, not to look at how much there needs to be or who it goes to. But instead in the context of having record and growing levels of funding that are now going to under our reforms be distributed fairly according to need in a sector blind way across Government and non-Government schools. How is it that schools can best put to use that money, to lift student outcomes, to address the fact that in literacy, numeracy, and science, Australia’s performance is at best stagnated and in places gone backwards in recent years? So how can we take a lift in investment that many have been calling for, a reformed model of distribution that ends 27 different funding agreements that treat schools across different State borders in different ways, and is based on a whole lot of ancient sweetheart deals, to instead go into a new model of needs-based funding across all systems?

That’s great tactical reforms for the funding side of the equation, but we also believe there needs to be credible work done to build on some of the efforts we’re already undertaking to lift school performance and at some States are doing to make sure there’s a really high level piece of expert work that hopefully just as States have argued for Gonski funding, hopefully they will also support and the teacher unions will also support Gonski reforms when they’re outlined as well.

Tom Elliott: Okay. So it’s been widely documented that Australian secondary students have fallen behind in things like maths and science for example. I think the Prime Minister mentioned that at the press conference that you were at yesterday. Does that mean the new report will say righto, we’re falling behind in maths, here is the way that all this new funding could be used to improve the teaching of mathematics. Is that what you’re aiming at?

Simon Birmingham: It may do so. So in terms of reference gives David and what will a team of education experts working alongside him, scope to go in and identify, well are there particular programs, measures, policies that should be rolled out to lift school achievement. We’re already doing things we’re already requiring in the future that primary school teachers as they go through university must undertake a subject specialisation so that we can get more specialist maths and english and science teachers into our primary schools rather than them all being trained in…

Tom Elliott: [Interrupts] Okay, but will you with the funding- so you know you work out all the schools who should get more, who should get less, and so forth and trying to even things up on a socioeconomic background. You identify- I’ll just pick maths as an area that we’ve got to prioritise. Will you send a cheque to each school saying here is a list of the things you must do with this money, or will you just hope that the state education departments do it on your behalf? I still don’t really understand how that works.

Simon Birmingham: So we’re proposing that when we reform the Australian Education Act to give effect to these new school funding arrangements that clear up the system that there’ll also be a degree of conditionality that states and territories will have to enter into agreements in future with us about certain reform priorities. Now we will negotiate that with the states and territories once we have David’s report back at the end of this year, in the hope that that will illicit a sensible response from the states and territories. As I said before, they’ve called for Gonski funding, we hope when we get a report on Gonski reforms that they’ll agree to seriously act on it. But there will then be that degree of conditionality that you must enter into an agreement, follow through on the delivery of that agreement of reforms, otherwise some of that funding may be at risk.

Tom Elliott: Okay now just quickly, The Age newspaper, I don’t know who’s writing The Age at the moment because most of their journalists have gone on strike but someone who’s left their- keep the lights on has just put up a headline saying, every private school set to cop funding cuts. Is that true, will every single private school in Australia receive less money as a result of this?

Simon Birmingham: No, there could be nothing more untrue than that. So across Australia, 24 schools will see a reduction in their funding. Around 350 will see a slower rate of funding growth than might’ve been the case, and around 9,000 will see really strong funding growth. So the vast majority of schools – including the vast majority of non-Government schools – will see strong funding growth. In Victoria, independent schools on average will see growth of about 4.3 per cent per annum per student over the next four years.

Tom Elliott: But there must be a handful of independent or private schools in Victoria, say four or five or six, that will suffer a small decrease in funding. Correct?

Simon Birmingham: Ah, yes, of the 24 across Australia out of 9,000 there are a handful in Victoria. And why is that the case? Because everybody’s starting currently at a very different point, where some got really good deals out of governments in yesteryear, and what we want to do is to transition everybody to the one single point over a 10 year period. 

But a steady transition period means there’s nothing abrupt. Some of those schools who are going backwards are going backwards to the tune of just $1 or $2 per student, so it’s hardly a dramatic change in their funding profile for some of them. And even at the top end it’s only at most a few per cent, but for the vast majority of schools; 9,000, very strong growth. And for some of them that’s growth that will turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars extra per annum going into those schools which will enable them to invest in their students.

Tom Elliott: Very quickly, once you know- you have the Gonski report is to how best to spend the money, will you directly negotiate with the various teachers unions to get them on site?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ll work with the states and territories to do that, we’ll absolutely be happy to talk through with the teachers unions as well. Again, they’ve traipsed around the country wearing t-shirts and painting buses and billboards emblazoned with David Gonski’s name. I trust that having put so much faith in him on one body of work that he’s done that they will be opened minded about the next and won’t resist the type of reforms that might be recommended.

Tom Elliott: Well good luck with that. Thank you Senator. Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education.