Interview on 5AA Breakfast with David Penberthy and Will Goodings
Labor’s corruption of ‘Gonski’; Future schools funding arrangements
07:39 AM

David Penberthy: Well, this time tomorrow in Adelaide, the nation’s Education Ministers will be convening for their first formal talks with the re-instated Federal Education Minister, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham who joins us frequently on 5AA Breakfast and who we’ll be talking to shortly. Now the background of this is really interesting because, you know setting aside the debate about whether education funding and education results is of itself a numbers game, if you look at the amount of money spent on educating an individual kid in every state in Australia, South Australia is actually doing really badly. We’re actually the second lowest in the country in terms of funding per student. The worst treated state is Western Australia with just $2649 a year being spent on the average student in the public education system, then South Australia comes second with $2897. If you go through the other states, the biggest state in terms of population New South Wales is right up there with $3236 a year being spent on kids, a little bit more than that again in Queensland – $3294 – and the Northern Territory, which obviously has very special needs with the highest Indigenous population in Australia and also remoteness – $4224. But it does beg the question, if the Gonski system was meant to be about providing a comparable funding model across our entire nation, has it really succeeded? And I suspect that the answer that we’re going to get from Simon Birmingham to that question is no. The Minister joins us now. Birmo, good morning and thanks so much for your time. How did it get so … 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning [indistinct].

David Penberthy: [Speaks over] sort of disparate and how does it come to jump about so much in terms of the funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well essentially because what we ended up with was not the Gonski deal as David Gonski’s report had envisaged and types of principles he outlined, but instead a Bill Shorten – Julia Gillard deal and Ken Boston – who you might remember was a long, long time ago Head of the Education Department in SA and then in New South Wales – he was a member of the Gonski panel and what he said quite recently was that, in the run up to the 2013 election, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Education Minister Bill Shorten hawked this corruption of the Gonski report around the country, doing deals with Premiers, bishops, and the various education lobbies and that really is what we’ve got. We’ve got 27 different funding models that are in place as a result of a whole bunch of deals, some of them done by Rudd and Shorten, some of them done by Gillard, some of them actually do date back to the Howard years that were just never unticked and so we’ve just got a whole lot of disparate arrangements that mean that the same student, from the same demographic background, with the same level of disadvantage, attending an identical school with the same- similar number of demographically composed students in the country can get funded at a different level by the Federal Government in one state versus another state and that is of course just nonsensical.

David Penberthy: I guess the question though, because there’s two ways you can look at this, some people might say, well surely the way to fix it is to take the more generous and expensive path of increasing funding per student in the lower funded states to bring them up to line with the more extravagantly funded states like New South Wales and Queensland, or do you put a line through it and flatten it all out and make it equitable across the entire nation, or is there a more radical position – I’m interested to know if this is the one you’re looking at – of saying, the Gonski model is just stuffed, we need to blow it up and start from scratch.

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think the Gonski principles are stuffed, I think there are very important principles in David Gonski’s report about funding being distributed according to need and how you actually carve up the pie and it’s a growing pie under the Turnbull Government. We have budgeted $16 billion in school funding this year and it will grow to around $20.1 billion by 2020. So what I hope tomorrow with the states and territories do is to start a conversation with them about how from the 2018 school year onwards we can better carve up that growing pot of money to make sure that it is distributed still according to need, but also distributed equitably across the states and territories.

David Penberthy: Can you come up with an agreement that is a catch all that is equivalent across all states and territories, is that a reasonable aim for this discussion tomorrow?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it is a reasonable aim for discussions over the next six months. It’s not going to be resolved tomorrow. Tomorrow I really want to hear from the states and territories what they think works or doesn’t work with the current model, how we can try to improve it, whether the loadings as they’re currently structured are the right loadings – because again, a number of them don’t actually reflect what the Gonski report recommended they were variations put in place as part of some of the special deals that were struck. So I want to get their feedback on a range of things and we’ll work through it. There may ultimately need to be transition arrangements and different things to be contemplated down the track, but right now it’s about trying to discuss the principles of it and work out where we want to get to at the end and for me, it is about an arrangement that treats students according to their need and reflects the fact that students from low socioeconomic background, with an Indigenous background, with a disability all deserve additional support to try to get better educational outcomes, but also a really important fact which is completely lacking from current deals is to make sure that we also talk about how the funding can be best used and to make sure that within any arrangement we strike, there are agreements to make sure that important reforms in our schools get better focus on literacy outcomes in the early years, to get more kids studying maths and science in the latter years, to keep our most capable teachers in the schools, that they all have to form part of a comprehensive arrangement as well. It’s not just about the dollars, it’s about how you spend them effectively too.

David Penberthy: The last four years there – if we just now with the opportunity to look back on a funding model that’s seen South Australian students worse off than, relatively, [indistinct] than other states – was that just a dud deal that our state government signed up to?

Simon Birmingham: The short answer to that is yes, it was a dud deal and we have as we promised at the 2013 election faithfully implemented the arrangements that the Labor Party had offered the various states and territories before that election right through the budget cycle that we inherited but from the 2018 school year onwards, I’m looking to the future I‘m looking beyond the years of the so-called Gonski deal that was really more the Shorten-Gillard deal and looking to make sure that we put in place something that I hope can be enduring and actually takes the difficult decisions that might need to be taken along the way rather than simply looking to buy everybody out, as seems to be the approach that was taken at the time.

David Penberthy: Birmo, In your last term of government, I can’t remember if it was in the first half when Tony Abbott was PM or the second half when Malcolm Turnbull had got the job but there was some really quite radical big picture ideas being floated, one of which was to give responsibility for funding private schools solely to the Federal Government and to hand the management and funding of state schools, public schools over to the states. Is that kind of thinking now off the table or are you interested as education minister in going back to looking at some bigger picture approaches like that?

Simon Birmingham: That example was given as an example of it could happen under the mooted income tax power sharing proposal that states and territories pretty much rejected out of hand so I assume that all such reviews are off the table and we are working through a world now where the states and territories want the Commonwealth as a funding partner but if they want the Commonwealth as a funding partner, that means that I expect federal government to also be a partner in determining how that funding is most effectively used so that we actually can drive and leverage the types of reforms in schools that can reverse what has been a decline, according to the international PISA test, the Australian NAPLAN test, we see the analysis, Productivity Commission analysis, all of them have built a pretty strong bank of evidence that says though we’ve got record levels of funding going into our schools, it has virtually doubled over the last 20 years, we actually have seen performance flat line or go backwards and that’s just not of course a situation we can tolerate, not if we’re going to keep putting more money in as we’re proposing to do. We have to make sure it is better spent to get better outcomes in the future.

David Penberthy: So if I come to you tomorrow for South Australian education, Senator, and say have a look at where we sit NAPLAN wise in the country, we sit below the national average in the majority of categories, been fairly stagnant movement-wise on that front. Is that an argument you’re going to be sympathetic to for getting more funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think that is a pointer in part that SA, the state does have some higher levels of need, there are some stronger pockets of social economic disadvantage in SA and unfortunately, sadly, research is pretty clear that that is an indicator of greater educational disadvantage which is why we do need to have a model for distributing the funds we’ve got, we distribute it according to need and make sure that those kids get the extra support necessary and yes, as we said before, SA signed up to a dud deal that basically back-ended in funding growth. Now what I want to see is that SA is brought up to par with other states and territories so that in the long run, everybody is treated on an equitable basis…

Will Goodings: Shouldn’t we get more than par if our need is greater?

Simon Birmingham: Well if need is greater, yes, and it’s important to say we’re talking about, with the types of figures that Penbo quoted at the start of this interview, we’re talking about exactly comparable situations, those figures are not the average amount per student across the state, those figures are looking at an example of a school with a high level of disadvantage, with indigenous students, with all of the factors that go into the loading models and still we end up funding those – identical students with differentials of more than 20 per cent across different states and territories. That’s the type of differential that I want to see us iron out, so the federal government is supporting Australian school kids in the same way, wherever they live.

David Penberthy: Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for joining us on 5AA Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure guys.