Interview on 6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding; Same-sex marriage

Gareth Parker: Well, the Federal Education Minister is Simon Birmingham. He is in Western Australia today, he’s in Perth, and he’s selling the changes to education funding that he’s managed to secure through the Parliament. Gonski 2.0 is how they have become known. We’ve talked about them a lot on the program over the past several weeks, as we’ve followed the back and the forth of the politicking to get the legislation passed. But what does it actually mean for West Australian schools, and for your school kids? That’s what we’d like to find out this morning. Simon Birmingham joins us on the line. Good morning, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Gareth, great to be with you.

Gareth Parker: And thanks for your time on the program today. What’s the headline here; extra money for West Australian schools.

Simon Birmingham: Well it is, and that’s the [indistinct] their putting in place; something that treats school systems across the country consistently according to their own needs. See, what happened back in 2013 when a whole bunch of different deals were done by the then Gillard Government, where they essentially took the attitude of saying; well, we will penalize the states who invest more in their schools, and we’ll reward the states who invest less. And the then Coalition Government here in WA was amongst the highest investors in their schools under Mark McGowan as Education Minister. So WA got a really, really dud deal. We’re now putting in place an arrangement that says we are going to treat each state consistently, according to the needs-based principles of the Gonski model. And that puts around an extra $1.6 billion into WA schools over the next decade, relative to what the Labor party’s models looked at.

Gareth Parker: The Labor model- the Gonski model, the original Gonski model, was all about trying to be sector-blind. It was trying to assess need, and allocate funding to the kids who needed it. Now, that was a worthy goal, but I don’t think it’s what we ended up with under what the former Labor Government signed up. I mean, it was a whole patchwork of deals. And it seems to me that that’s what you have been trying to unpick with this reform bill, that you’ve now – with a bit of horse trading – managed to get through the Federal Parliament.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, there was a hotch-potch arrangement of 27 different deals and funding arrangements that Labor stitched up. What we’ve now put in place is something that will see every government school system across the country treated the same way. It will gradually get there over the course of the next six years. And what that will mean is that here in WA over the next few years, there will be funding growth coming from the Federal Government of 9.7 per cent per student per annum, as it’s really strong growth – it’s the fastest growth of any state or territory in the nation – demonstrating what a dud deal it was. 

But the fact that we’re going to bring WA up to equivalence with the rest of the country and actually achieve a fair outcome for school students here and schools here to invest, as there will be right across the board. So that at the end of the transition period, there won’t be different deals, there won’t be distortion. Every school system across the country will be being treated in an equivalent type of way under the Gonski needs-based model.

Gareth Parker: Funding is great; all parents would be pleased to hear that their kids’ schools are going to get more funding. That’s all well and good. But, Simon Birmingham, can I ask you this: it seems to me that the real issue here is how do we ensure better quality learning and teaching, and better quality outcomes? Now, I think that there’s enough evidence around now to suggest that funding is not the only determine of that. Sure, funding helps. But it seems as though education funding has been the central part of the debate here. 

Now that that’s squared away, and I applaud the work that you’ve done and the Government have done to get us all onto a level playing field, I think that’s important stuff. But surely now the debate has to turn to how do we actually ensure that we get bang for our buck, to make sure that the money is actually being used to improve outcomes, because that’s the central issue here. It’s Australian students’ competitiveness against other countries, against other education systems in other parts of the world. That’s really what we want to change. 

Simon Birmingham: You’re dead right, and probably the most frustrating part of the job for me since I became Education Minister nearly two years ago now, is that every time I’ve tried to talk about teacher quality, different programs or initiatives to boost literacy and numeracy skills, we’ve just ended up back in the same quagmire talking about funding. Well now we have put in place the legislative reforms to fix funding, we’ve commissioned David Gonski to do work over the course of the next six months to identify how it is that school systems across the country should use the record of growing investment they’ve got most effectively, based on evidence, to really actually get the best bang for our buck – as you said before – in terms of that education investment. What we want to make sure is that literacy and numeracy skills are built from the very earliest years, and that nobody falls through the gaps, that teacher quality is at the centre of all of that. 

We have agreement from David to implement a number of reforms around ensuring minimum literacy, numeracy skills of teaching graduates, and guaranteeing that primary school teachers undertakes subject specialization to get more specialists into our primary schools. There are other initiatives, such as some here in the West, that have been applied in recent years; such as trying to have minimum standards for high school certificate leavers. All of which I think are really important things for us to discuss across the nation now, to ensure this money is used as effectively as possible.

Gareth Parker: Simon Birmingham, while we have you, can I ask you to reflect on the debate- the discussion that’s been going on, seemingly in Coalition ranks, this seeming civil war between the Moderates and the Conservatives, brought to light by the Christopher Pyne audio obtained by Andrew Bolt on same-sex marriage?

Simon Birmingham: Oh look, I’d obviously much rather be talking about school funding successes, these types of reforms. In some ways, there’s nothing terribly surprising about what Christopher said at a private dinner. His views on same-sex marriage have been public for a long period of time, and indeed of the views of nearly every member of the Coalition. And of course, this issue could be resolved once and for all if the Labor party just let us fulfill our election promise: to have a national vote, give the people their say. Then of course, it would be done, dusted, and resolved. 

And that’s what I’d like to see, but in the meantime – and I can assure listeners that leadership, the Cabinet, won’t be distracted by this issue – we’ve got plenty of other matters to get on with, now that we’ve resolved matters of school funding in a fairer way. We’ll focus on our continued work around national security, immigration reforms, as well as of course our work to really grow the economy and make sure that Australia is as attractive as possible for invest in the future.

Gareth Parker: Thanks Minister.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, mate.

Gareth Parker: Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. As I said, in Perth, to the sales job on the Gonski 2.0 reforms, which – as you heard him explain – means that there’ll be more money for West Australian schools. And money for West Australian schools will grow faster than for any other state, because of the dud deal that we were signed up to. That’s all resolved.