Interview on ABC 774 Melbourne Drive with Raf Epstein

Topics: Labor’s corruption of ‘Gonski’; Future schools funding arrangements

Rafael Epstein: Education Minister Simon Birmingham made some comments on Q & A on Monday night. Let’s find out precisely what he means … meant, and what the Turnbull Government intends to do with school funding. Simon Birmingham is in Melbourne for a Council of Education Leaders conference. Senator Birmingham, good afternoon. 

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Raf. Great to be with you.

Rafael Epstein: What did you precisely mean on Q & A when you said yes to the question that some private schools are overfunded?

Simon Birmingham: I was responding to a flow of conversation that essentially was building upon what Julia Gillard had said way back when she tried to reform Australian school funding, and she made a statement that no school would be worse off, regardless of what they did in the future. And I was saying well, I’ve been very careful not to make that same commitment, because we do have an odd situation in Australia where for all the hype about the Gonski model, what we actually got were 27 different funding models that are applied, many of which grandfather in or sort of preserve old sweetheart deals from well in the past, and mean that schools – government schools or non-government schools – when you compare them within the same cohort of schools that look the same in terms of being a non-government school with the same level of disadvantage actually receive different levels of federal funding across the country.

Rafael Epstein: So some private schools get too much is still correct? I understand you prote- Gonski didn’t recommend that no school should be worse off. Gonski recommended needs-based funding, so I understand that critique. But is it still the case in the Government’s mind that a substantial number of private schools get too much money?

Simon Birmingham: I wouldn’t go so far as to say substantial. I would say, though, that some non-government schools are overfunded relative to other non-government schools, and if you’re going to apply a uniform approach to school funding that also discounts against the parents’ capacity to contribute in a non-government setting, then you ought to apply it consistently as a Federal Government across the country, not be undertaking a situation that sees students from identical-looking schools with identical-looking needs getting different amounts of Federal Government funding just because of some historic arrangement.

Rafael Epstein: So you are saying then that if we shift to what the Gonski panel really recommended – which is needs-based funding, give each student what they need – there are going to be private schools, there are going to be- so wealthy private schools, Catholic schools, and state schools, there are going to be schools in all of those categories who will not get the same amount of money as they are getting right now?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Gonski model proposed an approach to so-called needs-based funding, and importantly, it outlined a number of principles that are really important. You give extra funding for students of low socioeconomic backgrounds, Indigenous students, et cetera…

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] Give the kids who need it more stuff.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. And they’re principles that we’re completely committed to adhering to. You actually do distribute the funding you’ve got according to need. Now, there are a lot of different complexities that come into the school funding model, of course, because it’s a dual funding approach. We pay some, and the State Governments pay some.

Rafael Epstein: I understand it’s complex, and most people- I can’t follow this topic. I have to read up on it every time. But isn’t it the case – and I’d love a simple answer to this question – if we have real needs-based funding, which is what the Gonski panel recommended, some schools are going to get less money. State, private, whatever. If we have real needs-based funding, some schools will get less. Is that correct?

Simon Birmingham: If you brought every school in the country tomorrow under exactly the same funding model and took a pure approach to what David Gonski had said, the answer to that is yes. Now of course, anything we do will have to have transitional elements to it, and anything we do has to also live within the budget that we’ve got. Now that budget is one that grows from $16 billion in school funding the Turnbull Government’s providing this year to $20.1 billion by 2020. That’s growth above inflation, above enrolments, and what I’m trying to do is work through a system where we can distribute that funding according to need and equitably across the states and territories, and use it to drive real reforms in our schools.

Rafael Epstein: So is the translation then of what you’re saying some schools aren’t going to get as much of an increase as others?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have a growing pot of money, so most schools should expect absolutely to see growth in future,

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Yeah, no, I get it. I get it. But are some schools not going to get as much as others?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed, Raf. I mean, that’s a logical consequence that if schools are starting at different levels of funding from the Federal Government even though they have identical need, and we want to get them to a model where everybody is on the same approach in terms of the way the funding is calculated, some may not see the same type of growth as others and maybe, in some very isolated circumstances …

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] They’ll get no growth at all.

Simon Birmingham: Some- that’s a possibility. 

Rafael Epstein: So some schools – when you finally deliver your education decision – won’t get an increase in funding.

Simon Birmingham: That’s a possibility, Raf. Now, these are things- I don’t want to pre-empt the outcomes of this, because what we said is we want to have a new deal in place in the first half of 2017 for implementation from 2018. What I’ve done over the last couple of weeks is talk to the state and territory ministers about the principles that I want to drive that new deal. I’ve sought to highlight some of the inconsistencies in terms of the funding approaches, the 27 different models that we inherited. Because you’ve got to know the problems, and you’ve got to know the principles you want to apply to then work out a detailed model going forward.

I want to give reassurance to non-government school parents out there that it’s still the Turnbull Government’s view that every student deserves support, regardless of where they go to school in Australia, that they deserve taxpayer support and that we will continue to provide that type of support to all of them. This is not about some jihad to shift money from non-government schools to government schools, it’s about a proper process to try to get a fair and equitable funding model in place.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham is Malcolm Turnbull’s Education Minister. 1300-222-774 is the phone number. Parties of both persuasions have tried to reduce the amount of education increase in various ways. We’ll see what the Turnbull Government comes up with. You’ve heard Simon Birmingham’s answers. 1300-222-774 is the phone number. The minister does say it’s possible some schools won’t get any increase in funding. 1300-222-774 is the number.

Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Education Minister. She had a chat to Waleed Aly on Mornings this morning. She says the Government has a secret hit list.


Tanya Plibersek: If Simon Birmingham says that some schools are over-funded, he has a responsibility now to tell parents which schools that is and how much he’s going to cut their funding by.

[End of excerpt]

Rafael Epstein: You’ve got a responsibility to tell the schools who are going to get cuts in funding which are those schools; is she right?

Simon Birmingham: All will absolutely be revealed, Raf, when we get to an end point in the process. What I didn’t want to do was simply drop on the table to state ministers and the non-government school sector a pre-determined outcome. I want to have proper conversations with all of them so we can get a final model in place in the first half of 2017 so that it’s then applied from the 2018 school year. The Labor Party is doing itself no good service by going around trying to run another scare campaign for this.

Rafael Epstein: I’m sure there are some parents who’re worried their schools won’t get the money they need?

Simon Birmingham: Parents, of course, all want to see maximum support and investment for their schools. I want to see the funding we’ve got, the record growing funding we’ve got distributed according to need and equitably across the states and territories in a consistent manner and used to leverage real reform in schools because there’s no point just talking about how much money we’ve got. We also have to recognise as the Productivity Commission, the OECD and others have all said recently we’re putting record levels into school systems but we’re getting static or declining performance and we need to really address the things that can make a real difference in terms of keeping our best and most capable teachers in schools, identifying kids with reading difficulties earlier on, getting more kids studying maths and science the whole way through. There are other things to talk about alongside funding. Funding’s important but it’s actually just an input, it’s what we do with it that matters most.

Rafael Epstein: Can I get a bit of clarity about when? It’s pretty- it seems to me you are signalling some schools are going to get no increase. I don’t know which those schools are and how many of them there are but I suppose the fundamental question is when will people see the schools that are going to get either less of an increase or no increase? When will those schools be named? Is that a year away, more than that, less than that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, as I’ve said, we want to have a model resolved in the first half of next year. I would anticipate before that that’ll I be able to …

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] Sorry, just [indistinct] when you say the model is resolved, does that include the list of all the schools or is it just the way you work with other governments?

Simon Birmingham: No, no. Once we have a funding model resolved after all the proper feedback that I get from states, territories, and the non-government school sector, then it will be transparent as to who has the greatest adjustment to make to come onto that funding model. And this is a model that will be informed by the Gonski principles of ensuring greater support for students of disadvantage, low socio-economic backgrounds, Indigenous students and so forth. And it will be a model that still preserves strong support for non-government schools and choice because those parents, of course, are effectively saving taxpayers significant money by opting out of the government system and receiving less support already than government school students do. 

So, I’m not talking, as I say, about wanting to be cutting non-government school funding, this is really the same debate in the non-government sector as it is in the government sector where we have wide disparity in what we give based on where somebody lives from one state to another state. That’s not fair that a student in a similar or identical disadvantage in one part of the country gets $1500 less from the Federal Government than a similar-looking school elsewhere in the nation.

Rafael Epstein: I just wonder, finally, you don’t have numbers in the Senate – most governments don’t – that’s already a complicated relationship, there’s any number of things you want to pass through the Senate, then you’ve got a whole lot of states and territories you need to negotiate with. Will you actually get an ability to change the way schools are funded? Can you line up everyone in the Senate and every government around the country?

Simon Birmingham: On my advice, we can live within our current budget but that won’t…

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Yeah, but you don’t like the way that model’s working. I just wonder if you’ll succeed in changing it.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, Raf, but working within the current budget, you know, broken model is not what I want.

Rafael Epstein: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: So, I hope that if we go through a proper process, which is why I’m not jumping to say ‘here is the end point already’, if we have an open conversation about this and we present a model that in the way fits the tests I’m applying that it is distributing fairly according to need, equitably across the states and territories …

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Forgive me for interrupting, but …

Simon Birmingham: …and drives real reform, that we might be able to get that Senate support.

Rafael Epstein: Are you confident you’ll actually be able to change the way we fund schools?

Simon Birmingham: Right now, I’m talking to the states and territories and the non-government school sector, I’ll shift to talking to the Senate crossbench when we have proposals for them.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Or hopefully the Labor Party, in that manner Raf, too.

Rafael Epstein: Oh well, we’ll see where the conversations go. Thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much.