Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane 
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model; Higher education reforms to drive better outcomes for both students and taxpayers

Sabra Lane: While the Federal Government says the Gonski 2.0 model should end the school funding wars. Right now, there is no truce in sight. To discuss the policy, I’m joined in the studio by the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. 

Minister, good morning. Welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra. 

Sabra Lane: For nearly six years, the Coalition railed against the needs-based formula. It’s now performed a spectacular U-turn to endorse it. What’s changed in that time to make it acceptable now?

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s not true, Sabra. Over the last year, 18 months, that I’ve been the Minister I’ve spoken very clearly that we believe in a needs-based distribution of funding.

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] But for you, as the Coalition said, more money wasn’t the answer.

Simon Birmingham: The challenge has always been how it is that we make sure it is fairly and effectively delivered. Now, we’ve done the hard yards in this budget to look at how we can fairly transition from 27 different funding models that are based on ancient special deals that were struck by previous governments and actually get to a point of having a single consistent needs-based, sector-blind funding model the likes of which David Gonski recommended in his report. We’re putting extra funding in there to make sure they can be done in a smooth way that’s fair and equitable across all of the sectors. And of course we want to make sure – and this is the separate piece of work that David Gonski will now lead – we want to make sure there’s a real focus on how that money is then spent most effectively to lift quality outcomes in Australian schools.

Sabra Lane: But for years the Coalition argued that more money wasn’t the answer. Now apparently it is.

Simon Birmingham: Well more money in and of itself is not the answer, but more money will help us to fix a broken model of funding that has so many inconsistencies and is riddled with differential treatment for sectors and special groups in different states. And it will give us the capacity to truly have a look via David Gonski’s new review of how it is we can turn around schools and make sure that our declining international performance in literacy, numeracy, maths and science is actually addressed and fixed for the future. And I hope that the fact that David is doing that work will mean that the state ministers, state departments, teacher unions will actually support the types of reforms that will be necessary in the future.

Sabra Lane: Well the Catholic education system says it’s been singled out. Is it?

Simon Birmingham: No. Not at all. Everybody is being treated under a consistent funding model. Non-government schools, whatever their faith, whatever their background, will be treated in exactly the same way. Catholic schools will receive over the next four years estimated growth in funding of $1.2 billion or around 3.7 per cent per student. That contrasts with government schools that will receive funding growth of about $2.2 billion or 5.52 per cent per student and independent schools receiving funding growth of $1.4 billion or about 4.2 per cent per student. Because of all the inconsistencies in current funding deals, everyone’s starting at a different point. Over 10 years we want to transition them to the same end point of consistency. But there is absolutely real growth, real funding for Catholic education and for small parish schools in this model.

Sabra Lane: When Julia Gillard announced a needs-based funding formula, she too wanted all the states and all the organisations to sign one agreement. As you’ve mentioned, 27 deals were nutted out by Labor and Liberal Governments; how will you succeed in getting everybody to sign up to this one plan that’s not happened before despite the best of intentions?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’re determined to make sure that we fix what are so many different inconsistencies …

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] But how will you …

Simon Birmingham: … and that we end these these different wars and sectoral interests that are fought out …

Sabra Lane: [Talks over] But already we are hearing the Catholic- even your own colleagues in New South Wales, New South Wales Liberals are saying it’s still reserving its right to take legal action to endorse the deal it now has.

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m here, Sabra, talking about the merits of the policy and why it is that it’s in Australia’s best interests to not go on having a whole bunch of different special deals that means students in one Catholic school in one state are funded differently by the National Government, the Federal Government, than they are in another state; or in a government school receive thousands of dollars more in one different state than they do in another state, despite having the same level of need and being in schools of identical student cohort and composition. That’s not a fair, consistent needs-based funding model yet that’s what we inherited. 

The Turnbull Government has taken the tough decision to fix that. And of course what it means is that 24 schools will face a small funding reduction, around 300 schools will have slightly slower growth rates, but 9000 plus schools across Australia will have real growth – some of them very significant growth – to bring them up over the decade to the types of funding formulas we think are necessary to deliver fair, equitable outcomes for schools. And we’re investing $18.6 billion over the decade to make that happen.

Sabra Lane: As you mentioned, 24 schools will lose funding, are you ringing them personally to explain why?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not getting in touch personally. I’ve certainly asked my department though to make sure that we get in touch with all of them and I’ll happily talk with any school that wants to speak with me about what this means for them. Because, as I say, in the vast majority of cases, they’re only going to see growth – very significant growth – over a period of time for those schools. This will give them certainty to plan for the future, to invest in the type of resources that can lift student performance, whether that’s specialist resources in speech pathologists or other services. You know this is a true needs-based approach that ensures additional loadings for people from lower socio-economic communities, for Indigenous students. It implements as well a new model of funding for students with disability that ensures it is based on the differentiated need of adjustment assistance that each of those students requires in the classroom to help them succeed.

Sabra Lane: Universities copped a $2.8 billion cut on Monday, now schools over the next four year are getting $2.2 billion more. Is that how this package is being paid for? The university cut is helping fund this better formula?

Simon Birmingham: Well next Tuesday will be the Federal Budget and people will be able to see all the different moving parts. Of course governments have to make decisions around priorities in the context of the formulation of their budgets. If we go back to the last Labor Government, they announced in the last couple of years around $6 billion of higher education cuts which they justified in part to fund school funding reform. Now, we have gone through a process looking at both of these issues and come up with what we believe are fair proposals. In terms of higher education, they’re modest reforms that universities that have had significant funding growth can afford …

Sabra Lane: Will you explain how it’s all been paid for over the four years and over the 10? Because, I mean, that was one of the points that this Government attacked the previous government for: it never explained where all the money from Gonski came from.

Simon Birmingham: The Budget will absolutely lay that out. It will demonstrate how it is that we will fund the services that Australians care about such as Australian schools and investments in schools, as well as how we’re going to do it responsibly by living within our means.

Sabra Lane: How- what will happen if the school funding formula doesn’t get through Parliament this year? Will you just roll over agreements for next year or?

Simon Birmingham: Well we won’t necessarily be rolling over agreements. We’ve been very clear that the Budget remains the budget that we have to live within and work within and we can achieve the best possible outcomes by implementing our reforms that we’ve outlined yesterday. To get that certainty …

Sabra Lane: [Talks over] So you have to get this through Parliament this year?

Simon Birmingham: My determination, our determination, is to see this legislated and to give that type of certainty that Australian schools deserve to know that if you’re in a government school system around the country, you’re going to see real growth in the order of 5.2 per cent per student over the next four years. It is going to make a real difference to their capacity, well above inflation, well above wages growth, to invest real additional resources in helping students to succeed.

Sabra Lane: Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining AM this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Sabra.