Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane 
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model 

Sabra Lane:                  Later today the Turnbull Government will introduce its Gonski 2.0 legislation into the House of Representatives. Catholic schools are upset, saying its system will be left underfunded, forcing it to consider lifting fees with some parents paying possibly thousands of dollars more. Labor is firmly against the revised policy, promising to spend $22 billion more than the Government. The Opposition’s decision means the Government will have to look to the Greens and crossbench in the Senate if the policy is to pass Parliament.

Joining me now from Canberra is the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning. Welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane:                  This policy will be introduced today. Have you got the Greens and crossbenchers onside to pass it through the Senate?

Simon Birmingham:     Well Sabra, it’s a little while until it will get to the Senate. There’s a proper Senate inquiry being undertaken and I look forward to the feedback to that Senate inquiry. Based on some of the public reaction so far I’m confident that many expert, impartial stakeholders like the Grattan Institute, the Mitchell Institute, Anglicare, The Smith Family, people who want to see true needs-based funding for schools in Australia, true implementation of the Gonski report, will be putting their views forward and I hope and trust supporting the Turnbull Government. They’ve been very positive to date and that’s a warm endorsement of the reality that Malcolm Turnbull and the Turnbull Government have been taking the real steps to truly implement the Gonski report and needs-based sector blind funding across Australia.

Sabra Lane:                  What about the feedback from the Catholic sector? Catholic principals and parents have written to the Prime Minister claiming you didn’t engage in a full and proper process to understand the Catholic system or the implications of this new policy. How do you respond to that?

Simon Birmingham:     We had numerous meetings, both directly myself as well additional meetings between my office and department with the representatives of Catholic education authorities in the lead-up to the announcement as well as subsequent meetings that are ongoing in that regard. So consultation is real and ongoing. 

But look, I appreciate that they’re not happy that what we’ve done and the changes we’re taking is to put all non-government schools on the same footing when it comes to their funding based on their individual need. And we think that is entirely fair and reasonable that there shouldn’t be separate arrangements for different systems or sectors, but that all non-government schools should enjoy a similar funding model and profile.

And just last night I was at the Christian Schools Association Conference and had really enthusiastic support from those schools, many of whom are low fee schools themselves operating in communities, serving communities of disadvantage and they really recognise that this is a model that is geared towards providing the greatest support to the students and schools and families in the communities of greatest need and it does that of course whether it’s in our support for the government school sector or in our support for the non-government school sector, and it does that for those non-government schools in the Catholic systems who will see $1.2 billion extra in funding flow into their system over the next four years. Around $3.4 billion extra over the next 10 years.

Sabra Lane:                  They’re points that you’ve previously made …

Simon Birmingham:     And they’re very important points, Sabra.

Sabra Lane:                  They are and you previously made them. Fairfax has published dollar figures today to claim that the Catholic education authorities are short changing needy schools by up to $1.5 million a year to keep fees low at wealthy areas. Is that what the Federal Government believes?

Simon Birmingham:     Sabra, look I respect the autonomy of Catholic education systems to take the pool of federal funding they receive which we are simply proposing they will receive based on the need of each of their individual schools. But they do have a more detailed and granular knowledge of the teaching resources required in different schools, the capital upgrades that may be required in different schools at different times, a particular need of a particular child. So of course that’s why we are retaining that absolute autonomy of those school systems to be able to distribute their funding within their schools as they see fit and they will need to be answerable as they are today to their parents, teachers, school communities about how they’re doing so and whether that is fair and appropriate. But our model doesn’t change that. Our model gives them …

Sabra Lane:                  [Interrupts] But do you believe that they’re subsidising wealthier schools?

Simon Birmingham:     People can look at the data and undertake their own analysis and it’s for Catholic education authorities to explain their decisions around how it is they choose to allocate funds across their schools. What we are applying is a transparent model, a transparent model that treats all non-government schools equally, all government schools across Australia equally, does so according to the needs-based principles of the Gonski report. And I guess to Catholic parents, families, teachers, principals out there, I would just emphasise to them that they will see real growth in school funding in every state of Australia. Growth of 3.7 per cent across Australia on average per student for each of the next four years. That’s well above current measures of inflation or wages and if the Catholic education authorities choose to maintain their current distribution arrangements, given the growth the Turnbull Government is providing, there should be no need for fee increases or disruption in those schools or classrooms.

Sabra Lane:                  Has the Government considered bypassing the Catholic Commission to give money directly to individual schools?

Simon Birmingham:     Well no. We support and respect the integrity of school systems, whether that is a government school system, to be able to make more granular and detailed decisions about funding and support for each of their schools, whether it’s a Catholic school system …

Sabra Lane:                  [Interrupts] But you’re not for turning…

Simon Birmingham:     …or a Lutheran school system, in the end all of them have a particular knowledge about the need in their schools. We expect them to apply to needs-based funding principles, but of course we wanted to ensure and legislation that we’re introducing to the House of Representatives today, delivers on the dream and ambition of the Gonski report. That’s the reason why David Gonski was standing alongside Malcolm Turnbull and I three weeks ago today to of course give his endorsement as so many other people have, to our delivery of true needs-based funding in Australian schools …

Sabra Lane:                  [Interrupts] But you’re not for turning, Minister, is that right?

Simon Birmingham:     Our investment of $18.6 billion extra to support students with the greatest support flowing to the schools, school communities and students of greatest need. 

Sabra Lane:                  But Minister, you’re not for turning. Is that the point? You’re consulting and you’re listening to feedback but you’re not for turning?

Simon Birmingham:     Sabra, we’ll keep working through particular issues and areas of concern and I want to make sure that these school systems are able to continue to operate effectively as school systems. I respect their autonomy and their right to do so. But no, we are not about to entertain ideas that would go back to different deals or creating a system that advantages one type of the non-government school sector over another or one state over another. Australians are sick and tired of that. 

I mean I find it remarkable as this legislation enters the Parliament that we have Mr Shorten and the Labor Party standing in the way of true implementation of needs-based funding, just as they’re standing in the way of the support for the NDIS. The Turnbull Government is getting on with securing these items and securing them for the future and I hope and trust that all members of the Parliament ultimately recognise that what we’re doing is the right thing, the right thing by all Australian schools and that it is being warmly welcomed by so many as I say impartial stakeholders as well as indeed many areas of the non-government schooling sector as well.

Sabra Lane:                  Minister, thanks for talking to AM this morning. 

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Sabra.