Interview on ABC Central Coast Breakfast with Scott Levi 
Delivering real Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Support for students with disability; Higher education reforms

Scott Levi: Simon Birmingham, who ran into the studio up the steps, and I thought, gosh, if I did that I wouldn’t be able to talk for five minutes, but we’ve only got seven or eight minutes with you because I know you’re very busy, so are you ready to go?

Simon Birmingham: All good, Scott, indeed. Good morning,

Scott Levi: You’re quite thin; you’re a bit of a runner, are you?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t mind a morning run when I can manage to squeeze one in. Not usually up radio steps though.

Scott Levi: [Laughs] Get away from some of those angry constituents sometimes. 

Simon Birmingham is on the Central Coast touring Robertson with the member Lucy Wicks, visiting local schools, selling up the $23.5 billion Gonski package, the package that finally passed with the support of crossbench senators. It’s interesting, I was musing about it this morning. Gonski has gone across all political divides, and you fight like cats and dogs in that House, but people all see his vision as the right way to go. Isn’t that’s something positive for this country?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is. Absolutely. And look, I hope that this is now an enduring reform; that we’ve put in place is really true to the recommendations of the report that David Gonski handed down six years ago. It does deliver needs-based funding in a consistent way, that we’re washing out over the next six years all of the different special deals and distortions to that model that were put in place, and instead applying a pretty pure version of the needs-based funding model that David Gonski recommended, which hopefully in the future will give all schools, all school systems confidence that they’re getting the fair share to help their students succeed and excel in life. 

Scott Levi: How much of the Gonski package will be spent on helping children with special needs and teachers help children with special needs? We had quite a debate about that earlier this morning. 

Simon Birmingham: So, students with disabilities, students who need additional assistance in the classroom; funding out of the approach we’re taking grows in excess of six per cent per annum for those students, so you see a really strong uplift there in terms of additional help that will mean whether it’s extra speech pathology services, whether it’s other interventions that can help, and we’re applying a new approach to identifying students with disabilities or learning needs where it will be the teacher in the school who’ll undertake an assessment across three different levels that can receive possible funding loadings and support for those students, so that rather than what is currently a one-size-fits-all approach to additional support for students with disability, there’ll now be three gradated levels of adjustment assistance that’s required in the classroom, and different levels of funding attached to those three different levels. 

Scott Levi: Would you like Pauline Hanson to put a bit more thought into what she says? Because we spoke to a principal of an autism school here on the coast who do a marvellous job, and he said it’s all about integrating children into the mainstream so they can go to school with their brothers and sisters, so they can have that wonderful inclusive environment of a public school. He said it’s working the other way to what Pauline Hanson’s suggesting – excluding them – it’s about getting them ready to be included or helping them be included in school.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed, and look, it was disappointing to have that distraction, to have those things said, not only because elements of them are wrong, but also because at the time Pauline Hanson was doing the right thing in voting for a needs-based funding model that will provide greater support for inclusion-based learning strategies and approaches in school, that will ensure that where additional support for students across the autism spectrum is required schools receive that additional support. And so, really, this is actually a positive reform to help give the extra assistance that’s necessary, to target it to the kids who need it most, and that way, yes, all children will benefit from that in terms of schools being best able to support a student with additional learning needs to be included, but of course, ensuring that the time, resources and effort is there for educational success and positive outcomes for all kids in the classroom. 

Scott Levi: And is that the philosophy of Gonski? Is that one of the major pillars of it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, a major pillar is absolutely to ensure that across every school whatever the disadvantage and challenges that come from the background of a student, they get the help that they need. So it’s not about purely extra support for students with disability, there’s resourcing tied to the educational attainment and professional background of parents and families to recognise that there are circumstances kids come from backgrounds that make educational success much harder for those children-

Scott Levi: [Talks over] And sometimes-

Simon Birmingham: And how do we put a bit of extra effort into lifting them up?

Scott Levi: And sometimes that can be a regional problem, can’t it? It can be from areas where people are battlers, that don’t have many resources?

Simon Birmingham: It absolutely can be. 

Scott Levi: So they’ll get more money, basically.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. And so across the Central Coast we see an average increase in funding per student of around $3000 over the next few years under these reforms. The national average is around $2300, so again that’s reflective of local need and the fact that the way it works in identifying educational attainment and challenges, greater resource can come to a region like this to really help supercharge the schools in this area. 

And of course we are getting David Gonski to do a further piece of work to really help inform principals, teachers, school communities as to how this record growing investment can get the best educational bang for our record buck and investment. Ultimately it’s about outcomes, not dollars spent, and the outcomes we want are great literacy and numeracy levels, well-rounded and successful kids who are able to go on, whether it’s to the new Gosford Medical Centre that I was last here announcing or whether it’s into a great apprenticeship or straight into the workforce.

Scott Levi: So, is there more autonomy to do what they need to do along those philosophies – Gonski philosophies – because we saw that the building the education revolution during the global financial crisis. Good idea on paper, I think, most people said you’ve got a new hall, you’ve got a new- kept local builders going, but the private schools who could oversee and use the dad who was a builder and get things done and keep a really close eye on it, they had a better bang for their buck than the public schools who were forced into using big contractors who were skimming off the top by the sound of it.

Simon Birmingham: So one of the positive things indeed that I’ve seen in New South Wales schools when I’ve visited is that the New South Wales Government in receiving the growing levels of Gonski funding from the Federal Government seems to have given a level of autonomy to school principals and the leadership in schools to absolutely tailor some of the investment to what they think is necessary. 

Now, we want to make sure that that decision by principals and school leaders is informed by evidence as well, which is the type of work that David Gonski will now be undertaking, identifying precisely what it is that we can best do in early years to lift reading levels, literacy outcomes, how it is that phonic skills can be developed as one of those core building blocks of learning there, or of course right through in the secondary school stages in terms of the integration of technology as a core part of what students learn. So, a range of different things that we hope to give and empower schools to make decisions about so that they can deliver the best outcomes for their kids. 

Scott Levi: We’ve only got a minute before the news, but the Prime Minister was very proud that our universities, and our Central Coast university, University of Newcastle is in that boat, is such a money-spinner for the country. I think second or third wasn’t it on the-

Simon Birmingham: Yes, yeah, no, third-largest export sector…

Scott Levi: [Talks over] That’s right.

Simon Birmingham: … in terms of international education.

Scott Levi: Have we had to rob them to fund this?

Simon Birmingham: No, no, no. Look, we will still see growing levels of investment in our universities in the future, strong growth there. Yes, we proposed some areas where we think where we can see some Budget sustainability, some Budget savings applied across higher education to make sure it’s sustainable into the future, but that is about a slightly slower rate of funding growth than would otherwise have been the case for our universities. And still they will enjoy record levels of funding, and are of course out of the international education market that they have captured, seeing really huge increases in many of their revenue sources. 

Scott Levi: Alright Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for coming in.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure Scott.

Scott Levi: Our Federal Education Minister here at ABC Radio Central Coast, saying that on average students across the Central Coast will be $3000 per student better off with the new Gonski funding package that has been passed through the Senate.