Interview on ABC Radio Brisbane Breakfast with Steve Austin 
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model

Steve Austin: Well the Federal Education Minister is Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, good morning to you. 

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

Steve Austin: It’s good to have you on the program. Is Kate Jones’ assessment an accurate reflection of your announcement – a nasty announcement with a slightly better announcement?

Simon Birmingham: No, not at all. And look let me take you through specific figures. And I’m not sure where on earth Kate’s cooked her figures up from. But for Queensland Government  …

Steve Austin: [Interrupts] Well they say they’ve crunched the data you’ve provided them. 

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s very curious crunching in that case. So for Queensland government schools, in 2017 – so this year – we’re proving the Queensland Government with around $1.58 billion. Under our proposal – under the Turnbull Government’s new approach to provide needs-based funding that transitions over 10 years on a consistent footing to bring everybody into line the same way, the same sector-blind needs-based funding model across the country. That 1.56 in this year will grow to $1.67 billion next year – that’s $115 million extra for Queensland government schools. It will go up again to $1.8 billion in 2019 – that’s another $127 million for Queensland government schools. It will go up to a further $1.97 billion in 2020 – that’s a further $165 million for Queensland government schools. 

You can see real growth each and every year. Over four years, the average per student growth for Queensland government schools is 5.2 per cent and is putting in an extra $542 million for those Queensland schools over the first four years. And then over indeed the decade, Queensland government schools will see an extra $1.43 billion.

Steve Austin: So, 5.2 per cent growth for every student in Queensland over the next few- by the end of what, four years?

Simon Birmingham: 5.2 per cent growth for every government school student in Queensland over the next four years. 4.2 per cent on average across independent schools and 3.7 per cent on average across Catholic schools in Queensland. 

Steve Austin: Why?

Simon Birmingham: Sorry, I just quoted, it’s 4.4 for independents and 3.7 for Catholics. 

Steve Austin: Okay. So why is this increase in funding needed for Queensland, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well what we’re trying to do is fix a hodgepodge of 27 different national funding agreements that were stitched up in special deals with ancient sweetheart arrangements built into them right across the country by the previous government. There’s nothing consistent about the way in which the Australian Government currently funds different states and territories and different school systems. So in trying to get away from all of those special deals and arrangements, we’ve proposed a 10 year transition period. We’ve invested extra funding to make sure that overwhelmingly, all schools benefit in that time. That they see significant increases in funding, and importantly, we’re undertaking further work to demonstrate how we expect that money to best be used, so that we actually turn around some of the declines in our nation’s schools system and get better results for Australian students. 

Steve Austin: You had planned to cut $3.8 billion from the overall education budget. Why the change?

Simon Birmingham: Well I have and the Turnbull Government has never planned cuts to schooling. Decisions were taken in the 2014 Budget by the Abbott Government to bring to an end the unfunded Labor agreements that were in place after four years. Malcolm Turnbull and I last year announced an extra $1.2 billion in that budget for schools. This year we’re going to announce a further $2.2 billion on top of that $1.2 billion for schools. But more than that we’re announcing comprehensive reform to truly implement what David Gonski recommended – sector blind, needs-based funding across Australian schools. That doesn’t have special deals for different sectors or different states. Sees the Federal Government treat schools across Australia based on their individual needs. So smaller, remote, regional schools in Queensland, will get extra funding because they have a higher cost base [indistinct].

Steve Austin: [Interrupts] So those most remote schools in regional Queensland will definitely get extra funding. How can you as Federal Education Minister guarantee that? Because isn’t that Kate Jones’ decision?

Simon Birmingham: Well ultimately, look Steve, you are correct. But we trust that the Queensland Government – if we are giving them this money for schools – will pass it onto those schools in a legitimate manner. Given all that Kate Jones has to say, I hope and trust that she wouldn’t then judge the schools who need it most. And that’s why we’re proposing – as I say – a true needs based model, based on the Gonski recommendations. This is what people have been calling for governments to do for years. We’re making the difficult decisions that will see, across Australia around 24 schools have some small reduction in funding, but more than 9000 Australian schools will see growth – and often very significant growth to their funding – to get everybody onto that same consistent approach. 
Steve Austin: I’m speaking with the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. This is ABC Radio Brisbane. 

Queensland has a unique problem. We’ve got a really large geographic area. The majority of its population is actually outside Brisbane City – which is a shock to many. And higher than average Indigenous population compared with other states. So this- you believe that this funding announcement actually takes that into account and gives extra money for those remote schools in the far flung parts of Queensland?

Simon Birmingham: It absolutely does. So if we look at federal funding for Queensland, it will, at the end of our transition period, be on a per student basis, around $4635 per student. Contrast that with Victoria, and that’s around $400 per student more. Why is that the case? Because the needs-based model that reflects the fact that there are higher levels of Indigenous students, higher levels of smaller rural, regional, remote schools. Those are the factors that flow into a needs-based funding model and ensure that Queensland students receive more than some other states [indistinct]  …

Steve Austin: [Interrupts] So Queensland students, per student, we’re getting $400 more per student here in Queensland than a student in Victoria?

Simon Birmingham: That will be the case under our reforms. Right now – which will be news to your listeners and might be news to Kate Jones – that’s not the gap. The gap is much less than that. So we’re going to transition to make sure that in fully applying the needs-based model, we actually get that type of differential in place and do so in a manner where the Commonwealth though, is treating each state equally. Victoria will still get exactly the same share of funding as Queensland, but it’s doing so based on a needs-based formula that reflects the different circumstances at different school communities across the country. 

Steve Austin: And this needs-based formula is going to be giving $400 more per student to Queensland students than to Victorian students? That’s been lost in the debates so far. 

Simon Birmingham: Look it may well have been lost, Steve. And that’s unfortunate. I think what’s really critical here though is that we don’t have state v state or sector v sector. I realise people are at present talking about well, this isn’t as good in some ways as the special deal we had previously, compared with the special deal that somebody else had previously. Malcolm Turnbull and I aren’t interested in special deals, we’re interested in making sure we fix a broken school funding system that has and is built on 27 different agreements, with those agreements factoring in ancient sweetheart deals that were done in the Howard era and earlier for different schools. We actually think that today it’s appropriate for the Commonwealth to play a big role in schools. We’ll be funding around 20 per cent of the cost of government schools under our reforms. That’s a significant role. It’s far in excess of anything the Commonwealth has ever done previously. But we want to do it in a manner that doesn’t see one state disadvantaged to the expense of the other state, but purely sees it done on the basis of need. 

Steve Austin: I’m intrigued that your line is that you’re actually fixing up the deals done by previous coalition governments, Tony Abbott’s government and even as far back as John Howard’s government, you’re fixing up the problems set in by your own side of politics, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s 27 different deals- well of course Bill Shorten and Julia Gillard deals, but they entrenched many of the previous sweetheart arrangements and it’s true, no government previously has tried to fix this. David Gonski recommended that it be fixed but the application of his report was corrupted which is why he was happy to stand up with Malcolm Turnbull and I yesterday because he knows that what we’re doing is a true reflection of the recommendations that he made, a true reflection of what many have called for over recent years and of course we want to invest that money. We just want to move the debate past a debate about how much you spent or who gets how much, ensure the focus really is now on how it’s how it can best be  invested to turn around declining international student performance.

Steve Austin: Let me do that. In December last year the performance of students in years three, five, seven and nine had flat-lined in literacy and numeracy and the writing skills of year 9 students had gone backwards since 2011 and I think Queensland came second last in terms of handwriting skills. Will this extra money solve that?

Simon Birmingham: That’s why we were very pleased that David Gonski has agreed to do a second piece of work that doesn’t look at funding at all. It does look at how it is that record and growing levels of funding to schools can actually be better used and the types of reforms that we need to ensure literacy performance, numeracy skills are raised so that students get the absolute basics that are required to enable them to learn and succeed at school as well as the development of those higher-order skills around resilience, collaboration that people need in modern workplaces.

Steve Austin: So your answer is you don’t really know, you’re waiting for David Gonski’s second report to answer that question?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve outlined and already undertaken a number of reforms. Under teacher training reforms we’re implementing primary school teachers going through university in future will have to undertake a specialisation. They won’t just be able to be generalists. We want to see more specialist maths teachers, English teachers and the like in our primary schools as well as right across the school system and we’re applying reforms to ensure minimum literacy and numeracy skills for teacher graduates. We have work underway in terms of the professional development of the existing teacher base. There’s a range of things we’re currently doing, but yes, I hope we can use the creditability that David Gonski brings with state ministers, with education unions, with others who have lauded his previous work so that they agree to undertake the types of further reforms that might be necessary to really address the declining performance.

Steve Austin: There’s a couple of private schools at the higher end here in Brisbane that are losing funds. What’s your message to them this morning?

Simon Birmingham: Well I hope everybody will appreciate this is about putting all schools on the same consistent formula for the calculation of their funding based on their need. So all schools will start with a funding allocation based on a per student basis. It will then be built up with loadings for students from lower socioeconomic background, indigenous students, students with a disability, smaller rural and regional remote schools. Those sorts of circumstances that genuinely reflect need and the non-government sector applied equally across all different denominations of schools and types of schools in a capacity to contribute measure is applied to discounts of the overall level of that school funding, again fairly based on the capacity of that school community to contribute in terms of the fees they’re paying.

Steve Austin: We had a question come in to our Breakfast program this morning from a listener whose name is Jane. Let me just play that to you and you might be able to answer her question for us. Just have a listen to this.


Caller Jane: I would have thought that my children should be getting the fair share of money that’s being spent on somebody else. So how does it work? I know it’s a very complex system of funding in schools and private schools and public schools, but I have trouble fathoming the fact that it is a possibility that my children may not be getting a fair share they go to a private school.

[End of excerpt]

Steve Austin: Are private school students somehow not getting their fair share? Now Simon Birmingham, as Jane is concerned about?

Simon Birmingham: No we absolutely support school choice, parental choice to choose the school that’s best for their children. As I explained before Steve, we want to apply same consistent model right across Australia. In terms of those non-government schools, and I indicated there’s genuine growth there for non-government schools around Australia and in Queensland in terms of percentage growth they will receive based on that fair needs based formula. 

Steve Austin: Where’s the money coming from? A few people called in the station this morning. I mean it looked to me when you made the funding announcement yesterday afternoon I thought crikey, that’s a significant realignment of funding and a significant lift in funding for education. So where is the money coming from?

Simon Birmingham: Well Steven next week’s budget will outline how it is that we bring it all together. Earlier this week I announced reforms in relation to higher education sector and those reforms do seek to save some $2.8 billion over the next four years. So we’re making [indistinct] …

Steve Austin: So it’s coming from the higher education sector?

Simon Birmingham: No I don’t relate the two quite that directly. But a budget is a case that government’s identifying the problems you need to fix, where you think there are efficiencies. Now we’ve seen 15 per cent growth in revenue for universities since 2009 but only nine per cent growth in costs and so we believe that there is scope to take an efficiency dividend out of universities that can help fund other budget priorities. In this case investment in our schools is a budget priority that hopefully will ensure students get into university have better and higher skills and [indistinct]  pay for the services that Australians want and expect such as investment from schools and hospitals, whilst also continuing the march towards bringing the Budget back to balance and even since the last election the Turnbull Government has managed to pass around $25 billion worth of savings measures through the Senate to continue to repair the Budget deficit.

Steve Austin: Anecdotally it looks like you’ve done what’s been called for for many years and that is that you’re starting to take money away from those high-end , those private schools that- where they’ve got fee paying students that pay money, we’re taking it from the independent schools and putting it into the state school system.

Simon Birmingham: There’s a disproportionate amount of interest in that and that’s because we’ve taken the difficult decision that was squibbed by Labor. Julia Gillard famously said at the Gonski review that she did that no school would lose a dollar which was completely contrary to what David Gonski recommended. He recommended true needs based funding approaches.

But let’s appreciate it’s also only 24 schools across Australia that over the next couple of years will lose usually only about one or two per cent of their funding, so not very much at all, while 9000-plus schools will see gains across Australia and even independent schools the likes of which your caller was ringing about before. In Queensland we’ll see per student growth at 4.4 per cent. So that’s because it’s a needs-based formula and those independent schools in regional and rural Queensland will also be clear winners under a package like this. 

Steve Austin: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure Steve.

Steve Austin: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister.