Interview on ABC Radio Perth Drive with Belinda Varischetti
Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you, Belinda.

Belinda Varischetti: Why is there is discrepancy between the federal and the state government figures?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not really sure what Sue Ellery is basing her claims on. We made no commitments to the WA Government or any state government for 2018 or beyond. We were very clear in the run up to last year’s federal election that we would be negotiating school funding arrangements and discussing them with the states, territories and other stakeholders, and resolving them in 2017. And what we are actually applying is a school funding model that delivers over the next 10 years, around $1.6 billion more to Western Australian than the Gillard Government Gonski deals would have provided to Western Australia. So, every WA Labor member and Senator last week voted for less money to come to Western Australian schools than what will now occur under the reforms that we’ve put in place; and that is more money each year over the next 10 years coming into WA than would have been the case under previous arrangements, starting off with 9.7 per cent growth per student in federal funding into government schools over the next few years for each of those years, which is a phenomenal rate of growth, and one that is far, far higher than anywhere else in the country because of the very poor deal WA got in the past.

Belinda Varischetti: How is that going to be split then between government and non-government schools? And you’ve been out to a couple of schools earlier today.

Simon Birmingham: So we see that 9.7 per cent growth in the government school sector on a per student basis. Whereas growth in the non-Government schools sector sits around the five per cent mark. So that’s reflective of the fact that we’re applying a needs-based arrangement. Now, in WA all of the schooling sectors – government, Catholic, independent – see higher rates of growth in general than in other states of territories, again reflecting that there was a dud deal done previously by the West. We’re now putting in place the needs-based arrangements, but we’re doing so from a national level, consistently across all states and territories so that Western Australia isn’t penalised for the fact that state governments here have historically invested more in education. And what we want to do as a federal government is encourage every state to be able to invest as much as they think is appropriate, rather than penalise a state like WA for doing the right thing.

Belinda Varischetti: So, there is a base rate funding for all students, no matter what state or school they’re going to? Is that how it works?

Simon Birmingham: So, the Gonski needs-based formula is built on the notion of a base funding amount and then loadings that are applied for students with disability, students from family backgrounds of socio-educational disadvantage, indigenous students, regional or remote schools, students from language backgrounds other than English; all about providing the type of need-based arrangement to reflect the circumstances in an individual school or across a school system.

Belinda Varischetti: In Western Australia, the government here pays more per student in state education than any other state in Australia, which you referred to earlier – in WA 19,000; and just for a comparison, Victoria $14,000, New South Wales $16,000. Why is the cost so high here in WA?

Simon Birmingham: Well, these reflect a range of historical decisions in WA, they were obviously driven in part by a combination of teacher wages, class sizes, but also, the different types of investment that are made in schools. Now, they’re things for the state government in general to explain to their electorate. But we don’t believe, as a government, that WA should be punished because it spends more per student by the national government. We believe that, as the national government, we should be treating schools across the country consistently, but according to a needs-based formula. 

So of course, on a per student basis, we invest more in students in the Northern Territory, for example, than we do in Victoria – reflecting the very high needs that you have in schools across the Northern Territory. Similarly, if you were to look at the way the funding is calculated from the Federal Government for schools here in WA, you’ll find that remote, Indigenous schools in the Pilbara will attract far higher levels of per student funding than city schools around Subiaco necessarily would. All of it reflective of the fact that we’re applying what David Gonski recommended and are thrilled that he endorsed the Turnbull Government’s legislation and approach as being a far better application of needs-based funding than we’ve had in the past. 

Belinda Varischetti: One of the reasons WA didn’t sign up to the previous funding arrangements with the Gillard Government was that WA was going to receive less federal funding than other states because we already spend so much as a state ourselves, and would therefore be comparatively disadvantaged. So that’s not the case under this deal?

Simon Birmingham: This deal fixes that and ensures that within six years, all of the states and territories are treated consistently, that government schools in WA receive the same proportionate share of support from the federal government based on a needs-based funding formula as government schools in Sydney or Melbourne receive. And that similarly, you see a faster rate of growth in Catholic systemic schools here in WA than you do in New South Wales or Victoria; again, reflective of the fact that it was a dud deal that treated the West disadvantageously, and we’re now going to bring those Catholic systemic schools up to an equal level of treatment based on their own unique need and circumstances as we do in New South Wales, Victoria or anywhere else around the country.

Belinda Varischetti: On ABC Radio Perth, you’re catching up this afternoon with the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. And visiting Western Australia today in Perth just to talk about the fact that the Senate gave the green light to Gonski 2.0 and the $23.5 billion plan for school funding is on its way.
You mentioned the Catholic education system, Minister. The Catholic schools are being described as the biggest losers under this needs-based funding model. 

What is the situation for Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well, far from being losers, the West Australian Catholic education system will see funding growth of around 4.3 per cent per student per annum over the next few years. So, that’s growth well above projected inflation or wages growth, and will provide additional resourcing and support for those schools, just as we’re providing additional resourcing and support right across the nation, but targeted very much by need and you do see a faster rate of growth in some of those public schools that’ve received significantly less federal government support in the past..

Belinda Varischetti: Are you catching up with Catholic education while you’re here in Western Australia?

Simon Birmingham: I did reach out to Archbishop Costello, who chairs the National Bishops’ Conference on education in the Catholic system. He is, I gather, out in the regions while I’m here, but we’ll catch up at another time.

Belinda Varischetti: The Government also has agreed to set up the National Schools Resource Board – which is an independent body – to monitor the way the money is going to be spent. This is something that we put towards the WA Minister Sue Ellery. This was her response to that idea.

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And what’s your response to the WA Minister’s concerns there?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that is the whole point of applying a needs-based funding model for schools across the country, that you actually do apply greater resourcing for schools of rural and regional or remote status, for schools with high needs – particularly high numbers of Indigenous students – that we’re putting in place, for the first time, a level of support for students with disability that isn’t a once-size-fits-all loading, but is instead actually three levels of support, so that the students who need the greatest assistance to be able to be included in school activities and succeed in the classroom get that greatest support, and those graduated loadings ensure that they’re responsive to what teachers and schools identify as required to support those students.

Belinda Varischetti: What is going to be the role of this oversight body, in terms of its influence on the different states?

Simon Birmingham: So the body – the National School Resourcing Body – will have a couple of roles. Firstly, it will be to continually improve the school resourcing model; the formula that is used to identify need and to make sure that we’re putting the best possible data and metrics into that to ensure that is does genuinely reflect need and supports schools as they should, and its first task will be to have a look at the use of socio-economic status scores and the construction of those scores in terms of the way they help to influence and drive funding decisions. But it will also have a role in ensuring that the states and territories aren’t cost-shifting onto the Commonwealth; that as our funding level grows, we don’t see states and territories cut back on their support, because that, of course, would be a pointless activity. There’s no point us federally putting more support in to help get better outcomes in schools and for the states to just rip money out and pocket it against their budget bottom line. So, there’s some accountability measures that we expect this body to pursue as well.

Belinda Varischetti: Do you think that there’ll be some resistance to any perceived interference on how the states run the school system?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope that we can work cooperatively in terms of how this funding is used most effectively. I think we’ve been through a really terrible period in education debate in Australia that has been completely dominated by how much money there is, or how it’s carved up, and while it’s really important that we acknowledge we now have put in place needs-based funding models for the future, what’s even more essential is that we ensure we get the best possible bang for the record buck that we’re now investing. So, we’ve got David Gonski now kicking off another body of work over the next six months to have a look at how the record and growing investment can actually deliver educational excellence. That report will be handed down at the end of this year – in terms of how it is best used in our schools – and I hope that Sue and all of the other state ministers will then work with us in looking at that report to reach agreements around the types of evidence-based reforms necessary in schools to drive teacher quality, to lift literacy and numeracy outcomes, to get the type of high quality results and return for investment that Australians expect.

Belinda Varischetti: You visited a couple of schools in Perth this morning, earlier today. What was that experience like?

Simon Birmingham: Yes indeed, so we started out the day at the Woodville Secondary College which was fantastic to see a school that is providing a range of different vocational opportunities for their students as well as very high quality academic pathways. Chatting to school leaders from year 7 up to year 12, and a really impressive focus there, as well, on student wellbeing and mental health issues that are critical to ensure that students have the type of support to succeed that recognise the different challenges schools face nowadays that aren’t just about educational success, but are also about the overall wellbeing of students, and pay tribute to the teachers – the leadership there – as well as the student leadership, who really impressed us and made a pretty mean cup of coffee in their hospitality suite as well.

Belinda Varischetti: That’s great. Good to have you in the studio here at ABC Radio Perth.

Simon Birmingham: My absolute pleasure, Belinda. Thank you.