Interview on ABC Radio Sydney Drive with Chris Bath
Topics: Delivering real Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Turnbull Government’s agenda
Chris Bath: Now the first guest on Drive you’ll hear from today was busy tweeting at 2am last Friday. It wasn’t anything like covfefe. It was more like this: his 2am tweet declared Gonski 2.0 a landmark reform ensuring students get the support they need to succeed. So almost a week since the Government managed to get its Gonski school funding legislation through Parliament, the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is in Sydney, rather than heading home to South Australia and he’s here in the studio with us. Senator Birmingham thank you for joining us. Lovely to have you on Drive.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Chris, great to be with you. And yes indeed, not quite what Donald Trump tweets at 1 or 2am in the morning.
Chris Bath: Yes there were no spelling errors in your tweet either, which is probably helpful. So why aren’t you in South Australia?
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Very important for the Education Minister.
Chris Bath: Yeah actually, that’s a very good point.
Simon Birmingham: I always get picked up when there are errors.
Chris Bath: I’ll bet you do. That’d be a bit of a nightmare. How were you at spelling at school?
Simon Birmingham: Okay, okay. But I, you know, grammar perhaps a little more so-so.
Chris Bath: Okay well that’s something that can grow on you, grammar.
Simon Birmingham: You can work on it.
Chris Bath: Now what are you doing in Sydney? You’re not in South Australia. Parliament’s risen; I thought you’d be heading back.
Simon Birmingham: Headed back and got to see my kids on the weekend happily but importantly getting around and visiting some schools around the country, talking about what this means for them. I was up on the Central Coast early this morning and visited Terrigal High School and really just making sure that people understand the fact that there is additional resourcing flowing through into schools. That it’s going to occur according to the Gonski needs-based principles that we’ve succeeded in applying, what, for six years. There’s been a bit of a vision and a dream from David Gonski’s report. And of course talking about well how do we take the shift to the next stage which is making sure that this additional needs-based funding is invested as wisely as possible. That we get the best bang for our record buck in terms of the type of reforms and changes in schools that principals and teachers can build upon evidence-based measures to help kids be their best and achieve the most that they can.
Chris Bath: Well let’s start with how soon that happens. There are 27 different funding arrangements across the nation. They have to transition to the Gonski model. When’s that going to happen?
Simon Birmingham: So it will happen steadily over the next six years. That all of the schools across government, Catholic and independent school sectors, who are below the benchmark standard of the Gonski formula that we’ve set for them, will gradually transition to that standard over the course of the next six years.
Chris Bath: So does that mean that there’s a whole lot of kids, say at high school, for instance, who might be in year seven now, will get to year 12 without seeing a cent of that Gonski funding.
Simon Birmingham: No, the money starts flowing form next year. So in the New South Wales public school system, for example, there’s a 5.8 per cent growth per student forecast over the next yew years under the Gonski formula. So, of course, think about that: that’s nearly 6 per cent growth in an environment of quite low wages growth, quite low inflation. So that’s really significant additional funding flowing through into schools, based on a needs-based arrangement that ensures that those schools who have the greatest needs should receive the greatest support for their students.
Chris Bath: And does that mean they’ll get the greatest support first?
Simon Birmingham: Well they will see the fastest rates of growth. So in a sense, if you’ve got further to transition to get to that standard, then you’ll see even faster growth rates. Which is why sometimes people will talk about the fact that one sector, one system, one school has a lower rate of growth than another. That’s because the different deals done in the past have put schools at very different starting points. Our ambition is to have them all at a common ending point where they’re all funded according to need in six years time and that means there are different rates of growth to get them to that single end point.
Chris Bath: Now we know that the Gonski legislation means that roughly $2300 will be delivered to each student. That’s the average over the next few years. But how’s that money going to be delivered? Is it given to the individual or at the school or is it discretionary according to the principal? How do the kids see that $2300?
Simon Birmingham: So federal funding still flows through the relevant authority for each and every school. So we pay funding to the New South Wales Government or to the Catholic Education Commission in New South Wales or to a range or different authorities for smaller school systems or independent schools. And of course, they then determine across their system exactly how it is distributed, representing the different needs that they might identify, compared with what at a federal/national level we can see from a single global formula that can always have enhancements by people closer to the coalface. But ultimately, when I visit schools, Terrigal High or Cheltenham Girls’ High, both of which I visited today, principals have found from additional resourcing over the last couple of years and will continue to find there’s a bit extra for them that they, with the leadership in their school and their school community, can identify what particularly– what particular needs they have. Whether it’s extra speech pathology assistance, whether it’s student wellbeing services to deal with mental health challenges, whether it’s a real focus on basic literacy or basic numeracy in the early years. A whole range of different things that for different schools they might see as being essential to lift the outcomes for their students.
Chris Bath: So, will each school know exactly how much funding they’re supposed to get from the states and what are the guarantees that that will be passed on?
Simon Birmingham: So, importantly, in this legislation we’ve put in place provisions for states to make sure that they can’t cost shift. We’ve seen in the past where some state governments – not in New South Wales, I hasten to add, but others – have taken money with one hand and then reduced their state contribution with the other, which of course provides no net benefit to schools overall. So, we’ve put in place provisions where states will be much more accountable for maintaining their level of investment. If they’re below the contribution that some states make, there are provisions for us to try to strike agreements with those states to bring them up to a standard like a Western Australia or a Tasmania who – with the Commonwealth contribution we’re proposing – will meet the full Gonski needs-based formulas, so really holding the states to account. For individual schools, yes they’re still going to need to work through their state government – if it’s a public school, the New South Wales Government – to fully appreciate how funding will flow to them, but we have made quite transparent indicatively what that means in terms of federal funding for them.
Chris Bath: The New South Wales Education Minister, Rob Stokes, says he’s happy with the Commonwealth’s embrace of needs-based funding, but he says – and I quote – it effectively breaks the agreement the New South Wales Government currently has, where the Commonwealth matches state contributions. He says there will be millions less than the state government expected for schools in New South Wales from the Commonwealth over the next two years. Is he right?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I appreciate various state ministers would like to have clung on to the Gillard Government deals and types of arrangements …
Chris Bath: [Talks over] Well, this is a Liberal government saying this.
Simon Birmingham: Yeah, yeah, it is absolutely, and I acknowledge that. The Gillard Government made some promises that were both inconsistent – in terms of the way they treated different states – and in some ways unaffordable. We’ve tried to present something that treats the states consistently, so not having a special deal for New South Wales versus Western Australia, but as a national government treating students and schools across the country consistently, and also – by not having special deals – is more affordable in its application. So, yes, we’re investing some $23 billion extra over the next decade in Australian schools, but it’s not as much as Labor says should be spent. Now, it’s for the Labor Party to justify how, in a period of growing level of investment, that as I say, for New South Wales, government schools over the next few years will see an average increase of nearly six per cent per student per annum, which is pretty significant in anybody’s terms.
Chris Bath: But is that still millions less than what the New South Wales Government was expecting?
Simon Birmingham: If the funny money of the Gillard Government had all been delivered, then of course everybody would have had more, but the nation …
Chris Bath: [Interrupts] Well, they wouldn’t have been expecting it on a promise, surely. I mean, they would’ve had to wait for the legislation to go through to have an expectation that it would be there.
Simon Birmingham: Well, the difference here is we have legislated very clearly for the type of growth to get people to a common standard. The Gillard Government did it partly by legislation, partly by a bunch of different deals. That’s how we ended up with 27 different agreements and special deals around the country that treated states and territories differently.
Now, we’ve been clear for a number of years now – since the 2014 Budget at least – that the Gillard deals would come to an end at the end of this year, and that there would be a new model applied going forward. So, this should be no surprise to the New South Wales Government; it well preceded Rob Stokes’ appointment as education minister, and I just hope that with this record growing level of investment we’ve got that Rob in New South Wales and all of the other state ministers can come together now, move beyond the funding wars or an endless discussion about how much money is invested in our schools, and focus the effort on ensuring that it is invested as effectively as possible in the ways that can really help students to be their best.
Chris Bath: You’re listening to the federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, who is here at the moment.
Now, you do have a bit of a war on your hands with the Catholic education system; it’s furious about Gonski, saying there will be massive cuts from its schools. Do you think you underestimated the reaction of the Catholic system to Gonski going through?
Simon Birmingham: I was disappointed by some of the commentary on the way through. Catholic Education here in New South Wales will see, again, an average per student growth rate of around four per cent per student per annum, and so that is still substantial positive growth going into the Catholic Education Commission. We listened to some concerns about how it is that we make sure that they are empowered to continue to operate with autonomy, and to run distribution according to the need they identify in their schools, and that’s reasonable, and so some concessions were made in the legislation to ensure that’s the case, and I really hope …
Chris Bath: [Interrupts] They were short-term concessions though.
Simon Birmingham: There was a short-term funding concession for some interim transitional support there, but there were some changes as well that ensure the autonomy of Catholic education to run their schools in their system according to their needs-based funding principles is recognised, that they have that empowerment, and they have that empowerment with a growing pool of funds that’s available to them. So, if Catholic education wants, there’s no reason, really, as to why Catholic education schools across New South Wales cannot receive next year largely the funding they got this year, plus around four per cent, if their enrolments were to remain exactly the same.
Chris Bath: Well, clearly they’re not reassured by that. I mean, the Catholic National Education Commission says it’s going to campaign against you at the next election. Have you had any talks with them subsequent to the legislation going through last week?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve had a number of discussions over a period of time now, and I’ve visited and met with a range of Catholic school principals, including today, to really try to make sure that I hear their concerns, that they get a better understanding of what it is we put in place, and I hope that we can see this debate move on. We want to make sure, though, that the model does work for everybody, and Catholic education expressed some concerns that the way socio-economic status schools are developed – which is part of the Gonski formula – may not be a perfect methodology, so we’ve committed to a review to that process; Catholic ed will be part of that review, and I hope that at the end of it everybody can have confidence in the methodology, in the approach, and in having a true needs-based funding model across the country.
Chris Bath: Now, I need to ask you about your party, because it’s in some considerable turmoil; it certainly appears to be from the outside looking in with regard to those comments that Christopher Pyne made over same-sex marriage. It’s sparked quite an outrage. There are apparently calls by the liberal right for Christopher Pyne to be stripped of his title as Leader of the House. Should he lose that?
Simon Birmingham: No. Christopher is one of our hardest working, most energetic ministers, and I think this is all being blown well out of proportion. I understand that some people get excited by the titillation of a secret recording of a speech to a private dinner, but in the end we need to keep the focus on the issues that matter for the Government. I’m out here trying to talk about school funding reforms, which are the most historic school funding reforms since the Commonwealth government got involved in supporting school education in the Menzies era, and really we need to make sure that right across the Government every single member of the Government focusses on those achievements, and on the challenges that lie ahead in terms of ensuring we have a strong energy policy that deals with the issues of affordability and reliability, as well as our emissions targets. They’re the big issues.
Chris Bath: When you say every member of the Government, does that include Tony Abbott? He’s- over the past couple of days he’s accused Chris Pyne of disloyalty, he’s said the political spectrum is moving in the wrong direction, he has a new slogan – make Australia work again – which would imply that it’s not at the moment, and you’re in government.
Simon Birmingham: Well, when I say every member of the Government, I do absolutely mean every member of the Government should be committed to talking about our achievements, focussing on the challenges. I think the Australian people expect their politicians to worry far more about the issues that impact their lives, their electricity bills, their kids’ school, than they do circumstances of internal party squabbles. It’s not something that anybody gives any rewards or points for, and so our challenge- and certainly I know I’m not distracted, I don’t think Malcolm Turnbull is distracted, I’m sure Christopher Pyne isn’t distracted, that we all have important jobs to get on as senior members of the Government, and that’s precisely what we’ll keep doing.
Chris Bath: So does that mean Tony Abbott is?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Tony is, of course, a member of the backbench. That comes with liberty to talk about some of the challenges the nation faces. Now, I haven’t looked at his speech from last night, but if there are constructive policy suggestions there then I’m sure we’ll all give them consideration.
Chris Bath: According to one of the Press Gallery’s most senior members, Laurie Oakes, there’s a majority of people in the Coalition who just wish Tony Abbott would shut up. Are you one of them?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I want every member of the team to play a part and to be constructive, and as long as Tony remains a member of the team, then he ought – like everybody else – to be a constructive member of that team, to work on positive policies and positive policies that help advance the Government’s agenda, and we have real challenges in terms of how it is we make sure that the failings of the energy market in the past are properly addressed, and that we put in place a comprehensive approach to guarantee that reliability and affordability. We have real challenges in terms of tough global environments, of competitive pressures for investment, and that’s why we need to all be out there explaining why enterprise tax reforms, for example, are critical to growing jobs and investment in South Australia, and these are the things that everyone needs to lift the weight on to help pull the team along with, and I would urge every one of my colleagues to do so.
Chris Bath: Alright, Minister. We’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for your time this afternoon, and best of luck with Gonski 2.1 and getting the message out to the electorate. We did talk about that for 15 minutes before we got to the distractions.
Simon Birmingham: We did absolutely, Chris, and I really hope that schools across the country can make the most of these resources to help our kids be the best.
Chris Bath: Alright Minister, really appreciate your time. Thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.
Chris Bath: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham there.