Interview on Channel 10’s The Project with Waleed Aly, Carrie Bickmore, Rachel Corbett and Peter Helliar
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model; Higher education reforms to drive better outcomes for both students and taxpayers

Waleed Aly: Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now. Minister, thank you very much for your time. I will confess to be a little confused here because you spent three years telling us that the Budget couldn’t afford this and that the problems that we’re having with education weren’t about funding, and yet here we are. What’s changed?  

Simon Birmingham: Hey, Waleed. Well, look, it’s good to be with you. What we’re doing is we’re fixing a mess of broken, different, inconsistent funding models. What Australia has at present – and I've been talking about the problems of this for the last 12 months with state ministers and others to really try to get a better understanding of it – is we’ve got 27 different school funding models that are largely based on historic sweetheart deals with different sectors and different states, and I've been saying we need to shift to a new uniform approach that is based on need, and that's what we're doing. 

We've picked up the recommendations from David Gonski's first report, done six years ago now, and we are going to implement it in a far more consistent way than the Labor Party ever proposed to do – without sweetheart deals, without treating one state differently from another state, but as the national Government, transitioning schools in a sensible way with additional funding. But because we are actually willing to take difficult decisions through this and we are not imbedding sweetheart deals, we are able to do it at less cost than what Labor initially promised and proposed.

Carrie Bickmore: What will it mean for mums and dads at home and their kids? What will it mean to class sizes? What will it mean to access to resources, access to aides in class? You've said the classroom will be better off in 10 years' time. How will it look?

Simon Birmingham: So it will mean firstly that schools can have confidence they’re going to be appropriately resourced, and appropriately resourced on need; that we’re putting in an extra $2.2 billion over the next few years, an extra $18.6 billion over the decade. But they’re just big figures and I know that doesn’t mean a lot to an individual school, but schools across the country will feel benefits financially. 

But what we announced today was we’re getting David Gonski to chair a second piece of work that, over the course of this year, will look at how those additional resources can best be invested and spent by our schools to make sure that we actually get the lift out of it in terms of better outcomes for our students. Whether that relates to class sizes, as you raised, or relates to more specialists in different schools, or different teaching practice, or how that is actually invested, is something we are commissioning David to lead a panel of experts to do, so that we don't just have a report that we are acting on now that says how much should be spent, or how it ought to be distributed, but we are going to have clear advice to ensure it is spent the most effective way possible, too.

Rachel Corbett: What about private schools? A lot of people argue that they’re already funded enough as it is. Will private schools lose money under Gonski 2.0?

Simon Birmingham: A handful will and all will be funded in an entirely consistent manner with a uniform model. So what we are proposing is to take, as I say, the original Gonski report, which recommended a national schooling resource standard and that there be additional loads paid on that standard for need, such as low socioeconomic students, students with a disability, Indigenous students, smaller regional and remote schools, all of those different loading factors that constitute a true needs-based approach are built into this model. Then for non-government schools, their funding is discounted against the capacity of the school community to contribute. So wealthier schools face a greater discount than less wealthy non-government schools.

We want to back and continue to support parental choice. So all school systems will see growth in their funding, but some individual schools – a very tiny number, about 24 over the next couple of years – will see some small reduction in their funding. That's 24 out of around 9600, so a vast majority of Australian schools will absolutely see growth, many of them very substantial growth, to bring them up to the standard.

Waleed Aly: That’s bold. I look forward to that fight with the privates or the elite private schools if that’s where it falls. It will be fascinating to watch. But I can't help but notice, Minister, that you have announced this today one day after you announced a billion dollars’ of cuts to the tertiary sector that would effectively mean that students at tertiary level, at universities, are going to have bigger debts and they’re going to have to pay them off with lower income. Was this part of the PR plan all along, that you would announce that, get that one out of the way, and then do this in the hope that I wouldn't ask this question?

Simon Birmingham: I just did Triple J Hack and we spent pretty much the entire time talking about higher education reform, so more than happy to talk about it. And we’ve got the Budget next week. Of course, we’re announcing our Budget measures in the lead up to the Budget and more will be detailed through the course of this week, next weekend, and then Budget night next Tuesday. The higher education …

Peter Helliar: [Interrupts] And Minister, big one final question, are you banning Fidgets or not? That’s what we want to know.


Simon Birmingham: I’ve got a bit of fidget in me actually guys. I really wish that I had one to fidget with right here. But look, on higher ed, our reforms are modest …

Peter Helliar: [Talks over] We won’t take that out of context at all, Minister, you can guarantee it. 


Simon Birmingham: If only I was in Melbourne with you and your Fidgets.

Carrie Bickmore: Alright, lots more to talk about over the coming months. We’ll chat to you then, thanks Minister.