Interview on FIVEaa Mornings with Leon Byner
Official data showing SA Government has cut their funding for schools while Coalition Government has been increasing investment in schools; Reforms to boost student outcomes

Leon Byner: Thanks for joining us. Now, I’m very passionate about education, because for me the gateway to prosperity is learning and having a skill. The Federal National Government has boosted funding for all Australian skills by more than a billion dollars, according to data released by the Productivity Commission. Now, this report’s called the Report on Government Services, but it shows that in South Australia, our education spending has actually been dropping. Simon Birmingham, explain why you’re concerned about this.

Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning Leon. Look, I’m concerned on a few fronts. Firstly of course as Education Minister I’m concerned to see the best for Australia’s children, and when we as a Federal Government increase funding to a state or territory, I expect that that funding will make a difference. Not to the budget bottom line of that state or territory, but in those schools, and what we see here is that we gave additional funding in the 2014-15 year to the South Australian Government, but they took more out on a per student basis. Around five times as much went out per student as we gave in additional funding. And that of course is unsatisfactory for those students, but it’s also grossly hypocritical, given the extent to which the South Australian Government has criticised us not for cutting school funding, but for simply proposing over the long term a slightly lower rate of growth in school funding than had been proposed before, and even going to the lengths of running advertising campaigns against us or doing dodgy deals with this One Community entity to run grossly political partisan campaigns against us with taxpayer dollars.

Leon Byner: Okay, so how much do you allege that the State Government have taken out of education?

Simon Birmingham: Well, if we have a look on a per student basis, we can see a reduction over not just one year, but also over five years. So over five years we can see that the State Government has reduced funding by $312 per student. That’s a drop of around 2.1 per cent in real terms. These are inflation adjusted figures that the Productivity Commission releases. Over the same period of time, we’ve put $382 extra in; an increase in federal funding – noting that we are not the traditional funders of schools – an increase of nearly 20 per cent.  

Leon Byner: So you’re really saying to the public of this state, we’ve put in more, and the Government have taken out a big swag to virtually reduce the effect of what you’ve spent. Is that what you’re saying?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. South Australian Government schools are effectively not seeing an increase in the money because the State Government is spending less even though they’re getting more Federal Government funding going into them.

Leon Byner: Alright. Let’s talk to Education Minister Susan Close. Susan, thanks for coming on. What’s your reply to what Minister Birmingham has said?

Susan Close: And good morning to both of you. Thank you for the opportunity. Look, there’s going to be a lot of statistics and numbers thrown around, so I’ll try to be as clear as I can. What we’re talking about is data from two years ago, so it stretches into the first half of 2015, and what has occurred – and I’m sure that Minister Birmingham is aware of this – is that we put more money out to schools. There is no question we put more money out than the previous year. We made some savings at the Head Office, which was largely associated with the changes to WorkCover that John Rau had brought in, and also some changes to some liability for long service leave. So money to schools that makes a difference to education did increase in that year. 

But what we’re really talking about, and dancing around the issue, is the money that’s associated with Gonski. So Gonski was a six year agreement that was entered into that said that over the six years we would bring our schools up to a resource standard that everyone accepted was where we needed to be. We were extraordinarily back-ended in that deal, and so the last two years, being 2018 and 2019, the Federal Government is no longer committing to those two years, and they’re the big years.

Leon Byner: We’re comparing apples with oranges here. I want to go back to the Productivity Commission’s report.

Susan Close: Sure, but just bearing in mind we are talking about two years ago, and what I’m really interested in is the next two years where it’s $335 million that we’re missing out on.

Leon Byner: Okay. What do you say, Simon?

Simon Birmingham: Leon, I’d make the point to Susan that this is not just a one year aberration. This was the lowest level of South Australian Government funding going into schools in five years, according to this independent Productivity Commission data. So it’s a five year low point that’s come under your Government, under your watch at a time when Federal Government funding was increasing. And yet you had the gall to go out there and run campaigns against us while our commitments are growing. I know you’d like them to grow even faster into the future, but they will grow each and every year into the future.

Leon Byner: Susan?

Susan Close: So again, when we’re talking apples and oranges, we’re not talking about money that goes out to schools. We’re talking about costs that are held at Head Office, and we have been able to trim some of those costs, mainly through that big WorkCover reform. So the money that actually goes to the schools has gone up. The challenge is that in the first three years of Gonski, we only had 16 per cent of the deal. So in half of the time, we only had 16 per cent of the deal. What we need to absolutely focus on is the remainder of the contract, and that was for another 335 million in those last two years, and that affects every school, but it affects schools that have kids who need more help more than others. Gonski was not just a neat funding arrangement that Education Ministers thought was a good idea. It was an agreement that this is what schools need in order to support children to be successful, and as you said in your introduction, Leon, this is all about giving kids the chance at future prosperity.

Leon Byner: You understand, though, don’t you – and I address this to both of you – that more money doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. In fact, Michael Leigh [sic], Federal Assistant to the Treasurer, has come up with some data to show that in actual fact, the graph is awful. The more we spend, the worse we get with our results. So what is it you’re going to do as minister? You would obviously be aware of this. You would know this, as well as the person sitting opposite me now. How are you going to deal with it?

Susan Close: Indeed, and a good example is spending more money on WorkCover doesn’t actually help children’s education, so saving money on WorkCover doesn’t harm it. Where the money makes the difference is out of the school. It’s when you have intervention programs so that a kid who’s struggling gets the assistance they need to catch up. If they don’t catch up early on, they’ll never catch up. We need …

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] So what are you doing to ensure- see, you’ve still got the same problem. You spend more and more money on education, but the results are not there to match it.

Susan Close: It must be in the right way, and that- of course, interventions aren’t free, but if you spend money in the wrong direction, then you’re not going to make any difference. What we are doing is absolutely focused on the kids who need more getting more, getting the individualised attention that they require to be successful. We also need to generally lift the quality of our teaching, and just because teachers were great 10 years ago doesn’t mean they’re great this year, because the demands of education keep changing. So we need to make sure that we’re able to support professional development of teachers so they keep getting better.

Leon Byner: [Talks over] Tell me … are you inclined, as the State Minister of Education, to give more schools autonomy as to making decisions about who they hire, how they educate?

Susan Close: Absolutely, and in fact you may be aware we’ve got a bill out for consultation at the moment, and we are explicitly asking teachers, parents, and principals, do you want more autonomy for the principal to be able to hire and fire? Now, they can do hiring at the moment. Firing, they refer up to the chief executive. So what do they want? Would that make a difference? Because the quality of the teaching workforce is absolutely crucial, and we’re asking that question.

Leon Byner: [Talks over] What is your personal view on autonomy? What do you think [indistinct]?

Susan Close: Well, I think autonomy as a general label can be used and misused for almost anything, but I think a principal that has control of their workforce is a good thing, and that’s why I’m inviting that question.

Leon Byner: Simon?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I absolutely believe in autonomy for schools and principals. Of course, it has to be coupled with capacity and capability, which is why one of the reforms that we’ve put on the table to talk to the states and territories about is how we better support the earlier certification of people who intend to become principals so they get better leadership skills, better training at the earlier stage to equip them to then take on that autonomous role to ensure they have strong leadership in the school around what is taught. 

Look, I think on the quality front we are all at one in wanting to see better value for money applied, and I welcome the fact that Susan was very positive the other day around our announcements about phonics skills checking and better screening of year one students, and we want to see those types of practical reforms applied. But I just have to point out, Leon, that I’m pleased if the State Government is getting savings in the back office, that’s reducing their back office costs in education, but when they’re continually calling and pleading for the Federal Government to put more money into schools, why on earth wouldn’t they reinvest those savings back into schools, rather than banking them as a saving and a reduction in their investment, as has clearly occurred?

Leon Byner: Susan?

Susan Close: And indeed, we are increasing our commitment, and this is where we get to the terrible irony of those last two years, where we’re sticking by our half even though the Federal Government has stepped away from their commitments. And yesterday, on another station, the Shadow Treasurer in South Australia was unable to commit to the South Australian end of the Gonski deal, even though we’d long been committed – didn’t know; wasn’t sure what they were doing about that. 

So quite apart from our federal partners walking away, I’m really concerned about what will happen in South Australia if there’s a change of governments at the next election, because we are committing to absolutely escalating the amount of money that’s spent. And I would like to reinforce for your listeners that this is about all schools; it’s not just about government schools, it is about all sectors, and that’s why you see people speaking up from all sectors about the importance of Gonski funding. 

Leon Byner: I can tell you that in my discussions with Mr Pisoni, I know that were he to win the next election the first thing they would do is give schools more autonomy. They’re very, very, very pushy about …

Susan Close: [Interrupts] Well I think autonomy is a very nice word; what the schools needed to know that they’ll get the funding, and of course Mr Pisoni is no longer the education shadow. So we’re all at sea about what their position is, and also what kind of conversations they’re having with the Federal Government. 

Look, Simon’s a lovely bloke and he cares about education, but he hasn’t been given the budget to honour the commitment. So our argument is really with Malcolm Turnbull, that he needs to be upping that commitment back to where we’d agreed, to allow the full six years of Gonski to play out. It’s really unfair to come in after three years, half the deal when only 16 per cent of the money has come to it, and say well it’s not working out and we need to do something differently. So I’m trying to support Simon by getting his budget increase so that he can spend the money that he knows needs to be spent on quality schooling.

Leon Byner: Simon, what do you say to that?

Simon Birmingham: A few quick points, Leon. Firstly, David Pisoni, John Gardner – the now Shadow Education Minister at SA – every conversation they’ve had with me they have indicated they’re committed to investing. And indeed, they of course lobby on behalf of South Australia for more funding – and there will be more funding. Our Federal Budget for schools grows from $16 billion last year to more than $20 billion by 2020 – that’s above projected enrolments, above inflation. There will be more money that comes to South Australia …

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] You see, we’re still arguing about money …

Simon Birmingham: But- exactly. We want to tie it to make sure there are also reforms put in place, that we can agree with the states and territories to improve the quality of outcomes, and indeed, better training for our principals; better capability for them can lead to the type of autonomy that I hope a future government in South Australia would embrace.

Leon Byner: Susan, one question. I notice that in one survey parents are still concerned about bullying for their children. What means are you going to use so that when these things occur they are better handled?

Susan Close: Well a lot of that comes down to what we’re talking about with professional development for principals and for teachers, because they’re the adults on the ground who are able to intervene. So we have a lot of anti-bullying programs and we talk about it a lot more, which is good. 

Leon Byner: [Talks over] They’re not working well, Susan.

Susan Close: But, of course, look, I’m a parent; that’s one of the greatest fears you have, is that your child’s life is made a misery. And being able to lift the professional skills of the adults in this situation is one of the sure-fire ways of dealing with this, as well as being really tough on kids as they get older and saying what’s not acceptable and getting out …

Leon Byner: [Talks over] So you’re telling us that the reason this is still getting worse is because the people dealing with these issues don’t have enough professional skill?

Susan Close: Whether it’s getting worse is really hard to dissect because of the better reporting, because we talk about it so much more. I mean, it was pretty awful when I was at school – I don’t know what it was like in your day. The truth is that we need to be absolutely vigilant and we need to give all the support we can to teachers and principals to deal with it, and when they’re younger kids they need to understand the effects of their words and actions, and when they’re older kids they need to have really big consequences.

Leon Byner: Simon, what do you say?

Simon Birmingham: Well the wellbeing of children while they’re at school is of course the first responsibility for any system, and I think Susan is right there that there’s much greater awareness, therefore much greater reporting. But we do need to, as she also says, make sure …

Leon Byner: [Interrupts] I just make the point that our education commentator, who recently retired, Graydon Horsell, has made the point that if you want to remedy bullying, don’t go to the Education Department because you’ll just get put on a turnstile. So maybe you two can have a conversation about that?

Simon Birmingham: Well perhaps we need to. I think there’s also a real responsibility that exists in communities and families, and how we make sure that parents are better engaged in understanding the responsibilities they have to make sure their children are behaving appropriately in the school environment as well. We cannot put all of this on teachers and principals to control. They’re responsible for what happens within the school, but parents and families must take their share of responsibility too.

Leon Byner: Simon Birmingham and also Susan Close, thank you for joining us today.