Interview on Kinderling Kids Radio with Shevonne Hunt 
Delivering real Gonski needs-based funding for schools

Shevonne Hunt: We’re talking about lullabies, and I’m just going to get you to repeat that excellent story you just told me. It’s a very interesting story. What is it that you and your wife sing to your children at night?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve always sung to our daughters. They’re four and six, and different songs, but we have a little household competition for football club rivalry; we support opposite AFL teams, and so we’ve each sung the club – my wife the Port Power song, me the Adelaide Crows song – to our girls as they go to sleep, to try to convince them to support our respective team. Little embarrassing. 

Shevonne Hunt: Did it work?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve got one each, so Miss Six-year-old went with Courtney, my wife; Miss Four-year-old has come with me to the Crows. 

Shevonne Hunt: How interesting. Now, these songs sound- to me, they must be rousing, because they’re trying to get people excited about the game. Do you change your pitch or the pace of the song to make it more conducive to sleep? 

Simon Birmingham: I probably sing it with a little more passion after a win at the footy, and in slightly mellower, softer tones when sitting on the edge of the girls’ bed. 

Shevonne Hunt: [Laughs] That’s brilliant. Are you good with that, Lee? 

Unidentified Speaker: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Shevonne Hunt: Cool. See, there we go. Thank you so much for that, that’s brilliant. Alright. So are you okay for us to start the interview? Alright. 

The passing of Gonski 2.0 through Parliament has been hailed as one of the most significant reforms to education funding in Australia’s history. Peter Goss, director of the School Education Program at the Grattan Institute, called it a victory for children over politics. On Friday, we spoke to The Parenthood, who are still a bit unclear on some of the details, so the Education Minister Simon Birmingham is here to clear things up for us. 

Minister, welcome to the show. 

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you. 

Shevonne Hunt: Funding for public schools has increased, but state governments are required to step in to fill the gap with total funding. Are there any boxes that they need to tick in order to get federal funding? 

Simon Birmingham: There are some. So, the Gonski needs-based formula from the report that David Gonski did some six years ago now puts in place a model to say: well, what’s the optimum ideal funding formula for schools? We’re proposing, as a federal government, to play the highest, greatest record role in school funding than has ever been the case before, and when we do that some states – like Western Australia or Tasmania – will reach that optimal Gonski level of funding with the share that the Federal Government will put in. Others don’t quite get there yet, and so what we agreed in the Senate last week was that there should be an expectation of the states to get there or to negotiate with the Federal Government. If they’re not going to, well, at what level are they going to fund their schools and what commitments will they make between existing levels of funding and meeting that target, given the increase in federal funding that’s going to flow through to them?

Shevonne Hunt: One of the questions that Nicole Lessio from The Parenthood had was- she referred to a paper called Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes, and she was wondering whether the states will need to implement things like testing for grade ones for NAPLAN et cetera. Are those sort of obligations things that they’ll need to sign off on?

Simon Birmingham: So, outside of funding commitments, we will expect all the states next year to negotiate some school reform, school achievement plans with us, and they’ll be informed by what’s going to be the second Gonski review, essentially. David Gonski will undertake some work through the second half of this year, looking not about how much money needs to be spent or should be spent, but instead about how it can best be used. How do we get the best bang for our record buck that’s being invested in schools? And really looking at the evidence-based measures that hopefully can be used by all states and territories to lift performance. Now, they could be a range of different things; we already have agreements from the states about teaching quality and teacher standards, the need to have primary school teachers undertake subject specialisations in their training back at university, the need for some minimum literacy and numeracy skills amongst teaching graduates coming out of university, so we want to make sure that they’d be implemented. They could indeed be around skills checks and early screening interventions for year ones to make sure that they’re developing the phonetic awareness skills, the basic reading skills that are necessary to fly through the rest of their schooling. So, these are some of the things I expect that David will have a look at in his review, and that will then inform the discussions with the states to make sure that the money we’re putting in is actually going to get the best possible outcomes.

Shevonne Hunt: Just speaking from a parent’s perspective though – and my daughter’s only in kindergarten, so we haven’t quite got there yet – I already know that a lot of parents are conflicted over NAPLAN testing, and how it’s used and it’s structure. Is that something that the Government’s going to look at in this process?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve already got some reforms underway in relation to NAPLAN, and the Gonski review in this sense – the new Gonski review – will be open to hear arguments from all parties on a range of issues as to how we best use the funding that’s available, and people may put forward perspectives around NAPLAN testing, but we also already have plans to improve the way NAPLAN works; to take it online so that it can be a better experience for children that responds more to the answers they give so that it both tests them but also gets a richer result across a spectrum, so that teachers, schools have a real understanding of how it benchmarks their child, how that, of course, can them help them in terms of what different strategies to best deploy to help those child and personalise the responses out of those NAPLAN programs, as, of course, teachers seek to do on a whole range of different things. We do need people to appreciate that NAPLAN is useful, but it’s also only just one test. It’s one piece of evidence, and there are many, many others that teachers and schools rightly deploy and would continue to use. 

Shevonne Hunt: I heard that there was increased funding for students with special needs. What will that actually look like practically? Do we know what that is now?

Simon Birmingham: The really big reform to funding support for students with disabilities and additional learning needs is sort of buried within the overall Gonski 2.0 reforms and this is about now providing funding that isn’t just a one-size-fits-all support for students with additional needs, but is tailored to different levels of adjustment. So schools and teachers will be asked to report what is the level of extra assistance that a child requires in the classroom against three different levels of extra support, and that will then determine the support that flows into the school, so that we’re really backing the judgement of teachers, the knowledge in schools, in ensuring that rather than saying: well, every child who meets a technical medical definition of a disability gets X dollars, we’ll instead have something a bit more tailored to personal circumstances.

Shevonne Hunt: You’re listening to Kinderling Conversation, and I’m speaking with the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, about Gonski 2.0, and he’s addressing some of the questions that’ve been raised both through The Parenthood and just from chats with other parents, basically. 

I understand that funding to Catholic schools will now take into account the capacity to contribute for parents, and I’m just curious about how will this be worked out, because I live in an area that has a mixture of mansions where there’s very affluent families and then high-rise flats where families don’t have so much money, so there could be schools in affluent areas where there is a mixture of those families. Is the capacity to contribute- what is that based on? 

Simon Birmingham: So, ever since the Howard era 20 years ago now, there’s been a use of what’s known as socio-economic status scores for non-government school funding, including in the Catholic education system. It’s not a new thing in that regard. But the Gonski formulas do put a particular reliance on that as a determinant for just what level of funding a school might receive, and the reason for that is to ensure that the greatest level of funding goes to the school communities who can least afford it, and really helping parents who want to choose a faith-based education or a non-government education but may not have the means to be able to afford to do so, to give them that choice by sending greater support to those school communities who can least afford to do so.

But there have been some concerns expressed about the SES methodology, that socio-economic status score, really effective particularly in those in circumstances where you might have two non-government schools operating in the same community, one high fee, one low fee, and is the low fee one really getting the right reflective score for its valuation. So there’s a couple of things that we’ve said that can be done there. One in the short term is that we can dig a little a deeper outside of just Bureau stats and Census data and perhaps look at actual parental income and circumstances to help inform that. The other is then looking at the overall methodology around this, and having a review put in place by an independent panel which will now be undertaken over the next year. So, we want to build confidence and overall, these are great reforms that put a big lot of extra funding – some $23 billion of additional support – into Australian schools. They’re about applying a consistent needs-based funding model right across the country regardless of state borders, regardless of difference between one type of non-government school and another. But we want to make sure that there’s confidence in the data and the number that we’ve used to determine that too.

Shevonne Hunt: So, there’s a lot of reform going on. My daughter’s in kindy at the moment. When will this funding have an impact on her schooling experience?

Simon Birmingham: So it really starts to flow from next year. It’s- my kids are equally at a very young age in their schooling – four and six – so I’m very conscious about making sure that there’s an impact right across the board in helping kids. Mine are fortunately from a family circumstance and an environment where they’re able to have every opportunity, but I know that not everyone is that fortunate and lucky, which is why having a needs-based type model delivers additional support, not only to students with disability, but to Indigenous students, to families in circumstances of low prior educational achievement or background which can be one of the barriers to kids succeeding and why you want to give extra support at school for those children. So over the next few years across the nation the average increase is $2300 extra support per student over the next decade, bringing all of the schools who are below the standard we want to get them to up to that standard within six years from now, so there’ll be really strong growth over that six year period. And just this morning, I was up at Terrigal high School on the Central Coast of NSW, and if you look at the Central Coast schools, their growth rate in funding is around $3000 per student. And so while the national average is $2300, you can see that you get those differences in pockets where there might be higher need, greater challenges in terms of educational attainment, to really try to give every kid, every school that opportunity to succeed. 

Shevonne Hunt: And look before you go, I’m just going to throw something in left of field, because you may have seen in the papers this week that there was some talk about online safety in schools, and Susan McLean – who’s a cyber-safety expert – was saying that in her experience schools across Australia aren’t consistent in their protections on what they do online, and making sure that kids don’t have access to strangers, I guess. Is there any room in this kind of reform to have a consistent approach across all schools, because it seems like something that- almost like the horse has bolted?

Simon Birmingham: I guess I really hope that, out of these funding reforms, not only do we leave a legacy of needs-based funding and additional support for kids who need it, but we change the conversation to a discussion about how is funding most effectively used in schools, what are the important things outside of funding in education we should be looking at. So, teacher quality and standards, what’s in the curriculum, how do we help the kids who are struggling in their early years of literacy development? But then other matters, like eSafety, and as a Government we’ve put in place a National Commissioner for Children’s eSafety to really establish some benchmarks and some best practise across Australia around how that’s applied. I’d really hope that we can now put all of these years of arguing and squabbling about school funding to one side, and that I can get state and territory ministers to engage with us positively on things like, is there a common approach that we can apply based on the Children’s eSafety Commissioner’s work in the search to say that, this is the best practise, this is what you should all be doing in this area, as indeed, across so many other areas that are real challenges in our school communities. 

Shevonne Hunt: Minister, thank you so much for your time today.

Simon Birmingham: Always a pleasure.

Shevonne Hunt: That’s Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.