Interview on Sky News Live AM Agenda with Tom Connell
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model

Tom Connell: Where are things at with the Catholics schools ongoing negotiations?

Simon Birmingham: Look overall I’ve been very pleased with the reaction from a whole range of stakeholders. We see today a really strong endorsement from the Christian Schools Association that comes on top of support from primary school principals, from independent school bodies, from independent commentators like the Mitchell Institute, the Grattan Institute and significant public policy commentators like Nick Greiner, social welfare entities like Anglicare and the Smith Family. So we’ve seen really good positive steps there. Yes there are concerns that have been expressed by some in relation to the Catholic system. I’d again emphasise that this is a model built on the fairness of treating all systems, all sectors equitably, and not creating any special circumstances for anybody. But of course I’ll continue to speak with all the relevant parties, including the Catholic system. 

Tom Connell: So the red line here appears to be there’s not going to be any sort of change to the formula but maybe a- you’ve spoken about transition payment, we’re talking about one off bits of cash to try to appease?

Simon Birmingham: Well, in the main, in the main, we see strong growth for all school sectors. Across Australia the Catholic school system will see per student growth of around 3.7 per cent each year over the next few years and continued strong growth beyond that, right through a decade of transition. That’s driven of course by initial growth of $1.2 billion in additional funding that they will receive over those next few years. So I think some of the tactics we’re seeing – and Bill Shorten is certainly deploying them – of trying to scare people about fee increases or other things, are really not justified when you look at the scale of continued growth in government funding …

Tom Connell: [Talks over] Well just on that growth, because Labor legislated for 3.6 increase across the board. Do you want to change that to ultimately be linked to a flexible rate that would be linked to inflation and wages growth? So it’s no longer locked in, that 3.6?

Simon Birmingham: It’s locked in for the next three years, have a guarantee in three years. And we need to make sure that it actually keeps up with wages growth, or reflects genuine costs in the economy. We’re proposing there be a model that provides a floating indexation arrangement. Now that actually should give greater certainty insuring the schooling systems that if we see more significant wages growth in future, funding for government, independent, Catholic school systems will keep up with that more significant wages growth, because it’s a fair formula built on a fair reflection of 75 per cent wages, 25 per cent inflation, genuinely reflecting the cost mix in Australian schools. 

Tom Connell: But we’ve had sustained low wage and low inflation? So what you are doing is in future you’re going to tie school funding, basically to the health of the economy. 

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m backing Treasury projections, Treasury modelling that shows that by the time we get past the three fixed years in indexation we’re proposing, we’ll then see average indexation around 3.3 per cent per annum. So that’s still quite strong indexation. And because we’re in transition in schools to a higher share of funding of the schooling resource standard of the Gonski Bill schooling resource standard. All school will still continue to see real growth over and above that, aside from just the handful that we’ve spoken about – the 24 that will see some reduction in funding. 

Tom Connell: Yeah, but just sorry on the- because on the one hand you’re saying this is needs based funding per student, but on the other this is going to be tied to the health of the economy?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s not tied to the health of the economy, it’s tied to school costs, Tom. As it should be.

Tom Connell: [Interrupts] But inflation and as well as wage growth?

Simon Birmingham: Well schools of course have to buy a whole range of different resources and products in their schools that face inflationary impacts. So the general appreciation is- the cost mix for Australian schools is about 75 per cent wages, around 25 per cent other goods and services. So that’s exactly how we have built this. So we don’t have a fixed arrangement that means if inflation or wages growth picks up, schools end up losing out. We’re about ensuring fairness and opportunity for everybody. That ensures the taxpayer, that yes if there’s continued levels of very low wages growth, then you would expect that to be reflected right across the economy, including in the education sector.

But ultimately this is a model that treats everybody fairly and consistently and ensures into the future that we have strong levels of ongoing growth and support that backs fairness, that backs opportunity, that delivers truly what David Gonski recommended. And I find it astounding that Bill Shorten is out there undermining a model that has been well thought through, that has been welcomed by so many independent impartial stakeholders and commentators as fixing and ending the schools funding war. And yet he seems to want to perpetuate it with yet more special treatment and carve-outs for people. 

Tom Connell: Just under funding though, so you were saying that if there is this lower wage growth and inflation to the economy, every area is expected to be within that. So essentially it is meaning that you’re not special, education funding is not special. If the economy’s going slowly you’re need to live within your means as well?

Simon Birmingham: All areas of government have to live within their means. Now if wages growth is really strong, then we want to make sure that funding into schools keeps up with strong wages growth so that school teachers don’t miss out on wage increases that you might be seeing if we have another time of booming sectors like the mining sector taking off. So it’s about insuring that you have a model that is able to respond to those variations, do so in an economically responsible way, but also do so in a way that guarantees the delivery of government revenue, keeps up with the costs in Australian schools, and in fact keeps ahead of it by growing over the next decade to reach a new share of the Gonski schooling resource standard. 

Tom Connell: Okay and just on where things are at with the Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think we have a fair model that is fair for all sectors …

Tom Connell: [Talks over] But are you at the negotiation table right now talking to them?

Simon Birmingham: I’m talking to all different stakeholders about how it is that we approach a fair approach to school funding and guarantee equal opportunity for school student’s right around Australia, equal opportunity for families to be able to choose what type of school they want to send their children to. Parental choice is a key part of this. We will guarantee 80 per cent of the schooling resource standard for all non-government schools coming from the Commonwealth Government. 

Tom Connell: Yeah and get rid of the special deal. What the Catholic- some of the Catholic institutions are saying or getting at with our journalists is they weren’t properly consulted. Can you speak briefly to the extent of consultations?

Simon Birmingham: Tom there were numerous meetings that were had between me and different representatives of the Catholic sector, as well as my office, as well as my department. I went through the different issues that are part of some of the concerns that they’ve spoken of. And I was told, sitting in my office, that 3.5 per cent growth is what they expected, what they needed to keep up with costs. That of course is a reflection of what they put out in a public release last year and we are delivering 3.7 per cent per student. 

Tom Connell: In the initial years. So they’ve told you in this negotiation, look as long as we’ve got 3.5, we’ll be happy, and then it happened and now they’re not happy?

Simon Birmingham: 3.5 per cent was put as a minimum benchmark to me as a reflection of the type of growth that was expected. And we are delivering 3.7 per cent across the Catholic sector, even stronger elsewhere as we make sure that we get everybody to a common level, a fair level of treatment to guarantee equal opportunity for all Australian students. 

Tom Connell: Okay, how’s this looking with the crossbench? The Greens might help you get it over the line?

Simon Birmingham: Well again, I think we’ve seen that crossbenchers – like independent commentators out in the public – have warmly welcomed our commitment to end school funding wars and to fix with a fair system for all Australians. And …

Tom Connell: [Interrupts] Quite confident though of that happening- is it likely that the Greens …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] I would absolutely not want to get ahead of myself in every predicting what the Senate would do with legislation, but I am pleased that aside from Bill Shorten, we’ve seen a sensibly reaction across the crossbench, just as we’ve seen a positive reaction from independent commentators – whether they be primary school principals, independent schools, Christian schools, the Grattan Institute, Mitchell Institute, representatives of Indigenous Australians – we see a very strong, warm welcome of our record $18.6 billion investment, but an investment that cleans up the system and gets David Gonski to look at how we can best use that record investment to lift school standards. 

Tom Connell: Well finally on that. I mean he’s going to look into again, education funding, how best to …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] No, no, no, no, not going to look into education funding. 

Tom Connell: Sorry, yes so into the education system, getting the best results, but he’s not looking into the funding. Is it strange that you’re saying to him, find out what we need, but the funding of envelope is already guaranteed? He might say we don’t need that much money, we need less than that or more than that?

Simon Birmingham: Well David Gonski’s already done a very comprehensive report in relation to school funding. And we are accepting the recommendation that have generally been put up by David’s report, to make sure we deliver a fair system of school funding. Essentially we’re fixing two problems here: inconsistent arrangements for school funding that treat different sectors differently, but then getting David to do a piece of work that makes sure teachers, principals, school authorities know how it is they can best use the funding the receive, the fair levels and record levels of funding they’re getting, to make sure it’s invested most effectively to lift student outcomes. 

Tom Connell: Right out of time. Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for coming down this morning. 

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Tom.