Interview on Sky News Live with Samantha Maiden
Topics: Catholic school funding

Samantha Maiden: Joining me now in Canberra is the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.

Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sam.

Samantha Maiden: Let’s start with this story in The Australian newspaper today. It actually says that enrolments are going down in the Broken Bay dioceses. It has some big figures of up to 23 per cent. Do you have any information on whether those enrolment figures show a trend? Have they plunged in one year, or do they generally bounce around a bit?

Simon Birmingham: Well Sam, school enrolments right across the country, whether it’s government schools, Catholic schools, move around quite a bit. They do so on a range of different factors – demographic factors in communities, parental choice, perception of different schools. All of them play a role in relation to some of those schools that have been reported today. They’ve certainly had several years, in some cases, of declines in their school enrolments. This is not a new thing. It would be driven, I’m sure, by local factors, and indeed, the letter that’s quoted today does indeed acknowledge that there are many factors at play, and I think…

Samantha Maiden: Well, it also talks about mortgage rates and so on. But it is obviously a concern for the sector if people are leaving. Do you think that there is any justification for fee increases? You know what the package is for those schools in the Broken Bay Diocese. Some of them are in well-off areas, so they may well be receiving some sort of funding freeze or funding cut. Are they?

Simon Birmingham: Well overall, as we’ve been very clear, there’s almost $4 billion extra over the next 10 years going into Catholic education around Australia. Strong growth in New South Wales schools as well. Now, those schools, I note, the letter from Mr Hamill, the leader of Catholic Ed in that Diocese, has been very clear that they intend to keep fee increases to 3 per cent or less over the next few years. So that, I’m sure, will be positive reassurance to parents in those school communities – hardworking parents who make their decisions to sacrifice to send their children to those schools, to make a contribution to their children’s education – that there is some stability and certainty ahead for them.

Samantha Maiden: Is it possible though that some of these parents are dropping out of the schools in Broken Bay diocese- and I’ve met some of the mums from Broken Bay Diocese who came to Canberra last year. Fantastic mums who care passionately about their children’s education …

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. I met with them as well.

Samantha Maiden: … who were being terrified by a campaign, a political campaign by the Catholic Education Commission telling them that they were facing huge fee increases. Now, is it possible that some of these parents are pulling out because they’re being fibbed to by a political campaign being run by the Catholic Education Commission?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I certainly would expect that parents might be concerned by some things that they read, and it’s why I seek to provide maximum reassurance to everybody about the growing funding that every school sector is basically receiving. Catholic education across every state – all six states of Australia – sees growing levels of funding going into them: some $4 billion overall, as I indicated before. This is growth that is keeping up with inflation, growth keeping up with wages. Of course, they retain their system autonomy to be able to fund the different schools as they see fit across their systems, and we’re working very hard in relation to the review of the socio-economic scores that you spoke about before to make sure that there is credibility and reliability underpinning the funding formulas that are in place, all of which stands in quite stark contrast, I would say, to what Bill Shorten has promised in recent times, which is an abandonment of using a consistent principle around needs-based funding, and instead an approach that is just about politicking in school funding.

Samantha Maiden: Alright. Let’s get to what’s happening, though, next. So, in June, you have this report that is going to look into the methodology of SES funding. There’s an expectation that you will change the methodology but not the model. That would then generate some modest increases for Catholic schools. What concerns do you have currently about the methodology in the SES? What do you think could be tweaked?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s an independent board, and indeed, it’s a board that’s been set up very much along the lines of what David Gonski recommended: to have a national school resourcing board with all the different stakeholders at the table to do its analysis and provide public independent views in relation to how school funding works. So they’ll report in June. I spoke to the chair recently, and he confirmed they’re on time to do that. They will report and it will be made public. That’s part of the requirement we put in there, so that this government and future governments will make it public.

Samantha Maiden: This is this complex arithmetic where they look at incomes and so on. I mean, do they have a legitimate complaint that, in some cases, they’re assuming that parents who go to low-fee Catholic schools are well-off, when they’re not, and how complicated would it be to actually source tax data per family, per school? That would be very complicated.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is complicated when we get into talking about the methodology and so on, but firstly, the principle. And the principle is that ever since John Howard and David Kemp introduced the use of socio-economic status scores into funding for non-government schools, the point of that was to ensure that the greatest amount of funding for schools goes to those school communities with the lowest capacity to pay fees, so that you really open up access to choosing a non-government education to as many Australian families as you possibly can, by helping those on the lowest incomes, those families to be able to access a non-government school, whereas wealthier schools get much, much less under that approach. However, some of the deals over the years, some of the grandfathering arrangements, some of the no school loses a dollar-type approaches really distorted that.

What the Turnbull Government sought to do is say: let’s transition everybody to a point where you genuinely take that approach and make sure that school systems in the non-government sector, individual schools in the non-government as well, are funded according to the relative capacity of their school community to contribute. Now, how you do that is, of course, part of what this board is looking at at present. They absolutely will have a look at questions. There have been submissions to them about whether you make greater use of income tax data or the like, but they’ll report on that. I just note that such an approach, based on principle and data and evidence, stands in stark contrast to what we’ve seen Bill Shorten do, who basically has walked completely away from what David Gonski recommended, from any consistency or principle in relation to school funding, and now just sees it as a vote-buying exercise.

Samantha Maiden: Tanya Plibersek yesterday said she was prepared to do state-by-state deals. Now, why is that a problem? Why shouldn’t she do state-by-state deals?

Simon Birmingham: Why should children in one state be funded differently by the Federal Government compared with children by a different state, unless it’s based by need? Under our approach, children in the Northern Territory or children in Queensland will receive more than children in Victoria, in terms of government schools. Why? Because there are more Indigenous children, there are more remote schools – the needs are greater. Under Labor’s approach …

Samantha Maiden: Okay. She may say- Tanya Plibersek says that she wants to get kids to the national resourcing standard faster, so if she can do a state-by-state deal to get some of those schools faster, what’s wrong with that?

Simon Birmingham: So she’ll be dudding some states and some students by thousands of dollars relative to if they were in a different state, in terms of the national government should surely treat students consistently. And equally, in terms of what deals they’re offering to the states, who knows? We know that Mr Shorten has written to Archbishop Hart, outlining precisely a minimum standard of what he proposes for Catholic education. That’s good, and good luck to them in that regard. However, where are Mr Shorten’s letters to the state education ministers outlining what he’s offering to each of them? They don’t exist. That’s the real problem at present, in terms of Labor’s policy. It’s not based on any evidence; it’s not based on any principle; and indeed, it doesn’t extend beyond one school sector.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. So I’m correct in saying, though, that you are rock-solid on the model. You’re not going to do special deals, you’re rock-solid on the model, but you’ll look at changes to methodology on the SES.

Simon Birmingham: We have absolutely heard, and we heard last year, concerns about the data and the methodology that underpins the SES. That’s why we did two things: we put in some interim funding for this year to make sure that there was additional dollars whilst we reviewed the SES formula, and we instigated this independent board and this review to do so. I’ve said publicly, time and time again: we’ll get that review’s findings. I’m confident we will act on them, and we will continue discussions with the sector to make sure that every body – not just the Catholic school community, but also the whole non-government school community – has confidence in the way the SES methodology works.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Now, David Gonski’s also doing some work about ensuring schools actually get results, so actually tying that funding to results or benchmarks. What sort of thing are you talking about there? Would you withdraw money from schools if they failed to meet benchmarks?

Simon Birmingham: So that’s a very different part of, I guess, the reform agenda, but absolutely critical, because money in itself doesn’t improve schools. How you most effectively use that money is what gives improvement. David Gonski’s report will be received very soon by government, and will be considered, I would anticipate, in the budget context. We’ll have a look at what it is we need to pursue with the states and territories and with non-government school sectors; what it is we might be able to do ourselves as the national government in terms of backing in reforms across our schooling system that help teachers …

Samantha Maiden: Well, what sort of things are you talking about? Because Christopher Pyne actually sort of walked away from that idea of withdrawing funding for schools that didn’t do what you ask them to do. What do you want the schools to do to get that money?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll get the Gonski report and we’ll release it publicly in due course, and we’ll respond to it in due course. I’m not going to get ahead of that in terms of what we’re going to ask people to do.

Samantha Maiden: Would you reduce or withdraw funding for schools that didn’t meet those benchmarks?

Simon Birmingham: There are technical provisions that would allow you to do so, but I am very confident, based on the discussions I’ve had with David and the panel of educators working with him, that the types of recommendations he’s making are things that states, territories and non-government schools sectors will want to work with us to implement, and that we wouldn’t get down that far.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Now just finally, Stephen Elder on Sky News last night said that he can’t talk to you, he can’t deal with you, he doesn’t hear from you, and that Malcolm Turnbull should sideline you because you have lost the Catholic vote. There are also calls for you to apologise for using the term pieces of silver, and suggestions that this was an offensive term to Catholics and to Stephen Elder. Will you apologise to Stephen Elder?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, no offence was meant. As far as I’m aware – indeed, from Mr Elder’s own statements – none was taken. If it was, I’m sorry. However, I continue to work very constructively with anybody who wants to sit down and work through the issues with us. We continue to meet with some regularity with officials right across Catholic education, and there are more of those meetings in coming days.

Samantha Maiden: Is it hard to sit down with Stephen Elder, though, when he’s putting out figures like this saying that schools are going to have $6000 fee increases, which never happened?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think calm, methodical approaches to this discussion are far more important than, indeed, some of the statements that have been made.

Samantha Maiden: You’ve seen some spin in politics though. Have you been shocked by the activities of the Victorian branch?

Simon Birmingham: Takes a lot to shock me, Sam, and takes a lot to rattle me as well. I’m convinced that we’re doing the right thing by applying principle to school funding …

Samantha Maiden: Yeah, this is fake, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: I am committed to working with Catholic education, leaders in independent schools, state and territory governments, to stick to a principled approach, rather than what Bill Shorten has done, which is throw principle out the door, back politicking. As I said before, we know there’s a letter because you produced on air to Archbishop Hart, but where are the letters to the eight state and territory ministers around the country? Where are the letters to the other independent and non-government school systems around the country? None of those exist, which shows very much that Mr Shorten’s approach has no principle, has no consistency, and is just trying to pick winners and buy votes.

Samantha Maiden: Sure, but this is fake, isn’t it, these figures here that were published saying fees would go up in 2018 by $6000 a year?

Simon Birmingham: Many of the claims that have been made have not materialised in reality. I welcomed before, as you heard in relation to the letter from the Broken Bay Diocese, the certainty that seeks to give parents, indicating that school fee increases will actually be kept to a very low level. They’re not the only diocese that I know who’s done that, in terms of providing certainty to their parents. Because, of course, the uncertainty that some coverage or discussion has generated, obviously would concern parents, and potentially hurt enrolments, whereas those actually administering the schools day to day and running the authorities, should know and do, in fact, know, the funding they’re receiving grows year on year on year into the future, keeping up well and truly with wages growth, inflation growth. That’s the system we’ve built. There’s no reason for aberrant fee increases to have to occur.

Samantha Maiden: Alright, Simon Birmingham. Thanks a lot for your time today. We appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sam.

Samantha Maiden: Thank you.