Interview on Sky News Live with Samantha Maiden
Topics: Catholic schools funding; Gonski Review

Samantha Maiden: Joining me now from Adelaide is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Good morning Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Sam.

Samantha Maiden: Now, you have your own review into how this funding deal will affect the Catholic sector. Where is that at and when do you plan to announce whether you plan to change the needs-based funding model yourself to address the concerns of the Catholic sector?

Simon Birmingham: Well Sam, let’s be clear here, we don’t have a review into the Catholic sector, we have a review into how socioeconomic status scores are calculated for all non-government schools to make sure that our fair needs-based funding model is fair and needs-based, and that it applies consistently across everything. And that is the stark difference between the approach the Turnbull Government is taking and what Bill Shorten, in his secret letter to the Catholic Archbishop, has promised. He’s promised a special deal for one part of the schooling sector. We’ve said that we will make sure that the socioeconomic status score approach works effectively and consistently for everybody. Regardless of your faith, regardless of the nature of the non-government school, we want to make sure that it is a fair model.

Now, we’re, of course, already putting significant additional funding into Australian schools that grows dramatically over the next decade–some $20 billion extra that we’ve put in, compared with what the previous budget settings had been. So, huge additionality there. That means extra growth across all sectors, including the Catholic sector, who will see some $3.5 billion extra over the next decade. They’re getting $300 million more this year compared with last year, and there will be another $300-odd million next year additional compared with this year. So, the growth is real, the growth is there, but we are committed to transparent, consistent, needs-based funding that isn’t based on special deals like Bill Shorten, but is based on the actual need of schools and their students.

Samantha Maiden: You must be concerned, though, about this as a political issue, particularly in Victoria, that has a very high proportion of students being educated in the Catholic sector. How do you actually plan to convince parents that your plan wouldn’t actually lead to higher school fees than Labor’s?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think parents, teachers, principals, across Catholic schools – as across everywhere else around the country, and indeed people who don’t have connections nowadays to the schooling system directly–I think all of them would appreciate that the best way to fund Australian schools is based on need, not on special deals. And so I think that Catholic parents, teachers, principals are bigger and better than what Bill Shorten is trying to appeal to. That he is out there saying: we can buy you off with a special deal. Whereas I believe that people want to see a fair and transparent system, and also one that is enduring. Bill Shorten’s letter talks about what might happen over the next one or two years, but there’s no certainty beyond that, whereas the model the Turnbull Government sought to put in place–by building it around what David Gonski had recommended–is an enduring model, where we’ll refine it, and improve things like the way you calculate socioeconomic status over time. But ultimately, it is one that can endure long into the future and give everybody certainty about the way school funding is calculated and how it will be distributed and make sure that it is fair, regardless of the faith of the school or the background of the school authorities or administrators.

Samantha Maiden: Okay, but Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews don’t agree with you. I mean, they have argued–in the party room and publicly–that the Catholic sector is being ripped off by your funding arrangements.

Simon Birmingham: Well, no, that is not a fair appraisal of comments. Certainly, people wanted to make sure that we addressed the way SES scores are calculated, and that’s what we’re doing through a very independent review, chaired by an eminent Australian, with a Catholic sector representative as part of that review panel. So that’s a very transparent process. It will hand down its recommendations in the middle of this year, or thereabouts, and the Government’s committed to acting upon those. But we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t single out one part of the schooling sector, but one in a way, instead, that recognises all schools ought to be treated fairly. We have an approach in Australia that says, for non-government schools, there is a discount of public funding that’s available based on the capacity of parents to contribute. Socioeconomic status score is the way in which we assess that capacity to contribute, and we want to make sure that that is an effective methodology. So, that’s why we’re reviewing it, but it’s not one that applies specifically to Catholic schools it’s one that applies to all non-government schools in a fair and equal way. And that is a stark, stark contrast. And I think Australians will be, frankly, horrified at the idea that Bill Shorten’s approach to the next election is to run around the country and quietly say to one group over here, we’ll give your school some extra money, and group over there, you’re school some extra money. To never actually publicly reveal what’s been said. You know, you had to release this letter on your program yesterday, Sam. You asked Tanya Plibersek about it in the grab you played before, and about some of the specific details underpinning it, and she didn’t answer that at all. She pivoted straight to trying to talk about the overall budget of school funding, and nothing specific to how this would impact on Catholic schools. And it’s all very reminiscent, of course, of the same approach and style, where Bill Shorten says to mining workers and industries in Queensland: we support your jobs and the growth of new industries and opportunities, but then says something different to electors in suburban Melbourne when he wants to win a by-election against the Greens …

Samantha Maiden: Okay, right, so you’re suggesting he’s being two-faced on schools funding?

Simon Birmingham: I think he’s absolutely being tricky that, number one, he’s abandoned consistent needs-based funding; number two, rather than release a detailed policy, he’s making side offers around the place. I mean, this is Bill Shorten the union leader, who thinks if you stitch up a deal here and you stitch up a deal there–just the same as he does in the Labor factions–that that’ll all hold together sufficient to hopefully win an election, is his plan. How on earth he intends to fund schools three, four, five years down the track, nobody’s got any idea because there is no policy, there is no clarity and there is obviously an abandonment of the commitment to needs-based funding that the Turnbull Government has acted on.

Samantha Maiden: Okay, putting to one side for a moment the SES review, David Gonski, of course, agreed to lead a new inquiry into improving the results of Australian students back in May, when you announced the new funding model. The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools will report in the next month. Are you going to release that report publicly right away, and do you commit to following through with all of its recommendations?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll absolutely release it publicly and we’ll do so in pretty short order. There will need to be time for the Cabinet to consider it and I’d like to be able to make sure that we share its findings with the states and territories, who are a core part of this process. In the end they administer and run schools around the country. So, we will certainly release it publicly. We’ll do so, though, in a way that ensures the key stakeholders, and especially the states and territories, are treated with the respect that they deserve. And then during the course of this year we’d be working with the states and territories to agree on the types of changes and reforms that can really achieve improvements across Australian schools because, indeed, we’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years talking about funding…

Samantha Maiden: Okay, because one of the great criticisms. Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years talking about funding, but actually how you use it matters most in terms of actually improving outcomes for Australian students.

Samantha Maiden: Absolutely. Now, one of the great criticisms of the original funding model that you announced, is that there were no requirements that the states demonstrate that they were using evidence-based methods to improve results. How can you–now that you’ve already handed the money out, actually ask schools to perform? What sort of areas are you looking at? Would you withdraw funding, for example, if schools were failing to deliver results?

Simon Birmingham: Well, actually under historical arrangements there was no connection between funding and how it was applied in schools really. The money was just handed over, and occasionally there were agreements that states might do A or B but never did it really connect to the funding. Under the changes we made to the legislation, last year, there is a capacity to hold states and territories and non-government school systems to account to make sure that they are delivering in terms of evidence-based reforms and best practice in our schools to lift student outcomes, and that if they’re not, or if they’re attempting to cost shift funding from taking more federal dollars but then withdrawing state money–as we’ve seen state governments like the Labor one here in SA do, we could potentially withhold some federal funding. Now, we’d never want to get to that situation so ideally we work cooperatively through it. But, as I said before, we’ll get the Gonski report, we’ll then by the end of this year be looking to sign new agreements with the states and territories that they will be accountable for, they’ll have to report in terms of their progress against those agreements, as of course will the Commonwealth where we might make commitments about our role in the partnership in terms of leadership in educational curriculum standards and so forth across Australia.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Just finally, though, how resistant do you think teachers are to these sort of changes? You’ve got me at a good moment, I spent an hour and a half last night at a reading workshop at my children’s school where I was told, one of the teachers pointed out that unlike politicians that they don’t just believe in phonics and then when I asked what data they had to show that the teaching methods were actually having an impact, bearing in my mind that it would probably be a reasonably high SES school in Canberra, as most of those schools are with a high population of tertiary educated women which tends to relate to more improved results anyway, what were they doing to actually help the kids that needed it, and they said to me that they didn’t know what my point was.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, I find many great principals and teachers across the country who I think do their best based on the evidence that’s available to them. But we do want to make sure that in terms of information, evidence, recommendations, it’s clear as to what the best approaches and practices are to teach children to read in that example. Now, I don’t believe in phonics in that sense, I believe we should follow evidence that shows phonics is one part of effective literacy instruction. It’s by no means the only part, but it is one part that children should be effectively taught to help ensure that they learn to read and they learn the different skills in that case around how to decode the sounds that the letters make up within a different word. So, it’s an important component, and it’s one that I would hope and trust that we see greater focus on, which has been reflected in our changes to the National Curriculum as a government already, should be being reflected in our universities in the way future teaching graduates are taught. But, of course, it is critical to make sure that the teaching profession is sticking to evidence.

Now, I do despair when I see things like the extreme elements of the teacher’s unions come out and simply rail against any form of transparency or accountability, such as NAPLAN assessments, but never offer any alternatives in terms of what they believe would be fair methods to ensure that parents and policy-makers have the evidence and the information they need about whether schools are getting the gains in student progress that are necessary, and meeting the outcomes that are required. So, we as a government will stand very firm in ensuring that we do have transparency and accountability across the school system, but importantly we want to arm teachers with every available bit of evidence and information to be able to teach effectively in their classrooms and help different students in different ways as is required using the record and growing funding that is available to them.

Samantha Maiden: Alright. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time today.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sam.