Interview on Sky News PM Agenda with David Speers
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model

David Speers: So how far is the Minister Simon Birmingham willing to budge to address some of these concerns that have come up over the last day or so? I spoke to him a little earlier.


David Speers: Minister, thank you very much for your time. Now the states- let’s start here, the states agreed with the Commonwealth when Labor was in government to a six year funding deal, the original Gonski deal. Year 5 is next year of that deal, Year 6 is the following year, are you know confirming that the Commonwealth will not honour those Year 5 and Year 6 arrangements?

Simon Birmingham: David, firstly I’ll point out that only some states agreed to those deals, not all states did, and they were all deals being stitched up in the haste of a pre-election environment …

David Speers: [Interrupts] New South Wales, Victoria, the big states …

Simon Birmingham: Yep sure, which is how we ended with such a hotchpotch of different deals that don’t really reflect the Gonski recommendations at all. Secondly, it was made clear in the 2014 budget that this was a four year proposition and it’s been a four year proposition ever since then which is why the pressure has been on and it’s been clear that the Turnbull Government needed to outline what the approach would be …

David Speers: [Interrupts] So you are now next year – so you are now confirming those original agreements will not be honoured?

Simon Birmingham: That’s been clear since 2014. There’s nothing to confirm there …

David Speers: Right.

Simon Birmingham: That’s been clear government policy since 2014 that we would over the forward estimates of the period that we inherited we would see through what was there in the budget, notwithstanding the cost of that and the difficulties in the budget position, but that from 2018 there would be a new approach. Now the Government …

David Speers: [Interrupts] But the states were obviously hoping that you would honour the agreements. We’ve heard that from New South Wales, from Victoria, from the other states as well.

Simon Birmingham: The states as state premiers have for time immemorial continued to lobby for more money …

David Speers: What does it mean though for them? You are committing some extra money over the next couple of years, but more than six billion less over four years than Labor would have got- Labor would have given them.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, what Labor’s promises are – what Labor’s promises are, they didn’t win the last election. We did. We formed a government having gone to that election with a promise in relation to school funding. We’ve now decided to inject more school funding; $2.2 billion more than Malcolm Turnbull and I took to the last election just over the next four years, $18.6 billion more over the decade, which will ensure that states like New South Wales for example will see per growth, growth in a per student basis of 4.9 per cent across their government school system over the next four years …

David Speers: Can I ask how you arrived at these numbers? Because, I mean in the three years since the Gonski funding formula was being rolled out, we’ve seen Australia fall in international education standards and we’ve seen the domestic NAPLAN results flatline and you yourself said last year; we need to move the conversation on from just how much is being spent in schools, to focus on how record funding can best be used. It really is time to end the politicking about money. Why then have you decided to put more money in?

Simon Birmingham: Because we made the policy decision that we should also fix the funding model and the system simultaneous to try to shift that conversation as well [indistinct] …

David Speers: [Interrupts] [But you put the money in first?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re doing both. We already have a range of reforms that we’ve implemented and continue to implement in relation to quality. And yes, we’re asking David Gonski to bring his creditability with state premiers, state education ministers, education union leaders to the task of recommending reforms in our schools to lift quality and we hope that with David leading that work who they have all of course praised over recent years, that they will accept his recommendations. But …

David Speers: [Interrupts] Sure, [indistinct] …

Simon Birmingham: …simultaneous to that exactly – simultaneous to that as I said before, we had to decide what school funding from the Federal Government would look like from 2018 onwards. We could have taken …

David Speers: [Interrupts] [Indistinct] arrive that – 18.6 billion over 10 years.

Simon Birmingham: So, we could have taken the existing bunch of hotchpotch arrangements and said what the 2014 budget proposed, we’ll just apply CPI to them all and they’ll just all continue on in that basis. We could have done what was assumed in the basis of last year’s budget in terms of a general indexation. None of those things though would have actually fixed the desperate deals that 27 different arrangements, all of that, it would have just continued on this mess. Instead we’re determined to fix it and fixing it and trying to do that in a way that was fair to everybody that ensures every school sector; government, non-government, independent, Catholic, grows and grows above wages and above inflation across the nation over the next few years. That actually cost a little bit but it’s worth it for the fact that we get to fix the legacy from the previous government, from other governments as well of special deals, and yes, there’ll be additional investment in schools that allows us to truly have David do this new separate piece of work and to really look at the quality equation.

David Speers: You’re not putting the cart before the horse here and committing the funding then having a look at how to spend it?

Simon Birmingham: Well the question of the funding had to be fixed and settled anyway and I think it’s worth and the Government believes it’s worth sorting out 27 different school funding arrangements and a whole bunch of ancient sweetheart deals into a single approach that’s needs-based, that’s built on the recommendations of David Gonski and gives us then something coherent in terms of school funding in Australia rather than something that is thoroughly inequitable, treating like-for-like schools in different states in completely different ways across government sector, the Catholic sector, the independent sector.

David Speers: It does mean as you acknowledge some will lose out. 353 schools won’t get as much as they would have got, 24 will actually lose money. 

Can I ask you about the ACT Catholic system in particular because based on your own figures their annual average growth rate- well actually backwards, they’ll go backwards; 0.8 of one per cent. Why is that?

Simon Birmingham: Because there’s a particular special deal within a special deal under current arrangements. So when the Gillard Government struck all of its arrangements for the ACT what it said was that in terms of the socioeconomic status of people attending Catholic schools in the ACT, they could apply not as it applies to their school, not as it applies to the ACT as a whole, but a national average. So even though the ACT is the jurisdiction in Australia with the highest household incomes of any, the way in which school funding is currently calculated for ACT Catholic schools applies an average that includes Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, rural communities in Tasmania, places that are vastly and different to the ACT. So in taking out those special deals it has- because there was a particular one for the ACT it has a more profound effect there, whereas for the rest of the Catholic sector …

David Speers: [Interrupts] The impact though, the impact will be they lose money every year for the next 10 years. Is that right?

Simon Birmingham: Because of indexation and the way that it works, over the next 12 months there will be a small growth – or about even, I gather – for the ACT Catholic sector …

David Speers: And after that?

Simon Birmingham: The year after that there will be a tiny reduction in the tune of $10 per student or something like that …

David Speers: Per year or … $10 per student per year.

Simon Birmingham: And to get them to a common point this applies over a 10 year transition period. Inflation, wages growth impacts over that over the period of time.

David Speers: [Talks over] So $100 per student.

Simon Birmingham: In terms of what it’s doing though, is it’s bringing ACT Catholic schools into a world where they’re being funded on the same basis as Catholic schools in Sydney or independent schools in Melbourne …

David Speers: [Talks over] Sure but it means in the meantime they’ll either have to cut their costs or put up fees.

Simon Birmingham: Well for the Catholic sector in the ACT, they’ll have to do their analyses. We’re having particular discussions with them because of the unique circumstances of that deal that was struck there. But it’s important, particularly for the bulk of your viewers and the bulk of Australians, that parents and principals and teachers in Catholic schools across the country know that everywhere else funding grows from 3.5 per cent in Victoria in the Catholic system per student, to around 4.5 per cent in Tasmania.

David Speers: In the Northern Territory though the Catholic- sorry, the government schools there will only see a very small increase of 1.3 per cent. Now, I would have thought the Northern Territory – there’s pretty needy schools there, particular areas of disadvantage. Why- and that seems to be below inflation. Is that a real cut in real terms?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Northern Territory will see per student growth grow from around – for the government sector – $14,583 per student to $25,049 per student over the- Sorry, no it’s- that’s for the Catholic sector. I’ve got the Catholics on my mind.

David Speers: The government sector.

Simon Birmingham: The government sector sees growth to get to the 20 per cent share of the schooling resource standard of around $6400 to around $7369.

David Speers: So that’s below inflation over a decade isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: That is, I should highlight, more than double what some other state and territory jurisdictions receive on that basis. Because it’s needs-based.

David Speers: Sure but why is it though? Northern Territory, though, so a particular area of disadvantage there – big Indigenous population, remote communities – why is it the smallest? It is the smallest increase you’re offering any state for government schools.

Simon Birmingham: Yep. And it’s still by far and away the most on a per student basis for any government jurisdiction in the country. So $7300 in the Northern Territory compared with, for example, in Queensland $4600 or in Victoria $4200.

David Speers: So right now, they’re overfunded right now?

Simon Birmingham: So right now in terms of the Gonski recommended schooling resource standard that takes account of the numbers of Indigenous students, the numbers of students with disadvantage et cetera, the Northern Territory is receiving more than the 20 per cent share that we’re proposing to transition each state and territory to. Once again, they are really the couple of outliers that you’ve highlighted, the two territories, and so we’re having special discussions with both of those sectors, but we shouldn’t …

David Speers: [Talks over] [Indistinct] Will it mean any special deals?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ll talk through with them to make sure that, in terms of particularly the immediate couple of years, if there are issues they’re facing that we understand what they are and then can we consider their arguments.

David Speers: So some adjustment money, but not a special deal?

Simon Birmingham: We don’t want to create any new special deals. I was clear about that at the Press Club that as soon as you start doing special deals in one place, you have to look at it in another place. But in terms of transitional assistance to recognise that we’re proposing this new model start from next year, then we have budgeted a small and modest sum of transitional assistance to deal with some of the individual schools as well as to talk with some of the different sectors in those two territories. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact though that overall there is very significant real growth in every single state and so the examples are isolated to the territories due to some oddities, but the model drives strong growth above inflation for students in every state. Which is why, of course, it sees an additional investment over the decade of $18.6 billion and over the forward estimates of $2.2 billion.

David Speers: You spoke today at the Press Club about your grandmother a primary school principal and you had your schooling through the public system as I understand it, primary school, high school – you may well be one of the few in Cabinet that went through the public school system. 

Simon Birmingham: I haven’t done a tally, but …

David Speers: Well, how important is that to you? I mean, has that influenced your decision making here at all?

Simon Birmingham: No, but fairness absolutely drives the decision making and it’s driven Malcolm Turnbull’s decision making and it drove David Gonski’s recommendations. And it’s fairness applied on a range of different levels: fairness to students regardless of the type of school the go in; fairness to states as well, which we canvassed a bit at the Press Club today in terms of treating each of them equally rather than punishing states because they choose to invest more in schools and rewarding states that choose to invest less, that’s a nonsensical approach for a Commonwealth government to take.

David Speers: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: We should treat – as we’re proposing to do, unlike anything that’s been done previously – each of the states consistently, each of the sectors consistently.

David Speers: But coming back to where we started: some of the states might argue – and they are – that fairness means you honour the deal they struck with the Commonwealth. Yes, it was a Labor government but they entered good faith arrangements here, they may have made plans in individual schools to hire certain specialist teachers and so on … now they won’t be able to.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I appreciate that anybody who gets a special deal that they think is advantageous to them usually wants to cling onto it. And that’s what we’re seeing from some of the states, some of the sectors. Equally, the independent commentators out there – whether it’s the Grattan Institute, the Mitchell Institute, David Gonski himself – have warmly welcomed what we’re doing as bringing consistency and coherency to school funding that’s been sorely lacking in the past. Now, we have different transition arrangements for different states, territories and sectors because everybody starts at a different point. That’s what we’ve inherited, a whole bunch of different deals that have different starting points. We want to transition them over 10 years to a common ending point that truly represents the recommendations of what David Gonski had back in 2009.

David Speers: Education Minister Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, David.