Interview on Sky News The Morning Shift with Tom Connell and Sam Maiden 
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model

Tom Connell:                        Well there are reports this morning that senior Catholic church leaders and liberal Party elder John Howard are trying to talk to end the war between the Turnbull Government and Catholic schools over the Government’s new funding model. The National Catholic Education Commission’s submission on the new legislation says up to 600 schools could face a funding cliff.

Joining us now is Education Minister Simon Birmingham here in the studio. Thanks for your time today, Minister.

Sam Maiden:                         Good morning, Minister.

Simon Birmingham:              Good morning.

Sam Maiden:                         First we were told there were going to be 24 schools that would lose money, then there were about 350 schools that would be worse off under the indexation. This submission from the National Catholic Education Commission says 600 schools in the Catholic sector alone are facing a funding cliff.

Simon Birmingham:              Well, Sam, that’s just not true. The point is that Catholic systemic schools – so schools that are part of the eight different Catholic authorities around the country – have their funding received by the Catholic system overall. And in all of the states and the Northern Territory, everywhere bar here in the ACT where there are some particular special circumstances, there is growth to those Catholic system authorities of at least 3.5 per cent per student per annum in funding for students across those schools in the Catholic system.

Sam Maiden:                         You’ve read the submission though; what’s- the 600 schools facing a funding cliff, what’s that based on?

Simon Birmingham:              Well, look, the Catholic system seem to be making some wild assumptions that they might change the current model that they distribute their funding into something that purely or otherwise reflects hypothetical models that are done here in Canberra. We’ve been consistent and clear from day one though that those system authorities in the Catholic education system will still receive a lump sum funding for all of the schools within their state or territory and they’ll still retain the autonomy to keep funding those funding models according to their own needs-based allocation models.

Sam Maiden:                         Okay. There’s a lot of talk though about a peace deal, there’s these reports in The Australian that people are trying to take the heat out of the situation; Liberal Party elders like John Howard suggesting that he’s concerned about some of the tone of the debate. Has he relayed that to you? Has he suggested that he thinks that it’s getting too- that he doesn’t like the way Government’s handling it?

Simon Birmingham:              Look, I share concerns that the type of scare tactics around parents being told they might see excessive fee increases when the reality is there’s $1.2 billion of additional funding just over the next four years and $3.4 billion of additional support for Catholic systemic schools over the next 10 years. I mean the need for fee increases …

Sam Maiden:                         [Interrupts] Is that John Howard’s concern? Like, has he told you that he’s worried about the way the Catholic sector is running the debate, or is he worried that the Government looks like they’re having a sort of fight with …

Simon Birmingham:              [Interrupts] Well I’m not somebody who puts words into people’s mouths, let alone John Howard who of course I respect immensely.

Sam Maiden:                         [Talks over] But have you spoken to John Howard?

Simon Birmingham:              We’ve been making sure that Mr Howard has information as we make sure that everybody who wants to have information about this subject gets the facts and the facts are very clear for all to see: that there is funding is growth for all schools systems across Australia, very significant growth into government school systems to support, according to need, those who have the greatest challenges in terms of their education and the greatest challenges those schools face. But yes, strong support into the Catholic system that sees 3.5 per cent plus growth per student per annum across every state of Australia in the Catholic school system.

Sam Maiden:                         There’s a lot of speculation that you may offer the Catholic sector an additional capital works funding program that might be able to broker some sort of deal. Is that something that you are looking at? Is that something that John Howard has suggested? Do you think that that would keep the Catholic sector happy and end this war that you’re reportedly having with the Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham:              Well I think we’re having ongoing conversations. There’s a lot of stuff said in the media that isn’t altogether helpful. But I’m very pleased to see that some Catholic school systems such as the Brisbane Diocese are putting clear, factual information out to their parents that fees will not need to rise and that they think …

Sam Maiden:                         [Interrupts] They also said in that letter though that this system would disadvantage Catholic schools.

Simon Birmingham:              No, I think they actually said in that letter they didn’t see that they were being treated unfairly relative to independent or government schools …

Sam Maiden:                         [Interrupts] There was a specific line in that letter though …

Simon Birmingham:              [Interrupts] Yes, no, no. They said they didn’t like every aspect of the Government’s proposals and so they were honest about that. But they were also honest in thanking the Government and acknowledging it was generous support and acknowledging they were being treated fairly along the lines of being treated exactly the same as every other non-government school around the country. And that I guess is at the heart of the fairness equation we’re putting here: that we’re treating all non-government schools across Australia fairly, consistently according to the same needs-based principle; all government schools across Australia fairly, consistently according to the same need-based principles regardless of which sector of the non-government sector they might be in, regardless of which state a government school might be in. Consistent treatment by the national Government is what Australians expect.

Sam Maiden:                         So if you offer an additional program of Catholic …

Simon Birmingham:              Oh, sorry, in relation to capital funding.

Sam Maiden:                         …capital funding, yeah.

Simon Birmingham:              So in relation to capital funding, we actually in this year’s Budget fixed some inequities to capital funding already. There’d been no adjustment in terms of capital support for a number of years in terms of catching up with enrolment growth and so we’ve addressed that already which provides a more representative level of support.

Sam Maiden:                         So there’s no package that you’re looking at for Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham:              Well we’ve already taken steps in that regard and made that clear to, again, all non-government sectors in terms of the way that applies.

Sam Maiden:                         And what about these reports this morning about what the Education Department is looking at for these ACT schools. Originally there was some suggestion that you would definitely offer transitional funding to ACT because they’re experiencing a funding freeze of up to 10 years. There was a suggestion that you might offer it specifically to schools that were doing specific good works with children that are disabled, or so on. The report in The Australian was suggesting that it was more along the lines of basically providing some additional funding to everyone over the next couple of years. What’s actually happening with that?
Simon Birmingham:              And so again, we’ve been clear all along that there were different circumstances in Canberra because the way in which socioeconomic status has been calculated under the old deals of the Gillard Government in Canberra wasn’t using Canberra data, it was using the whole nation which hardly seems fair, given household incomes in Canberra are higher than any other jurisdiction. So we wanted to make sure that calculations in Canberra are done on the same consistent basis everywhere else, but that does mean there are some transitional impacts. And again as we’ve been clear from day one, some funding was set aside for that and that funding notionally ensures that the Catholic system in Canberra at least maintains its current normal level of funding over the next few years.

Sam Maiden:                         Stephen Farish, who actually developed the Gonski model, he says it’s flawed. There are- even the Grattan Institute has suggested that this needs to be reviewed. Does the model – the SES model – need to be reviewed in terms of how it determines need? And will you now establish an independent body to set these funding arrangements rather than making it something …

Simon Birmingham:              So the SES model of course is being implemented since David Kemp was education minister in the Howard years, and it was an important reform because what it ensures is that the greatest financial support for schools in the non-government sector goes to those schools servicing communities of the lowest means. And it enhances parental choice, because it means that people who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend a non-government school get greater support in those less well-off communities for their non-government schools, whilst the richer communities receive less support for non-government schools in their sectors, reflecting their capacity to be able to contribute to parental fees. And now like all data sources of course it can continually be improved, and I’m sure we will work to continually improve that into the future. 

But we shouldn’t let a detail like that that of course has been the basis on which schools, both Catholic and independent, have been funded since the Howard years, undermine what overall is a reform to invest $18.6 billion extra across Australian schools and to get out all of the different inconsistencies from 27 different funding deals, to instead have a consistent approach that treats every government school according to their need and their school regardless of state boundaries, every non-government school according to the need in their school regardless of sectoral differences, background differences, faith differences, or the like.

Tom Connell:                        Just on the plans and what Labor’s obviously saying they’ll put $22 billion extra in. What’s your understanding on what that would mean?

Simon Birmingham:              That’s a very good question, Tom, I heard Tanya Plibersek this morning asked if 3.7 per cent funding growth for Catholic schools was insufficient how much more should there be. And Tanya said; I’m not going to pluck numbers out of thin air. But of course the $22 billion is essential Labor saying they’re plucking a number out of thin air, yet she could not answer where that would go. How much of that would go to the Catholic schools and what would that mean in terms of student growth?

Tom Connell:                        You must have sort of- what Labor was proposing, because you also had in your Budget, you know, here’s what we’re putting in, here’s the saving we’ll make comparatively to what you’ve seen so far from what it means some government schools get more money as well as independent and Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham:              Well I don’t know, Labor’s plan is that sometime after the next election they’ll tip an extra $22 billion in, that’s what Bill Shorten said in his Budget reply speech. Who it goes to is unclear, but what is clear is that given his tour of different Catholic schools around the country he seems to be backing different deals that treat one part of the non-government system differently to others. Seems to want to continue an arrangement where some states get a better deal than other states. We want to make sure that actually we do what David Gonski recommended, treat everybody consistently according to the same needs-based principles.

Tom Connell:                        We’ll see what Labor does unveil. We’re trying to get them on to chat about it on this show, I’m sure they’ll be on soon.

Simon Birmingham:              I hope and trust Tanya will be here later today or tomorrow.

Tom Connell:                        Thank you for your time today.

Simon Birmingham:              Thank you, cheers.

Sam Maiden:                         Thank you, see you.