Interview on Sky News with Kieran Gilbert
Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding; Support for students with a disability

Kieran Gilbert: Returning to our top story now, joining me is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. A big win for the Government to get this through the Parliament before the winter break but you’ve made quite a few powerful enemies in the process.

Simon Birmingham: Well, more importantly it’s a big win for Australian schools and Australian school students. It will provide, on average, around $2300 additional support per student across the country, but of course that is targeted to the schools who got the worst deals historically under Labor arrangements, to the schools who need it most; it’s the Gonski needs-based funding formula, that’s why David Gonski backed it, it’s why the Gonski panel’s backed it and it ensures that we actually have, for the first time ever, a pathway towards fair, consistent funding for all Australian schools.

Kieran Gilbert: But the Catholic schools, they’ve said they’re going to continue their campaign against it; the Labor Party taunting you across the Parliament saying we’ll continue our robocalls and our campaigning all the way to the next election. It’s a powerful lobby – one in four schools.

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s sad now if the Labor Party intends to campaign against the Gonski principles and the Gonski formula given, of course, they were the ones who started this process and frankly, it’s humiliating and embarrassing for Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek, that they have gone so far away from the needs-based funding that Labor said they stood for. But in relation to Catholic school systems and parents, I hope and trust that when they see that there’s, on average, 3.8 per cent per student growth flowing over the next few years into Catholic education systems around the country, that we’ve also put in place a review arrangement for the socio-economic status methodology and formula that they have concerns about, I hope that they will see there’s nothing to fear and there’s a fair funding formula. They receive – students across Catholic ed. – the highest per student funding relative to anyone in the non-government sector, but it’s about delivering, of course, the fairness of equity, of consistency …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So do they need to shake up their delivery model? Is that the message?

Simon Birmingham: No, no, far from it. We specifically …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Well why are they saying that people are going to have to pay more? If the funding goes up, surely if the message is to them that they may need to re-look at their own funding? Is that equitable as it should be?

Simon Birmingham: We back the autonomy of systems like the Catholic education system to apply their own needs-based funding formulas. That’s a matter between the Catholic education and their schools in their system and we respect their autonomy completely in that regard. But, yes, they do have a growing bucket of money across the different Catholic education authorities around the country, each of them at a state or territory level and they’re going to see extra funds that they can distribute across their schools just as state and territory governments are going to see an even faster rate of growth reflecting the very high needs of public schools around the country.

Kieran Gilbert: Is the SES review, given that the legislation’s through now, is it just a Mickey Mouse review? Just to keep a few people happy?

Simon Birmingham: No.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] So what substantially could change from that review?

Simon Birmingham: So the SES review will be led by the new National School Resourcing Body, an independent body reflective of one of the recommendations from the Gonski panel, and that will undertake a review of the SES methodology. It will be a public, transparent process; the results of it will be tabled in Parliament and there for all to see and the Government’s given a commitment that we will work to act on those results, mindful of …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So if there are some flaws within the funding model you’ve put together here, you’ll change them?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. Look, we recognise that the formulas used for this can, I’m sure, continually be refined and improved. But we’re convinced the overall framework is a good and fair framework that provides strong growth across all school system – including Catholic school systems – but the fastest growth to those who need it most: around 6.4 per cent per student on average to students in government schools around the country, and many of those getting towards the 10 per cent mark.

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Alright then. I know that you’ve criticised Labor – and many would say understandably given how strongly they’ve supported needs-based funding in the past – but let’s drill down into some of the direct accusations that Tanya Plibersek’s made: for example, that Northern Territory public school children will be the worst off as a result of these funding changes. Can you explain to our viewers why that’s not the case?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re proposing to lift every public school across the country to receiving a common 20 per cent share of the Gonski formula and then expect state and territories to put in the further, at least, 75 per cent and to get up to that 95 per cent level that had been recommended. In the case of the Northern Territory, they’re the one jurisdiction where the Federal Government already pays more than 20 per cent; we’re going to maintain their funding in the Northern Territory to keep that share above 20 per cent reflective of their particular need. Per student funding in the Northern Territory is well above what we provide anywhere else in the country, it is reflective of their need.

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So you’re argument is that you will require the state and territories to provide the remainder, that’s the point, that you’re ending a special deal done by the Gillard Government to provide more than that 20 per cent. And you want the state and territories to stump up the rest of it.

Simon Birmingham: The Gillard Government deals provided more Federal funding to the states who put in less, and less Federal funding to the funding to the states who put in more. It was a bizarre arrangement. We’re going to, as a national government, treat kids and schools across the country equally and consistently and according to need regardless of state borders, and expect the states to do their job.

Kieran Gilbert: So is that the same message when it comes to the fact that the Kings School get $19 million more over the next two years, while the state schools lose $146 million.

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s no loss to state schools, no loss at all. You see …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] Compared to what Labor would provide. 

Simon Birmingham: Well compared to Labor’s funding …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] That’s Tanya Plibersek’s argument. 

Simon Birmingham: Compared to Labor’s funding money, and indeed I could rattle off a list of so-called elite private schools that Labor’s model would provide even faster growth to than the Turnbull Government’s proposals. We’ve taken the difficult decision to take some over-funded schools backwards to slow the rate of indexation for those who had been receiving more than their fair share of the formula. And to go and pluck one or two schools out to try to make these types of class warfare based arguments- it does the Labor party no credit. They called for fair consistent needs-based funding under the Gonski formula, the Turnbull Government’s done it, even though Labor never had the guts or the courage to do so.

Kieran Gilbert: You say they’re plucking out these one or two examples but they go to the quite symbolic schools like the Kings School in New South Wales, Churchie in Queensland, Geelong Grammar – these are all quite well-off schools. Why should they be receiving more?

Simon Birmingham: Well they don’t receive more per student than the needier schools, they receive far less per student than many of the needier schools in terms of applying a fair funding formula. But that doesn’t mean you say these schools whose parents pay to send their kids there, who are taxpayers as well, should receive no support at all – I don’t believe that’s the Labor Party’s policy. And as I say, many of these cases, Labor’s policy or legislation that they left in place would have seen faster funding growth than what the Turnbull Government is providing because we’ve made the decision that where a school was getting more than its fair share, we’ll bring it down and that applies particularly to independent schools. But in the government sector, where need is highest, we see the growth rate at 6.4 per cent above the 4.9 per cent on average, reflecting very clearly that we’re putting extra support into those schools of highest need and who need it most.

Kieran Gilbert: So did you dud the Greens as part of this process? You were in talks with them, Sarah Hanson-Young wanted to back it, she was close to it and then you brought on the vote.

Simon Birmingham: Well the Senate got to a point where the vote happened, we didn’t move to bring on the vote. The Speaker’s list was exhausted, the Greens hadn’t made their mind up at that stage but I’m on the one hand, very grateful for the fact that the Greens engaged constructively in discussions – which was a far cry from what Labor ever did – and that the Green acknowledge many of the benefits in terms of the legislation that’s passed; on the other hand, I’m disappointed they didn’t come on board to finally support this given I think in their heart of hearts they know that this is a better needs-based funding model.

Kieran Gilbert: But they were more constructive than Labor?

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s no doubt about that. Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek sat there and said no, no, no the whole way. When David Gonski endorsed it, they still said no. When other members of the Gonski panel endorsed it, they still said no. Even this week, when members of the Australian Education Union – former national presidents, former state presidents – endorsed it, the Labor Party still said no. It was a remarkable display of …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But you gave the Greens everything they wanted and they still said no.

Simon Birmingham: Look, as I said, I was disappointed with the Greens final position but I do respect the fact that they at least engaged and, of course, to the credit of the Senate crossbench, they showed once again that they can work with the Turnbull Government and the Turnbull Government has showed once again that we can make this Parliament work.

Kieran Gilbert: Penny Wong and others had a go at you yesterday; she described your responses on the Hanson autistic student comments- your response, as pathetic and shameful is how she put it. Here’s another opportunity this morning, you’ve got Hanson’s vote; will you repudiate what she said?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t agree with the way Pauline put her comments in that regard – I think she’s clarified them in a number of fora – but what she did and the majority of the Senate did last night that Penny Wong didn’t is vote for more funding for students with disability, is vote for a better framework in terms of how that funding is distributed so that the students of highest need get the greatest disability loading under our new funding model, rather than an inconsistent one-size-fits-all arrangement which the Labor Party had in place. So actions do speak louder than words in this space and the Turnbull Government has delivered a model that allows for inclusivity in …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Sure, but still words are pretty powerful when you’ve got autistic kids going to school and they hear that sort of stuff.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. And the message I gave clearly, time and again, in the Senate yesterday was that it’s about inclusion. A message of inclusion, supporting inclusion through actions in terms of our funding model so that every single school gets the support to assist the students who need it based on the needs of those students.

Kieran Gilbert: Christian Porter described her message as archaic; is that something that you’d agree with in terms of Hanson’s approach?

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Look I think, certainly in the way I saw some of it interpreted; yes, the idea of segregation belongs well in the past and what we want to see is inclusion across our education systems.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, cheers.