Good morning ladies and gentlemen and yes, I am the Minister. Thank you Ross for that warm welcome, thank you for recalling my pre-politics life working in Australia’s wine industry and gathered here as I am at the National Catholic Education conference I thought I might start by acknowledging not just all of those many educators around Australia who were recently acknowledged as part of the Australian honours system in the Queen’s birthday awards, but in particular I notice as a proud South Australian and an alumni as such of the Australian wine industry that Brother John May of the Seven Hill winery was also acknowledged as being so responsible for so much of the communion wine that so many of you will have enjoyed over the years as well as some other wonderful drops from the Seven Hill winery in the Clare Valley and I had much delight in working closely with Brother John during my time in the wine industry.

Can I also acknowledge Australia’s traditional owners; of course, we have people from right across Australia gathered here so I acknowledge all of our indigenous people and particularly as Education Minister, acknowledge that we continue to learn much more of Australia’s historic indigenous knowledge to learn much more from it and of course as a nation proudly build up on that ancient knowledge.

To our special guests and distinguished guests here today, many, many leaders of Catholic education in Australia and around the world in particularly your Eminence, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, your Grace, Archbishop Timothy Costello, Archbishop of Perth and Chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education in Australia, The Hon Greg Crafter AO, Chair of the National Catholic Education Commission, Dr Tim McDonald, Executive Director of Catholic Education Western Australia and Deputy Chair of the National Catholic Education Commission, Bishops and other leaders in the Catholic Church and Catholic Education, parents, international delegates and most importantly principals, school leaders, teachers, staff and students from Catholic schools.

My Grandmother, who I was very fortunate to spend many of my formative years living with, was a teacher and one of the strongest memories I have of living with Nan was not, of course, the great knowledge and values that she helped to instil up on me, but the trips to the supermarket. She still lived in the community where she taught and every time we went to the supermarket we would run in to former students or parents of former students who would all reach out and express their thanks and tell where they were at in their lives and of course, I know that that is a story that those of you who are educators and the people who are back in schools still running them for the Catholic system around Australia this week would have time and time again, it is the personal satisfaction that is derived of seeing the difference that you make and that is my lasting memory of Nan’s work as a teacher that I serve to bring as Minister for Education in recognising the valued work of teachers and principals right around the system. 

It’s a pleasure to be here today to discuss the future of education in Australia and the key role that the Catholic schools sector plays in securing a quality education for Australia’s young people. 

Recently I have had the pleasure of addressing forums for the non-government sector in Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney and I have had meetings with representatives and many principals from other states, and national bodies, with more scheduled in the near future, so I’ve come to understand and appreciate your sector well, and I thank those leaders of the Catholic system who have spent their time talking through unique issues and challenges this sector faces as well as the overall challenges we face across our education system. I also thank the many Catholic schools that have opened their doors for me as Minister, enabling me to see the rich diversity of activities being undertaken right across the Catholic school system. Whether it is St Joseph’s or St Ignatius schools in Adelaide in their early childhood programmes and their pre-school programmes embracing the Little Scientists initiative to provide enhanced knowledge and awareness of STEM issues in those earliest years or Caroline Chisholm College in Sydney at the other end of the spectrum with a fabulous robotics programme as part of the STEM initiative designed to inspire young women to pursue STEM subjects right through their schooling and in to their post-school lives or Marymount College back in my home state of SA whose indigenous leaders inspired me recently with their passion and commitment or the VET programmes that I know numerous Catholic colleges run around the country and again, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting in different jurisdictions. All of them demonstrate a richness and diversity of Catholic education and today I want to talk across three particular issues, the particular features of the Catholic education sector and its positive contribution to Australian education, the long partnership between the Coalition parties and Catholic sector and some important challenges ahead for both government and the Catholic sector. 

We all know that the Catholic sector has over 750,000 students, representing about 21 per cent of all students in Australia and is the largest part of the non-government school sector, and that its growth has been and viewing this conference’s programme we can see some important features about the sector. 

This forum of Catholic leaders, teachers, principals and parents is covering a wide spectrum of topics ranging from issues about the curriculum, teaching, school governance, parental engagement, technology in the classroom, accountability and testing regimes.

The focus and breadth of topics being discussed reflects the increasing complexity of modern education and is similar in many respects to what is discussed in other education forums. There is, however, a difference. Topics like support for the disadvantaged, social and emotional issues affecting education, religious education, social teaching, mission and pilgrimage, and the range of attendees and speakers that encompass both the professionals and experts, parents and religious leaders suggest this is no ordinary gathering of educators. It highlights the wider inclusiveness and broader focus of Catholic education and other faith-based systems and is instructive as to why parents choose to send and pay for their children to attend your schools.  

Catholic education has long stressed that for a school to be Catholic it must first be a good school in education terms, but it has also sought to develop the whole person. As one Catholic school statement clarified:

The Catholic school strives to inculcate a synthesis of faith, life and culture. It seeks to nurture young people to develop a freedom which includes respect for others; conscientious responsibility; a sincere and constant search for truth; a calm and peaceful critical spirit; a spirit of solidarity with and service toward all other persons; a sensitivity to justice; a special awareness of being called of agents of change in society and is undergoing continuous transformation.

These are laudable goals for any school system.
Survey after survey of parents who send their children to Catholic and other faith-based schools make it clear that their choice was not driven just on a school’s academic qualities, even though they responded positively when asked about how schools were providing good academic results. Rather, it was more about the caring qualities of the school, its values, culture, its respect, the school’s more open governance, greater principal autonomy and the genuine encouragement for parental engagement reflected in your active parent associations.

The vibrancy of the Catholic school sector, partly explains why a third of students across Australia attend non-government schools. By international standards, this proportion is high, but two other factors contribute to Australia having a unique education system.

First, some 90 per cent of the non-government sector schools are faith-based – which means that about a third of all schools in Australia are faith based. This is high by international standards. Second, the level of public funding to the non-government sector is not only high, but also involves complex funding arrangements from the Commonwealth, states and parents. This diversity and distinctiveness of the Australian education system is one that we should celebrate, but too often is unfairly attacked.

OECD research argues that having a vibrant non-government sector is seen increasingly as a strength not just to alleviate budgetary pressures on government, which it does, but as a way to offer greater choice for parents, a means to spur creativity and innovation within and across schools, and a path to reducing social stratification. And the Catholic sector’s long record and positive contribution to education in both academic and social areas further highlights the deficiencies of those who argue against the sector. 

In education performance, the Catholic sector delivers both high achieving results while championing equity and debates about different performance between the school sectors ignore the evidence that in Australia, like other countries, the greatest variation in performance is found within schools rather than between them. That it is school factors like quality teachers, school culture, expectations, principals, size and peers are the aspects that count and of course, that in every sector there are good schools and schools that could do better.

The Catholic sector on many areas from infrastructure investment, to classroom delivery is seen as being more efficient than the government sector and while 72 per cent of the Catholic sector’s recurrent resources are from government, both Commonwealth and state, which is higher than for the Independent sector, this reflects your sector’s very different socio-economic background of parents and their capacity to contribute.

Let us be clear, every student in a non-government and Catholic school receives less taxpayer support in total than they would were they attending a government school.  Parents choose to pay more than they otherwise would.  And parents whose children attend Catholic and non-government schools make the major contributions for capital works. Of course, Catholic schools are no longer just for Catholics, but have long opened their doors to a wider range of students and now include more than 20 per cent of students from different religious and other backgrounds. 

Concerns that Catholic and faith-based schools would not be able to participate in the newly developed national curriculum have not been realised – they have, but have done so in ways that reflect core beliefs.  Neither have there been any problems about the sector participating in annual NAPLAN testing and reporting on the MySchool website. The sector is accountable for the funding it receives and meets all the state and Commonwealth legislative requirements and even on sensitive issues, I notice from the conference’s agenda that the Catholic sector has not turned its back on this issue or those students.

The Catholic sector as one of the early pioneers of education in Australia, which persevered when state governments bailed out of funding non-government schools in the nineteenth century, and must take some credit for nurturing the non-government system and the development of Australia’s unique education system.

It was the Catholic sector in the early 1960s that was at the crucible point of getting governments, Coalition governments, to end the state aid divide.

It was the Coalition under Prime-Minister Robert Menzies who listened to your leaders, understood the issues facing the sector, and in an atmosphere of co-operation and trust, put aside any ideological and personal religious beliefs, and started funding the Catholic and non-government sector.

That support grew and was developed on the principles of government making a contribution to every student’s education, ensuring parents can exercise choice, respect for different religious views, meeting need, encouraging diversity and understanding that for some, education does not just have a secular purpose.

Those principles eventually have become accepted more broadly across the political divide, though sadly not by all. It was the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser that ensured there were substantial increases in funding for the neediest non-government schools and under Prime Minister John Howard, funding not only increased to both non-government and government sectors, but the previous government’s restrictive New Schools Policy was abolished so as to make it easier to establish new non-government schools.

The relationship between government today and the non-government sector needs to continue to be based on a collaborative partnership based on respect and most importantly, mutual trust. This does not mean that there cannot be disagreements, but each partner must accept that no matter how strong the arguments, each seeks to do the best by our education system, and by the children attending school. The Turnbull Government seeks to ensure that long lasting partnership with the Catholic sector is being reinforced and is more important than ever.
I have outlined in other forums a number of key points that we should keep in mind in any discussions. Firstly, the Australian schooling system is not in crisis and overall continues to perform above the OECD average in all categories and is funded above the OECD average. Australia has a world-class education system that should be celebrated. While too often the negatives are the focus of conversation, rather than those things we do well. Of course, there is room for improvement as our PISA and NAPLAN data shows.

There are some serious areas of concern such as poor literacy levels, the decline of our high performing students, as well as the persistence of the “long tail” and the need for more students to be studying STEM subjects, but we should not let those challenges get in the way of recognising the excellence that is delivered. We also need to recognise though that government resources are not only finite, as they have always been, but that Australia’s and the world’s economic fortunes have changed.

This requires caution, readjustment and a moderation of future government spending. It also requires us to focus more on job creation and policies to support business growth that will create jobs for Australians today and for the students in schools today.

When I speak with parents they often want two things for their child – the first being a high quality education and the second for there to be a job when they finish their education. Our priority is to ensure that both of these ambitions are realised. All areas of public policy, including education, have to accommodate this new reality of spending constraint. We need to make sure that across the education sector, the real growth that has occurred, delivers the best outcomes for the future. The non-government sector has seen strong funding growth, as has the government sector. Commonwealth funding to the non-government sector increased by 118 per cent in real ‘per student’ terms by 2013-14 from 1996-97. In the school years from 2014-2017 Commonwealth recurrent funding under the Coalition to has increased to the Catholic sector by 19.7 per cent. 

However, the Turnbull Government has understood your sector’s dissatisfaction with the previous proposed post 2017 increases to CPI plus enrolments, problems with the existing funding model, the need for certainty and the request for proper consultation in any new funding arrangements given the excessive secrecy that afflicted the previous government’s processes. 

Our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes statement released in the 2016-17 Budget announced that for the future we will ensure that funding grows from around $16 billion this year from the federal government in to Australia’s schools to some $20.1 billion by 2020. That is growth that is above inflation, above enrolments. Real growth that will ensure what schools receive today grows in the future, the great things happening in Australian schools today can continue to be done and enhanced. But we have also made clear that we want to be an engaged party in school reform. That additional funding should see improved efforts in how it is invested. We want to see a range of evidence based reforms to boost literacy and numeracy, to increase the take up of STEM and language subjects, to improve teacher quality, to support school leadership, to focus assistance to the disadvantaged and ensure greater accountability through transparency. We understand that some of these measures are already being applied by schools in your sector. We are eager not to add to existing reporting pressures on schools where possible and will welcome the input of the Catholic sector in relation to the implementation of these reforms. We are committed to making sure that dollars spent are invested wisely to get the best outcomes for students and their future needs. 

We have outlined a clear timeline for the delivery of a new funding distribution model which will be needs based which will ensure those schools of greater need, of lower socio-economic means, more students with a disability, more indigenous students who are in more regional or remote settings receive the additional support they need relative to others. We will make sure that the funding model applies equitably across states and territories to end some of the inequities that are embedded in the current 27 different funding models that we inherited. I welcome the fact that Catholic education will be engaged as partners in the process of designing that funding model to ensure that growing record funding that we’re committing is distributed effectively, according to need and as fairly as possible across the education system. And that it presents a model that can be enduring, stable, fair and transparent long in to the future.

We are firmly committed to ensuring that those with greatest need receive the greatest support. Our approach will be one based on partnership. I will be working personally with the state commissions to make sure that we understand your needs and that we do design a model that works for you as it needs to for every other sector. 

So, my messages today in summery are effectively these. That First and foremost, the Catholic school sector is not an appendage, but an intrinsic and essential part of the Australian education system. The values that your sector reflects make a positive contribution to the education of many Australians and provides a steadying influence in an increasing turbulent world. We respect those values – not all do.  

During the conduct of this election some have made clear that they seek to make amendments to laws regarding the employment rights of non-government schools. 
The Coalition neither proposes nor supports changes to existing arrangements and continues to strongly support the rights of families to choose schools that align with their needs and values, as well as the right of those schools to operate and undertake employment decisions consistent with those values.

Secondly, we recognise that just as no party is the ‘natural’ party of government with some automatic right to office, no party should claim they are the special party of education. All seek to do their best, and whoever is elected on July 2, funding for Australian schools will grow. What we have sought to do though is present responsible, affordable growth that is fully funded and can deliver, but also policies that attack the real challenges in our education system and the real demands for the future in terms of focus on boosting literacy levels and achieving improved STEM outcomes.  

And finally, that in Australia we have been doing some things right in education, but given our changed economic circumstances government, just as households, must live within our means. We must invest in policies that the evidence says will make a difference to student outcomes. 

This is not a call for another round of endless change too easily labelled ‘reform,’ for another expensive ‘education revolution’, but we are proposing careful, considered measures. We hope to improve and hope we’ll improve the outcomes for our students, operation within our schools, back the skills of our teachers and principals and school leaders in the future. 

I’m a father of two young daughters aged 3 and a half and 5. I’m confident that I’m able to provide the best educational opportunities for them, but as Education Minister, I know that my responsibility extends to the children of Australia who are not necessarily as fortunate as my own children and my determination is to ensure that through our record funding, through a needs based delivery approach, through targeted reforms we do back those in the Catholic system and those in other education systems across Australia to provide the best opportunities for those children who might otherwise miss out.

I thank all of you for the impressive work that you do in our schools and I hope to have the honour of continuing to work with you long in to the future. Thank you very much.