Speech at the Christian Schools Australia Forum at Parliament House

Simon Birmingham: To my various Parliamentary colleagues. I can spot a few in the audience. And to former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson. Many distinguished leaders of Christian education from around Australia and the various representative bodies who have come together at this gathering. It’s a thrill and a delight for me to be able to join you again for my fourth address at this gathering. My third as the Minister for Education and Training, and I stuck an extra [indistinct] wouldn’t be able to be back here and to continue this annual tradition.

It is great to be back here again. It was almost a year ago this day speaking to this forum about [indistinct] significant issues that were on the education landscape at the time. It was Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the UK, who in the 1960s uttered the now somewhat politically immortal words that a week is a long time in politics. Well I think that you would all agree that in issues of education policy and school funding, quite a lot has happened certainly in the last 12 months of politics in Australia. There has been some great progress, the odd surprise and a few issues that we continue to work through.

Because your sector is such an important partner in Australian education I want to share that journey with you tonight, the journey of the last twelve months, and also address some of the issues that lie ahead. Our partnership with you is acknowledged, not just by funding, but by our ongoing constructive consultation with your leaders. And recognition that faith-based schools have a critical role in upholding the values and principles felt by many families. These are values that are reflected in your conduct. Your conduct is representative of organisations with Government, where your views are expressed sincerely and our relationship is based on one of mutual trust.

Last year the theme of my address was delivering real policy reform. I said then on 22 May that it was an important week in the history of Commonwealth education and policy, and in particular, in relation to the Australian Government funding arrangements. We had announced earlier that month major reforms to school funding and that very week our [indistinct] this session. To give certainty, not only for next year, but for the next ten years, and implement a new Budget based on the principles of affordability, need, fairness, equity and transparency.

Also I’ve highlighted the need to address Australia’s declining education performance in a number of areas and foreshadow the appointment of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools that was chaired by David Gonski and is advised on how extra funding can be best invested. Last year, I drew on the parable of building a house on the foundation of rock because our new model and approach was built on those solid principles of affordability, need, fairness, equity and transparency. And I predicted that they would not be swept aside by either storms of intransigence or winds of exaggeration and misinformation. Happily – happily for me at least – you sector applauded and supported broadly the new arrangements. You had faith in our resolve to deliver what had not been previously. Some others were sceptical and some others opposed. And there were obstacles, but who said it was every going to be easy? There was uncertainty on how the Senate crossbenchers would vote. And certainly, wrangling the Senate can sometimes be like pulling teeth, and as a father of a five-year-old and a seven-year-old at present I’m learning a bit more about pulling teeth in day-to-day exercises.

There was a lack of bipartisanship support from the opposition, exposing the hypocrisy of their own claimed support for needs-based funding. And many thought at that time that short-term politics would beat long-term policy. Well those critics happily were wrong. Early morning on 23 June the amendments to the Australian Education Act were finally passed by the Senate and a new fairer funding model was made law. Yes, there was some changes when the legislation passed and there were also certain issues that were legitimately raised during consideration of the legislation, that for which we have initiated processes to have them addressed. Some of those changes and steps that were taken included the faster six-year funding arrangement [indistinct] and with that, significant consequential additional funding that flowed faster for many school authorities. There was the establishment of the new Independent National School Resourcing Board, as recommended by the original Gonski review that instead of now assessing first and foremost aspects of funding in the non-government sector, especially as they relate to the SES methodology and the capacity to contribute measure.

There were amendments made to clarify in the legislation that school systems themselves have the discretion to redistribute funding according to their needs-based principles. We put in place strength and requirements upon the states and territories to eliminate cost shifting. To ensure that the real level of state funding for school education was maintained and was complemented by new targets. We made some interim decisions to maintain the system-weighted average for school systems during 2018 while the new board conducted its review, and we developed criteria and processes for adjustment and transitional funding for non-government school and systems.

These changes, though, have not undermined the integrity of what has been described by some in you sector as the best schools funding model in decades. We’ve kept faith with our core principles, with our promises to your sector, to others across schooling sectors and with our crossbench colleagues in the Senate that we intended not just to tackle funding but [indistinct] support for independent schools in the non-government sector rose from $4.4 billion last year to $4.7 billion this year, to $5.8 billion in 2021, and a projected $7.5 billion by 2027. It’s an average [indistinct] increase of 5.1 per cent each year over the next four years.

We did heed and listen, though, to concerns about the validity of the SES methodology and the capacity to contribute measure, and they are being dealt with through the establishment of the new National School Resourcing Board, which is on track to deliver its report on the SES methodology in June. Just last month, the Gonski Review delivered its report – Through Growth to Achievement – outlining a framework for future Commonwealth and state government investment in education. We are committed to using this framework to ensure we support every Australian child to develop the essential foundational skills for their education: rich knowledge and the capabilities to ultimately succeed in further study, training, or work.

While academic excellence and employability skills are important, [indistinct] I know you all deeply appreciate. As leaders, we consider the big systemic changes of education, but I always like to remind myself, as well, that we need to bring it back to each child with their individual needs and their vulnerabilities. I know that your schools are acutely aware of the need for pastoral care for your children, for their families, and that student wellbeing is essential. That’s why we were very pleased as a Government that one of the measures in our recent Budget is the continuation of the National School Chaplaincy Program because of its very positive impact on these very issues.

I’ve seen personally and, frankly, been a little moved by the value and the positive impact that chaplains have on families and children and the support that they have from principals and school communities, including across many, many government schools. That is why we renewed the National School Chaplaincy Program in this year’s Budget, with ongoing funding – not time limited funding – but ongoing funding, to continue to support the emotional well being of students in over 3000 Australian schools each year. Under the new arrangements, there will be a greater focus on addressing bullying and specifically cyber bullying. Chaplains will be required to undertake professional development that will be [indistinct] by the Department of Education and Training with the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. This training will be made freely available to chaplains. As well, we are taking action on the serious matter of bullying in all schools and online through cooperative work occurring that’s been agreed by all state and territory governments with the Commonwealth, consider and develop strategies and identify best practice to further reduce and respond to issues of bullying and cyber bullying.

So, it has been quite a busy 12 months, but the job’s not done yet. This year, we’ll progress through a number of new [indistinct]. We’ll be delivering and designing a new national agreement between the Prime Minister and the first ministers to outline key national school reform priorities and milestones, informed by the work of the Gonski Panel, but also other recent reviews such as Professor John Halsey’s Review of Rural, Regional and Remote Education, or Dr Alan Finkel’s work on STEM partnerships. New bilateral agreements will also be developed, negotiated and signed with each of the states concerning both their funding contributions, and their detailed reform commitments. We will respond to the forthcoming report from the National Schools Resourcing Board while maintaining our strong commitment to the principles of fairness, consistency, and need.

Our Government will also release and respond to a report into protecting religious freedom, acting consistently with the Prime Minister’s promise in this regard. And added to this will be recent actions by state and territory governments, like the New South Wales Government’s decision to review its curriculum, and proposes to the states to review certain aspects of our plan.

As we tackle all of this work and these changes, I am acutely aware, in addressing the breadth, magnitude, and ongoing nature of [indistinct] change, we must also respect the independence and [indistinct] of the non-government sector. I commit to continue to be in regular contact with all parts of the non-government sector as we progress these issues, and I encourage your leaders to do what they always do so well – to keep me abreast of your perspectives. Last year, I spoke to you about delivering [indistinct], and with your support, we have. Our support, as a Government, the Coalition of parties – the Liberal and National parties – for parental choice is stronger than ever, and we acknowledge and recognise that faith-based schools remain a core part of that choice.

With this Government, you know what we stand for; you know our principles, and you can see what has been delivered. Fair and transparent funding model enacted; funding increased; implementation practicalities understood; concerns addressed through open and ordered policy processes; acting on evidence, not backroom [indistinct]. We have kept the faith in real reform and through legislation passed, the policies that we’ve announced, have provided certainty for the future that has not existed for almost a decade.

If I’m standing before you again, the same time next year – noting that this is almost the 12 month anniversary until an election is due – if I’m standing here again before you at the same time next year, it is my intention to be able to say to this assembly that we have tackled the challenges and issues and next steps I’ve outlined today with the same resolve, the same integrity, the same to commitment to act with principles of fairness and consistency and on evidence, and in the same clear, sensible order as we have done over these past 12 months.

You, too, have been consistent in your convictions and to your values, and I thank each of you, as leaders across Christian education, for your ongoing engagement, advocacy, and prayers. Most importantly, though, I want to thank you for the education, the opportunities and care you give each and every day to thousands of Australian school children and their families. Because that’s what matters most; that’s what we’re all working for; that’s why I’m thrilled to be able to keep working with all of you, because of the joy that I receive each time I visit one of your schools and see the outstanding quality of education that you’re providing to those children, care and pastoral support to those families, and ultimately the better Australia you’re building through doing so.

Thanks so very much for the chance to be with you tonight.