SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks Jamie and thanks everyone for coming along today. Jamie gave me a call a couple of weeks ago and said “there is a bit of interest in some of my independent schools about education policy and where the government is going, would you be able to come and do a round table, chat to a few of the school chairs or principals?” I said “sure, love to do so, lets settle on a date and away we go”. So, I was expecting this morning to wander in to a room with a table in the middle and a dozen chairs sitting around it and sit down to a nice chat with a few people so, thank you all for coming in numbers, a few more than I had anticipated, but hopefully today we can keep it fairly informal, still in a roundtable sense and I’ll try to keep my remarks limited at the outset and really work through your questions as best we possibly can around school funding, but I thought the remarks I’d make to start with, I’ll try to touch across three issues: funding, which no doubt is at the forefront of everybody’s minds, then teaching and school reform and then values and choice being the three areas that I’ll quickly canvass in terms of the areas of policy.
As Jamie rightly said in relation to funding, we go to this election as we do as a Coalition at every election trying to get the balance right between spending priorities and managing reforms responsibly. So, at this election we are promising to see funding growth continue in to the future. It will keep growing fairly significantly in the totality of funding available from the Federal Government from around $16 billion that we provide across government and non-government schools this year, growing up to more than $20 billion nationally which will be provided by 2020. That comes, as you well know, off the back of some very strong growth in recent years. It is the commitment that we made in the Budget when we came to office in 2013 from four years of the budget cycle which we will have done through the 2014, 15, 16 and 17 financial school years and then shift the intention years in 2018 to a still strong pattern of growth, but not quite as rapid as it has been previously. Now, the question that I know will be on all of your minds is “that’s fine, but how is that funding carved up? How is it shared? What does it mean for independent schools in South Australia?” There is a certain level of detail that I want to be able to still work through with the independent schools sector and the State and Territory Governments to get the best possible system that we can have because one of the things that I’ve found most challenging is the model I inherited, despite the way the media talks about the Gonski model, is not a simple model and you know this better than almost anybody that there are 27 different funding models that were struck by the previous government, they had a whole raft of inconsistencies attached to them and, of course, they treat different States and Territories differently and funding for schools in South Australia was very much back ended in the models that were signed off meaning that the growth of funding here has been much slower than it has been elsewhere around the country. My view is, that as a Federal Government we shouldn’t be treating different States or Territories differently. There are some principles in the Gonski model, and I’ve met with David Gonski a good number of times now to talk through his report, they are good principles that we ought to apply. We ought to, and are committed to seeing funding distributed according to need. We ought to ensure that students with disability and smaller regional and remote schools, all of those different needs based principles that drive loading factors are imbedded in the system of school funding and we will ensure that that is the case in to the future with the funding that is available. I think the model of discounting funding for non-government schools based on the capacity to contribute is not a bad model if we can get it right in terms of its application and how it applies, but again, the capacity of parents in the non-government sector to make that personal contribution as a reasonable approach for how we choose to discount the extent of government contribution to those schools. So, they’re the types of principles that I want to bring to school funding arrangements from 2018, but I want to make sure that we do it in a way that is consistent across the nation. So, that means trying to bridge the gap between what South Australia doesn’t get at present and what other states do get. Can I promise that we will instantly be able to flick the switch between 2017 funding and 2018 funding so that everybody is equal at that point? That might be a challenge. When we go and crunch all the numbers to see exactly how each State and Territory adjusts, there might need to be a year or twos transition to make that catch up occur, but of course, that’s the case under what Labor is promising in any event if indeed that is delivered and if indeed that catch up does occur under them, but I want to see consistency in treatment by the Federal Government for school systems whatever the State or Territory they’re in and I suspect that is probably, and it certainly has been in my other discussions with independent schools in South Australia, the top question that is on your mind; will you be treated the same as an independent school in NSW or Tasmania or wherever else? The answer to that is yes. We want to see that treatment equally applied and want to design a model that is enduring, that gives you long term certainty and stability about how school funding decisions will be made, but unlike the way the Labor Government distorted the Gonski model, it has got to be a model that can work for the amount of money that is available, not a model that is internally, inflationary and driving costs up because that will only lead to ongoing instability and uncertainty ultimately because there will always be a crunch point about how much money is there. We’ve got to have a model that works for the amount of money that is there and then if other governments in future find more, hopefully if we’re successful in the economic reforms we have, in growing the economy, in growing the tax space, in getting spending under control there will be scope for more in the future. Our commitment at present is that funding will grow.
What we’ve got in the budget is for growth above inflation, above enrolment projections and the type of model we will design will be needs based and will be equitable across the different States and Territories. I also want that equity to translate to the way in which we treat year levels as they’re assessed between sectors. A common question that I get across Australia from the non-government school sector is we’re transitioning or we have transitioned or we already have year sevens working in middle school or secondary schools, but they still get funded as primary school students because that’s what the State Government says is the case yet across the rest of the nation as already moved to having those year seven students in secondary schools. I want to work through that issue as well. By 2018 to implement a new approach to funding we can also address the fact that if some parts of the South Australian education system are delivering year seven as a secondary school, then we should fund them as a secondary school. If other parts are still delivering it in a primary school setting, then we should fund it at a primary school setting and recognise that if we have SA going in different pathways then so be it, as a Federal Government again we can be neutral in that approach and simply support the different choices that people make.
So, that is the funding equation. I’ll shift to reform, teacher quality etc. As part of the funding policy that Malcolm Turnbull and I released in the budget, we proposed a number of areas for what we think are important for further school reform, we actually have to front up and address some of the quality outcomes that need to be achieved or the areas of failing in our school system that need to be addressed across the country. We have, as everybody in this room would well appreciate, data that shows declining international comparisons on numeracy, literacy at an estimated 200,000 Australian children with reading difficulties. Now, we want to make sure that we confront those issues and the declining number of students undertaking STEM subjects and the like. The types of reforms we’ve proposed, we will sensibly work through with the states and territories and the non-government sectors. Those reforms include ensuring there is some degree of common national assessment of reading competency in particular for students in the first twelve to eighteen months of their schooling life. Not another NAPLAN test, this is based on a UK model which is an individual verbal assessment undertaken, one where we can have confidence that whatever the school, wherever the child is, if they’re not, within that first twelve to eighteen months, learning to read effectively, that is identified and the intervention programmes are in place. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, picking up on a West Australian reform model that is already underway by putting in place some minimum standards of numeracy and literacy competency for students to achieve a year twelve certificate. Now, these are minimum standards and the way WA is doing it is essentially they’re pitching those minimum standards at around year nine year ten level. So, im not suggesting that every year twelve student will need to be doing a year twelve maths subject and pass it, but that every year twelve student when they leave school should be competent in their numeracy ability up to about a year nine or ten standard at least and making sure then that the system interventions are in place towards the tail end to address those student who may not be getting those adequate skills because sure, you all hear it and certainly I do from employers, universities, tafes etc. who are concerned that they get too many students who’ve successfully completed year twelve, but who need additional literacy or numeracy assistance when they get in to their post-school lives.
Now, all of that can sound a bit interventionist. What I am always doing is making sure that the way in which schools report and give information about what they’re doing includes a capacity essentially for earned autonomy. Schools that have got good, strong results that they have demonstrated, that are already being achieved across these different benchmarks, should have a lighter touch and a freer hand to get on with the business they’re doing without necessarily jumping over a whole lot of hurdles. We’re already doing a productivity commission review around the effectiveness and the efficiency of education data so that we can hopefully try to make sure that what we collect, what we do and what we expect schools to report against is streamlined, effective and efficient rather than bureaucratic and administrative. So, I’m conscious that when we talk about wanting extra clarity about some things in the schooling system, that we don’t put extra burden on the principals and school leaders in terms of their reporting.
One of the things that has been somewhat misrepresented out of the policy we’ve proposed relates to teacher pay that we have proposed that there should be a shift where systems recognise and reward teachers against their progression, against the Australian Federal standards for teachers. These are nationally agreed professional standards developed by (indistinct) where teachers can seek to be assessed as highly accomplished teachers or lead teachers in their school environment and some systems have already made the shift to recognise teachers against those benchmarks. I think that is really important that the quality of teachers is the most important thing in the in-school performance of your students and that if we can better reward and better incentivise teachers to be recognised for their standing within a school, their personal capabilities within the classroom, then that’s a good thing. It is not performance pay as the AEU and others have sought to characterise it. We’re not about to say we are going to go down a path of paying teachers based on NAPLAN scores or the like, it is simply about supporting teachers who have reached those levels of high accomplishment, have had that demonstrated, encouraging them to be staying in the teaching system, in the classroom and ultimately, perhaps of a little more importance to the government system, being able to demonstrate how many of those highly accomplished teachers we have in different schools and incentivise them to teach in disadvantaged schools where they can be of critical importance to getting transformation occurring. So, that’s the sort of reform picture.
The last thing I wanted to touch on is values and parental choice which Jamie mentioned at the outset that it is a core belief of the Coalition Government, that we support the right of parents to be able to choose the education for their children across the government system and the different non-government systems. We also support that right of non-government schools to be able to, within the appropriate safeguards, run their schools according to the values upon which that school was founded, to be able to employ their teachers in concurrence with the values of that school. To be able to make all of those decisions themselves and we wont be proposing changes to laws that impact on your ability to make those operational decisions, make those staffing decisions as entities and that we will continue, of course, to support good programmes such as the grant funding and so forth for your operation in the future.