Speech to the Association of School Business Administrators Annual Conference

Simon Birmingham:

Thank you for that welcome. Ladies and gentlemen, and [Indistinct] go the mighty Crows on Saturday. I started today giving an address at the opening of the International Astronautical Congress that’s happening in Adelaide as we speak. I’m delighted to join you today for slightly more earthly matters at the School Business Administrators National Conference, but no less important matters in terms of their role and their significance, particularly to Australia and our educational future.

As Minister, I’ve had the privilege of addressing audiences of many different educational and regulatory bodies, principals, teachers, school leadership associations, deans of education and many, many others, but this is the first occasion where I’ve had the chance to formally speak with business managers, administrators, finance managers and bursars and the like.

Our teachers and principals are the very visible members of the school community. For most parents, teachers: those are the staff with whom we have the most interaction, and rightly so. They’re at the forefront of our children’s education, and their role is crucial. But a school would fall apart very quickly without the administrators, the business managers, the finance managers; those who are bringing together the budgets, responding to government accountability requirements, and overseeing, purchasing and keeping school running on [indistinct].

In a nod to the theme of this conference – Charting the Course – we could think of a school as a ship, with the principal as the captain and teachers providing the key skills, but with school administrators being those who ensure the ship is properly provisioned. They’d be the dedicated, hard-working marine engineers in the engine room, keeping things afloat and watertight.

Following the passing of the Australian Education Amendment Bill in June this year, the education ship in Australia generally is about to chart a new course, and more importantly, arrive at a new destination. Tonight I want to share a little with you of that journey and, in particular, that destination. I’ll speak about the new funding arrangements, which I know are, rightly, top of mind for some of you who manage school purse-strings. Of course, you need to know how much funding will be flowing to your schools, and how new arrangements will impact on your bottom line. I understand the importance for you in planning for next year and many years in the future.

But money is not – and of course should not in education – be our prime destination. It’s not just me saying that; I’m sure you will have heard as indeed other experts. The Productivity Commission, for example, has highlighted that our students have, in some respects, faced stagnating or even declining results in both domestic and international testing over a period of time, and that’s occurred not out of neglect, in terms of funding, but over a period where we’ve seen considerable focus on large and real funding increases in education.

The Commission and many others have said, and I rightly agree, we need to focus on quality education right across schooling systems; from schools and beyond. That’s our destination. It’s a better quality education system, that rises all [indistinct] all boats doing so.

And we’re going to get there, not just by increasing the quantum of funds, as governments have done in the past, which we are doing, but first, by having a funding model based on the principles of affordability, need, fairness, equity, transparency, and healthy measures of accountability. And then, critically, by tying our record levels of investment in schools to ensure there are evidence-based practices and reforms to address some of those disappointing results.

The bigger picture here is that a quality education system for all is not only good for our national and economic wellbeing, but of course is critical to the lives of individuals, so they can make their way as independent, successful, civic-minded citizens. If we get this right, we’re setting ourselves up for a better future, both economically and socially.

It should be evident, especially to those with a talent for number crunching, that schools around Australia have not been funded fairly, equally or as transparently as they should have been under previous arrangements. Deal upon deal, arrangement upon arrangement has been layered and been layered upon one another over a long period of time.

The phrase needs-based funding has been used often – and so erroneously – over the previous years that you’d be forgiven for losing sight as to what it actually means. But it simply means this: students who have the highest level of need should attract the highest level of funding.

This funding – as you know – can be used by schools to give those students the support they need to fully participate in their learning environment. It could mean better access to special literacy programs, for example, or more focussed support in the classroom.

Now the funding model I inherited as minister, we inherited as a government, was complex and inconsistent. It operated differently across different states and sectors. It had more to do with those layers of deals and special arrangements than it did with our student need or striving to improve student performance. Under those arrangements, schools with the highest levels of need were not necessarily being adequately funded to support their students. The way in which funding was rolled out meant that, if we were able to get to something that vaguely resembled a consistent level of needs-based funding, it would have taken at least 150 years to do so.

Under previous arrangements, all schools were equally guaranteed to receive an arbitrary 3 per cent funding growth each and every year, regardless of the different needs of their different circumstances. It was very hard to see how previous arrangements were needs-based, fair, or certainly, that they should be maintained.

So what we succeeded in doing through Parliament, and are now ensuring to do, is move to a real needs-based school funding model from the Federal Government that is consistent across the country. After all, we’re a national government with national responsibilities, and we shouldn’t be treating schools in one state differently to another state, just because of arbitrary state boundaries.

Our approach will reflect the true needs of all Australian students. Students with the same need in the same sector will attract the same level of support from the Commonwealth, regardless of the state or territory where they live, their background, or the choice of school their parents make. It shouldn’t matter whether a child attends a rural school with just 20 students, or a school of 2000 students in a busy city. It’s the need, individually and collectively, of that school body that makes the difference. It shouldn’t matter whether a child has a learning difficulty; we should ensure the inclusivity of that child through the support we provide. And it shouldn’t matter whether a child’s school community prayed on a Friday or a Sunday or not at all. What’s important is supporting children to be their best.

To that end, under our reforms, the Commonwealth will increase our role in funding state and territory school systems, gradually lifting our investment to consistently fund 20 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard for government schools, up from less than 10 per cent just over a decade ago. We will also maintain the Commonwealth’s traditional role as the dominant public funder of non-government schools by provision of 80 per cent of their School Resourcing Standard.

I acknowledge in many of those cases, the true public funder of those non-government schools are parents and families who make sacrifices to pay school fees and in doing so lift the totality of Australian investing in education to even higher levels.

We would maintain our traditional role of Federal government as the majority public funder in non-government sector, the minority public funder in the government sector but with no share of responsibility across both. And there will be a true level playing field in how funds are allocated to schools. By having these changes enshrined in legislation through government rather than I’ve opted 27 special deals or arrangements. Any future attempt to change that by reinserting different deals would be required by legislation and be transparent for all to see.

Now in doing this with we allocate more funding and support than ever before. We will be, over these next few years, nearly doubling our investment in Australia’s schools to a record $247 billion of recurring funds flowing from 2018 through to 2027. In your sector, non-government sector, that translates to, on average, just over $3500 extra funding for each non-government student from 2017 to 2027, or an average 3.7 per cent increase in funding for each non-government student per annum through that course. That’s funding in your classrooms to allow your schools and teachers to better support your students. Funding will grow faster than broader economic growth, with total Commonwealth funding growing by some 74.6 per cent over the period 2017 to 2027.

At the national level, funding per student for all sectors will continue to increase in real terms. Now, I know that some feel somewhat wary about those changes, in particular there are some who work in Catholic systemic schools or have children who go there who may have concerns. In a classic case of don’t believe everything you read in newspapers, there’s a much more positive story to be told about funding in the Catholic education systems than some are led to believe.

Today I reassure you that under the new funding model, funding for each Catholic systemic school student across Australia will increase by an average of 3.5 per cent each year from 2017 to 2027. Yes, the increase in Independent school counterparts is on average slightly larger at 4.1 per cent per student, but this is because a larger number of Independent schools operate further below the Commonwealth’s resource target of 80 per cent of their SRS.

The Government sector will see a greater increase of 5.1 per cent per student, which reflects again the fact that a large number of government schools currently track even further below their target share of 20 per cent of SRS. The different rates of growth particularly reflect different starting advice. The point is that all, at the end, reach common, equal, consistent, fair, final transition from which all will meet the index equally, consistently at the same rate.

This is particularly evidence of the real needs-based funding model at work when it is applied consistently without fear or favour. But the generosity is such, the funding flow is such that schools should be able to continue and hopefully stand successful programs, such as the specialist teachers or targeted interventions for children who may have fallen behind.

It also means there’s no reason and no excuse for schools or sectors to need to increase fees or reduce funding levels to schools who need it most. All schools who currently do so should be able to continue to operate in a low fee environment if that is their decision and their choice.

Of course an area of particular focus for our government – and I’m sure for you as school administrators – is making sure that students with disabilities receive the support they need. From 2018, funding for students with disability will be based on the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability. This will mean better targeted and nationally consistent Federal funding for these students. Under NCCD, teachers and schools make evidence-based decisions about students who receive an adjustment and the level of adjustment required to successfully access education because of their disability. Over the next four years, $20 million has been allocated to ensure we strengthen and effectively moderate the NCCD and its application across all school sectors. I recognise the critical importance of ensuring that NCCD is robust, is fair, is fit for purpose but I also firmly believe that its structure is something that ensures dollars follow the student according to their individual level of adjusted assistance and need is the right model to ensure that we have fair needs-based support for students with disability. We’ll be working closely with states and territories and the non-government sector to develop strategies to improve the quality and consistency of this data.

We also recognise and want to make sure that school systems where they operate as such will still be able to make the decisions on how they should be funding according to their own needs-based models. That autonomy is important. Schools and school systems, not government ministers, or state or territory or Canberra bureaucracies are best placed to understand the individual needs of students and to budget and allocate accordingly. This will also assist schools to implement change effectively and efficiently to best support their students.

True needs-based funding for all schools, irrespective of sector, is our destination. We have a clear plan on how to chart a course to get there. For schools that currently attract less than the new Commonwealth shares, they will transition up to that share over the next six years. The comparatively smaller number of schools that are currently funded above the new Commonwealth share will transition down to them over the next ten years. Under the new arrangements, all but a handful of Australia’s 9400-plus schools will receive an increase in their Commonwealth funding over the next decade. Some will get a very significant increase, and while a small number of schools are expected to experience a modest reduction in per-student funding, that certainly doesn’t mean that the new arrangements are unfair. It is simply a recognition that some of those schools historically receive more funding than similar schools with similar student and family [indistinct] with similar needs, which of course is both unfair and unsustainable to have such difference in [indistinct]a funding system.

There is of course some help to ensure we smooth the way for a transition. In 2018, we will provide transition assistance to give non-government schools funding certainty. For non-systemic Independent schools there was forecast to receive less than 3 per student funding growth in 2017 to 2018 – we will provide some additional funding to assist them in transitioning to the new model. For Catholic and Independent schools operating in systems, we will extend current system weighted score arrangements in 2018. Financial assistance will also be available for disadvantaged and vulnerable non-government schools facing per student reductions in their funding during the period 2019 to 2027. This will be temporary, targeted, and provided on a case-by-case basis according to strict criteria. Ultimately, it’s about helping those schools who need it to adjust to the same common landing point at the end.

As people who are in charge of managing budgets which, of course, is many if not the vast majority of you, you will often review expenditure and evaluate whether you’re getting a good return on your investment: spending precious dollars on the right sorts of things to support the students at your schools, to help them be the best they can be. That truly is what I made the decision to do now. Funding has been growing for some 30 years as I said but results are not what we hope them to be. We have many good schools and great teachers and astounding, amazing school leaders, but across a range of domestic and international indicators our results have been stagnating or sliding. Evidence from the OECD is clear that simply providing more funding does not, in itself, improve student outcomes. That’s why in tandem with new funding model greater investment – some $23 billion of additional investment that we budgeted for this year. The Government has set up the landmark Review to Achieve Education Excellence in Australian Schools chaired by David Gonski.

On David’s panel are seven eminent educators and policy experts who collectively have a wealth of knowledge in the education arena. Their backgrounds cover the gamut of practical classroom experience, school leadership roles, national leadership in public policy, and experience in overcoming challenges in regional and remote areas or disadvantaged and Indigenous communities. And they want to hear from you: from the entire education community. The Review is now accepting public submissions, and I encourage you and the association, as individual schools, as systems, as representative bodies, to have your say and get your submissions in, which you can do so up until 2 November.
But this is not a process about getting more money. It’s a process about ensuring that the evidence, the reports, the stories, the observations, all these identify the very best evidence-based proven methods and practices that we can put into place in our schools to help students achieve at the very upper end of their potential; to ensure we maximise the impact in classroom of teachers, of schools on students to guarantee that each of them over the course of each year maximises their learning potential and journey. The findings will help us develop a new national schooling agreement between the Commonwealth and states that helps navigate our way to addressing those areas of decline and to maximising our performance elsewhere where it’s improving.

Any areas which require national collaboration will be progressed rightly through the Council of Australian Governments’ Education Council. But in every step of that journey, non-government representative bodies will be a key partner with us. Those activities which are better suited to being implemented at a local level will be outlined in bilateral plans to be agreed between the Commonwealth and each state and territory. States will be required to enter into an initial agreement with the Commonwealth for funding to flow from 2018. And then, next year, we will aspire to have new detailed reform agendas built upon preliminary recommendations of that Gonski review.

We’re also introducing assurance measures so our record levels of funding aren’t diverted to other purposes. State and territory governments will be required to maintain, and in some cases increase, the levels of public funding. The states [indistinct] duty to the Commonwealth, and to ensure that the additional funding we provide makes a real difference to schools and isn’t just a way for states and territories themselves to reduce their budgets. To provide oversight to that, we’re establishing a new National School Resourcing Board to give greater independent and transparent oversight on funding arrangements. We also are tasking this board with work to build confidence in methodology and the approach we have in terms of the SRS funding model.

Its first priority will be reviewing the methodology behind the socioeconomic status score and the way we determine a non-government school’s capacity to contribute. The end goal of that process is to put into place any changes to the capacity to particular(*) arrangements to the SES methodologies in time for the 2019 school year. It’s to make sure that school communities do feel that that is a fit-for-purpose measure of a community’s capacity to contribute to their fees. And in doing so, a measure that enables us to guarantee that the vast majority of our future funding goes towards the empowerment of parental choice, family choice in school education by helping those who can least afford it to access schools with the lowest fees, as well as recognising that those who can most afford it will attract somewhat lesser levels of federal funding.

As I mentioned earlier, though, our government is supplying additional funding across Catholic and Independent school systems, across nearly all schools in the land, and that will flow from 2018 onwards to ensure certainty and to allow schools to plan out, with certainty for the next six, 10 years and beyond.

For all of us, whether it’s working in schools, in government, or other related agencies, now’s the time to make sure that we deliver on this very transparent funding model and ensure it is embedded properly for the future. There will be tweaks, there will be change, to ensure that we build that confidence around all aspects of methodology. But we are starting with now a strong architecture and pathway towards equal and fair treatment across the country. Together, the Commonwealth, states and territories, non-government representative bodies, principals, teachers, parents, business managers, all should work together to ensure that this investment delivers real, tangible education improvements for students wherever or whomever may be so that we can continue across the nation to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of much of the world, to also continue to also be a tolerant, cohesive and democratic society. That’s our ultimate test: outstanding schools providing outstanding outcomes for their students. You play a critical role in [indistinct] and we have much to be proud of in our education system. We have much more to do. I’m thrilled to see commitment from ASBA, the commitment of members in terms of turning up here in record numbers, the strength of your program around professional development, all of that denotes a very positive future indeed in terms of your work in our schools, and the quality of outcomes that they deliver.

I wish you every success for your conference, and thank you so much for coming …