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Adjournment speech - Prioritising disadvantaged schools

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 13 Mar 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:08):  I rise to speak about something that is dear to my heart, the faith that in Australia we are willing and capable of offering every one of our children-wherever they live and whatever their background-a world-quality education, so that they have the opportunity to realise the unique potential that lies within each one of them. It is the expectation that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world every Australian child will be educated well enough to enable them to participate richly and fully in Australian life.


Just over a year ago the Gonski review of funding for schools was released. Since then we have heard a great deal about the findings of that review and its recommendations. We know that the Gonski panel-six highly credentialed and experienced individuals from diverse political and work backgrounds-identified that we currently have a school funding system in Australia which is not good enough to ensure that every child can get the kind of education I have described. We know that the Gonski review found that when it comes to funding our schools, to our eternal shame, lack a logical, consistent and publicly transparent approach.

Overall, it is widely acknowledged that we are underinvesting in education. Our spending on education as a percentage of GDP is lower than the OECD average. Even more significant is our underspend when it comes to government schools. Total government spending on public schools, both Commonwealth and state, in Australia has decreased. In 2003 it was 77 per cent. In 2009 it was 68.6 per cent. The OECD average is 85.8 per cent. It is public schools which educate the great majority of children from high-needs and disadvantaged backgrounds. We are all very familiar with these statistics: 80 per cent of those in the lowest socioeconomic status quartile, 85 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, 78 per cent of those who have a disability, 83 per cent of students in remote areas and most students from a non-English speaking home.

We also know that Gonski found that our Australian schooling system scores poorly on equity. This means that children who have the same inherent ability will perform very differently because of factors outside their control which affect their opportunity, like their family background, where they live, whether they speak English at home and whether or not they are Indigenous. In Australia, to our shame, we now have a strong concentration of advantaged students in certain schools and a strong concentration of disadvantaged students in other schools. It is government schools that educate the lion's share of those children who come from backgrounds of disadvantage. Gonski also told us that properly funding schools-making sure that they have the programs, the teachers, the equipment, the resources and the staff necessary-will be able to overcome the disadvantage that affects some children so strongly and thus allow them to get the education they need to reach their potential.

If we put these findings together-the fact that it is our public schools that educate the lion's share of children who have educational disadvantage and high needs; the fact that Australia is seriously underinvesting in education, particularly in our public schools; and the fact that properly resourcing schools, especially where there is disadvantage, will lift performance and enable the children at those schools to reach their potential-leads to the most important of the recommendations from the Gonski review. This recommendation is that we must invest substantially more in our education system-in the vicinity of $6.5 billion per year-and we must specifically target those students with the highest needs with extra funds, or loadings, for disadvantage.

But we are still some way off achieving the changes to our system of schooling in Australia that we need if we are to see the dream of the Gonski panel come to fruition. Inspiringly-and now quite famously-the panel of six thoughtful Australians who did the Gonski review defined a fair school system as ensuring that:

... differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.

We are a long way from realising that situation in Australia. But the evidence from numerous studies and research and anecdotal evidence, including what I have witnessed myself in visiting schools in Australia, shows that the opportunity divide is still alive and well in Australia today. That is why the core recommendation of the Gonski review is that we must finally move away from the opaque, inconsistent, ad hoc funding process we have seen in Australia for 40 years and apply a principled system that recognises that there is entrenched educational disadvantage in Australia, that it leads to poor outcomes and that it requires dedicated resources to fix it which should be allocated on the basis of need.

I want to take this opportunity to hear from a couple of people who have explained to me why the Gonski recommendations are so important to implement. Lisa from Victoria said:

As a teacher who works with literacy-needs high school students, there is little doubt that literacy issues are increasing and that those in need are usually from socioeconomically under-resourced backgrounds. Our whole country benefits when those who couldn't become those who can. As a nation we must move from those who could make a difference to those who will make a difference. Give a Gonski!

Carolyn from Victoria says:

I grew up in Wollongong in a family where no-one had completed secondary school. I had 33 first cousins and I was the only one who matriculated. I went on to complete university and was able to support myself and my son when I became a widow at a very young age. The reason I achieved this was Wollongong High School. Without going to Wollongong High I would have had little chance of a university education. I am forever grateful to the public school system. It needs to be supported. If disadvantaged children are educated to reach their potential our community is a much fairer and happier place.

More than a year after the Gonski review was released, the Australian Greens are alarmed that the Australian Education Bill 2012 contains no detail regarding the amount of funding to be provided for its implementation nor how it is to be allocated. Details of the contributions from the states and territories are also missing, as is any overall guide to its implementation. Time is running out. The situation is critical, particularly for those students in government schools where disadvantage is concentrated and who have been waiting too long.

The Gonski review itself has stressed the need for urgent reform, saying:

The additional investment needed to implement a schooling resource standard is necessary because, without it, the high cost of poor educational outcomes will become an even greater drag on Australia's social and economic development in the future. The need for the additional expenditure and the application of what those funds can do is urgent. Australia will only slip further behind unless, as a nation, we act and act now.

That was 13 months ago and we are still waiting. It is essential that funding arrangements are finalised and legislated for as a matter of urgency if the concerns raised by Gonski are to be addressed, and the risk of further decline is to be averted.

The government has indicated that any increased investment into Australia's schooling system, as recommended by Gonski, will be introduced over a lengthy period of years. That is not good enough for those schools that need it. So the Australian Greens are calling for the bill to be amended to ensure that the most disadvantaged government schools will be prioritised for any additional Commonwealth funding during the implementation of the national plan.

Investing properly in education is good for all of us. The Gonski review squarely sets out the benefits of a high quality schooling system for a nation. It says:

High-quality schooling fosters the development of creative, informed and resilient citizens who are able to participate fully in a dynamic and globalised world. It also leads to many benefits for individuals and society, including higher levels of employment and earnings, and better health, longevity, tolerance and social cohesion.

So it is good for all of us and we cannot afford not to urgently implement the Gonski recommendations, prioritising those most disadvantaged schools.

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