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Education crisis can't be fixed without looking at the problems

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 2 Dec 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:07):  I rise to support this motion because the state of school funding in Australia is in a crisis. This is blindingly apparent to voters right across the political spectrum. It is not only a matter now of basic decency, of basic social justice, that in one of the wealthiest nations in the world every single child, no matter where they live, should have the opportunity of having high-quality education, as has been our proud tradition since the century before last.

This is also about investing in Australia's future, investing in Australia's human capital, because we cannot afford to squander the human potential that lies within those kids that at the moment are not getting access to a decent education because of their background. Despite all the talking and even all of the activity by the Minister for Education-and there has been some frenzied activity in the last few weeks-he has not even acknowledged this crisis, let alone committed to the solution to the crisis, which has been so clearly identified by an expert panel, the Gonski review and many commentators across Australia. We need needs-based funding reform to begin to resolve the crisis.

Just last week, again, we had Minister Pyne saying: 'I don't believe there is an equity problem in Australia', despite all the evidence. Despite what the commentators almost with one voice are saying, he does not believe it. Unfortunately, it is very clear that neither does Prime Minister Abbott. The coalition itself does not believe it. Yet I know there must be members of the coalition government who absolutely know that there is a crisis in the way we are doing business in school funding in Australia today.

I ask myself: what about those politicians? What about those National Party politicians who live in country areas? The evidence is really clear that small schools and remote schools are not getting their fair share; they are not getting the access to high-quality education that kids in other, wealthier, more privileged areas of Australia are getting. How do those politicians talk to their constituents about that? How do they reconcile that inequality?

The Minister for Education, in lurching from position to reworded, nuanced, tweaked and massaged position on this issue, has been selling the furphy that it is not a dollar figure which will fix declining educational performance; it is things like teacher quality. Of course, teachers matter. Of course, teacher quality matters. But that is not to suggest that we do not have a fine workforce in Australia. There may be some changes that can be made in terms of the training, assistance and support that teachers come out with. Many teachers are extremely idealistic and end up leaving the profession far too soon, because they are not supported. They are faced with conditions like casualisation, lack of support and lack of mentoring. So there are certainly some things we can do there.

Of course, the curriculum matters, because we need to provide modern Australian kids this century with a rich, diverse curriculum that stimulates thinking and creativity. As any coalition member of parliament knows, of course money matters too, especially in education. It is what pays for teachers. It is what pays for infrastructure. It is what pays for the buildings that the kids sit in when they learn. It is what pays for materials. It is what pays for technology. Education is about human relationships if it is not about anything else. Human relationships are labour intensive and they are costly. Of course it matters.

When a school cannot afford enough paper for the year and parents are asked to put their hands in their pockets to bail out the school-parents without a lot of disposable income; let alone paying for new textbooks. Of course money matters. Money matters when kids huddle under blankets because the school heating system has failed. How can they learn when they are cold? Of course money matters.

Of course money matters when computers stop working, as was the case at a school I visited recently, and for a period of time they are offline; they cannot do the work, because they have not got the means to get those computers fixed quickly. When struggling, disadvantaged kids who need the most attention cannot get that because the school cannot afford more teachers or more student support officers, then, before we even have the debate on the quality of the teachers, we know of course that money matters. Let's ask ourselves seriously, if money did not matter, if money is not the answer to these things or part of the answer, why is it that some of the most wealthy schools in Australia are fighting so hard to make sure they will not lose a single dollar under a transformed model?

Let's look at the numbers. Yes, the numbers are there to demonstrate that we have spent more over all on school funding over the last decade. Yes, educational standards have declined, and there is plenty of empirical research to show this. We know that our lowest performing students in Australia are as many as eight years behind our highest performing students, and that is absolutely shameful. But in fact it is not a paradox that we have spent more on education and we have less, because it is where we have spent that money and how we have spent that money that matters. We have spent more inequitably and we have, therefore, not surprisingly, ended up with more inequitable outcomes.

Australia is the third-lowest funder of public education in the OECD. The figures also show that under the Gonski reforms predecessor-including the infamous SES funding model, to which Minister Pyne harks back with some nostalgia; even last week he refused to rule out that we would return to that system-wealthy private schools in Australia received millions and millions more dollars in funding each year. The most affluent private schools have received the biggest boost in funding in the 10 years the Howard government administered the SES model.

The Department of Education in New South Wales figures show that funding for the wealthiest private primary schools in New South Wales-already wealthy-grew by more than 80 per cent between 2000 and 2010, and funding for elite private high schools rose by 50 per cent.

By contrast, funding for the most disadvantaged high schools that are struggling to educate the most disadvantaged kids in Australia rose by a measly 12 per cent and primary schools by only 25 per cent.

The reforms set out in the Australian Education Bill, while far from being a perfect implementation of the Gonski review-and we discussed that a lot before we ended up agreeing to pass the bill-went a long way towards establishing a sustainable, needs based funding model which would correct the years of inequity and get us back on the path to universal, high-quality education.

Minister Pyne, in his role as shadow education minister in the election campaign, committed to maintaining the reformed school funding model from 1 January 2014 for four years with the same funding envelope. It was pretty unequivocal, and the Australian public understood that that is what he was signing up to.

Now he is the minister, he has flagged walking away from this commitment to needs based funding. He has never acknowledged there is an equity problem in Australia's education system. Failing to provide funding for the schools that most need it, where the most disadvantaged kids are, is walking away from that needs based model.

It is not just that the minister needs to uphold his pre-election commitment to needs-based funding; he must also commit to overall dollar figures for school funding. He also needs to sign up and care about this issue. He needs to acknowledge the evidence that so many other people in Australia have acknowledged for so long-that there is a genuine inequality in our schooling system and it is not serving our nation well. It compounds disadvantage, it squanders human potential and it has the capacity to create greater gulfs, differences and social dislocation in our country. It is a cost to society in terms of lost productivity alone, which is too great to pay.

The Australian Greens are calling on the government to match what the previous government committed to, because we have to ensure that we invest in our students and all students in Australia so that no child's performance at school is dependent on wealth, power, income or possessions. We have to have a system in Australia so that every single kid can achieve their potential no matter where they live and whatever their background.

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