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Estimates: independent public schools and schools funding

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 26 Feb 2014

Senator Penny Wright asks questions about the Education Minister's plan for independent public schools during Estimates. 

 

Senator WRIGHT: I have questions in relation to independent public schools. The minister originally said that every state except South Australia had signed up, but state and territory governments since have contradicted that claim. Can you clarify which states have signed up to be part of the independent public schools initiative?

Mr Cook: Part of this is clarification. The minister went to the November meeting of standing council last year and invited all states and territories to express interest in participating in the independent public school initiative. He then wrote to them, invited that participation and asked states and territories to write back to him by 20 December last year. Every state and territory has written back to the minister and expressed interest in participating or otherwise. Every state and territory, other than South Australia, has indicated in writing that they would like to work with the Commonwealth to participate in the independent public school initiative, which means working with the department and the minister around what that would look like for their state. South Australia is the only state that did not definitively indicate that. It sought further advice around the independent public school initiative, which has been provided to South Australia.

Senator WRIGHT: My understanding is that, since then, we have had statements from the New South Wales Education Minister not supporting the idea of going down the independent schools track. Do you have a different view about what has happened recently?

Ms Paul: New South Wales already has its own independent autonomous schools approach so I do not think they would think it correct to say they do not have an autonomous school approach.

Senator WRIGHT: That is not what I am saying. I am saying that they are speaking publicly and distancing themselves from the independent schools initiative announced by Minister Pyne. It is a different thing to say that they are not necessarily in favour of some autonomy in schools.

Ms Paul: It is hard to comment on those public statements, suffice for us to say we have had no further advice beyond that minister's letter which did express interest in joining in the independent public schools initiative.

Senator WRIGHT: How does the government intend to reach its target of 1,500 independent public schools-and I am going to say IPS from now on; it is a bit quicker-by 2017 if, as reported, New South Wales as Australia's most populous state will apparently not participate in this particular initiative? Western Australia already has independent public schools in place, and Victorian schools are already highly autonomous. How will the 1,500 schools be met?

Ms Paul: This is Commonwealth-only money. If a state chooses not to accept Commonwealth money, that is a matter for them. Suffice to say so far every state other than South Australia, which simply has not given final advisings, has indicated an interest in participating. My expectation would be that, if a state changed its mind and decided not to participate-as I say, all of our indications so far are that they want to-then presumably we could seek to distribute the money to other states. It is a voluntary offer. The Commonwealth is not forcing independent public schools on states. It is Commonwealth-only money. The states do not have to match it. If a state government wants to make that amount of money available to its schools for these purposes they can, but if they do not wish to then their schools miss out and someone else probably gains.

Senator WRIGHT: My next question is around how the funding will be distributed. Is there anything clearer than what you have already said and what monitoring or accountability measures are in place in relation to that? If the target is 1,500 schools, a significant number by 2017, presumably plans are already being made apace to get that out there and to do it. How will it be distributed and what accountability and monitoring measures will be in place?

Mr Cook: That is the work that we are in the process of doing with states and territories immediately. Some states and territories have already let us know what some of their plans are in relation to how they would like to participate in the program. We are in the process now of finalising what the agreement structure would look like and consulting with states and territories in relation to that--for those states and territories who indicated they want to participate. That will include things like the sorts of targets and measures that we would be looking at in relation to that. We certainly have payments to make this financial year. We will make those payments this financial year, and then the remaining payments, as you know, will go over the forward estimates. In terms of the funding per state-

Senator WRIGHT: Can I just clarify? By 'this financial year' you mean by 30 June?

Mr Cook: That is right. We have $10 million that we will be paying by 30 June. We have not yet finalised dollar amounts per state and territory, because we are still negotiating with them. We could do a simple cut per population, which is a standard way, but we also want to go quite deeply into the sorts of proposals that states and territories are also suggesting. Even though you talk about Victoria having very autonomous schools, Victoria has been speaking to us about taking things further in relation to their autonomy, particularly around providing additional support to their school councils about how to participate in school processes, around school council governance. And the sorts of training programs that I think the minister indicated when he launched this program that this money could very much be used for. They are the sorts of things that we are working through with states and territories.

Senator WRIGHT: What criteria will be used to assess which schools can become independent public schools?

Mr Cook: That is a decision for the states and territories.

Senator WRIGHT: So, the Commonwealth does not have any intention of having any input into that?

Mr Cook: I think the minister was clear in the correspondence he provided to states and territories-and I think we have said this a number of times, possibly at the last hearing; as you well know, states and territories are at different levels in terms of their autonomy-that as to how states and territories develop their plan obviously we will consult on that, and obviously the minister needs to agree with that, in terms of what the state plan will be for Commonwealth money to flow. But the Commonwealth does not have a role in actually deciding which schools participate. I would anticipate that we will probably have a list of those schools. The state would probably give us that listing when they make that decision.

Senator WRIGHT: With respect, I would have thought, given that the minister seems to be very keen on this idea, he would have had some criteria. It does not make sense to me that he would say, 'Just have the money and do with it what you want.' Presumably he has criteria that he would apply.

Ms Paul: Yes.

Mr Cook: He has already provided that to states and territories.

Senator WRIGHT: So, what is that criteria? How would you decide between a school? It is not going to be every school, is it? I am trying to clarify the question.

Ms Paul: There are five main areas, which Mr Cook can go through.

Mr Cook: The minister has spoken to all of his state and territory counterparts, both face to face and also in writing in relation to those five areas or the five principles that we talk about in terms of independent public schools. We would be looking at schools participating where they can show that they are working on increasing local governance and parental involvement. Where they are being able to demonstrate greater accountability to parents and the local community, whether that be through particular compacts between a school and their local school community or their council, which is common in some states and territories. They are the sorts of things that we would be talking about in that space.

Implementing one-line budgets or streamlined budgets so that there is less focus on tying funding and telling schools that they must use their funds for one particular purpose and one particular purpose only. When I was in a school we were still required to do that at points. For example, 'This money is only for art. You can only spend it on art.' Some of those things would still exist in some systems.

Increased local management of school facilities and infrastructure would be the fourth one. So, giving school communities and principals greater say over their facilities and their capital works and the work that they do in that space. The last one would be increased delegation over staffing.

Each state and territory is in quite a different space in relation to that. Again, the minister has been quite clear about that in his letter to state and territory ministers; flexibility around implementation of those five areas would be something that he would certainly consider in relation to what New South Wales would do which may be different to what Queensland would do in some of those areas. They are the five principles and they are the five areas that we would be looking at in terms of assessing participation and also the progress of states and territories in this initiative.

Senator WRIGHT: I am trying to make sense of that. A lot of those are within the state system power, not that of the individual school. For instance, the way a state authority requires budgeting to be done is not within the school's power. That is actually a systemic thing. Across the government sector that is presumably going to be the same for all schools. I am just interested in what the criteria would be for an individual school. Would it be student numbers? Would it be size? Would there be any criteria like that that would be assessed?

Mr Cook: That would be a matter for the states and territories.

Senator WRIGHT: So, the minister does not have any particular view about that?

Mr Cook: His view is based on the five principles. He would want to see the submission that has come back from the states and territories about how they selected those schools, how those five principles are reflected in that section and also how those five principles will actually be achieved in terms of the money that is being allocated to those states and territories for their schools.

CHAIR: Can I ask you to leave it at that?

Senator WRIGHT: I have a few more questions on this. Estimates are about getting information out. We have had significant amounts of time from two of the government senators.

CHAIR: I am just trying to make sure we have a balance.

Senator WRIGHT: I understand that, but we did hear a re-litigation of Gonski, and this is new information that I think the public is entitled to know. People are wondering how this independent schools initiative will be rolled out. I would like to ask a few more questions on it.

CHAIR: A couple of more minutes will be fine and then I will go to Senator O'Neill.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. What are the implications for the IPS initiative for schools who are already highly independent, such as those in the Empowering Local Schools National Partnership?

Mr Cook: Is it the implications that you are asking about?

Senator WRIGHT: Yes. How does it work if those schools are already highly independent?

Mr Cook: That will depend on the state and territory in terms of the proposal that they develop with the Commonwealth. I used Victoria as the example before. Victoria is seen as being one of the most highly devolved systems in Australia, yet the Victorian government has written to us outlining six or seven areas where they would like to focus on. Hopefully by next estimates, when the agreements have been finalised between the state and the Commonwealth, we can certainly go into some of those areas.

Senator WRIGHT: Is the federal government's IPS fund designed to replace some of the state's allocations for the purposes of independent public schools or will that money supplement allocations that some states have already committed to?

Mr Cook: On my understanding, it would be supplementation. I cannot imagine that it would be total replacement.

Ms Paul: You would hope so.

Senator WRIGHT: I did not catch what you said, Ms Paul.

Ms Paul: You would hope so. It is a supplementary program, not a replacement program.

Senator WRIGHT: When you say 'you hope so', I am not sure who you are talking about the 'you' would be in that case?

Ms Paul: I beg your pardon.

Senator WRIGHT: So, it will be a supplement and not a replacement?

Ms Paul: Yes, that is right.

Senator WRIGHT: The minister has stated there is evidence that independent public schools lift student performance. Where is that evidence to be found?

Mr Cook: There is a range of evidence, which I am happy to provide on notice. I can go through it in detail here if you would like.

Senator WRIGHT: You can provide it on notice. I think many people are interested to know where that evidence is. It is certainly contested.

Mr Cook: As often occurs with research, there are competing views, but in relation to this, the OECD, World Bank and the United Kingdom, in terms of some of the government reports around what they saw in relation to giving schools greater flexibility on teacher choice and also curriculum development. The Melbourne Graduate School of Education did some work around independent public schools. There is certainly very strong anecdotal feedback from principals as well saying that it has made a significant difference in terms of the quality of the work they are able to do with their teachers.

Senator WRIGHT: Although they did not actually find that there was a significant difference that was shown in student achievement, if I understand it. That was the conclusion of that report, as I understand it.

Mr Cook: The evaluation is very early in the program.

Senator WRIGHT: Perhaps if you put it on notice. If all the evidence is there, then we can have a look at it.

Mr Cook: Yes. That report was very clear in the fact that communities and principals had provided a lot of support in relation to it.

Senator WRIGHT: Yes. You have referred to that anecdotal evidence before, but I am interested in statistically significant evidence that indicates an increase in student performance.

Mr Cook: It would be difficult to find that after 12 months of the program.

Senator WRIGHT: I am talking generally. There are international studies as well, which also do not support the view that in fact there are real changes. That is my understanding, but if there is other evidence I would be really interested to know that.

Mr Cook: Yes, there are significant amounts. The OECD, World Bank and many independent reports have indicated that.

Senator WRIGHT: If you could provide that it would be helpful, because I know it is a contested area.

Mr Cook: I am very happy to do that.

Senator WRIGHT: In terms of the schools funding, the state governments and Catholic systems have their own models for distributing the Commonwealth's contribution of funds under the Australian Education Act now. I am interested to know whether the systems provide the department with their funding distribution plans. If so, do you have the figures on a school-by-school basis and what are the figures? Perhaps you could take that notice, given that we are running out of time. If not, how will the Commonwealth be able to ascertain that the funds are being spent appropriately?

Mr Cook: We do not, and we never have, but that is public information through the MySchool website. We know exactly how much information every school gets from the Commonwealth and also from the state and territory.

Ms Paul: How much funding.

Senator WRIGHT: How much information or how much funding?

Mr Cook: I am sorry, I meant 'funding'.

Senator WRIGHT: I thought that was what you meant.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Wright.

Senator WRIGHT: With that answer, we need to look at the MySchool website, and that is how we know the money can be spent appropriately?

Ms Paul: That is where it will be shown, correct.

Mr Cook: That has always been the case.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. I will go to Senator O'Neill

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