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Missing the opportunity for real education reform - MPI speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 12 Mar 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (15:54):  There is no doubt that the Labor government is now teetering on the brink of missing a once-in-a-generation chance of real school education reform of what is a broken funding model-

Senator Mason:  Hear, hear!

Senator WRIGHT:  but before I address this in more detail I do want to speak briefly about the breathtaking hypocrisy of the coalition on this issue-you will be happy to hear about that, Senator Mason!

Senator Mason:  You started so well!

Senator WRIGHT:  Frankly, I find it puzzling as to why the coalition would be indulging in such faux outrage about the government missing opportunities for school reform when their own shadow education minister, Christopher Pyne, is continually saying that there is no need for school reform. It was just two weeks ago that Mr Pyne argued that Australia already has a world-class education system for all students regardless of location, income and school selection. So Mr Pyne must be either ignorant or in denial about the state of public education in Australia to be able to make such a demonstrably false claim with a straight face. Mr Pyne says that the current Australian schools funding system is not broken, but numerous studies, including many of those cited by the comprehensive Gonski review of funding for schools, which marshals national and international evidence, have shown wealth and background are the best indicators of educational achievement in Australia in 2013. So how can Mr Pyne possibly call that a satisfactory system?

The claim that there is no inequality in our schools in the face of all the evidence is extreme, dangerous and wrong. On one hand we have the coalition shadow minister saying there is no need for reform, which is simply false, and on the other Liberal Party senators today decrying a lack of action on school reform-a total inconsistency. The double standards here are staggering. Indeed, the coalition is so unconcerned about real school education reform that they have actually proposed to continue the current model, which is leaving so many students in disadvantage every year, for a further two years at least.

However, the Australian Greens are undoubtedly concerned and are clearly on the record about the sluggishness of the Gillard government in acting on the Gonski school funding recommendations. The Gonski review is a watershed document which represents the most comprehensive review of Australian schools in two generations, but we have been waiting for action on Gonski for over a year now, and the government is leaving its run perilously late. So far the Labor government has done little more than spruik a set of aspirations. They have been busy selling the need for school funding reform, but there has been little more than talk about how we are going to give every student the start in life that they need. Unfortunately, the inaction on the recommendations from this review is now seriously risking the chance of real reform in the life of this parliament. It is risking a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix chronic underfunding of public schools.

The Gillard government's management of the Gonski review recommendations has been alarming. Yes, this is complex law reform. It does require a dexterity of handling and careful, respectful negotiations with state and territory governments because we need all levels of government to work cooperatively and collaboratively in the best interests of Australia's students to make sure that we end up with a world-class, equitable school funding system.

The negotiations have also required a serious commitment of serious money. Gonski, as we know, recommended $5 billion per year investment in school funding. In today's terms that is closer to $6.5 billion. It is a serious commitment, so we needed to see a Prime Minister who was embarking on a crusade for better education, determined to make the strong decisions necessary to fund this serious commitment. Instead, since February last year we have seen mismanagement that has alienated state governments and put at risk the biggest chance Australia has had in decades to fix a failed school funding scheme and to make an investment in our children, in our future. Rather than working together with the states, momentum for these crucial reforms has been lost as, one by one, state education ministers have come out after being continually kept in the dark on funding contributions. Many now are threatening to pull out, as we have heard in the past few weeks.

There is no room for losing this opportunity. We must be acting cooperatively and responsibly in the greater national interest. There is nothing more important in a country than educating the citizens of the future. Our wellbeing, our social cohesion and our productivity rely on it.

The Gonski review clearly indicates the areas in which Australia's schooling regime is failing, pointing to declining levels of achievement internationally and the pronounced inequity which is a characteristic of our system in 2013. There is now a staggering gap of up to three years in performance between the most advantaged and disadvantaged children in Australia in year 9. This is not related to their inherent ability; it is related to the opportunities they have when they walk through the doors of the school they attend. We simply cannot ignore this. This is not something we can put off to a later date.

Other indications of disadvantage are include a growing body of evidence that the composition of a school's population has a significant impact on the outcomes achieved by all students at the school so that concentrations of disadvantage accentuate underperformance, even for those children from a more advantaged background. There is evidence that schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students tend to have fewer material and social resources, more behavioural problems, fewer experienced teachers, lower student and family aspirations, fewer positive relationships between teachers and students, less homework and a less rigorous curriculum. Has Mr Pyne been visiting these schools? Over 80 per cent of students who did not reach the level required for proficiency to participate in society in reading and mathematics are in government schools. In relation to reading literacy, the gap between students from the highest and lowest economic, social and cultural status quartiles was approximately three years of schooling. The average performance of Australian students from the lowest quartile is significantly lower than the OECD average.

Of the little detail we have heard from the Gillard government, any funding to fix our schools will be well short of the $6.5 billion cash injection the Gonski review showed we needed to start helping these children. The Gillard government's plan to back-end the lion's share of the funding until 2019 is just not good enough, particularly for those disadvantaged students. Whole cohorts will finish primary school or high school before this government will begin fixing the problems we know are there.

The Australian Greens are not just here to lament the government's handling of the matter so far, or even the parlous state of this debate today. We have a solution for how we can get on with Gonski without any delay, and we must not miss this opportunity. Real school funding reform would see a system where differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. Opposition leader Tony Abbott's and shadow spokesperson Chris Pyne's coalition do not believe these reforms are needed, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Labor government may believe in the need, but has so far failed to provide a detailed, funded plan for reform.

The Gonski review has shown that the current school funding model is broken and failing our most disadvantaged students, but it has also shown us how to fix this. We need the money and the political will, and we need them right now. We need to move beyond political games at every level of government. We need to consider what is best for Australian children and for the future of our country in an increasingly globalised 21st century market. The Australian Greens have been saying consistently that standing up to big business, standing up to the mining companies and plugging the holes in the mining tax would raise significant amounts of money-billions over the forward estimates; enough to fully fund the Gonski reforms. So far the Australian Greens is the only party prepared to stand up the big mining companies to find the money we need to give our children a world-class education. We will all benefit from that; not just the haves but also the whole society. Failing our citizens of the future will impoverish us all.

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