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The National Party's schools policies sell out their own communities

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 24 Sep 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (18:02): The letter tabled by the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, is in response to my motion in support of the New South Wales branch of the National Party, of 14 July this year, in calling for the federal government to honour the full six-year funding agreement made between the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments. I appreciate why it is an awkward issue for Minister Pyne, so I can understand why his letter avoids the substance of my motion.

The Australian Greens recognise that rural schools across Australia will continue to be significantly disadvantaged as a direct result of the Abbott government's broken promises on the Gonski funding scheme. This is not an abstract issue. It is thousands of children who, every year, year-on-year, will fall further and further behind kids in city classrooms because their schools simply do not have enough money. The Australian Greens were very pleased that we were not the only ones concerned about this issue. It was extremely heartening to see that one state branch of the Nationals had the courage to contradict their Liberal Party colleagues in favour of standing up for their constituents. So, you can imagine my dismay when I saw that the federal National MPs in this place would not dare to be so bold. I put the motion, and it was embarrassing that the National senators voted against their own party, but it is shameful that they voted against the interests of their own communities.

The sad fact is that schools in rural and regional areas are amongst the biggest losers as a result of the Abbott government's decision to cut the majority of Gonski funding. Already students in rural and regional areas are as much as two years of schooling behind students in metropolitan schools, and it is only going to get worse. A recent report showed that our education system is now more unequal than when the Gonski review panel handed down its damning assessment three years ago. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Australia is growing, but what do we get from our education minister? Outrage? A plan? Even mild concern? No, we merely get deliberately-misleading, evidence-dodging slogans about funding not equalling better outcomes.

He has made the same deceptive claim in his letter. He cites slipping PESA results over the last decade and directly correlates them with a 44 per cent increase in education funding. Of course, he does not say where this increase in education funding went, so let me clarify. Under the Howard government, education funding was increased-yes-for the wealthiest in Australia. This money went to the private schooling system, not our public schools which educate the vast majority of disadvantaged students in Australia. Under the broken Howard school-funding model, the discredited Howard school-funding model, more money was spent on the most advantaged students than on any other group. So, what a surprise, giving more to the top end of town has not fixed our education system but has indeed exacerbated the very inequality our rural schools are now suffering from.

The Gonski reforms seek to overcome this inequality by targeting the areas of greatest need to reduce the equity gap and lift educational outcomes across the country. This same Gonski review, which would have delivered a much needed boost for country schools, was branded a failure by New South Wales National Senator Williams in a Senate committee report. Despite what Minister Pyne would like to believe, the Gonski review did not recommend extra funding for rural schools because they thought it would be amusing, they recommended extra funding because the evidence showed them it would work.

School after school that I have heard from, teachers and parents and principals, have told me exactly what their country schools could do with that money: teacher training, professional development and teacher support, which always cost more in terms of time and travel for teachers in rural and regional areas. Also, better IT equipment to connect them with the world, and parental and community engagement. In communities where there is not a lot of employment and not a lot of hope and aspiration for the kids, engaging parents and the community with schools is crucial. These sorts of things require people, resources and money.

It is disappointing that our education minister keeps dodging the truth about the realities of schools in Australia. He needs to get out there and really see them. What is even worse is that the federal National MPs in this place are willing to go along with his deception, even though it means selling out their very own community.

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