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Putting Kids First: Senator Penny Wright speaking on the Australian Education Amendment Bill (2014).

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Penny Wright 18 Nov 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:37):  I rise to speak on the Australian Education Amendment Bill 2014. As Australian Greens national spokesperson on schools and education, I welcome every opportunity to talk about the absolute necessity of school education and our duty to provide a great school for every child in Australia.

I also welcome the opportunity on behalf of the Australian Greens to stand up against this government's agenda to undermine the principles of the Gonski school funding reforms. Unfortunately, many of the measures in this bill would not be necessary if the Abbott government had kept their election commitments.

Most particularly, this bill reflects a broken promise to every student with a disability, every teacher who has a disabled student in their class and every parent who looked forward to a better education for their child with a disability and believed the coalition when they said they would deliver a disability loading in 2015. Let me remind you of Christopher Pyne's words before the election. He promised:

… the Coalition will continue the data collection work that has commenced, which will be used to deliver more funding for people with disability through the ‘disability loading’ in 2015.'

It is a pretty unequivocal promise, but—as this bill demonstrates—a broken one.

The Australian Greens will support this bill, because it will prevent funding cuts to students with a disability that would otherwise occur as a result of the government's mismanagement. In saying this, I acknowledge the complexity around the process of establishing the disability loadings.

In my role as the Deputy Chair of the Senate Select Committee on School funding, it was very clear to me how imperative it was to get these loadings right.             

As a committee, however, we concluded:

"… the uncertainty around continuing funding for students with a disability is a particularly urgent example of the negative effect of the change in funding arrangements."

Likewise, the committee notes that other disadvantaged groups could also be acutely affected.

The confusion around the interaction between the disability loading and the NDIS is also of concern to the committee.

As a result, the committee recommended the federal government expedite the data collection process to move as a matter of urgency to a disability loading based on actual student need. By failing to honour their promise to fund the full disability loading from 2015, this government has heartlessly walked away from some of the students who need its help the most.

This bill also allows the payment of additional funding to schools with a large number of Indigenous boarding students from remote areas.    The Australian Greens are absolutely committed to closing the gap in educational achievements between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We understand the challenges faced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians growing up in remote areas to access a first-class education. We are therefore pleased to support this measure, although we strongly believe boarding schools must not be the only measure to tackle the inequality of opportunity for students in remote Australia.

The Australian Greens believe every school should be a great one and every child should have the chance to reach their potential no matter who they are, where they live or how wealthy or poor their parents are. This is exactly what the Gonski reforms were designed to achieve and why specific loadings were recommended for small and remote schools and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

The area of this bill the Australian Greens have the most concern with is the delaying of the implementation of school improvement plans. These plans were required to ensure that Commonwealth money actually reaches the students who need it most. It was an underpinning of the Gonski school recommendations. School improvement plans were designed to ensure that the money was being spent wisely in ways that would make a demonstrable difference to student achievement.

The coalition government is fond of saying that this is not about money. It is not about throwing buckets of money, and we wholeheartedly agree with that. We agree: you do not throw buckets of money at schools systems and hope for the best. What the Gonski recommendations said very, very clearly was that we need to have well-targeted investment where it will do the most good; at those very students who need the most support to increase their achievements and which will increase the achievements overall in education in Australia.

School improvement plans had reporting requirements that would have guaranteed transparency in how public funds are distributed within all of the educational systems. Those who have followed this debate closely would know the Australian Greens sought to enshrine these accountability measures in legislation rather than regulation at the time that these reforms were being debated in the last parliament. This was to avoid the very circumstance we now find ourselves in where the Abbott government is undermining the principle and practice of transparency in schools funding.

It is a continuing disappointment that the previous government would not accept our very sensible amendments in this regard and that these school improvement plans were not legislated for. We did not want taxpayer money frittered away or consumed by state bureaucracies. We wanted the money to get past the school gate into the classrooms where it is needed most. We did not want to leave accountability and transparency in the hands of the current Prime Minister and his education minister, because we knew we could not trust them with our schools, and this has been borne out time and time again since the election.

Fundamentally, we knew we could not trust them because the coalition government has still not acknowledged the fundamental finding of the Gonski review of school funding and that there are inequities across Australian schools that need to be rectified. Such an acknowledgement would be a compelling motivation to fix an unjust system—one that currently fosters and entrenches privilege. But it has never been forthcoming from this education minister nor this Prime Minister who presides over a government that governs for the privileged and wealthy in Australia.

We also know that this government's commitment to accountability for Commonwealth expenditure in independent schools is flimsy. What this government calls 'command and control', we call sensible public transparency measures to ensure that money going to non-government schools is properly accounted for.

With the government's review into these measures, though, we know changes are on the horizon. We understand the unnecessary work created for schools when federal governments unpick and drastically alter recent reforms. However, we are unabashedly committed to the need for strong reporting requirements, because we want to safeguard the objectives of the Gonski school funding reforms and ensure that they are being achieved.

The no-strings approach this government is taking shows a fundamental lack of concern for ensuring money gets to where it is most needed and most makes a difference. Without these strings being attached we will not see the changes that we need to address the vast inequality of opportunity presented to Australian students in 2014. It is these very strings—in this case, the school improvement plans—which ensure that needs-based funding exists across the country and every child has the resources, the support and the school quality they need to succeed.

I want to conclude by restating the Australian Greens commitment to the Gonski school funding reforms and reiterating my unhappiness with the Abbott government, with its coalition of Liberal and National Party members, for its broken promises and refusal to meet educational inequality head-on—whether that is educational inequality in low-socioeconomic schools, whether it is educational inequality in schools where there are predominantly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students or whether it is educational inequality in remote or country schools or in small schools—and ensure that, no matter where a child lives in Australia and no matter what their background, they can be guaranteed an excellent education by going to a neighbourhood local government school.

Since coming to government, the coalition have done nothing to address the staggering educational inequality in Australia. If they continue on this path, the Abbott government's legacy will be the further entrenchment of privilege in our schools—just like the Howard government before them. Achievement based on merit, on ability and on effort will be increasingly replaced by outcomes dependent on the roll of a dice in a child's life—where they were born, who their parents were and which school they went to.

It was not always thus. Australia has had a proud and pioneering tradition of quality public education which really took off in the 1870s and 1880s—education available for all irrespective of background. Our move away from this tradition has been occurring over decades now, and the Gonski review highlighted the consequences. It gave us an opportunity to transform the system—and we are now going backward again at a rate of knots as this coalition government abandons those fundamental Gonski principles.

As I have said many times in this place before, the Prime Minister and his education minster have been remarkably consistent in their opposition to genuine needs-based funding. It is not hard to find the ideological rationale for the coalition's scepticism.     After all, a needs-based funding system would do away with the sector against sector war. It would put kid's first, not lobbyists or school systems. In the words of panel member Ken Boston:

Gonski is a truly needs-based system. It's a fundamental re-imagining of Australian education.

That is pretty threatening to entrenched privilege and entrenched power.

As Boston said:

"If school performance is neither advantaged nor disadvantaged by parental income, ethnic background, religion, school size and location, or whether a student attends an independent, Catholic or public school, success at school will be determined essentially by the student's ability, application and hard work."

What a change that would be! If we reduce disadvantage, we also reduce privilege—and the Abbott government are frightened of a future where privilege is challenged.

Instead of locking in disadvantage, the Australian Greens want to see it addressed. We want to live in a country where every single kid can achieve their potential no matter where they live and whatever their background. I again want to state that there is more than a social justice imperative to provide quality public education—although that should, arguably, be the principle that wins the day—there is also, clearly an economic argument. The OECD says directing extra resources to the most disadvantaged students raises educational outcomes for the whole country, providing a return on investment twice as high as the outlay. An analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that investing substantially in what is required to lift our schools' performance and that of the most disadvantaged students would generate $3.6 trillion in GDP in the life of a child being educated today.

I want to assure everyone listening to this speech—every teacher, every parent and every student—that the Australian Greens are committed to a well-resourced public schooling system with genuine needs-based funding. We are watching this government closely and we will fight to preserve the hard-won Gonski reforms.

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