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Second reading speech on the Australian Education Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 26 Jun 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:16):  I rise today to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2013 and the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. To the extent that they establish a framework for needs based funding of schools in Australia the Australian Greens commend these two pieces of legislation. The Australian Greens believe that education is the foundation of democracy, and a well-resourced, public education system striving for excellence is the guarantee of a healthy and fair society. It is the right of all children to have access and opportunity to high-quality and affordable education and for their parents to expect as much. The public system is the only guarantee of this right.

The Greens have argued for a decade that our national funding model needs to be changed to make it fairer, to make sure that public education is properly funded throughout Australia and to invest billions more in education commensurate with the funding of our peers in other developed countries. In an increasingly divided community, where people's destinies are often determined by their postcodes, quality public education can be a unifying force. It fosters connection and understanding by bringing together children who would otherwise always move in different orbits. It can be the lifeline for all kids, whoever they are, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances, to achieve their full potential and to be the best they can be. It is also recognised that, as one of the best financial investments a nation can make, higher education standards and outcomes for everyone will enhance our country's human capital and increase skills, innovation and productivity in our community. We believe that a principled, transparent and enduring schools funding model, where public money is fairly prioritised according to need, is necessary to ensure a world-quality public school system that is accessible to all children no matter what their background or circumstances. It is true that this legislation does not go as far towards establishing that model as we believe is necessary, but it is certainly a big step in the right direction, and it is the most important educational funding reform in Australia in decades. Needs based funding is necessary to ensure public schools are funded to provide a world-class education for any student regardless of their background.

The Gonski review of funding for schooling was commissioned to devise an optimal education funding model. The Gonski review concluded that our current system is opaque, complex and inequitable with disadvantage concentrated in particular schools, predominantly government schools, which educate the lion's share of students with disadvantage. Gonski recommended a needs based funding model and a substantial increase in national education funding of $5 billion per year, which has subsequently been increased for inflation to $6.5 billion per year. Despite the coalition's disparagement about the need for money and throwing money at the problem, it was a universal consensus recommendation of the Gonski review that, indeed, Australia's funding of our national education system was lagging behind those of our peers in the developed world.

It is ludicrous to suggest that this is not about money. It is about many things. It is about more than money, but it is certainly about money as well. Why is it otherwise that the wealthy schools are not offering to give the money back that they receive? Because, of course, it is about money. Having visited schools across Australia, it has been very clear to me that those disadvantaged public schools could do so much more if they had more resources available to them to enhance the educational opportunities of those students from disadvantage that they educate so well already.

The Gonski review also concluded that an independent and expert national schools resourcing body should determine the applicable schooling resource standards. The Australian Greens strongly regret that this legislative framework fails to provide for this body. Such a body, independent of governments and the various sectors and interest that characterise education debates in Australia, could provide the core of the governance necessary to ensure that funding for schooling is provided in a way that maximises its educational impact and minimises self-interest and sectoral interests, as are often advocated by the main players in the system. An independent national schools resourcing body would develop, maintain, review and index the schooling resource standards and associated loadings to provide for currency and effectiveness. The Australian Greens lament the fact that this key component of the model that the Gonski review devised is missing from the legislation.

Another key recommendation of the Gonski review is that, in the case of the non-government sector, the assessment of a school's need for public funding should consider the capacity of the parents who enrol their children in the school to contribute financially towards the schools resource requirements. A genuine needs based funding model would ensure that all resources of a school are taken into account in determining need.

Such an approach needs to be carefully implemented-there is considerable diversity in the existing private contribution among non-government schools-however, the Gonski review concluded that this is achievable in developing a new framework subject to other funding parameters and transitional arrangements. I will be moving a second reading amendment to encapsulate the points that I have been making.

The Australian Greens have two substantive amendments to the Australian Education Bill. The first relates to yearly reporting obligations, which provide for transparency in how public funds are distributed within a system and moves these from the draft regulations into the legislation. This would require schools to report their resources-their assets, income, fees and other aspects-as an essential element of transparency and accountability in the context of needs based funding. We wish to embed this in legislation rather than leaving it in a regulation and running the risk of its being undone by a future coalition government which has not yet acknowledged that there is an inequity at heart of our current schools funding system, as was identified by the Gonski review.

This would also ideally overcome the risk of money being dissipated within bureaucracies before it arrives at the gates of the schools where it is most sorely needed. We also propose an independent review of the education funding model that this bill established, commencing in 2018.

The second Australian Greens amendment would simply require non-government schools to comply with antidiscrimination law. Equality is a core principle underpinning Australia's modern, proud democracy. Any school which is in receipt of large amounts of public funding should not have recourse to the exemption provisions set out in sections 37 and 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act, which allow it to discriminate against Australians at will.

The fact is that there are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students in every education system in Australia, including religious schools. Sadly, recent research shows that the situation with respect to homophobia and homophobic abuse in schools is not improving. And systemic discrimination-discrimination upheld by social institutions and governments-legitimises such incidents. On the other hand, it is well established that policy protections for people's rights are associated with decreased risks of experiencing homophobic violence and decreased risks of self-harm and suicide rates.

In formulating this education reform, the government has taken the opportunity to increase policy requirements for schools, including more information gathering, and submitters to the inquiry on this bill noted that the architecture of the Australian Education Bill gives the Commonwealth the potential to exercise a high degree of control over the way in which government, Catholic and independent education systems and schools deliver education to Australian students.

The Australian Greens believe that this education reform package is an opportunity to bring school standards on discrimination into line with community standards, and set a benchmark for protecting people's rights. This is a great opportunity for Australia to align itself squarely with international human rights standards. It is very clear to the Australian Greens that if an organisation is receiving public funding to provide a service the Australian public has the right to expect it to abide by basic, widely held community standards and antidiscrimination principles.

Those are the two substantive amendments the Australian Greens will be moving. I move the Australian Greens second reading amendment in the terms circulated in the chamber.


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