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The urgent need to get real about the Gonski reforms

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 3 Dec 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:23):  I rise to support this matter of public importance motion because the issue of education funding remains urgent, notwithstanding the piecemeal posturing we have been seeing from the minister. This motion is urgent because the inequity in our education systems is increasingly urgent-it has been growing over decades-and because the government has not honoured its pre-election commitment to reformed, needs based funding. Despite the risible attempts of the Minister for Education to rewrite history and now to reassure everyone that everything is fixed-trying to say that it does not matter where you start, it is where you end up that counts-it is important to look at where we have ended up after this circus that we have seen over the last year but particularly over the last week. What is clear is that there is no national schools funding model in Australia being delivered by this government.

What we do see is that schools in five of the states and territories will still be funded very differently to those in the other three. We do not have a national system. As the president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation said this week, the Abbott government has responded to a political problem, a problem of their own making, but not to the problems with our funding system that have been screaming out for leadership and a truly national interest approach-what we should expect our national government to be attending to. As he noted, the only thing the government has been consistent about is its opposition to a fairer funding model right from day one. And that is because Minister Pyne has never acknowledged the truth at the heart of the Gonski review of funding for schooling. He has never admitted, and neither has the Prime Minister, that there is disadvantage in our schooling systems.

There is overwhelming evidence of disadvantage. For instance, under the existing education scheme the educational outcomes of Indigenous children in Australia are scandalous. They have fallen two years behind those of non-Indigenous kids. We know that only 45 per cent of 20- to 24-year-old Indigenous people in Australia had a year 12 or equivalent qualification in 2008, compared with 85 per cent of non-Indigenous population. Clearly, there is an overwhelming effect of disadvantage on the school achievement rates of young Australians.

Minister Pyne has never admitted that the socioeconomic status funding model, which preceded the Gonski reforms and resulted in millions and millions of dollars in funding increases for the wealthiest private schools, was flawed. Indeed, it was Prime Minister Howard who introduced that scheme and Minister Pyne has been persistent in trying to extol the virtues of that scheme, despite the evidence and the very widely held view of commentators throughout Australia that that is a flawed scheme which actually entrenched privilege. That was because that funding was never given to government schools; it was Commonwealth funding to the schools in the private system. In distancing himself from the Better Schools Plan last week, Minister Pyne even flagged the SES model as a potential starting point for his government. He said:

The principle of a needs-based funding system, where disadvantaged students get more money, is a good principle and that was the same principle of the previous socio-economic status [SES] funding model. It was called socio-economic status, because funding got to where it was most needed.

We know that that assertion is wrong on so many levels, and yet he insists on continuing to make it. The money did not get to government schools, which educate 80 per cent of those students who have characteristics of disadvantage in Australia, because under the existing arrangement the Commonwealth largely funds private schools and the states, with less financial reserves than the Commonwealth, fund the public schools.

New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is a conservative politician who is prepared to speak the truth about this sham that is going on. He said last week of Minister Pyne:

He must be the only person in Australia who thinks the SES model is a good model. The Gonski panel said no. If you walked into any school in New South Wales, every teacher and principal would say no.

But Minister Pyne and his colleagues have rejected the expert Gonski review without assessing its merits. Gonski was dismissed as a 'Conski', with no explanation as to why, apart from the fact it had been commissioned by a government that was not theirs. Not even the most basic policy analysis was used to try to justify these wordplays. We had no evidence before us that Christopher Pyne understood the nature of the Gonski reforms-we still have no evidence to that effect-or why they were needed and what the implications would be of maintaining the status quo.

The impacts of years of unsustainable funding are very real. We continue to see evidence that the gap between the highest and the lowest performing students is widening. If we do not move quickly and effectively to fix that we will not be able to raise Australia's overall education performance. Many of us await the further PISA results that will be released tomorrow to see what the effect of this education disadvantage gap is on our education performance standards on the international stage.

Most of us are concerned about the fact that they will very likely be showing a further decline. This represents an enormous future cost for Australia in terms of social costs as well as considerable losses in productivity.

No matter how much it has been reported and how much spin has been put on this, the truth is that the Minister for Education has not committed to needs based funding. In the wake of his announcement yesterday, on the Prime Minister's instructions, the fictional funding vacuum of $1.2 billion is restored. But there is no requirement that states distribute that funding according to need. It is no-strings-attached, no-conditions funding provided to the three states that were the slowest to sign up to the proposal from the previous government to increase the school funding in Australia. There is no need for the states to kick in the complementary funding they committed to as part of their agreements with the former government-and that is the states that were signed up. There are not even requirements for states to provide information about how effectively, let alone how equitably, the additional funding is going to be used.

For the states which had never signed an agreement, there is nothing stopping them cutting their own schools funding to offset what the minister announced yesterday. They have, of course, the Prime Minister's advice that to do so would be 'poor form', but that is hardly compelling, given the shattered credibility of the minister. In fact, we have been seeing world's best practice when it comes to poor form, in the backflips, the obfuscation and the duplicity that we have seen, particularly over the last week, especially when we have the minister and the Prime Minister trying to shift the blame from their own ducking and weaving to the public and the media, suggesting that we just have not been smart enough to be able to understand what they have been saying, or rather not been saying.

What is truly poor form is the constant politicking of this government when it comes to the future of Australian children. The coalition pledged, before the election, to what it called a 'unity ticket' on education funding. But since then it has walked away from that, clarifying that all it can offer is a unity ticket on the overall amount of money-but we cannot be sure how that money will be spent. By abandoning needs based funding, the government is committing our education system to inequity, a worsening of achievement and, ultimately, a reduction in the level of opportunity available to Australians.

As long-term advocates of universal access to high-quality education everywhere, for every child, the Australian Greens welcomed the Gonski review of funding for schooling. We supported the Better Schools plan, on the basis that its accountability mechanisms and other key elements that the review recommended could be implemented more robustly. We will continue to advocate for funding to be distributed on the basis of need, with a baseline amount for every student in every school in every sector. We also know there have to be loadings on the basis of factors that are known to be associated with disadvantage: low socioeconomic status, Indigenous status, remoteness, school size and disability. Sadly and dispiritingly, it is clearly impossible to trust this government on education funding, because it is delivering a system where there is no national funding model, and we will continue to have a system where some Australian kids are more equal than others.

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