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Why the Abbott Government keeps undermining Gonski school funding

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 18 Mar 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:05):  In many ways I am saddened to begin this debate on the coalition government's failure to address educational inequality and deliver needs based funding across Australia. I am saddened because, really, the writing was on the wall. The coalition's contempt for a more equitable Australia has always been pretty clear, particularly in relation to schools funding. Certainly it was clear before the election, despite the sleight of hand that was played on the Australian public by the education shadow minister at that time, when Mr Pyne professed that they were on a unity ticket with the previous government.

I am also very proud to stand here again to make the case for a schooling system in Australia where every child will have the chance to succeed, and where not one child will be denied a future just because of their background. Since coming to government the coalition has done nothing to address the staggering inequality gap in education in Australia. In fact, their duplicitous policy manoeuvring will further entrench privilege and advantage in some schools over others-just like the Howard government did before them.

 

Far from working towards a national needs based funding model, the Abbott government has diligently undermined the work of the Gonski review panel at every opportunity, with a distraction here or there, a few blank cheques here or there, and, at every step of the way using the language of command and control to sneakily undo anything that might-just might-give disadvantaged kids in Australia the same educational opportunities as Australia's most privileged children.

I want to be clear that there is no needs based school model for Australian schools being delivered by this government. In fact, they have been remarkably consistent in their opposition to targeted funding towards those students who need extra help. So, despite promises of a unity ticket before the election and a whole lot of policy gymnastics afterwards, this government has only ever had an eye to the politics, and never made a real commitment to resolving the problem.

The problem is that here, in the land of the fair go, as we like to think, conservative governments have created one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the world. The problem is that the gap between the top and bottom 20 per cent of year 9 students' reading performance, for example, is up to an equivalent of five years schooling. But the coalition government is not concerned about the problem or the social and economic costs of leaving 20 per cent of the population behind. If you look at what they are saying on the record, the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, and the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, deny its very existence. They have consistently denied that there is inequality in Australian schools. This is in the face of compelling evidence from Australian and international sources. So they are being wilfully blind.

Mr Pyne uses falling rankings from PISA test data to justify educational red herrings to distract, but like too many struggling schoolkids he could obviously use some help with his reading comprehension, because what PISA really exposes-and this is the commentary from some of the PISA experts-is a shocking inequality of opportunity in our country in 2014. It is this social segregation, where family wealth in Australia is the best indicator of success, that is driving Australia's educational performance down. There is a clear and evident fix for this problem, and that is needs based funding. It is about directing extra resources to the most disadvantaged students, which will raise educational outcomes for the whole country. Indeed, the OECD say that this type of investment brings economic benefits twice as high as the initial outlay.

Despite throwing cash without conditions at Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the Minister for Education, Mr Pyne, insists on saying that money is not part of the solution. He bleats that money does not matter and says that government spending on education has never been higher. For that I will give him half a mark, because education spending on non-government schools has never been higher in Australia, but we are leaving literally millions of students behind by failing to properly fund public education. It is no surprise that all the extra money coalition governments have funnelled into private schools has made no difference in lifting educational outcomes. Giving more money to the wealthy has not worked. That coalition policy is a complete and utter failure.

So let's try something new; let's try something novel. How about investing in the most needy in accordance with the recommendations of Australian and international evidence? Too often in this place I hear those on government benches talking about the Gonski school funding system as throwing money at a problem, but let me make it clear to everyone on the government benches: the Gonski reforms are about targeted spending; they are about spending where there is disadvantage on evidence based programs to help those children in those schools reach their potential. There is no throwing of money and there are no blank cheques. Well, there were not until the coalition came to government and set about actively avoiding needs based school reform.

So let's be really clear. The Abbott government's failure to deliver needs based funding in Australia is not a mistake, it is not incompetence; it is because many-too many-on the government benches, and particularly the education minister, do not want a meritocracy in Australia, because a needs based funding system turns our schools system on its head. It does away with our longstanding sector-against-sector war. It will put kids first-not lobbyists and not the most privileged. In the words of Gonski panel member Ken Boston, Gonski requires a fundamental reimagining of Australian education. He 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.

So if we reduce disadvantage we also reduce privilege, and the Abbott government is frightened of a future where privilege is challenged. From day 1, Minister Christopher Pyne understood that the recommendations of the Gonski panel, if they were taken up, would turn the system on its head. That is why he opposed the Gonski reforms from day 1, and he is doing everything he can now to tear up the even playing field that true needs based funding would create.

Let me quote Ken Boston again:

At present, it is mainly the hard-working and talented children of the privileged who have access to the very highest levels of educational achievement. If Gonski is implemented, such access will be available increasingly to the similarly hard-working and talented children of the socially disadvantaged. This is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes: differences in outcomes will inevitably exist between children, but they will no longer be the result of factors such as poverty, religion or sector of schooling.

The Australian Greens are on the record as saying that what the previous government delivered is far from perfect, but the basis was there. The school funding system was based for first time on the needs of students and a plan to make a big investment in the future of our country by boosting funding levels.

What the Abbott government must grasp is that this is more than a political game. The future of millions of students is on the line, and our country's future is also on the line. Rejecting needs based funding is to lock in current disadvantage-the disadvantage faced by Aboriginal kids, country students, those with a disability, children with English as second language and low-income families. Rejecting needs based funding means that too many public schools will struggle for the basics while the most wealthy schools will prosper. To reject needs based funding will also mean rejecting improvement to our economy. PricewaterhouseCoopers have done an analysis which suggests that we stand to lose as much as $1 trillion by the end of the century if we do not make the investment in education in the areas where we need it in a timely way.

The Australian Greens believe in a future where education outcomes are achieved by hard work and talent, not by wealth, power, income or possessions. We want to live in a country where every single kid can achieve their potential, no matter where they live and whatever their background. The coalition government's failure to address educational inequality and deliver needs based funding across Australia, their passionate defence of the already privileged and their push to maintain the status quo are denying many Australian kids a future and are making our country immeasurably poorer.

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