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Monday, 18 June 2001
Page: 27745

Mr McARTHUR (5:52 PM) —I wish to grieve on behalf of those hardworking parents who pay fees to independent schools. In my state of Victoria, 31 per cent of students attend independent schools at the primary level. We have heard a great debate in this parliament about this issue and we have heard the opposition agreeing with the broad principle of SES funding. They agree like they agree with the GST—although they are going to roll it back in some form—with the broad principle. Similarly, with the funding of independent schools, they agree with the broad principle and yet, day after day in this parliament, they wish to argue about the so-called 60 wealthy schools.

As I will allude to in a minute, the fundamental debate is about the ERI, the education resources index, versus the new SES model, the socioeconomic status model, and the desire of the government to bring about a more equitable situation. Those members of the House and those people associated with education would know the fundamental flaw that is associated with the category method where schools are put into categories from category 1 to 12 according to the ERI or some other strange mechanism. This has been a matter of some concern since the Labor Party agreed to this back in the early 1970s. Obviously parents have a choice. If they wish to pay fees, they can send their children to an independent school because they have a concern for the values that school may imbue in their students, they have a concern for excellence that that school may encourage, they may be impressed with the academic performance of the particular institution or they may be keen about its contribution to personal development.

I had a meeting only last week in the Geelong region where I met with the principals and chief executives of a number of independent Christian schools. They are more than pleased with the new system because they think it is fair: they think that the parents they are associated with can select a school in the Geelong region where the fees will be equitable across the board—neither wealthy nor poor.

Let us now look at the funding by the Commonwealth to the state system. The argument that is put forward in this parliament and in many places is that the Commonwealth funds the independent schools to a greater degree than the state system. Let me reiterate that state governments are responsible for primary and secondary education and they provide the bulk of the funding. However, since 1996, the Commonwealth has made a major contribution: in 1996 it contributed about $1.5 billion and in 2001 a bit over $2 billion—an increase in real terms of 18 per cent. So let us get it clearly on the record that, as well as its funding to independent schools, the Commonwealth has increased its direct contribution to state schools by 18 per cent in real terms.

Let us have a look at this argument about independent schools and the new schools policy. The former Labor government had a policy of restricting the development of independent schools because, as I understand it, the teachers that dominate the Labor Party, especially at state levels, were very worried that there might be a genuine, new competitive spirit emerge with independent schools being created. So the Labor Party restricted the development of new schools under a new schools policy designed to restrict the establishment of non-government schools. They kept the funding at a lower level—a very subtle mechanism—so that those in the public debate would not quite understand what was being done. No new school would be funded higher than the level of a category 6 school, even if the new school actually had a funding category of level 12.

So by a certain subtlety the former government were restraining funding. We saw a situation where a number of these new schools—and even the old schools—were underfunded when real student needs were taken into account. When the Howard government established a new system for assessing needs, we found that quite often the average income of parents indicated a greater need for that particular school.

It is worth noting that in this whole debate—and I emphasise the point—parents who send their children to independent schools are saving the Australian taxpayers, be they state or federal taxpayers, approximately $2 billion each year. Let us not forget that in the heat of the debate. Quite often on the floor of this parliament it is suggested that taxpayers are paying an undue amount to independent schools.

The education resources index was a very complex mechanism developed over the years to try and establish a funding model for independent schools. It was enacted as a disincentive to the private effort of those independent schools raising money at fetes, working bees, et cetera. The interesting thing is that those schools under ERI categories 1, 2 and 4 have not had a real increase since 1985. I repeat: they have been receiving the same amount of money for one reason or another since 1985; and schools in ERI category 3 have not had a real increase since 1993. So the schools in these categories that are considered by the member for Dobell and others to be wealthy schools have had no increase. We have heard the argument on the floor of this parliament that Geelong Grammar and Geelong College in my region, King's School in Sydney and other so-called rich schools have had undue increases. The reality is that, under the old system, they have had no increase, which should have been undertaken in view of changes in the CPI and parental income.

The SES approach measures the socioeconomic status of the parents whose children are enrolled at the school. This is a mechanism agreed to by the opposition to bring a fairer and more equitable approach to the funding of independent schools. The SES index used for non-government school funding has three dimensions: income, education and occupation. As I understand it, the government and the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs have done an enormous amount of work with the bureaucracy to establish a system which is as simple as possible to ensure that the funding regime reflects the parental ability to pay the fees rather than a so-called assessment of a wealthy school.

We have a situation here in this parliament where day after day the member for Dobell continues to suggest that there are approximately 60 schools that are wealthy. I put on the public record that there are no wealthy schools per se; there are some schools that enjoy certain facilities because of the support of their old boy groups and other benefactors. However, the broad cross-section of parents is not wealthy. This system tries to make an equality of those parental groups and fee paying parents who wish to make a contribution to their children's education and who seek some source of funding. That of course varies between 15 per cent and 25 per cent, depending on what category they were in under the old regime.

I would like to quote Mr Leo Dunne from the Australian Parents Council. I think he sums up the debate very well. On 6 October he said:

Two years ago, when the idea was first being examined, Opposition parties indicated in-principle support for a funding allocation which took into account the needs of non-government school communities according to SES status. Now that the SES funding figures per student have been released they are crying foul. It turns out that some so-called `wealthy' schools seem not to have such `wealthy' parent communities and are in need of additional funding. Under the SES scheme, funding levels are to be adjusted to recognise this. ... The funding legislation currently before the Commonwealth Parliament should be passed without further ado so that non-government schools and their communities can plan for the future.

That is an independent comment from somebody who is close to the argument. He is supporting the very thesis that I am putting before the House today: that this whole debate has been one of contention since the split in the Labor Party and that the government and the minister, Dr David Kemp, have made a genuine attempt to bring about a more equitable funding arrangement—which the Labor Party basically agree with, yet we have here on the floor of the parliament and in the public domain an argument from the Labor Party that there are a number of wealthy schools that should be restricted in their funding. (Time expired)