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Tuesday, 19 February 2002
Page: 487

Ms GEORGE (10:04 PM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in support of Labor's position on this very important bill. The member for Jagajaga outlined in some detail the amendments that we will be pursuing in the Senate. I think it is important to start off by reiterating the position that we have put: we do not oppose establishment grants per se.

But I think that we need to see the proposal for an increase of some $6.9 million for this program in the context of an ever-increasing and larger share of Commonwealth funds that is flowing to the private school system. The program of establishment grants available to new private schools as an automatic right provides further financial encouragement for the establishment of new schools beyond the considerable support already emanating from the Commonwealth under the current funding regime.

We have heard a lot about the choice argument but let me say that it goes beyond the matter of choice to a very deliberate policy designed to encourage new private schools and to actively promote the shift of enrolments from the public to the private sector. When one talks about choice I think we ought to recognise the choice that parents of 70 per cent of school students make, and that is to send their children to the public school system. It is that system that is faring poorly under the Commonwealth's current deliberate policies of redirecting funds away from public education to prop up the private system.

The general policy direction by this government regarding private school funding has represented an attempted shift in the paradigm in community thinking. It ignores completely the original justification for Commonwealth financial support for schools in the non-government schools sector, and that was historically the application of the concept of a community standard: the idea that all children, whatever the school they attended, had a right to access to schooling that meets an acceptable, defined and agreed minimum standard. That view, historically and today, has widespread support.

However, this government's new SES funding system is underpinned by a completely different set of assumptions about private schools and their students. Rather than seeing the Commonwealth provide an effective safety net against poor standards and low educational quality to protect students, the current policy has as its rationale the view that all students, wherever they go to school, deserve a significant level of Commonwealth funding support. There has been a lot of criticism of this new system, particularly because it provides significant extra funds to resource rich private schools—the level 1 schools—that previously were funded at modest levels on the basis that their incomes and assets enabled them to provide high quality education without the need for substantial assistance from the Commonwealth. It is in line with this philosophy and these new funding directions that the debate about the establishment grants occurs.

Labor does not oppose establishment grants per se. The concept of these grants is not new. New non-government schools have received assistance since the 1970s, with Labor's support. The grants were originally paid on application to new schools that could demonstrate that they were required to operate at uneconomic levels as they built up their student populations. However, as the debate on this bill has clearly indicated, the concern that we have is that grants are paid automatically, with no requirement for schools to apply, and it appears from the Senate committee inquiry that there have indeed been major problems in regard to eligibility, accountability and reporting requirements. It therefore should come as no surprise to us that the funds appropriated in the forward estimates were inadequate. Currently, provided that the new private schools are approved for registration at state or territory level and they have commenced operating, they are automatically eligible for establishment grants. There are no further requirements. Furthermore, there are no explicit or special accountability or reporting requirements attached to these grants. The funds do not have to be accounted for separately. Thus the specific purpose of the program is unclear, and schools are free to spend the money on anything on which they might legitimately spend any recurrent funds made available to them by government.

Now this government is in trouble and it has come back here to seek extra funding for this program. It is clear that the funds appropriated last year are woefully insufficient to meet the demand. `New' private schools—as I will go on to point out, a number of them are not new—have suddenly mushroomed not in number but in size. The average size of the so-called `new' private schools, which has been steady at 42 students over recent years, shot up overnight, in 2000, to 92 students. The extra funds that are sought, we are told, reflect an apparently unexpected blow-out in the average enrolment of new schools. But since the introduction of this new form of assistance, it has become evident that the department's administrative procedures are inadequate in that they have allowed some schools that are not genuinely newly established to receive this form of funding. A number of examples have already been alluded to.

A school in Charters Towers closed briefly then reopened with a new governing board, but essentially the same students and teachers. A school in Geelong was described by the relevant state registration authority as essentially a new senior campus of another school, with all year 10 to 12 enrolments transferred from the existing campus to the new campus only metres away, and a governing council almost identical to that of the existing school. In Perth a new secondary campus of a large multicampus school had all existing secondary enrolments transferred from other campuses to the new campus, with the same CEO and governing structure as the other campuses.

In the case of these three examples, which in my view clearly are outside the guidelines of this program, it was their unusually large enrolments for new schools that attracted people's attention. As I have said, the average size for new schools prior to 2000 was 42 students, and this figure had remained relatively stable since the abolition by the current government of the New Schools policy in 1996. But the enrolment in these three allegedly new schools ranged from 200 to over 800, overnight bringing the average size for new schools to 92, or well over double the previous figure. The department did not investigate these schools in order to ascertain whether they were genuinely `new'. The only criterion employed by the department federally to identify a `new' school was and continues to be only its state or territory registration. Any non-government school newly registered is automatically eligible for this financial assistance. There is, moreover, no application process, and thus no onus is placed on a school to prove that it is actually `new' and, therefore, eligible for a grant. The three cases cited should have made the schools ineligible under the guidelines, but establishment grants were automatically paid.

Labor does not believe that this approach can continue. Taxpayer funds should be provided in a manner which is transparent and accountable. We believe that the bill does not satisfy this very important test. The bill provides for an uncapped stream of taxpayer funds without the need for a direct application, nor any mechanisms to ensure that funds go only to genuinely new schools and that they are accountable for the use of funds for genuine establishment purposes. Labor's proposed amendments, in our view, will tighten the administration of the program so that double dipping and the misuse of taxpayers' funds does not occur. We are attempting also in the suggested amendments to reintroduce the notion of funding on the basis of need by the proposal to exclude high fee schools from the program and by introducing a sliding scale of per capita grants for new schools with an SES score exceeding 100.

In Labor's view, the amendments should be supported by the government, for the proposals that we are putting are underpinned by the principles of accountability, transparency and equity. It is on that basis that we urge the government to give our amendments serious consideration and accept that they are put forward in good faith on the basis that we believe that we are all collectively accountable for the use of taxpayer funds, that we do not support an uncapped, open-ended system, but a system that attempts to provide public funding on the basis of need in a manner that is fair, that is transparent and for which the new schools should be properly accountable.