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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1873

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (11:31): I rise to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2012. This bill is intended to outline the government's determination to introduce a new funding model for schools, as part of its response to the Review of Funding for Schooling panel, the Gonski review. However, this bill contains only nine pages and 1,400 words, which set out 'aspirational goals' rather than specific details about how the Gillard government plans to fund the state and non-state school system in the future. There are no details at all as to how the new funding model will operate; how much individual schools will receive; how this funding will be calculated; and what other obligations will be placed upon the sector. This is extremely important information that all state and non-government schools need to know so that they can plan for the future education of their students.

While this bill is very light on detail, the coalition will not oppose the bill in its current form. Before we finalise our position, we will of course wait for further details from the government following the COAG discussions this year, and wait for the further details from the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment's inquiry into the bill, referred to the committee on 29 November 2012. We previously heard the member for Grey, the deputy chair of the committee, advise the House that the committee has not even had a chance to begin the inquiry into this bill. It is therefore simply unacceptable that the government has continued the second reading today.

As the member for Sturt highlighted on 12 February, the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, the member for Kingsford Smith, attended a protest in New South Wales to demand that the New South Wales Premier, Barry O'Farrell, release how he is going to implement the Gonski recommendations and how he will cost that implementation. This demonstrates the sheer hypocrisy of the minister and this government: the coalition has been demanding answers from the federal Labor government about how they will implement the Gonski recommendations, given that to date the government has not responded formally to the 41 Gonski recommendations. This bill does, however, expect that states, territories and the non-government school sector will agree to a national plan for school improvement in return for future federal funding. This national plan indicates five general directions for reform, including quality teaching, quality learning, empowered school leadership, transparency and accountability, and meeting student need. These are laudable aims, but there is no further information about what these directions mean for the sector or exactly how the government intends on implementing them and improving education.

I read with interest an article by Scott Prasser, Professor of Public Policy and Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australia Catholic University here in Canberra. Professor Prasser calls the bill 'a vacuous document long on rhetoric and aspiration, short on substance and detail'. He highlights the concerns of many in public policy of the huge concerns that have resulted from the fact that it is, as he explains, 'heretical to question the value of the Gonski proposals'. When a government proposes to spends billions and billions of dollars of taxpayers' money to fund its announcements—on education, disability, broadband—it is absolutely crucial to scrutinise every single dollar. As Professor Prasser wrote:

A government that makes large-scale public investment in new policies and programs which have little prospect of success is failing the first principles of good government.

I absolutely agree with these sentiments. It is our responsibility as members of parliament to ensure the hard-earned money that we take from taxpayers is spent wisely and efficiently and that, further, we actually measure the outcomes and success or failure of programs. It is especially crucial given the nature of special interest and lobby groups and how they position the problems of their particular industry or sector. Often, the purported answer is money—that if you throw more money at a problem, magically, the problem will be solved.

What we do know is that research across the world confirms that more spending does not necessarily correlate with educational quality. The question is: what do you do with the money you spend and how cost-effective is it? We must therefore take stock of the entire school education system in Australia for both government and non-government schools. The Gonski review attempted to do this but left many stones unturned. As I said, the government has not formally or adequately responded to the Gonski review, so the only real recommendation that the government will entertain is spending more money. Everything from the Gonski review has been simplified into one figure—$6.5 billion. Now is the time for the government to explain what they intend to do in education reform. We must know further details about how the governments across Australia plan to spend the additional $6.5 billion.

There are many questions which still abound. How much money will be spent on employing teachers? How many teachers will we need? What Higher School Certificate score will students need to study education at university? Is the current score required for studying education at university set at a high enough standard to ensure that we attract the best quality people to become teachers? What are the advantages of implementing a voucher system in Australia? How do you harness a voucher system to truly provide parental choice while at the same time ensuring that funding is directed from the bottom-up, as opposed to being directed by some bureaucrat thousands of kilometres away? Will the government be focusing on technology or giving laptops to every student as per the now-defunct government program which wasted hundreds of millions of dollars?

Does the government have an ideal class size in mind? Will there be capital funding arrangements for the future establishment of new schools or classrooms? Will the Prime Minister guarantee that no school will have to increase school fees as a result of the changes? What will be the benchmark funding per primary and secondary school student?

Furthermore, there is still no clear answer as to how students with a disability will be supported by the federal government. I spoke, in my private member's motion last session, of the annual struggle of parents and staff at the Glenleighden School in my electorate to receive adequate support from the federal government for their children. The school is concerned that the Gonski review does not adequately address the problem that operational policies relating to disability are inconsistent across states. While the Queensland state government does recognise children with primary language disorder as having a speech-language impairment, making those children eligible for funding, some states in Australia do not recognise PLD. The school is extremely concerned that the Gonski review made no recommendations in relation to loading for a disability because of 'significant obstacles'—as described on page 167 of the review. The Glenleighden School is the only one of its type, so parents travel from all over Australia to enrol their child. That means it is of paramount importance to the school that this issue is dealt with. At this point, I do not know how to answer the school's inquiries—because there is no answer from this government. This is not an exhaustive list of the many key questions about the implementation of the Gonski review.

Over the last five years, since the Labor Party took office, there has been much consternation within the state and non-government school sectors about what the government will change in school funding. During the 2007 election, the member for Griffith promised a review of funding but the government has since largely retained the former Howard government's funding model. David Gonski was selected to chair the review panel, which handed its final report into schooling to the government in December 2011. The main recommendation was to implement a new funding model at an additional cost of $6.5 billion a year. The panel proposed originally that the federal government and states would split the cost of introducing the recommended funding model on a 30 to 70 basis, which would require each government in Australia to lift existing expenditure in school education by approximately 15 per cent.

Since then, the panel's proposed theoretical model has been tested by the government and dozens of technical issues and anomalies have arisen. Both the National Catholic Education Commission and the Independent Schools Council of Australia reported serious anomalies and became very concerned about what the model meant for their schools. In August last year, leaked modelling revealed that approximately one-third of all schools, including both government and non-government schools, would lose funding. In particular, the Independent Schools Council of Australia reported that 16 per cent of its members would lose money—180 of the 1,100 independent schools losing out. This would mean parents having to fork out thousands and thousands of dollars extra each year just to cover the cuts in funding.

As I said, the coalition has consistently maintained that any new funding model must not reduce funding for any school in real terms. That makes the original Gonski proposal simply unacceptable for Australian parents and the coalition. I understand that the government has at least attempted to substantially redesign the original proposal, including spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants. The devil, however, will be in the detail, about which we currently know very little. It is the coalition's position, as the member for Sturt has indicated, that the current quantum of funds for every school—and the indexation of those funds—is the basic starting point when considering any new funding model. In particular, no school should lose funding.

In addition, the coalition has set out 10 principles which outline our values for schooling. These include, among others, respecting the right of parents to choose a school that meets their needs, values and beliefs; ensuring opportunity for all Australian children to secure a quality education; student funding being based on fair, objective and transparent criteria and distributed according to socioeconomic need; and decisions being made locally by parents, communities, principals, teachers, schools and school systems.

The coalition has introduced amendments to this bill to provide certainty to schools and parents that their funding is protected during implementation of any reform of school funding. Firstly, we will introduce an amendment to ensure funding certainty for schools by extending the current model for another two years in the event that a new model has not been agreed with the states this year. Secondly, we will introduce an amendment to include the coalition's 10 funding principles.

The coalition's amendment calls for the addition to the bill of a definition of both 'systemic school' and 'non-systemic school'. The essential difference is that systemic schools receive funding through system authorities. The 1,704 Catholic schools, for example, receive funding through their state or territory Catholic Education Commission. The non-systemic schools are funded directly by the federal government—some independent Jesuit schools and many schools of other faiths are funded this way. The government must, at the very least, explicitly recognise and define the difference between systemic and non-systemic schools. That would then allow funding to flow from the Commonwealth to non-government system authorities—or direct to a school, if it is a non-systemic one. During the Senate process, members of the coalition will continue to ensure that any measure which will have the effect of micromanaging schools or increasing red tape will be opposed, but we will definitely support those parts of the plan to increase school and principal autonomy.

Lastly, the coalition believes that parents and schools need funding certainty so that they can adequately plan for next year and guarantee teaching positions. Last year, I held an education forum in conjunction with the member for Brisbane. The shadow education minister, the member for Sturt, kindly attended and responded to the many questions from principals and parents about the uncertainty they face about what is going to happen—for example, whether the 'funding maintained' principle would continue or whether schools would continue to be funded on the basis of socioeconomic status. At that forum, the shadow minister was able to outline the broad philosophical approach of the coalition to quality and choice in education and to recommit to making sure that no school loses real funding if the funding model changes. Unfortunately, all government and non-government schools in Australia still have no clue as to the funding model to be in effect from 1 January 2014.

By introducing a bill that is only nine pages long, by introducing a bill with no detail, by introducing a bill prior to full consultation with the states and by progressing their bill prior to the committee process, this government is demonstrating that it is not serious about providing certainty to the Australian education system. While I do not oppose this bill in its current form, the government must announce the detail of its proposals. We owe it to the schooling system in Australia, we owe it to Australian parents and, most of all, we owe it our children. The coalition's plan is for real solutions for all Australians.