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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1893


Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (12:55): I rise today to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2012. In doing so I have the opportunity to speak on one of the most important areas that a government can influence: the education of our children. Quality education is the cornerstone of a democratic and progressive society. It is through education that each generation improves on the one that precedes it. That is why it is so critical that the government put in place an education system that realises the outcomes that we as a nation expect and demand. In order for this to occur the system must be robust, fair and flexible. It must provide choice for families. Every family is different and our education system should reflect that each family wants different things for its children. For some it is faith based schools, for some it is schools that excel in things such as sport, the arts, science, maths, biology or English, and for others it is schools that provide programs to extend students as part of their extracurricular activities—to name just a few.

As we look for the detail in this bill we find that there is no detail on how such things should be achieved. There is no detail around how our education system needs to be improved, how it will increase choice and how it will deliver quality outcomes. This bill exemplifies the government's approach to policy development and governing. It exemplifies its approach to overblown rhetoric, coupled with underdelivery or just plain botched delivery. It astounds me that the government continues to make the same mistake over and over again by espousing motherhood statements without providing the necessary detail which will result in quality outcomes. The government is taking the Australian people for fools.

This bill is only nine pages long, consists of around 1,400 words and—wait for it—is not even legally enforceable. There is no discussion in this bill about the fact that there is a funding formula. In fact, we need to state in this place that there has been no COAG discussion on funding. You might well ask: what is the point, then? All this bill does is outline a set of guidelines or objectives that, despite being noble in their intention, provide very little in the way of how to actually achieve the stated goals. It is easy enough to say that this bill and our education system should provide quality teaching, quality learning, empowered school leadership, and transparency and accountability, and should meet student need. Who would not want those attributes within the school system? But the integral question is: how? How does the government propose to provide quality teaching? How is the government going to provide quality learning? How does one improve transparency and accountability? These are the questions that need to be answered and are not being answered in this bill.

We know that the funding quadrennium will run out at the end of this year. We have known since the commencement of the last funding quadrennium that it would end in 2013, but the government chose to delay its decision regarding new funding, as it seems to do with all of its decisions. Instead, it established a review panel, chaired by businessman David Gonski, who handed his final report to the government in December 2011. Since then, we have heard precisely nothing from the government. There has been no formal response to the 41 recommendations made by Mr Gonski, nor has the government released any public modelling regarding the central recommendation in the Gonski report to do with an additional $6.5 billion of recurrent spending. The government has comprehensively failed to provide any detail whatsoever.

I know from visiting the schools in my electorate that what they want is certainty. They want certainty around how they will be funded and by how much. They want a guarantee that they will not go backwards and that they will not be part of a hit list, which we saw with certain schools when the Prime Minister proposed this under former leader Mark Latham. I know that from speaking with the parents of the 39 schools in my electorate that they want funding security for their students, their teachers and their schools so that they can concentrate on delivering the best educational opportunities for their students and for all young Australians.

As I mentioned, there is no detail as to how funding will be made up and where the funding will be coming from. This leads to more confusion and uncertainty in the schools and their administration. The government knows this but is happy to simply remain silent in the intervening period.

We just heard before from the member for Melbourne, who talked about wanting a fairer funding model. He does not yet propose how this will be achieved, but we certainly know from looking at the Greens' previous policy proposals that their idea of a fair funding model is to take away all government funding from independent schools. This would ultimately lead to many parents who would like to send their child to an independent school not having the choice and opportunity to do so. Despite the impression that the government and the Greens present, government schools receive the vast majority of government funding—as they should. There are 1.2 million children, or 34 per cent of all Australian students, attending independent schools. When funding from federal, state and territory governments is taken into account, current government funding favours government schools. In 2007-08—and little has changed since then—government schools received 79 per cent of total government funds for schools, of which the federal government provided only 8.6 per cent. Independent schools received 21 per cent of total government funding for schools, of which the federal government provided 72.1 per cent. Further, the Productivity Commission has determined that total government recurrent expenditure per government school student is $14,380, as compared to $7,427 for non-government school students.

The lack of information provided by the government so far has led to great confusion and great uncertainty. Schools cannot budget and, therefore, cannot determine their future plans. By contrast, the coalition has been very clear. We believe that the current quantum of funds for every school, and its indexation, must be the basic starting point for any new funding model. No school should lose funding as a result of the new funding model. We have moved amendments to this bill to this effect. In our amendments we also call on the government to extend the current funding arrangements for a further two years. We believe that parents and schools need funding certainty so that they can adequately plan for next year and they can guarantee teaching positions and programs.

State governments have also said on the record that they have been left in the dark and do not know what the government's funding proposal is going to be about. They therefore cannot respond to it and cannot respond more broadly to the aspirations outlined in the Gonski report.

We know that the government likes to talk big on education. I do believe their sincerity on this issue, as I wholeheartedly believe that every person in this House wishes for the best educational outcomes for the children of Australia. And I truly believe that the Prime Minister, when she says education is her ultimate passion, believes it. But what we have seen in this country since Labor took over government is a decline in Australia's educational outcomes.

Australia currently sits in ninth place in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment rankings but is only one of five countries, and the only high-performing nation, to record a drop in student scores over the past decade. Under this government's watch we have slipped in performance. The Grattan Institute recently published a report entitled Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia. It analysed the performance of the top four PISA ranked East Asian locations: Shanghai, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. In the report, Dr Ben Jensen identifies that success in high-performing systems is not always the result of spending money and that in recent years many OECD countries have substantially increased educational expenditure, often with disappointing results. Between 2000 and 2008, average expenditure per student rose by 34 per cent across the OECD. Large increases in expenditure have also occurred in Australia, yet student performance has fallen. Dr Jensen then went on to identify the particular focus of the countries he studied and found that each of the four countries has a particular focus on the things that are known to matter in the classroom, including the relentless practical focus on learning and the creation of a strong culture of teacher education, research, collaboration, mentoring feedback and sustained professional development.

We know when we look at the example of South Korea that they spend less, on average, than the rest of the OECD, yet their educational outcomes are so much more significant. This support for teacher training and development, which has been their focus, is indeed critical. But it is not a focus that the government has put at the forefront of this bill. Given the lack of detail, hopefully it is something that we will hear some more of. It is certainly something that is required. The coalition, on the other hand, has strong, very positive plans for education. We have been very clear in our guidelines for education reform, and we have clearly expressed our values for schooling.

First, families must have the right to choose a school that meets their needs, values and beliefs. Second, all children must have the opportunity to secure a quality education. Third, student funding needs to be based on fair, objective and transparent criteria distributed according to socioeconomic need. Fourth, students with similar needs must be treated comparably throughout the course of their schooling. Fifth, as many decisions as possible should be made locally by parents, communities, principals, teachers, schools and school systems. Sixth, school sectors and school systems must be accountable to their community, families and students. Seventh, every Australian student must be entitled to a basic grant from the Commonwealth government. Eighth, schools and parents must have a high degree of certainty about school funding so that they can effectively plan for the future. Ninth, parents who wish to make a private contribution towards the cost of their child's education should not be penalised and neither should schools, in their efforts to fundraise and encourage private investment. Tenth, funding arrangements must be simple so that schools are able to direct funding towards education outcomes, minimise administrative costs and increase productivity and quality.

In conclusion, it is clear that the coalition has a plan for education whilst the government has a nine-page bill that is not legally enforceable. The bill contains no detail of how much money will be available or which government will be required to stump up the additional funding. There are no details as to how the new funding model will operate, how much individual schools will receive, how this funding will be calculated or what other obligations will be placed upon the sector. The coalition does not oppose the bill in its current form. How could we? It comprises broad based, aspirational statements. We will wait for the detail before we finalise our position, once the government has actually spoken with their counterparts in the states following COAG discussion later this year. As further detail on the bill is made available we will consider the information. We stand united in rejecting the Greens' previous policy announcements to strip government funding for independent schools. We also stand united in supporting excellence in quality teaching, quality learning, empowerment, school leadership, transparency and accountability, and needs based funding. So, we will wait with interest for the detail of the national school improvement plan as to how the government intends to drive reform in these areas. But until the government backs its rhetoric with substance, we and all Australians will continue to wait—at our cost.