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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 2229

Mr PYNE (12:00 PM) —I rise to speak on the Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011, which seeks to amend the Schools Assistance Act 2008 in order to extend the current funding arrangements to non-government schools. This includes extending recurrent funding arrangements until 2013, using the coalition’s socioeconomic status, SES, funding model. Grants for capital expenditure are also to be extended until 2014. It has long been the coalition’s policy to maintain the existing SES funding model, and for this reason the coalition will not oppose the bill. While schools know exactly where they stand with the coalition on school funding, a very serious question mark hangs over the future of school funding under the Gillard Labor government.

Nine years ago, the Prime Minister described the SES funding model as ‘flawed and unworkable’. Today in this chamber we are considering, at the Prime Minister’s behest, whether we should extend this model. It is the sort of doubletalk we have come to expect from this Prime Minister and this government. The decision to extend the existing SES funding model was made during the election campaign as the government faced mounting pressure to outline what form the new funding model would take. No-one in the non-government school sector is in any doubt that this was done to avoid revealing Labor’s true plans for schools funding right before the election. It was a desperate attempt to avoid a showdown with the non-government school sector.

Further evidence of this can be seen with the initial refusal of the then Minister for Education, Simon Crean, to guarantee during the election that funding for non-government schools would be maintained in real terms, inclusive of indexation, beyond 2012. The coalition knew, based on published information from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, that indexation and supplementation for all non-government schools over the four-year life of a school funding agreement equates to approximately $1.3 billion. It was only at the eleventh hour in the election campaign that the Prime Minister, after intense pressure from the coalition and the non-government school sector, was forced to guarantee indexation for non-government schools until 2013 by extending the SES funding model for another year.

A $1.3 billion shortfall in funding would have resulted in higher school fees for families. Unlike Labor, the coalition acknowledges that many parents scrimp and save to send their children to a non-government school of their choice. It still leaves a potential $1 billion shortfall in non-government school funding in real terms over the life of the next agreement if indexation is not guaranteed beyond the end of 2013. Parents who have children in non-government schools deserve to be told by the Prime Minister and Labor whether they can expect a massive hike in their school fees in a few years time. The Prime Minister must also guarantee that, beyond the next election, no non-government school will be worse off in real terms. Labor have certainly promised a lot in education, but in reality they have delivered very little.

The coalition believes in excellence in both government schools and non-government schools. That is why the former coalition government introduced the socioeconomic status funding model for non-government schools, which ensures funding is distributed on a much more equitable basis than Labor’s former educational resources index. Because general recurrent funding under the SES model distributes according to need, the schools serving the neediest communities receive the greatest financial support. It means that parents at all income levels have a realistic capacity to choose the most appropriate schooling for their child. The SES funding model creates an incentive for non-government schools to attract students from low-income families.

Unlike Labor, we genuinely believe in the absolute freedom of parental choice when it comes to the education of our children. We believe that it is the right of every parent to choose the education of their children and we advocate that government should encourage and facilitate, not control or restrict, the exercise of this freedom of choice. Comments made by the members of the Labor Party remind us that it is the party of the ‘private schools hit list’ and the politics of envy. They voted against the SES funding model when it was introduced, and many of their members, including the Prime Minister, are on the record opposing equitable funding for non-government schools.

The Prime Minister once said of the SES funding model, on 20 August 2001:

This government, for its funding for private schools, has adopted a flawed index, the so-called SES model, which does not deliver on the basis of need. We know that model is flawed …

So I want to caution the parents of children at all non-government schools: Labor’s hit list of non-government schools will be more deadly than ever this year, given the review of schools funding will be led in the context of this new Labor-Greens alliance.

Ms Collins interjecting

Mr PYNE —I note that the parliamentary secretary at the dispatch box tries to suggest that Labor support the non-government schools sector, but I will be fascinated to see, as will the non-government sector, what comes out of the Gonski review a the end of this year. The member opposite, the member for Franklin, will of course, I am sure, stand up and oppose any cut in funding in real terms to the non-government school sector! I am sure that she will support the coalition in standing up for non-government schools and making sure that every child in a non-government school has the same opportunities, the same access and the same choices as children in the government school sector!

My great fear is that this year we will see the assault on the non-government school funding that Labor has been holding onto for nine years since the Prime Minister made those fateful remarks about what she regards as the flawed SES funding model. They wanted to get through the 2007 election and the 2010 election. We had to drag the then education minister, Simon Crean, kicking and screaming to extend the SES funding model, but they only extended it by one year. They did not commit to it for the future, because we all know they just wanted to get through the election so they could then assault non-government schools’ funding. That is why they want to publish on the My School website the financial data of the non-government schools. What they want to do is build a case to attack the non-government schools sector, and every small religious and non-religious school that is a non-government school around Australia should be very fearful about what will happen under this Labor government that absolutely loathes the private school education system. We have managed to hold them off for a long period of time. We have held them off, but they are coming this year and next year to assault the non-government schools sector funding model.

I notice the member for La Trobe scurrying out of the chamber. She knows the truth and she does not want to sit here and have to listen. She does not want to have to listen to the truth about her dislike of the non-government schools sector and her determination to rip money off the non-government schools sector and distribute it, once again, to the public servants in the department rather than see services delivered on the ground in the electorate of La Trobe.

I caution the parents—I have said that, of course. I got slightly distracted by the member for Franklin, but I think we have dealt with her! We know the Greens policy seeks to return the total level of funding for all non-government schools to the 2003-04 levels and restrict the development of new non-government schools. This alliance between Labor and the Greens, therefore, poses a real threat, as it will seek to undermine the opportunities of young people and the choices of families who wish to educate their children at a non-government school chosen in accord with their religious faith or educational philosophy.

The review into schools funding this year for both government and non-government schools remains a key area of concern for the coalition, and we will scrutinise every step of this process. Already it is becoming clear that the My School website is slowly being politicised in a transparent attempt to build a case against public funding for non-government schools. The decision by Peter Garrett to delay the launch of My School 2.0, which was to be launched last year, is an indication of the political sensitivity of the decision to publish school financial information for all to see. Some government school lobbies and the education unions continue to argue that funding by the Commonwealth to non-government schools reduces funding to government schools. They of course overlook the fact that the states and territories have primary responsibility for government school funding, but these fraudulent arguments have not really progressed in decades. These same advocates have applauded Labor’s decision to publish school financial information on the My School 2.0 website, hoping it will bolster their case that once information is made available it can then be used as a method to justify reducing funding later down the track to Catholic and independent schools.

Sadly, it has already come to my attention that some schools already preparing for the inevitable under Labor are starting to put their school fees up now in preparation for 2013, when the Howard government’s socioeconomic status funding model is set to expire. Despite all the talk about My School being a resource for parents that will increase transparency and accountability, the evidence has recently mounted that the website is morphing into an instrument to run a campaign against government funding of non-government schools. This is evidenced by the fact that Labor were all but set to publish inaccurate and false financial data about non-government schools on the website without seeming to care what impact this could have had on some schools. It was not until some non-government schools threatened legal action last year that the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth decided to delay the website.

Further evidence is found in the recent Senate education committee inquiry into schools testing and the My School website. Labor made it obvious in the report that there is only one thing on their mind, and that is to bring back the Latham-Gillard private schools hit list. I quote:

Government senators note the financial data to be captured on My School version 2 is a good start but will not capture accumulated surpluses, assets, trusts or foundations. In the interests of providing more information, government senators believe that there should be full disclosure of financial assets including assets, foundations and investments, otherwise true comparisons will not be possible. There are limited obligations on private schools in return for public funding.

                …            …            …

If non-government schools continue to expect a share in federal funding then full financial disclosure in the interests of the tax payer and the better allocation of resources must be required. If non-government schools do not wish to comply with full financial disclosure, then public funding should not be provided.

The Labor senators have let the cat out of the bag in this report. They do not want to accumulate information to be used to determine the funding for each school. They want to publish the private financial information of the non-government schools—the trusts or foundations that have been established through the hard work of the parents, grandparents and former students over many decades and in some cases over more than 100 years—so they can then assault the non-government schools sector and take the funding from the non-government schools. That is the agenda of the Labor Party in schools, and we will see that played out, if the government lasts long enough, in 2012. Unfortunately, at the moment it looks as if the government might not even last till the end of this session. They are immolating before our very eyes.

So they might not even get to implement the outcome of the Gonski review, but if they are, unfortunately, in government next year then we will see their assault on the non-government schools sector for all that it will provide. Indeed, just this weekend we saw reports that Peter Garrett will take the proposal to force schools to include their assets on the My School website to the next council of education ministers meeting in April this year I raised grave concerns about schools having to provide excessive reporting on financials during the debate on the original schools assistance bill in 2008. I know that the non-government sector authorities were willing to provide information in good faith, but my concern was and still is that Labor would one day seek to use all of this information as the basis to take away funding from the non-government sector.

It looks set in stone that Labor will attempt to discredit the SES funding model. I note that the recent issues paper released by David Gonski goes into details of the arguments made against the model but elaborates little on the views of those who support the model’s underlying assumptions or options to improve the model. The model as it is conceived now is on a socioeconomic status, in that it uses students’ postcodes but does not take into account schools’ resources or fees. Parents are not asked intrusive questions about their income or other personal information; rather, the SES model links students’ addresses with current Australian Bureau of Statistics census data. Schools which draw students from areas of predominantly high SES receive lower levels of Commonwealth funding than schools which draw from areas of the average or low SES.

The coalition has long argued the benefits of this system as schools are not penalised for fundraising efforts—for example, income from fetes and working bees—nor are schools forced to provide onerous financial information. It has offered all parents a real choice of schooling options, regardless of their economic circumstances or the price they are willing to pay for their children’s education.

I am concerned that the principles that we now have in the SES model will be increasingly compromised as the review and changes to My School progress. It will be a real shame if under Labor in 2011 we will see the focus on schools funding drifting back to the arcane public-verses-private school debate when there is so much more to be done. It is unclear to me how publishing the assets of a non-government school is going to enhance any student’s education or how publishing the details of school trusts is going to result in improved literacy and numeracy. I would argue that, instead of trying to create a digital private schools hit list, the policy focus for the government should be on increasing autonomy in schools. My School in Australia runs a real risk of impacting negatively on student achievement, unless it goes hand in hand with the principals and schools being given autonomy.

I turn to mention a clear omission from this piece of legislation and flag I intend to move an amendment to address it. The coalition is absolutely focused on holding this government to account on the development of an appropriate national curriculum. A solid curriculum that lifts standards of literacy and numeracy within Australia will form the basis of the kind of eduction policy Australian mums and dads really want in the future. They want solid, practical accomplishments founded on decisions that are not based on the politics of envy.

Last year we saw the government clearly underdeliver on its original promise to have the national curriculum available to implement from the beginning of this year due to concerns about its quality. The national curriculum has become another Gillard-Garrett failure as state education ministers last year at the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs refused to begin implementation in January 2011 as was promised. Instead of endorsing a finished product, its final consideration was moved until October 2011 with the curriculum due to be implemented by 2013. Peter Garrett’s claim last year that the curriculum was ‘historically’—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—Order! I interrupt the shadow minister and ask him to refer to members by their positions.

Mr PYNE —Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I momentarily forgot myself.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —That is the third time. I have let it go through twice and I ask you to use titles.

Mr Hartsuyker —He’s so absent-minded.

Mr PYNE —I was distracted momentarily.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Would the shadow minister at the table like to put that on the record?

Mr PYNE —The claim of the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth last year that the curriculum was ‘historically’ endorsed suggests he did not understand the difference between success and failure. Far from endorsing the finished curriculum, the ministers appeared to have humiliated the minister for schools and the Prime Minister by accepting the patently obvious that a lot more work needs to be done to get this curriculum right. In fact, they in the end had to endorse a proposal from New South Wales to develop a blueprint to iron out issues such as the curriculum covering too much content, being overly prescriptive and lacking clear achievement standards.

It is a very sad day when the federal government have to take a proposal from the New South Wales government, arguably the worst government in the history of the nation, because their own minister for schools is so inept and incompetent that he did not realise the national curriculum was not ready for introduction. And do not just take my word for it, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I doubt you would. The curriculum has been roundly criticised by the state governments, stakeholder organisations and education experts. It has been described as ‘overcrowded, incoherent and lacking depth’, ‘a step backwards’, ‘inferior’, ‘lacking quality and clarity’ and as being ‘unclear and not ready to teach’. Its rigidity is outlined in a letter last year to Minister Garrett from the Australian Curriculum Coalition, which consists of 13 peak bodies ranging from the Australian Education Union and the Australian College of Educators right through to the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia. The one thing the national curriculum has achieved is uniting the most diverse range of people imaginable across the sector. They argue that Labor’s curriculum lacks a clearly stated direction with no overarching framework:

There is no clear statement about the issues that a national curriculum is designed to address, apart from the problem of mobile students … There is a need for an overarching framework for the curriculum to provide clarity about the conceptual model underpinning it.

They went on to explain that the curriculum is overcrowded:

As they stand, the documents will lead to serious overcrowding of the curriculum. The documents include too much lower order content to be learnt at the expense of higher order skills and conceptual understanding, leading to a degree of risk to teaching quality and the chances of effective student learning.

Julia Gillard has long claimed the curriculum would take three years to develop and be ready to implement by January 2011. In April 2008, Ms Gillard, the Prime Minister, promised:

A national curriculum publicly available and which can start to be delivered in all jurisdictions from January 2011.

This brings me to my final point. Last year it came to my attention that the Schools Assistance Act 2008 requires non-government schools and systems to introduce the national curriculum ‘prescribed by the regulations’ on or before 31 January 2012. Now that the curriculum time line is behind Labor’s original schedule, with some states and territories having announced they will not implement it until 2013, this obviously needs to be amended. But I note that the Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill does not deal with this issue, as one might have expected. So, while the coalition will not delay the passage of this bill, we do make a simple suggestion that it makes sense to amend the act now and change the time line for the curriculum for non-government schools to be implemented in line with state and territory schedules. I foreshadow that I will seek to move the following amendment:

(1)    Schedule 1, after item 3, page 3 (after line 17), insert:

3A Subsection 22(2)

Omit “31 January 2012”, substitute “a date set by the Minister by legislative instrument”.

3B After subsection 22(2)


         (3)    The Minister may not set a date for subsection (2) that is earlier than the date by which he or she is satisfied the national curriculum will be implemented in government schools in each State and Territory.

         (4)    If it appears that the national curriculum will be not be implemented in government schools in each State and Territory by the date that has been set for subsection (2), the Minister must set a later date.

Why is this so important? While it sounds slightly arcane—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—I would just indicate to the shadow minister that, having talked about them, he will have to move them in the consideration in detail stage as formal amendments. He can talk more broadly then.

Mr PYNE —Okay. I am foreshadowing that I am going to do that. I am foreshadowing that in this speech. That is fine. Why are these amendments so important? They are very important because the absurd situation in which the government has now placed the curriculum and the schools sector is that the non-government schools, under the act, are required to introduce the national curriculum by 31 January 2012, but the national curriculum is not ready for introduction, and the state governments have announced that they will not implement the national curriculum until 2013 at the earliest. So this minister is so inept and incompetent that he has a situation where the non-government schools are being required by law to implement a national curriculum that is not ready and, if this law is allowed to stay in place, the state government school systems will not implement the national curriculum until after the non-government school sector does.

You would think that the minister would fix that problem. You would think that he would move an amendment to his own bill. In fact, you would think he would have included it in the bill in the first place. Unfortunately, it takes the opposition to fix this minister’s absolute and sheer incompetence. On a daily basis we are trying to help this government and save it from itself, and today we have to foreshadow an amendment, which we will debate in the consideration in detail stage, to fix another government bill.

We could just let it go through. We could just allow the government to place the non-government sector in the absurd situation of having to introduce a national curriculum which is neither drafted nor completed while the government sector does not have to do so. But we in the opposition are bigger than that. We want to help the non-government school sector, so we will move these amendments. I hope that the crossbenchers and the government will support them. If they do support and adopt them, we will be very happy. With that, while the opposition will not of course oppose this bill since it extends our SES funding model, I do recommend my amendments to the House.