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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 988

WYATT ROY (Longman) (19:23): I rise today to address the Australian Education Bill, a framework outlining this government's intention to introduce a new funding model for schools as recommended by its review of funding for schooling panel. The panel's work, chaired by leading corporate identity David Gonski, has become known simply as the Gonski review. But this is one equation—adequately funding Australian schooling so that all students have an equitable shot at success—that is far from simple. If the right answer is not reached, this and future generations will be justified in pointing the finger at this place and asking: 'Why did you let us down? Why did you deny us our opportunity to reach our potential? Why did you stand in the way of our being the best Australians that we can be?'

Our current educational standards are notably below par. Just before Christmas, our worst fears were sheeted home with the release of two landmark global studies. The findings of the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study cast serious questions over one of the Prime Minister's key goals for this bill—that Australia be placed in the top five countries in reading, science and mathematics by 2025. In the tests, Australian students came 27th out of 45 countries in year 4 reading benchmarks—significantly behind the US, England, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Russian Federation and Hungary, and on equal footing with Lithuania, Slovenia and Bulgaria. Twenty-five per cent of our year 4 pupils failed to meet the minimum reading standard for their age. In maths and science, we ranked 18th and 25th respectively for year 4 students out of 52 countries tested. High school students did better, ranking in the top 10 for year 8 maths and science out of 45 countries. But a high proportion of young Australians failed to meet the minimum standard for their grade in maths and science—again, more than a quarter of year 4 and year 8 students.

Minister for School Education and Minister for Early Childhood and Youth, Minister Garrett, described the results as a 'wake-up call', and, admittedly, they were further evidence that national changes to the school system were needed urgently. In an ironic twist, Australian Council for Educational Research CEO Professor Geoff Masters was almost, shall we say, lost for words. He 'could barely believe it' when he first saw the reading results.

Let us be in no doubt. Labor cuts to programs and the hindrance and meddling of the education unions should take a deal of the blame for this damning lag in performance. The previous coalition government pulled out all stops to insure against any slide, including introducing $700 vouchers to cover the cost of extra tuition for struggling students. Such children could have private after-hours tuition as part of a drive to raise standards, but the unions detested this constructive help because it involved the private sector, and this Labor government dismantled the program. It was the carping unions, too, which undermined the Howard government's considerable efforts to raise teaching standards in schools. They saw every move to incentivise good teaching as an attack on their general membership.

Today, the imperative to improve all levels of teacher training is clearly more resonant than ever. The next coalition government will take action, not as a backhander to teachers or teaching—one of the noblest professions—but as a measure of support, through proper resourcing, goal setting and rewards that will return the joy to their vital vocation. Australian teachers deserve this, and their students deserve the benefits that will flow.

On the other hand, Labor's so-called education revolution has lurched from one failure to the next. This Labor government pledged to lavish every Australian secondary student with a computer. But the realities included a cost-of-delivery blow-out of $1.4 billion. Then there is the Prime Minister's supposed schools stimulus program, the so-called Building the Education Revolution or BER, that has resulted in the most extraordinary waste of taxpayers' money. In the program's rushed and reckless roll-out, the government opened itself to price gouging for the building of school halls and other structures. The original budget of $14.7 billion jumped to $16.2 billion. According to some estimates, the amount of wasted BER money is in the vicinity of $5 billion to $8 billion of Australian taxpayers' money. One such tragic illustration from my electorate involved the building of a besser block and tin-roofed shed for the school to assemble in. Only once it was up was it discovered to be inadequate. The entire student body could not fit into the space. A wall was designated to be knocked down to allow the necessary expansion. But, by then, the budget was exhausted. This craziness had cost $1.8 million. Much of it was wasted on bureaucracy and consultancy fees. It is something that could not, and will not, occur under a coalition government.

The coalition has a plan to hand principals and boards or community councils the real autonomy and the authority in the running of their schools. For the aforementioned school, this would have resulted in a proper hall being built, and for a far more competitive price, with surplus funds going to other improvements and upgrades to the buildings and the grounds. It would be the principal and the local school determining where the funding went, ensuring it was utilised in the best possible way. I cannot be more emphatic. Authority must be returned to local school communities so that they can be in control of not just building plans but the array of long-term decisions on the education needs of students.

Nobody would disagree with the aim of turning Australia's schools into the world's best-practice. But the brutal truth is that under this Labor government we are light years away from that ever happening. The coalition is moving an amendment to the bill, and from the government we do await further details. So much uncertainty clearly prevails. What we do know is that the main recommendation of the Gonski review was to implement a new funding model, seeking greater equanimity across schools at an extra cost to all governments of $6.5 billion a year. The panel's original proposal was that the Commonwealth and the states split the cost of introducing the model on a 30 to 70 basis. This would see each government lifting their existing school education expenditure by approximately 15 per cent.

The coalition has consistently maintained that any new funding model should, of course, see no school left worse off in real terms. But leaked government modelling last year suggested otherwise, revealing that approximately one-third of all schools—both government and non-government—would actually lose funding. The government has done nothing to alleviate the concerns, with a reluctance, to this point, to detail the proposed breakdown of funding and the role of indexation. As it stands, the bill currently before the House sets a largely aspirational goal and is due to be updated following discussions at the forthcoming Council of Australian Governments. In the meantime, it contains no detail of how much money will be available, how much individual schools will receive and how this will be calculated. Nor does the bill flag the sorts of new obligations that will be placed upon the education sector.

Since the Gonski report was handed in December 2011 to the government, Labor has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to redesign various elements of the panel's original funding proposal. Yet not only has none of the modelling ever been released by the Gillard government, but this same government has never supplied a formal response to each of the panel's 41 recommendations.

Last month Queensland's education minister John-Paul Langbroek publically expressed his dissatisfaction. He said:

We've had absolutely no detail about numbers. … We don't have a model from which we can work and we also don't have any idea about what state contributions are supposed to be let alone whether we can afford them.

Just last week, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu put his discontent on the record. He stated that he looked forward:

… to the details of the Gonski proposals because nobody knows what they are. All we know is it's going to cost a lot of money …

And away from what some might consider the vested interest of politics these same sentiments reoccur. Last November Bill Daniels, the Independent Schools Council of Australia chief executive, urged the government to produce for stakeholders the information that will determine their future. He said:

While ISCA appreciates the complexity of the task, many of the 1,100 independent school communities have genuine concerns about the continuing uncertainty of future funding arrangements. Considerable time has passed since the release of the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling and current Australian Government funding arrangements for independent schools expire at the end of 2013.

Mr Daniels went on:

ISCA encourages the Government to quickly finalise the details of the funding arrangements with state and territory governments and with the independent and Catholic sectors, and to incorporate them into the Australian Education Bill as soon as possible. This is the only way to provide school communities with an assurance that there will be stable, fair, robust and transparent public funding of independent schools from the commencement of 2014.

This Labor government's parlous performance on education is reflected in the test results of students who deserve better, and in the hand-wringing of parents and educators. It is not only arrogant but the height of ignorance for this government to maintain its predilection for an information vacuum on matters pertaining to this bill. We on this side of the House wait with interest for the i's to be dotted, for the t's to be crossed and for the numbers to add up.