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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4845


Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (18:31): I rise to speak about the Australian Education Bill 2013. As the member for Chifley has rightly said, the bill sets out the apparent aspirational goals of this government. However, they are aspirations. There is evidence in the budget that indicates that these aspirations are unlikely to ever be achieved.

Let me just note for the purpose of the public record what the aspirations are. They are that Australian schooling will provide an excellent education for all students. All of us would agree that that is what is needed, that a focus ought to be on the students and them achieving their fullest potential. Another aspiration identified in the bill is for Australian schooling to be highly equitable. Of course, a third aspiration is for Australia to be placed in the top five countries in reading, science and mathematics, quality and equity recognised in international testing by 2025. All of us would agree that these are highly commendable aspirations.

Unfortunately, this bill stops short of providing any real substance or way forward in any detail for Australian schools and for their students. I am not here today to deny the fact that we want education in Australia to be among the best in the world. We do. We do want a thriving educational system where children are afforded every opportunity to learn, develop and grow to their fullest potential. Having two children, one who has completed school and another who is studying for her HSC, I am more than aware of the importance of a healthy education and the way that it can shape an individual and their future.

This parliament has a responsibility to provide the best framework possible to support and fund all schools in Australia. The bill, however, does nothing to address the real issues currently facing our education system. The future funding of schools is relying on a risky, confusing set of figures underlying the government's approach. The federal budget handed down in May revealed that Labor will be spending $325 million less on schools over the forward estimates than was forecast in the 2012-13 budget. Labor and their figures simply cannot be trusted.

We have calculated there are over $3.1 billion in cuts and redirections from the schools budget being replaced with only $2.8 billion in extra spending over the forward estimates. There is no new money from federal Labor. It is clear that over the forward estimates the only new or additional money for education will come from state and territory governments who agree to Labor's proposal and not the Commonwealth itself. It not be until the years beyond the forward estimates that the new proposed additional money claims will be spent on the National Plan for School Improvement.

This is evidence that Labor's school funding model remains in reality a promise unlikely to ever materialise and is not a solid financial commitment as they claim it to be. It is also important to point out that under the current existing model, no school would actually be worse off. Yes, indexation goes up and down, but it has on average delivered 5.6 per cent over the last decade in additional funding. This 5.6 per cent indexation over the past decade is confirmed in the government's own 2012 mid-year economic statement.

Further adding to the mockery Labor are making of the education system is that they are discontinuing national partnership funding for low socioeconomic schooling which over the four years would have been worth $258.5 million. Reward payments to teachers, cash bonus payments for schools, literacy and numeracy programs are also gone. This all equates to funding to the value of $2.1 billion. Under this government, the funding structure has actually gone backwards. There is simply no detail as to how the new funding system is proposed to operate in this bill as it stands before the parliament. There is almost no detail available about the government's funding model for schools to examine. We are also still waiting for the legislation before the parliament to be updated with new information with additional amendments. What we are seeing are empty promises and billion dollar amounts when the reality is all of these promises have strings attached to them. Labor's rhetoric is not matched with evidence in real dollars.

The key to better schools is in providing the highest quality teachers and empowering them to do their jobs well. High levels of community engagement and more principal autonomy are equally as important. The coalition also have our own set of principles that outline what is important for schooling. These values would underline everything we would do should we be in government and the policies which we believe will best suit our children's future. We have moved these principles in our amendment to the bill, and I would like to highlight them.

First, families must have the right to choose a school that meets their needs, their values and their 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, schools, 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 they can effectively plan for the future. Ninth, parents who wish to make a private contribution toward the cost of their child's education should not be penalised, nor should schools in their efforts to fundraise and encourage private investment. The final value is that funding arrangements must be simple so that schools are able to direct funding toward education outcomes, minimise administration costs and increase productivity and quality.

I would like to highlight another critical factor to our amendment: We have moved in our amendment that the definitions in this bill should be supplemented to define both a systemic school and a non-systemic school. I am sure other members would agree with me that electorates are made up of both government and non-government schools, each playing a pivotal role in education. The diversity of the non-government school sector is seen across our electorates—Catholic schools, independent schools, Christian schools and Steiner schools. No two schools are the same, and there are many more options available for parents today. These differences need to be recognised in the way non-government schools are funded. For example, under the current funding arrangements, Catholic schools are mostly systemically funded by the Australian government in recognition that they share a common ethos. This means that the funding they attract is provided by the Australian government to the state or territory Catholic education commission for local needs-based distribution between Catholic systemic schools. Other schools are non-systemic, which means that Australian government funding is currently provided to the school directly.

The government must explicitly recognise and define the difference between a systemic and non-systemic school in a way that would later allow funding to flow from the Commonwealth to non-government system authorities if they are systemic or direct to the school if they are not systemic. It must be clear that future funding from the Australian government will flow through to non-government schools or non-government school systems through a direct legislative relationship—which was highlighted, I note, in the Gonski report.

Through the last part of our amendment we are calling on the government to extend the current funding arrangements for a further two years should this be required. Like with any portfolio that affects everyday Australians, they need certainty and stability. Unfortunately, these two attributes are remiss in this government. Parents and schools need funding certainty. Principals want to ensure teaching positions and resources well in advance. Planning for budgets for next year requires certainty as soon as possible.

The truth is that many schools are struggling to raise the extra funds needed. It is no surprise to the coalition that schools are struggling. Because of the introduction of the carbon tax, school utilities prices have gone through the roof. An article published in the Herald Sun last week reported that school power bills have surged as much as 80 per cent in the last year. This has created chaos for schools that are trying to manage their budgets and pay their bills. Schools are becoming increasingly anxious about their future funding arrangements as the current funding agreement for schools is due to expire at the end of this year. State governments have also said they have been left in the dark and are still none the wiser about the full ramifications of the Gonski report. As such, the coalition has given assurances that, should we win government, they could count on the coalition's support to extend the current funding arrangements, including the same quantum of funds, for a further two years so that schools could start to plan with certainty.

As mentioned, this government has a proposed school funding model which is not yet contained in this bill. For this proposed funding model to work, it needs the support of every state and territory and the non-government sector. The government's deadline to achieve a national agreement is looming; 30 June is the deadline. It is very unclear if there will be a national agreement; six out of eight jurisdictions have not agreed. I am sure we have all seen the comments by Premier Newman, who has virtually ruled out signing onto the deal, saying the Prime Minister is making 'misleading statements to the public' and 'does not understand state funding arrangements'.

However, we must not forget that the Gillard government's record on education is one that breaks promises. Labor broke its promises on trades training centres, school laptops, performance pay for teachers and additional funds for improving schools. The bottom line is Labor cannot be trusted when it comes to education funding. Should there be no national agreement then all schools can rest assured that under a federal coalition government they will receive at least the same quantum of Commonwealth funds that they do now indexed each year to meet rising costs. We believe that the current quantum of funds for every school and indexation must be the basic starting point arising from any new funding model. Let me be clear: no school will lose funding.

At the core of education are these factors: excellence in quality teaching, quality learning, empowered school leadership, transparency and accountability, and needs-based funding. As well as ensuring that schools receive immediate funding certainty, a coalition government would also take a number of important steps, including: ensuring that any agreement on a common per-student funding benchmark takes into account the fiscal capacity of each state and territory to ensure that those governments who have a history of strong schools investment are not punished while concurrently allowing others to reach a benchmark as and when their circumstances allow, ensuring that schools are not punished for taking their own steps to obtain alternative sources of funding; ensuring that schools do not lose money and that levels of funding are maintained in real terms, working cooperatively with those states seeking to allow their schools greater autonomy and parental engagement, and ensuring that the non-government sector remains and maintains appropriately autonomy from the Commonwealth with regard to the management of their financial affairs.

At the end of the day we need funding and reform that will directly help every student. We can never forget that each school represents a company of students and each student represents a life and a future—a future we can help shape. To deliver hope, reward and opportunity to every schoolchild is what we plan to do.