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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4076


Senator MASON (Queensland) (10:56): We are debating the Australian Education Bill 2013 and the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. The Prime Minister has described the government's Gonski reforms as 'the biggest change to school education in 40 years', yet the Senate has been given only two hours and 45 minutes, or 165 minutes, to scrutinise and debate these bills. This is an insult to the Senate and it is an insult to the taxpayers, whom the government wants to saddle with a $16.2 billion bill for its reforms. That is 165 minutes to debate the expenditure of $16.2 billion.

The government is as careless with people's money as it is with the constitutional process of Senate scrutiny and Senate review. Of course, this is not the first time that the Senate has debated the Australian Education Bill. The difference is that the last time, a few months ago, we were debating a nine-page document which was short on detail and rich on platitudes and motherhood statements. It was more of a policy document, or an aspirational rhapsody, than detailed legislation. Now we have in front of us two bills and, sure, there is plenty of detail—I accept that. Yet there is not enough time to debate them properly on this the second or perhaps the third last day of sittings of the second term of the Rudd and Gillard governments.

The government has had years to get this done and to get it done properly. The Prime Minister—the then Minister for Education—has been talking for a long time about her desire to see a new school funding model. Mr David Gonski was commissioned in 2010 to look into it, he delivered his report in November 2011 and here we are today, more than a year and a half later, with less than three hours to debate bills that reflect a deeply flawed new funding model which has been rejected by many states and territories.

Senator Jacinta Collins: That is not true.

Senator MASON: Yes, it is. This farce provides a telling epitaph for the Labor government. Like the French Revolution, the government's Building the Education Revolution, which started with much promise and public enthusiasm, ends a year later in disillusionment and the guillotine.

The Australian Education Bill 2013 establishes a new federal funding formula for non-government schools. It also amends the legislation to include funding arrangements for government schools but outlines different arrangements for government schools depending on whether their state government has agreed to those changes. Under the new system, all participating schools will be entitled to a base amount of funding for every student which will indexed annually. This will be the new schooling resource standard, colloquially known by the acronym SRS. Non-government schools will receive a percentage of the SRS amount based on the school's socioeconomic status score, which is referred to today as a 'capacity to contribute'. This capacity to contribute will not apply to government schools, special and special-assistance schools, sole-provider schools and schools with a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

In addition, students and schools will attract six different types of loadings: students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with low socioeconomic status, students who have low English proficiency, schools that are not in major cities, and of course small-size schools. It sounds good, doesn't it? After six years of the Labor government, I shudder every time the government think they have a good idea. Even if, like broken clocks, they are sometimes right, the implementation is so often botched that it makes you wish that Labor had just stuck to bad ideas and stopped giving good ideas such a bad name.

In reality, there are numerous problems with Labor's attempt to implement school funding reforms recommended by Mr Gonski and his review. The shadow education minister, Mr Pyne, stakeholders in the Catholic and independent school sectors, as well as the governments of Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, have identified a number of them over the past few months. Some of these concerns are contained in the amendment I intend to move shortly at this second reading stage. There is the persistent concern about schools actually being worse off under the new funding system. The government maintains that no school will be worse off. State and territory governments beg to differ. According to them, around 469 government schools in Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory alone will lose out, never mind potentially hundreds of Catholic and independent schools. In my office in Brisbane, there have been many calls and much concern has been expressed, particularly by Catholic and independent schools, about whether they will be worse off, but in some cases even by government schools. Without any doubt and without any debate, concern has certainly been expressed—even the government would need to acknowledge that. They have yet to—how do I put this?—satisfy both government and non-government schools that none of them will be worse off. That is yet to be satisfied.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Senator MASON: That is correct. If anyone in the Labor Party thinks that every school sector in this country is convinced that they will not be worse off, that is incorrect. As I stand here in the Senate today, they still are. The funding inequities are not limited to bricks and mortar schools into our towns and cities. The Christian Education Ministries have highlighted what they see as the government's legislated underfunding of distance education school students in the non-government sector. This was an issue raised with me just the other day. Students receiving their education in this system only attract 35 per cent of the schooling resource standard, but, despite repeated attempts, the Christian Education Ministries are yet to receive an adequate explanation on how the government arrived at this figure. This is just an example—it is not the only one—of repeated concern amongst different school sectors in this country, particularly, I might add, in my home state of Queensland.

Of course, it does not help that throughout all this process the Gillard government has demonstrated a singular lack of transparency and openness. It is hard to reconcile the government's rhetoric and spin with what we are reading in the budget papers and what we actually know about the proposals. Take, for example, the Prime Minister's claim that $9.8 billion of additional funds will be required to transition to the new system over the next six years, between now and 2019, yet in the 2013-14 budget there is only $2.98 billion over the forward estimates, never mind that $2.1 billion of the $2.98 billion is not new money at all but merely various national partnerships that have been cut by the government and redirected towards financing Gonski, thus leaving only $880 million in genuine new money over the next four years.

Even with that $2.98 billion, the government remains short on its commitment—about $2.6 billion short, in fact—because, if we take the government at its word on the $9.8 billion over six years, the allocation over the forward estimates should be $5.6 billion. When I asked the education department officials at the budget estimates in June why there is only $2.98 billion in the budget when there should be $5.6 billion instead, they were confounded and did not explain. All this suggests that the government's reforms consist of a trickle of money right now and the promise of a windfall sometime way in the future. If you believe this government will give you billions of dollars sometime after the next two elections, then I have a nice bridge on Sydney Harbour to sell to you. The government has quite simply been making it up as it goes along, promising everyone money it does not have and, when these enticements are not enough, it promises some more money.

Then there is red tape—always a big favourite of this government. States, non-government authorities and individual schools will be required by regulation to provide extensive information to the federal government. Information requirements will include school census data, other data for the purposes of a new national collection regime to conduct research on school education, implementation plans, student reports to parents and other information about a school. State governments in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland all suggest that the National Plan for School Improvement extends the reach of the federal government into the operations of state schools and will result in further duplication and compliance and more red tape.

Last but not least, there is concern about proposals to change the capacity-to-contribute measure for non-government schools in the future. The bilateral agreement between the federal and New South Wales governments suggests that the federal government will review the socioeconomic status score—that methodology—by 2017 to ensure this remains the most appropriate means of assessing the relative educational advantage of non-government schools.

This agreement suggests that capacity to contribute will be defined as 'the anticipated level of private contribution will be based on a school's SES score until a new, individual measure of parental capacity to contribute is developed'. There is no mention of this new measure in the revised legislation. Just consider Labor's recent forays into class warfare and stirring up of class envy, and its deep-seated suspicion of, if not outright hostility to, non-government schools. Who could forget the infamous school 'hit list'? If I were a Catholic or an independent school, I would be very worried. The government should rule out the introduction of a new means test beyond 2017, but, of course, it will not do that.

These are all real and immediate problems with these two education bills. There are also deeper policy and philosophical problems with Labor's plans for our schools. The government's Gonski reforms are a typical social democratic measure. Labor has yet to find a problem that it could not throw money at. The money, of course, it does not have, and it has to borrow it. In this case, it is throwing tomorrow's children's money to supposedly fix today's children's problems. What evidence is there that more money will mean better schools? What is the evidence that more money will mean better schools and better educational outcomes? Ben Jensen, the director of the Grattan Institute School Education Program noted that:

Despite its strengths, the Gonski review retells the same old, and failed, story of Australian education: that the only way to fix our schools is to spend more money and to change the way it is divided between schools and students.

…   …   …

Supporters of Gonski claim it is a 'once in a generation opportunity'. That will be true only if the money is well spent. If it is spent the way education money is being spent in the past, it will be a complete waste—and risk dooming further reform efforts for a generation.

Across the past decade, education spending has increased by nearly three times as much as Gonski is proposing, yet our school performance has stagnated or has fallen.

Mr Jensen is merely echoing a growing international consensus which now acknowledges that there is little or no relationship between spending per student and student outcomes and that other factors, such as teacher quality, parental involvement, principal and school autonomy, as well as a robust curriculum, play a far greater role in giving children a quality education—a far greater role in giving kids a better education.

For Labor, it is not about the outcomes, certainly not medium- and long-term outcomes, but about short-term political advantage. 'We care about education,' says the Labor Party. 'Look how much money we are spending. Please re-elect us, because we're throwing all this money at the issue.' In reality, Labor are like a deadbeat dad who blew all the money on booze and smokes and who now breaks his baby girl's piggy bank, steals the money and uses it to buy her a bike to show how much he loves her. That is what has happened to the Labor Party.

If the government throws another $5 billion, $10 billion or $15 billion at schools, will it actually make any difference? Past experience is not very encouraging. Over the past six years, in addition to all the recurrent spending, Labor has already spent over $20 billion on computers in schools, the school halls program and various national partnerships. Did all that money make our system any better? Did that extra $20 billion make our kids smarter, improve their literacy or numeracy, or help them acquire new knowledge and new skills? Did it? Judging by both domestic and international results, the answer is a resounding 'No!' The 2012 NAPLAN results show that literacy and numeracy, as measured in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, have been, for all intents and purposes, stagnant since 2008. Yes, there have been some slight improvements here and there, some up and down, but, overall, very little improvement. Even the minister, Mr Garrett, was forced to acknowledge in December last year that:

There shouldn't be a single education minister in the states nor a single senior state education bureaucrat who can take any comfort from these NAPLANs.

Neither, by the way, should the minister and the federal bureaucracy, which so far have managed to get no bang whatsoever for their $20 billion bucks, just a very expensive whimper.

If NAPLAN results are discouraging, how do we, as a nation, compare to other developed countries, including our regional neighbours and our competitors? The answer is also, unfortunately, not that great. Take the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests 15-year-old students on their preparedness to use the knowledge and skills they have gained at school to meet real-life challenges. The latest PISA results show that Australian students are making no progress and, in some cases, are actually going backwards. For example, the 2009 results show a 13-point drop in reading performance compared to 2000. Or take the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which revealed that a quarter of Australia's year 4 students fail to meet the minimum standard in reading for their age. In that test, Australia ranked 27th out of 48 countries in reading, on a similar level to New Zealand, Poland and Lithuania. Or take the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which shows our students stagnating for years and years, while, at the same time, countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have experienced dramatic improvements, and even the United States has shown a steadier improvement in performance.

So, what is the answer? What is Labor's answer? It is: 'We have spent $20 billion already in an education revolution, all for no results, so let's just now spend another $16 billion on top of that in the Gonski reforms.' All of us want our schools to be well-resourced, but we also know that money is not necessarily the only answer, particularly considering the random, wasteful and unaccountable manner in which Labor tends to throw it at any given problem it sees.

The two bills we are debating today represent a deeply flawed proposal which substitutes another cash splash for serious educational reform. It promises schools money the government does not have in two elections from now. It claims to be better and fairer than the old system. Yet it leaves hundreds if not thousands of government and non-government schools worse off. Labor has once again managed to achieve the impossible by taking an important area of public policy and turning it into a debacle of historic proportions. In fact, to paraphrase the Prime Minister, it is the biggest debacle in school education in 40 years.

I have circulated the amendment in my name on behalf of the coalition. The amendment calls on the Senate to note the need for the government to provide certainty that individual schools will not be left worse off under the new arrangements, and the importance of more transparency regarding the financial impact of the proposed arrangements. The amendment also calls on the Senate to note its concern with parts of the National Plan for School Improvement that increase the federal interference in the operation of state government and Catholic schools by micromanaging schools and, of course, increasing red tape, and with proposals to change the capacity to contribute measure for non-government schools into the future.

This has been a debacle, not because the intention of the government is not good, but simply because, like so many good ideas that the government thinks they have, the implementation has been and will be a shambles. I move:

At the end of the motion, add: "but the Senate:

(a) notes:

   (i) the need for the Government to provide certainty that individual schools will not be left worse off under the new arrangements, and

   (ii) the importance of more transparency regarding the financial impact of the proposed arrangements; and

(b) further notes its concern about:

   (i) parts of the National Plan for School Improvement, which have the effect of micromanaging schools or increasing red-tape, and the increased federal interference in the operations of state government and Catholic schools; and

   (ii) proposals to change the capacity to contribute measure for non-government schools in the future."