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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4083


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (11:27): This plan before our chamber today to fix the inequities in our education system has been needed in this nation for a very long time. We have had rampant inequity and inequality take hold, with no plan to address that until now. I am very pleased to say that, through the Gonski review, this Labor government has been working very hard on getting the solutions in place.

The inequality has been a great cost to the nation, and it is time to do something about it. It is time for this parliament to do something about it. That is why it is very important that these changes pass this week. When you look at the impact of inequality on our nation, it is profound. Today, the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australians own 61 per cent of the nation's wealth and the poorest 20 per cent own just one per cent. This is something that is reflected, also, in our education systems.

We are a good deal less equal than countries such as Japan, Sweden and Norway, which have education systems that are also far more equal. We are one of the most unequal developed countries—keeping company with the US and Britain. This inequality is embedded in our nation's education system. So addressing inequality in education is certainly a key to fixing our education system. On that note, what we know from looking at education around the globe is that education systems that are more equal—systems that remove the inequality and give all students an opportunity—have much better educational outcomes. It is proven, globally, that this is the fact: nations that have more equal education systems do better. They have much better education outcomes overall and as a whole.

The current inequality comes at a great cost. We have needed a plan to fix this for a long time. A lot of the inequalities in our education system have been driven by the way our education system is funded, and it is time it was fixed. I am very proud to have the opportunity to do that in this place today. I note that when this plan passes some 60 per cent of the nation's students will be covered. But I think it is important that we see this nation realise 100 per cent coverage. On that note, I really want to see Western Australia come into this scheme. It is critical because, while WA is reasonably well resourced—we are, as a whole, closer to the student resource standard than some other states are—the most disadvantaged schools in my home state do not meet the resource standard put forward in this model. To my National Party colleagues across the chamber: it is rural and regional students that are currently the most disadvantaged in Western Australia. These are the students that would benefit from being brought into this model.

The Labor government is serious about education reform in Australia. It is about time we had a fair funding system in place so that every school, regardless of their state, regardless of the sector they are in and regardless of location—including rural and regional schools, schools in remote communities and schools in disadvantaged suburbs—get the money they need to do a great job. The cost of inequality is great. I would like to quote Dr Carmen Lawrence, who has been a significant contributor to the discussion around education equity and who was on the Gonski review. She said, in an article in The Monthlylast year:

In Australia, almost 80% of students from the lowest quarter of socioeconomic disadvantage attend government schools. The drift of students and resources from government to non-government schools has accelerated here in the last decade or so and further concentrated wealthier students in the private sector. As a result, there are more schools with very high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds - mainly in the government system - and more with high concentrations of the most advantaged - mainly in private schools.

This is not about class warfare, as the opposition claims. It is not about envy—far from it. Far from it being about the politics of envy, it is about all parents wanting the best for their children. It is about making sure that no child in this country in the school that they are in is getting left behind. Parents want choice, but some parents have no choice. Choices are being taken away by the inequities in our education system. It is time to make sure those students are not left behind. I will give you a very clear example of how our country's students are being left behind. Dr Lawrence went on to say in this article:

In one country town in Western Australia, the local government high school lost ground dramatically after four private schools were opened; the most disadvantaged children were left behind with fewer teachers per student than in the new private schools. The total cost of education in the community skyrocketed, without any aggregate improvement in children's scores on routine tests.

I am not saying that it is a bad thing for new schools to be opened in communities—far from it. I am saying that it is absolutely immoral to leave behind students who have no education choices, to leave behind those schoolchildren who inevitably have less choice in education. Every student in this country deserves that choice. Parents making hard economic decisions in their households deserve the choice between a good private school and a good government school. That is the option that we should be giving students and families in this country.

One in 12 Australian students is currently not meeting minimum standards in reading, writing and maths in our country. We have a good deal of these students in WA, so I really want to see Western Australia become part of this plan. I think the plan has the potential to see our classrooms in the top five in the world by 2025, because it is a plan to properly resource all schools, all our children, teachers and classrooms, for generations to come. It is something that will see the bedrock of education in this country meet the kinds of quality standards that we expect—quality standards that are comparable with the best performing countries around the globe. Without these reforms before us, there is no plan to do that. The National Plan for School Improvement includes a new funding approach to make sure we get these things right. It responds to the problems in the system. In our plan, every state and every sector will see increased funding and more support for students in the classroom.

I note that Senator Mason is looking for a guarantee that no school will be worse off. We have made that commitment. As a bare minimum, we want every school in Australia to receive its current funding plus indexation of three per cent. This is not a competition between education sectors. We simply want to make sure that no student gets left behind. Schools that need more support to support their students will get it, irrespective of sector. We are prepared to guarantee this, and we are asking the states and territories to do the same.

Today, I ask Mr Colin Barnett to do the same for Western Australia's students. He now has but a few days left to sign up to this deal. He has to get it lined up by 30 June to make sure that Western Australian schools also have the opportunity of fixing the problems in our education system. The plan that we have before us responds to the needs of states, like WA, who have higher costs attached to delivering education in our system. As I said before, where the problems are in WA, where we fail to meet the student resource standard, is, most profoundly, in disadvantaged communities and in rural and regional areas.

This is where the funding under this model is targeted. It is a great benefit for Western Australia and it is time, in my view, for Senator Barnett to accept this offer. It is time for all schools in Western Australia to benefit from a fairer and more stable school funding system. Under the offer that we have made to Western Australia that is embedded in the plan before us, we have total funding growth for WA of $2.8 billion, which would make a massive difference to Western Australian students.

I am pleased that the offer was increased, because the $922 million that is on the table will go a very long way. There is $922 million under the current investment plan and then we have got the indexation, which will also see funding in Western Australia continuing to grow. This indexation needs to be locked in by both the Commonwealth and the states coming to an agreement. The Commonwealth is making a commitment to indexation of 4.7 per cent and we are asking the states to commit to three per cent so that both the states and the Commonwealth are playing their part in seeing education funding grow in our country.

We want all sectors to have the extra resources for our nation's schools that need it. I do not think school principals and teachers around Western Australia think locking in funding growth of around $2.8 billion is a bad deal. It is a good deal, it is a well-targeted deal and it will make an enormous difference to Western Australian schools. It makes good sense for WA.

I note that a decrease in funding would have occurred under the previous model when it stopped. WA will receive the same funding guarantee that we gave to New South Wales. That means every year they will receive an increase in base funding. What we have currently is a very volatile education funding system. The model introduced by the previous government sees indexation declining by a further three per cent. This means Western Australian schools have more funding year on year on year and have more certainty and more confidence about funding. So schools in Western Australia will be benefiting from this new suite of reforms if they come on board—and it is high time that Western Australia did. All schools in WA need to move on to a needs based funding model, consistent with the school-resource standard, to make sure that students in Western Australia do not get left behind.

I would like to contrast that with what we have before us in the opposition's non-plan for education. The education spokesperson for the coalition, Christopher Pyne, has confirmed that the coalition want to keep in place a broken school-funding model that could see up to $5.4 million cut from Australian children. He has dismissed the findings of the Gonski review, which was very strongly welcomed, right around the country, by the education community. I know this from talking to the Primary Principals Association, where principals from all three sectors—Catholic, independent and government—work together. They all told me the system is broken and that they are committed to seeing progress made on these questions. They are working across sectors to say, 'Yes, the system is broken, and we want to be part of the solutions.' But Mr Pyne has not listened to schools and parents around the country. In fact, the coalition has a plan to sack one in seven teachers, squeeze more children into classrooms and slash funding to disadvantaged schools. Mr Pyne has said that teaching quality would be his highest priority. I cannot see how that can possibly be the case, because the coalition has in fact announced that it would cut $425 million out of the Teacher Quality National Partnership. They said that in the 2010 federal election. So if that is how Christopher Pyne treats his main priority, how will he treat the rest of the education system?

I want to acknowledge the amendments moved by the Greens. These amendments would create legal uncertainty in respect of the affected parts of the bill and include in the bill matters that the government thinks are better addressed in regulations. I also note that putting these information requirements into the act, rather than leaving them to regulations, would likely increase the complexity of the act, and that is something the government does not support. Further, one of the government's key concerns is that there has been considerable buy-in from different parts of the education sector—from government schools, from non-government schools and from Catholic and independent schools—to get them to support these reforms and to get their support for a path forward and, at this stage, the government thinks these amendments would represent a threat to the goodwill that we have generated in terms of being able to move forward on these very important questions. That is why the government will not be supporting these amendments. The government also has concerns that this level of detail in the primary legislation would limit the capacity to amend the requirements to respond to the changing needs of the bill through future regulations, because it will start to create contradictions between the act and the regulations.

In closing, I want to say that we cannot let this current broken system continue. It is doing a great disservice to the nation's students. It is driving inequities in our education system and it is driving down education standards. It leaves hundreds and thousands of young Australians behind, many in government schools but also in schools in the Catholic and independent sector, who will get extra resources under these reforms, all of whom deserve the resources and support that come with this legislation.

We know, on the other hand, that Mr Christopher Pyne and Mr Tony Abbott have no alternative plan for school funding that fixes these inequities, only a plan to maintain a broken system that is doing a great disservice to our nation's children, maintaining a broken system that will see schools lose $16 billion in six years. No school will be worse off under the current model, they say. That is not true, as the current system sees many schools go backwards, especially the most needy, and that is what we aim to address in this parliament today. I commend the bills to the Senate.