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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26198

Senator CARR (5:26 PM) —On behalf of the Chair of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee, Senator George Campbell, I present the report of the subcommittee's inquiry into Commonwealth funding for schools, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator CARR —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator CARR —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

At the outset of my remarks, I would like to thank the staff of the committee secretariat and the staff of my office for their hard work. I also thank my Senate colleagues who served on this subcommittee, which I chaired—Senator Allison, Senator Johnston, Senator Tierney and Senator Crossin. They all made important contributions to the work of the subcommittee.

This inquiry was undertaken in the shadow of the government's new legislation, which has not yet been introduced into the Senate but which has been debated in the House, providing funds for the 2005-08 schools funding quadrennium. The committee looked at the bill and sought the reaction of witnesses to its various provisions. Our task, however, was to examine the principles underlying the bill in the light of the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century. This historic agreement was reached unanimously by the states and the Commonwealth in 1999.

We asked how the current and proposed funding arrangements for the 2005-08 quadrennium matched the priorities that were established under the terms of that agreement in 1999. We wanted to examine whether or not the priorities set by the Commonwealth government affect the capacity of schools to deliver on the national goals. One of these goals, which is of particular significance to many people in the community, is the goal of equity and social justice in the outcomes delivered through schools.

We also assessed current arrangements, and the principles underlying them, from the point of view of quality of provision across all schools. We looked at efficiency and effectiveness in the allocation of public funds. The committee also looked at accountability arrangements and requirements as they affect public and private schools. This inquiry came at a point in time when it was useful to step back and review the impact of the sweeping changes in Commonwealth schools funding ushered in in the last quadrennium.

During debate on the legislation in 2000 and during the accompanying Senate inquiry into the bill, many stakeholders and commentators expressed dismay and alarm. They warned that the new SES funding arrangements to be implemented would increase inequity and exacerbate inequality of outcomes of schooling. Those dire consequences, forecast back then, have actually come about. That is precisely what the committee has found. Under this government, the outcomes of schooling have become more unequal. The levels of inequality have actually grown.

The government says it wants to give everyone a choice of school—meaning a public or a private school. But only those who can afford it have real choice. The new SES funding system has poured massive increases into private schools. This, we were told, was going to make the system more affordable. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has channelled the greatest increases of funding into the wealthy private schools—the kind that already have ample sports fields, several swimming pools, sumptuous arts facilities, state-of-the-art computers and even indoor rifle ranges and equestrian centres. One of them, an exclusive boarding school, now has boarding facilities for children's pets. The children are allowed to bring their dogs and ponies to stay with them at school. You can understand why they are suffering, can't you—having to fund that increase in expense for the boarding arrangements for their pets at school?

And yet, since the introduction of the new funding regime, these schools have continued to raise their fees. While we were told that the increased funding to private schools would lead to a decline in fees, we have seen an increase in fees for private schools. We have seen rates of increase of between seven and 14 per cent annually—well above the inflation rate. They have not become more affordable. Increasingly, private schools are putting themselves out of the reach of ordinary Australians. This is despite the generous subsidies they have been receiving under these new funding arrangements.

I ask a simple question: what kind of family can afford the $15,000 or the $18,000 per year per child to send their children to schools such as these? The point is that this government has knowingly and deliberately adopted a schools funding policy that has thrown huge funding increases at schools like the ones I have referred to—the richest schools, the most privileged schools. They have cast precious little to those private schools at the bottom end of the social ladder. Many of those schools are struggling to stay open. In terms of priority, this government is no longer exercising its responsibility to ensure that all children get a quality education. The government has produced a situation where those who are already wealthy and privileged get increased assistance. The government is subsidising privilege. That is at the core of the government's school policy. What is the government's justification for this? It says that the new system is fair. It says that it is about making sure that struggling battlers get needed assistance. I say: how many struggling battlers can afford the $19,000 a year at Geelong Grammar? That is the situation we find in this country at the moment.

An Australian educationalist, Dr Barry McGaw, is the education director of the OECD. Dr McGaw has drawn the committee's attention to Australia's failure, by comparison with other developed nations, to ameliorate the effects of social background on educational achievement. Dr McGaw has said that Australia has one of the greatest levels of inequality when it comes to schooling. By international ranking in literacy and numeracy registration, Australia has a gap between rich and poor greater than any other country. What an achievement by this government! The levels of inequality in education have actually grown. There are significant differences and higher levels of inequality in Australia than in Finland, Canada, Ireland, Korea and Japan.

The education system is a critical part of any social democracy. In this country the levels of inequality are being reflected in the achievement of, and opportunity that goes to, all Australians. Frankly, this is a shameful situation. In this country the government panders to those who are already privileged and reinforces the distribution of wealth in such a way that those who are already getting a very good deal get an even better deal.

We are seeing a massive expansion of Commonwealth funding to the non-government school sector, which is higher than the total spending this government puts towards universities in this country. In the name of choice some people are being encouraged to remove their children from public education and from schools that are required to take all comers to the exclusive environment of those who are privileged, and they get a subsidy for doing it. Many government schools are in fact underfunded. We have a similar situation with our public university system. It is a trend that is now being accentuated throughout the education system. In universities people are being asked to pay fees of up to $100,000 and that too is presented in the name of choice. The coalition policies, frankly, might be summed up as being about reinforcing privilege.

The SES system has been demonstrably proven to be flawed. It is a system that is calculated to advance those already doing well. Under this school system, schools such as the local Catholic parish school in Canberra have the same level of rating for distributional arrangements as Geelong Grammar. Frankly, that highlights just how grossly iniquitous it is. We had arrangements being put before this committee which demonstrate that in many respects Christian schools and Lutheran schools are put at great disadvantage. It is little wonder the Catholic education system does not use this system for its own allocations. It acknowledges the importance of private sources of income and, as a consequence, its distribution system does not rely on the government's SES system. (Time expired)