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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4943

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (18:50): I commend this motion from my friend and colleague the member for Kooyong. Like the member for Kooyong, I believe that all Australian children deserve a high-quality education that enables them to develop the skills necessary to realise their potential. Within my electorate of Higgins there are 39 schools educating the next generation of Australians. Twenty-three of these are non-government and 16 are government schools. I regularly visit these schools and am constantly impressed by the students, staff and families; their professionalism; and their real commitment to the education of children. As such, I am particularly concerned regarding the Greens' policy to drastically reduce the funding of the non-government education sector. Point 65 of the Greens' education policy states that they:

… support the maintenance of the total level of Commonwealth funding for private schools at 2003-04 levels (excluding that re-allocated under previous clauses), indexed for inflation.

But before we turn the funding clock back and given the real importance of education to our country's future, I would like once again to take the opportunity to dispel some of the pervading myths and misunderstandings surrounding education—in particular its funding.

In Australia government funding favours government schools, as it should. In fact, when funding from both federal and state and territory governments is taken into account, total government recurrent expenditure per government school student is $14,380 per annum as compared to $7,427 for non-government school students. The state and territory governments provide most, though not all, of the government school funding and the federal government provides most, though not all, of the funding to non-government schools. In short, from a taxpayer's perspective every child that attends a non-government school receives roughly half the government subsidy that the same child would if he or she were to attend a government school. Yet clearly the Greens are not satisfied with the current funding arrangements. They seek to turn back the funding clock 11 years.

So what would it mean? How would reducing funding to 2003-04 levels affect the 1.2 million Australian students in the non-government sector? What impact would the Greens' policy have on both non-government and government schools? I am dismayed to say that the Greens' policy would threaten the ongoing viability of nearly 300 schools across Australia. More specifically, recent reports suggest that 90 schools in Victoria, 79 in New South Wales, 62 in Queensland, 32 in Western Australia, 21 in South Australia, nine in the ACT, five in Tasmania and one in the Northern Territory would struggle to remain open. With a massive reduction in their revenues, independent schools would be forced to increase fees, reduce their educational programs or, most probably, a combination of both. In turn, if fees rise, independent schools become less accessible to Australian families. Many Australian families already make significant financial sacrifices in order to provide for their children's education. An increase in fees inevitably means that many families would be unable to find the additional money required.

It is worth repeating what I have previously said in this place: if just 10 per cent of students in the non-government sector switched to government education, 120,000 students would have to be immediately accommodated—not next February but next week. One hundred and twenty thousand new students in the government sector represent over 4,000 new classes. Where will the 4,000 new teachers come from? How will they be paid? Where will the students learn? Will there be 4,000 new demountable classrooms provided at short notice? How will current school facilities and resources cope? How much would all of this cost? Finally, how on earth does this improve student outcomes for any child or school in Australia?

As we in this place all know, the Greens hold considerable political power. As partners with the Labor government and the party that seeks to hold the balance of power in the Senate, they have enormous influence on the policy and legislation that affects the lives of all Australians now and into the future. So, what has been the Labor reaction on the school funding issue? They commissioned the Gonski review that recommended an additional $5 billion investment. What did we see from the Gillard-Swan budget? We saw $5.8 million, not $5 billion, over two years. What is this $5.8 million for? The answer is that it is for further research into their school funding changes. Yes, sadly, this is not some sick joke. The current school funding model expires at the end of next year. Schools, like all enterprises, need certainty to plan for the future. Unbelievably, the government still remains mute on the issue of whether school funding will continue to be indexed to keep abreast of rising educational costs. After five years of talk and an in-depth two-year Gonski review, why cannot Mr Garrett or his predecessor, Ms Gillard, simply answer the question? Either they will continue indexation or they will not, yes or no.

This is a real concern within my electorate. There are schools that are genuinely worried about their future and that of their students. In fact, if the Gillard government does not continue indexation, there will be 22 schools in Higgins which will have a shortfall of $29 million. If indexation is discontinued, fees will rise, programs will be reduced and students will be forced into government schools to the detriment of all. The Liberal Party understands the very real and negative impact that this will have.

In March the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and I visited Presentation College in my electorate to meet with staff and students. Presentation College is an amazing school. It is an open entry school with a commitment to maintaining broad access to Catholic education for middle- and low-income families. Its students come from 114 suburbs and speak 26 languages at home. Students' families are of diverse backgrounds, from newly arrived migrants, artists and families in welfare housing to professionals and business people. Schools like Presentation dispel the myth that non-government schools are all elite. In fact, approximately 18 per cent of its students receive the education maintenance allowance. If funding indexation is discontinued, the school could lose as much as $2.5 million over four years from 2013 to 2017. This is approximately $3,800 per student.

Just a few weeks later the Hon. Christopher Pyne, shadow minister for education, apprenticeships and training, and I met with the principal and school council members of Greek Oakleigh Grammar School. So concerned is this school community that the principal wrote to me on behalf of his 500 students and their families regarding 'the cloud of uncertainty about the future of funding'. The principal was well aware that a reduction in indexation alone would mean a reduction in funding of $1.6 million over four years from 2013 to 2017. This is approximately $2,942 per student.

I assured him that, while the coalition offered funding certainty including funding indexation, the ALP remained deaf to their concerns. The issue of school funding clearly illuminates the fundamental difference between the Greens, the ALP and the coalition. In the coalition you have a party committed to certainty of school funding, a party that understands the importance of school autonomy and community engagement, a party that respects that families are best placed to choose the right place for their children to go to school and, fundamentally, a party that is much more concerned with the educational outcomes of all students than on who actually operates the school.

On the other side of the House you have the ALP and their partners the Greens. They are parties fixated on undermining the independent sector. They are ignorant of the need for certainty to enable schools to prosper. They are contemptuous of the role of principals and the community in schools. They think that for government schools to succeed independent schools must suffer.

I hosted a forum on schools funding in my electorate and invited principals, school officials, teachers, parents and students to have their say. They said with one voice, 'No,' to a hit list on independent schools. If the Prime Minister and her education minister have any integrity, they would too.