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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26200

Senator TIERNEY (5:37 PM) —We are considering the report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee entitled Commonwealth funding for schools. I thank Senator Carr and the Labor Party for their support of the schools bill in 2000. There is little change to that bill, except that the amount of funding going into the school system will be increased. The basic principles of the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004 are very much the same. The big change was made in the year 2000 when we went from the old corrupt ERI system—the Education Resource Index system of the previous Labor government, which no-one liked and which delivered unfair and badly distributed funding across the system—to the new SES system. Senator Carr and his colleagues voted for that system. We thank them for that, because the system of funding is a vast improvement on what we had before. It is four years since that bill was before us, and over the next four years there will be $32 billion in school funding from the federal government—based yet again on the SES model.

The way in which Senator Carr and the Labor Party have portrayed this debate is unfortunate; they are trying to push divisions within society that are not actually there. They have done that by misrepresenting the way in which the funding of schooling occurs in Australia. The basic, core point that they keep missing is the way in which the federal government funds schooling; the predominant amount of funding into the school system comes from the state government. Public schools are 88 per cent funded by the state governments. It is their legislative responsibility. If Senator Carr is unhappy about the level of funding of the state school system, he should talk to his colleague Mr Bracks, the Premier of Victoria. He should also have a word to Mr Carr, the Premier of New South Wales, who again is at the bottom of the funding league table and who is putting up funding at a rate that is barely keeping pace with inflation.

The core of the problem with the state school system is not the funding by the federal government, which goes up by six per cent a year—treble what the states put in in terms of percentage increase. The problem lies back with the state governments. The federal government is basically focused on the private sector in its funding. Let us remember that people who send their children to private schools make enormous sacrifices in the funds that they put into their children's education. They save the taxpayer over $3 billion a year because they pay those fees. For example, the Catholic system is 85 per cent funded by the taxpayer, state and federal, with 15 per cent of the fees paid by the parents.

Let us concentrate on the other end of the spectrum and the much maligned King's School, which the Labor Party loves mentioning. The public funding, state and federal, of the King's School is 31 per cent of its total funding, and 69 per cent—over twothirds of the funding—comes from the private sector and from people who send their children there. If parents want to spend their money on private education rather than on a bigger house or a second car, in a liberal democracy they should be entitled to do so. But the reality is that, by and large, the people who send their children to private schools are not from some mythical, massively wealthy group of people—there are a few, obviously. The vast majority are like the example that the Prime Minister quoted today: both husband and wife work and the wife's income goes to pay the school fees. Often people go into debt to do this and burn up their assets. Grandparents contribute. That is the reality. If people want to do that for their children's education and the school decides to spend those funds on resources for education, in a liberal democracy why shouldn't they be able to do that? That is the nub of this whole debate. As the issue of funding has developed, it has had the agreement of both sides. There is a lot of grandstanding in this debate by the Labor Party.

The thing that is a little different in this legislation relates to the changes we have made to the national school agenda. We have put certain requirements on the states. We have done this through an organisation called MCEETYA, which is the ministerial council of state and federal education ministers. The ministers meet to get agreement on funding. The government feel that, if we are putting in funding of $33 billion over four years and are increasing money to the state school system in particular at a much greater rate than the states are, we should have some sort of say in what happens in our schools. Indeed, as a nation, there is a leadership role for the Australian government in determining a broad school agenda. It benefits the country if things work in a more uniform fashion and move forward across the entire school system.

One of those matters relates to testing. There is now an agreed requirement across the system that testing should be made on certain benchmarks and key areas of learning, such as literacy and numeracy. The government do not want to do this to establish some sort of league table of schools. We want to do it because parents should receive reporting back on those things that are important in schooling. They should know how their children are going compared to their age cohort. That sort of feedback is of enormous value to parents. Now that we are funding private tutoring for children who need it, it is essential information for parents. Those are the sorts of changes that have come in under the national school agenda.

Finally, I would like to focus on what I see as the key and crucial change in this national agenda that we are insisting that the states move towards—that is, that they provide greater autonomy and decision-making power at the level of the school. What we have in Australia is a whole series of very centralised bureaucracies with things that are decided in head office in the capital cities; what we need is a much greater movement to decision making within the school in terms of a whole range of things on which the education of each child is determined. Parents should be very heavily involved in that. This will be the key secret to improving education in this nation: if we get more autonomous schools with parents working with teachers to decide the educational outcomes and programs for their children, we will have a much more effective education system in this country. That is one of the fundamental bases of this bill. This is one of the most important changes. It is a significant amount of federal government funding, and the federal government, which has control of this funding, has a right to make such requirements in our school system in Australia.