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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30553

Mr ANDREN (5:15 PM) —The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 increases the total funding for establishment assistance for new non-government schools for the program years 2001-04. The substantial increase, from $4.7 million to $14.2 million, was brought about by significant changes in the full-time equivalent census enrolments, from 1,692.4 in 1999 to 3,399.4 in 2000. This was largely confined to three of the new schools, with the overall increase in new schools actually dropping by one, from 39 to 38, between 1999 and 2000. The figures show the inexorable growth in new school enrolments with the abolition of the new schools policy. The government would rejoice in this as an affirmation of its policy, its philosophy of free choice.

Last weekend I joined the member for Dobell and the member for Parkes in addressing a country teachers conference in Dubbo. In referring to the philosophy of choice and unbridled establishment of new schools, I said:

It is all right to talk about freedom of choice in education, in health, in union membership, indeed in superannuation for anyone other than an MP, but freedom of choice implies a capacity to exercise that choice, and many parents and children just don't have that capacity but should in no way be penalised because they don't.

Freedom of choice is one thing, equality of choice is what we should be aiming at, especially in education. Financial constraints should be no barrier to opportunity, yet I fear the trends towards market based education at a pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary level could delivering exactly that unwanted result.

I must admit grave reservations about the abolition of the former Government's New Schools Policy which effectively capped the establishment of new independent schools. I know we have a private sector largely based on a Catholic and Protestant base, and I know there are many more religious groups within our society today with the right to establish their own education institutions.

But I worry that scarce resources are likely to be spread over more and more and smaller and smaller schools, with a wider and wider social, ethnic and religious spread. I just question what that does for the homogeneity of our society and while I think we should celebrate cultural differences and strengths I don't know that a mushrooming of sectarian education is what we need.

This legislation, and this increased funding, only underscores my concerns. There are serious questions of guidelines for the provision of these grants; the transparency of the process by which a new school is actually new, or whether it is a campus extension of an existing school; and issues of equity and fairness vis-a-vis government schools. The opposition, the Democrats, the Australian Education Union and the Independent Education Union of Australia have called for clearer guidelines and accountability.

I note the assurances given to committee hearings by the department but, as a parent of children who attended both government and non-government schools, I can see quite clearly how Commonwealth and state funding can be applied as required to the recurrent cost of school education, but this frees up other substantial private financial resources to provide the extra facilities that give the independent school that exclusive edge. I know very well that parents pay for that edge—I have still got my receipts and records—but it concerns me that we have lost the measure of a community's capacity to pay as a benchmark when allocating scarce education budgets. This is especially so when there are so many resources needed at government school level, and the capacity to raise funds is being diminished by the day, as parents of some means, often the fundraisers and energy of state schools, head their children in such large numbers towards better resourced independent schools.

I told the teacher representatives at the Dubbo conference that one thing we cannot afford to do is to scratch the scab off the state aid debate. But what we do need to keep stressing is not choice but equity and opportunity. That is what I have argued throughout my years as a teacher, journalist and now MP, and that is what I argue is absent from the government's socioeconomic status model for non-government school funding. This policy will do no more, I fear, than widen the resources gap between government and non-government schools. While many new schools may well be in low socioeconomic areas—and their children rightly qualify for maximum assistance—it is the uncapped expansion of the new school sector which causes me concern. The Bills Digest states:

The automatic conferral of the establishment grants without examination of the circumstances of schools has created contention. Unlike the major general recurrent grants for non-government schools, establishment grants are not scaled according to need. There is also no similar Commonwealth assistance for new government schools.

There is little doubt that many key components of the former government's funding policies for non-government schools had reached their use-by date. The Education Resources Index, though, had some strengths that have not been picked up by this government's policy. One significant criticism of the ERI was that, by reducing the amount of government funding as private incomes increased, the index actually acted as a disincentive for non-government schools to seek greater private contributions. All money raised from fetes or trivia nights could contribute to lowering a school's ERI and could result in less government funding.

The socioeconomic status model was supposed to be a better way to provide funding to non-government schools in terms of equity, certainty, simplicity and flexibility. As I pointed out back in 1999, and as we have seen since its introduction, the SES does not appear to be equitable or simple. The SES funding method assesses a school's need according to a measure of the socioeconomic status of the community or communities from which it draws its students. It is a statistical measure of the socioeconomic profile of a community and is made up of a number of different aspects, including income, occupational status and educational status. Whereas the ERI aimed to assess a school's need by its capacity to raise funds on its own behalf, the SES assesses a school's need by measuring the capacity of the community it draws from to support it.

My main problem with the SES stems from the measuring of the capacity of that community to support a student, because this is where its potential for unfairness arises. I can see that many of the new schools assisted under this legislation may not have any greater capacity than the average government school to raise their own financial resources; they might have less, especially less than state schools in well-off areas, or selective government schools. But, as we go on, with more and more non-government schools, there is a risk of more new independent schools with significant private means attracting more and more public funding at the expense of the majority of the government school sector.

Let me just comment on the SES formula. Students' home addresses are collected, then linked into the Bureau of Statistics census collection districts data—typically, 250 households are surveyed—and then applied to calculate an average SES score for each community. Each school's score is then calculated on the basis of the average SES of the communities from which its students are drawn, and weighted according to the number of students from each census district of the school. The lower the SES score of a school community, the lower its capacity to support its school—that is what it is deemed to represent—and the more government funding it will be entitled to. My problem with the SES remains its sole reliance on this measure of socioeconomic status to determine the amount of support a school receives.

In my opinion, the SES requires a second tier test to alleviate the impact of such discrepancies in its method of measuring socioeconomic status. That second tier test would look at the proportion of a school's students, especially those from a sub-85 SES status school, in receipt of youth allowance or whose student body is benchmarked against the youth allowance formula—for example, if they were from a prep school, a preschool or a kindergarten. The youth allowance with actual means test now gives an accurate picture of an individual's family income. A school returning an SES of under 85 but with few students on a youth allowance qualification would be subject to this second level of assessment to work out the real status of the student, not just the community from which he or she came.

A school with proportionally fewer students on youth allowance, or measured against the youth allowance test in the communities from which it draws, should not be allowed additional funding until its student population accurately reflects the population of the broader community from which it draws. Without this option of a second-tier test, the SES model, as far as I can see, will continue to provide assistance to the richer portion of the independent sector at the cost of equality in the provision of education. Such misdirected funds are desperately needed to top up federally funded initiatives for disadvantaged schools or literacy programs or, indeed, for early intervention and curriculum development to meet the problems of children for whom school is irrelevant—the sorts of students that the previous speaker in this debate referred to.

I believe the combination of the SES, the abolition of the new schools policy and the coalition's interpretation of the enrolment benchmark adjustment scheme supports the argument that the current policy, whether by design or not, is engineering a shift in the number of students attending government schools towards the non-government sector and creating a marketplace education model. I cannot see it delivering other than a growing divide between the private and public school sectors, the students within those sectors and even among schools within those sectors. It is one thing to recognise and to react to a change in where students are being educated; it is another thing entirely to try to drive that change. In 1996, 2,221,000 or 71 per cent of students attended government schools. The other 29 per cent, some 900,000 students, attended non-government schools. According to the department's figures, this worked out at $729 per government student and $2,334 per non-government student. I appreciate the role of the state in funding state schools, but those are the federal figures.

Last year the figures were $877 for each student in the government sector, and $3,075 for each non-government student. That figure increases I guess with this legislation. Based on these figures, funding for government schools has increased by 20 per cent compared with 33 per cent for non-government schools. The department's per capita projections for 2003 stand at $937 for government and $3,534 for non-government.

Mr Slipper —What about state government funding for schools?

Mr ANDREN —I have just alluded to that. I am talking about—

Mr ANDREN —I have already indicated that the benchmark adjustment is out of whack according to my estimation of schools' needs—an increase of 30 per cent and 52 per cent respectively. Another way of looking at it is to say that, over that period, while federal funding to government schools will increase by about half a billion dollars, non-government schools funding will increase by about $2 billion. The problem here is that the funding increases are outpacing actual student movements, and that is the point I make to the parliamentary secretary at the table. I quoted a 71 per cent to 29 per cent split between government and non-government student numbers for 1996. Last year, according to the department, the ratio remained around the 70 per cent to 30 per cent mark, yet the increases in federal funding to each sector do not reflect this.

Where Catholic systemic schools have negotiated with the government to remain with the ERI funding scheme but at category 11 level to guard their less affluent schools against potential losses in funding under the SES, a government school in a similar circumstance with potentially declining enrolments has no such recourse. The argument is often put that if people pay taxes they deserve a share in government spending. That is the oft repeated argument for education. People pay taxes for a whole range of reasons, whether for age pensions, Newstart, Austudy, drug rehabilitation, research, the health system or, dare I say it, to support us in retirement as politicians. People pay taxes for many, many services they might never themselves access. One of the most fundamental purposes of paying taxes as far as I am concerned is to provide as good an education as we can to all Australians, regardless of their means.