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Address to the Christian Schools National Policy Forum, Canberra

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Published 23/5/2011





CANBERRA, MAY 23, 2011

Who would have thought that the closure of a lavatory at Lady of Mercy College in Goulburn would be the catalyst for

the federal funding of the non-government school sector?

In 1962 New South Wales Health inspectors ordered the school's lavatory closed as it was considered unsuitable and

too small for the student population. Pleas for assistance to refurbish the lavatory were rebuffed by the NSW State

Labor Government of the day.

To register their protest over this lack of support, 1,900 students from catholic schools in Goulburn arrived at the gates

of local state schools seeking enrolment.

It took the Menzies Liberal Government to begin funding the non-government sector from federal coffers, by-passing the

states. Federal funding for the non-government sector has continued ever since.

This powerfully illustrates the enormous value of non-government schools to Government, and shows how much

influence the non-government school sector has over its own fate.

Consider such an action today and the crisis it would cause. Rough estimates suggest that the non-government sector

saves the Australian taxpayer somewhere in the vicinity of $30 billion a year in additional expenditure.

With 1.2 million students in non-government schools and their parents and grand parents we are talking about more

than a third of the Australian population that supports non-government education.

Now the sector is facing another great challenge. With the current funding model ending in 2013 we are entering a time

of uncertainty as the Gonski Review concludes and reports, and the Gillard Government responds with a new funding


In this climate we are facing down critics and opponents who would see funding ripped from non-government schools.

To those in the non-government sector who think the argument over government funding for non-government schools is

over, I would say, look about you - read the newspapers, watch the news - there is finite funding, there are powerful

interests groups running well funded campaigns to justify cuts, and there is a political party in power who are

philosophically opposed to non-government school funding.

If you take one thing from my address tonight back to your schools, let it be this: the Coalition will stick by

non-government schools, we will not countenance any reduction in the quantum of funding and we will insist

on real indexation into the future.

Schools Minister, Peter Garrett has said that no school will receive one dollar less, but it is what he doesn't say

that is telling.

Without real indexation, non-government schools across Australia will be potentially $4.2 billion worse off in

real terms from 2014 to 2017 - funding that will need to be found from either parents through higher school fees

or cost cutting measures. For example, if Labor cuts $4.2 billion from schools the equivalent could be saved

by dismissing 56,000 teachers.

Peter Garrett could end this uncertainty today, by saying no school will lose one dollar in funding in real terms

beyond 2013 but instead he talks about awaiting the outcome of the Gonski Review. Why doesn't he? To do so

is perfectly consistent with awaiting the outcome of the Gonski Review which will recommend a future model of


The Coalition considers the maintenance of the current quantum of funding and indexation into the future to be

the foundation upon which any enhancements proposed by Gonski can be built. It is not up for negotiation.

It is worth considering the entirely inconsistent approach to school funding held by the Labor Party.

In 2007 the then Labor Opposition announced they would retain the Coalition Government's Socio-Economic-Status, or

SES funding model for non-government schools until 2012.

This was a surprise, as when it was originally introduced in 2000, the Labor Party were highly critical of it.

The current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, described the SES system as a 'flawed system and an inequitable index.'

Labor has since talked about a review of funding arrangements since early 2008, promising to deliver a future funding

model that is "fairer" and more "transparent".

The review being conducted by David Gonski AC is due to report at the end of the year, but the Government has not

promised to provide a response to the recommendations in a particular timeframe.

To avoid a fight with the non-government sector during the 2010 election the Gillard Government extended the current

funding period to 2013 as an election fix.

I have called on the Government to make their changes to school funding clear by March 2012, as I think it is crucial

that any new direction needs to be made public well before the current extension to recurrent funding arrangements for

non-government schools is set to expire at the end of 2013.

2013 is not that long away. Just consider this year's federal Budget, when it was found that the Government's deficit had

come in at $50 billion.

This is the fourth time in a row Labor has produced a Budget in deficit. They have promised to return the Budget to

surplus by 2013, but it will be a razor thin surplus if it is delivered at all.

This means that there will be no funding available to implement any recommendations of the Gonski Review that the

Government might be attracted to, and no funding available for any transitional arrangements that may be required. This

is an alarming thought.

I have noted with interest some of the submissions made by the non-government sector in response the Panel's

Emerging Issues paper.

These submissions, or at least many of them, represent a significant body of expertise on the issue of school funding in


Of course, not surprisingly, the solutions to the question of how to improve the current funding arrangement are

consistent in some areas and varied in other ways.

But what is important here is that representatives and schools from the non-government sector stand united on this key

point that "any changes to Government funding should not leave any school or student worse off in real terms".

The Coalition is at one with the non-government sector on this issue.

Labor to date has refused to match the Coalition's commitment that funding for non-government school should not lose

a dollar of funding in 'real terms' beyond 2013.

But with a new Senate in July and the Greens holding the balance of power from then, Labor cannot be allowed

to remain silent on the intentions of their partner in Government.

The Greens want to reduce funding to non-government schools to 2003/04 levels.

Their policy document states that money should be taken from a hit list of non-government schools and

redistributed to the Government sector.

The magnitude of such a cut to the non-government sector would be tremendous. Apart from the obvious need

to increase school fees, some teachers would have to be sacked or face salary cuts, class sizes might have to

be increased and some schools would close.

The Greens will be able to amend any new funding legislation in the Senate to reflect their extreme views and to

appease the Greens it will be the Government who may allow these amendments to pass. There is real

sympathy for many of the Greens views with respect to school funding within Government ranks.

The Labor-Greens alliance poses a real threat to the non-government schools sector after the expiry of the

former Coalition Government's funding model in 2013.

Tonight I call on Schools Minister Peter Garrett to publicly repudiate and reject the policies of the

Government's coalition partners in their entirety. It is a cloud that hangs over the goodwill displayed by the

sector in the review process currently underway. This cloud must be dispersed by an unequivocal rejection of

the Greens education policies by the Minister.

This review process is welcome and needed. After a decade, it is timely to review the existing SES funding

model. For those of you who may have read our 2010 election policy, you may recall that the Coalition

supported the current funding arrangements beyond 2012, but also committed to the continuation of the

Gonski review, with a view to further enhance the existing arrangements.

David Gonski and his expert panel have an abundance of information from which to make their recommendations, and

the sector has responded with enthusiasm to the emerging issues paper taking the opportunity to have their say as the

review moves forward.

There have been hundreds of submissions made, with many thousands of recommendations.

Many from the non-government sector have raised the issue of capital funding for new schools. This is of

growing concern, with predictions of as many as 700,000 new students in Australia over the next decade, all

seeking an excellent education.

As you would know, Labor in Government abolished the Howard Government's establishment grants for new

schools. During the 2010 election, we promised to restore and double these establishment grants - to go in

some way towards easing the growing pains of a new school.

Tonight I can announce that one of a Coalition Government's priorities will be to establish a new capital

infrastructure investment program to assist towards alleviating this pressure on the non-government school

sector. We will do so once an incoming Coalition Government has brought the federal Budget back into


The Coalition is committed to driving an agenda in schools of greater autonomy for principals and empowering parents

and school communities.

I recently received an email from a principal who I know is here at the dinner tonight. I won't name him - but I do want to

share a line that shows to what extent principals and educators are getting on board and asking the Gillard Government

to take this issue seriously.

He writes:

"Your 'championing' of local autonomy and the empowerment of local leaders to respond to local needs is one of those

richer topics. Thanks for being so clear and strident on this issue. Interestingly, on the issue of comparative value for

money, we made a submission to last year's Senate Inquiry, going into "bat" for local state school principals - that they

be given the same freedom that had been afforded to us".

This point sums up completely what I believe is a key challenge ahead for Government.

That is to unshackle the Government schools sector from what has become a noose of bureaucracy and give them the

same freedom that is afforded to many schools in the non-government sector.

I note the Government is set to commence their election commitment "empowering local schools", that is, to offer

'reward payments' to 1000 of Australia's nearly 10,000 schools of $40,000 to $50,000 to help them become more


What is interesting to point out here, is that in the Government's recent Budget packs containing the key election

commitments they want to sell to the public, there was no mention of their so-called autonomy program.

For a moment some members of the Coalition thought Labor had already taken the axe to it.

However, buried deep within the Budget papers, just the title of the program appeared with the details of its funding

allocation. That's all.

Labor is embarrassed about their record on the issue of school autonomy. This Government does not possess the

courage or resolve to put the issue of school autonomy upfront on their agenda.

It will not surprise you that under an Abbott Government we would put autonomy at the very top of our agenda to allow

Government schools more independence, not less.

There is another issue high on our agenda. As I made mention to this forum last year, I consider the previous

Government could have gone much further in promoting better support for students with a disability.

The Coalition advocates that funding to meet the particular needs of students with disability should be regarded as a

basic entitlement for that child and should therefore be portable.

The Coalition's policy at the 2010 election was a ground breaking move towards an education card worth $20,000 in

additional funding for each student with a disability, paid directly to schools, irrespective of whether it was a government

or non-government school.

In particular, the Coalition argues that funding by the Commonwealth must be provided on agreed nationally consistent

definitions of disability, and also allowing portability of the entitlement between schools or school systems.

Our first objective would have been to agree on a definition of the most profound disability first with the States and

expanding the card to all students with a disability over time.

Just recently the Government announced $200 million for students with a disability, without any detail as to how the

funding is to be distributed.

Schools Minister, Peter Garrett, has been unable to say exactly how much funding will be available for each student, or

even how many schools will benefit, just that it will be provided through a National Partnership agreement with the

states and territories.

I have my reservations about this announcement, though I recognise that new funding in this area is always welcome.

By filtering this funding through the national partnership arrangements managed by State and Territory Governments,

there is the potential to further exacerbate the different ways in which Government funds students with disabilities rather

than developing a consistent pathway for students and their families.

For example, I continue to be told about the instance where a blind student in one state may only attract $3000 of

additional government support, but if they moved to another state it might be an additional $30,000.

National consistency is needed, and it's needed now for these students and their families.

We were pleased to take to the polls last year a policy that enshrined the basic principle that all students with a disability

should be treated the same, regardless of their choice of school.

We are proud to be the first party at a Federal level to have given this commitment.

The last issue I want to touch on is the My School website. As I travel to schools and discuss the website with

principals I am yet to come across one who endorses it without reservation.

There are four reoccurring issues that are being bought to my attention.

The first of these is related to the Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage that is the index which is supposed

to compare NAPLAN results with "like schools".

Many of you in this room will no doubt recall that a Montessori school at Beechworth in Victoria was ranked the third

most advantaged school in the nation on the new My School website.

We spoke to the principal of that school, who explained that while My School considered the school a bastion of

privilege she could not even afford to repair a leaky roof.

Many more examples emerged that set off alarm bells over the websites accuracy.

Though I am told the index has improved somewhat between the first and second version there is still a long way to go

before it will be an accurate reflection of every school in Australia.

The second concern raised with me is about the usefulness of making comparisons between different school sectors


All of you here tonight, I am sure, will agree that comparisons between Catholic, independent schools and government

schools have been the main thrust of the school funding debate for longer than any of us can remember.

Putting this information on the website is not a beneficial move in the best interests of schools. Making such

comparisons is highly complex, and some commentators argue virtually impossible. The fact is resource levels for

different types of schools should not, and cannot be compared - schools and schools systems are very different. You

are not comparing apples with apples.

It is highly complex to compare schools and school sectors given they have very different patterns of need and service

very different communities.

Producing this information only serves to keep alive the unproductive debate of government versus non-government

funding. As I mentioned earlier, I want to move the debate onto a one that focuses on local decision-making in schools.

The third concern is that My School will hurt Government schools without autonomy.

I have long argued that the reform on My School must go hand in hand with more autonomy in schools and not before.

Without greater school autonomy, principals in Government schools can do little about parental concerns over NAPLAN

results - their hands remain tied behind their backs.

While I am not saying that the NAPLAN tests and website should be discontinued, I do think there needs to be a major

change to the current arrangements.

This leads me to the final concern over My School which relates to the decision to publish the raw results for individual

school. This has created a climate of fear and recrimination in school communities, where teachers can be identified

and leagues tables that rank schools created.

NAPLAN was designed as a tool for parents and teachers to track student progress within their school and to be

collated to provide a nationwide picture of education in Australia.

This new climate of fear since the inception of My School has led to completed NAPLAN tests mysteriously

disappearing, teachers being caught cheating and changing answers, struggling students being told to stay home on

test day, all amounting to a system that is of questionable value.

I think the overemphasis on the NALPAN results and schools finances is unnecessary and unhelpful.

The Coalition would change the website so that data about school improvement was the focus. We would also

investigate publishing other information that parents and school communities might find of interest and of value, rather

than data that appeals to special interest groups intent on waging political campaigns against the non-government


This is a Government that promised to attempt to solve all of society's problems but continues to adopt a narrow and

one size fits all approach to national government policy. The result will be a nation addicted to big government.

The Coalition will carefully analyse the outcomes of the Gonski Review and will similarly provide a detailed response to

it. It will inform our policies for the next election, as have the submissions that have been received to date.

Tony Abbott has made his mark as a Leader who wants to puts decisions in the hands of local communities as much as

possible, and I am certain this will be reflected in the policies that we take to the next election with him.

Rest assured that the Coalition's proposals for reform will always have at heart the best interest of students and schools