Government’s schools funding plan missing fairness, consistency

Published on Mon 29 May 2017 6:10pm

The challenge at the beginning of the 21st century here in Australia—it is a big challenge—is to address our falling comparative performance, to achieve fairness and consistency across this nation and schools across this country and to provide a mechanism to deliver additional funding to schools that need it most. This bill and this policy abandon that challenge.

Mr Wilson (6:10pm) — I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this bill, the Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017. Early childhood and school education is the delivery mechanism and the guarantor of Australia’s most important values and the guarantor of our most important social and economic achievements. It is the bedrock of egalitarianism. It is the bedrock of equality of opportunity and social mobility in Australia. It has evolved over a long time. It needs to keep evolving, especially at a time of rising inequality, a time of economic and technological change and a time of great change and challenges in our region.

This bill, unfortunately, does not represent the necessary next step in Australia’s school education system. In fact, it represents a stymieing of reform. Yes, it involves a long backward step in the quantum of funding when compared to Labor’s policy: $22 billion, in total, over 10 years; on average, $2.4 million per school, and, in my state of Western Australia, over the next four years alone, $650 million.

But the worst aspects of the government’s policy, as represented in this bill, are the abandonment of key principles and objectives of the Gonski review—the abandonment of a genuinely sector-blind needs-based system that was to be focused on achieving objective resource standards according to a sensibly urgent timetable with a shared effort by the Commonwealth and the states. That is the much-needed transformation of schools in Australia that Labor sought to deliver. It is a reform that this bill ignores and undermines.

It was not that long ago that developed nations like Australia transcended the poorhouses and the workhouses and overcame the social prejudice and economic orthodoxy that said that 99 in 100 people were destined more or less to a life of subsistence and mere poverty. It was not that long ago that a vast gulf existed between the very few haves and the very many have-nots. And that gulf was as clear in terms of education as it was in terms of material wellbeing. Lack of education consigned people to impoverished lives and lives of exclusion. The more marginal your position was, the worse you were affected. If you were a woman, if you were a person with disability, if you were a migrant, you were more than likely to be excluded from education and excluded from social and economic participation.

The law of population, the iron law of wages, the wage-fund theory—all these explanations of political economy that prevailed at the end of the 19th century assumed that the large majority of people would be condemned to live on the edge of poverty. It was only through the work of progressive economists and social activists like Alfred Marshall and Beatrice Potter that we gradually began to turn away from some presumed law of the jungle. We turned away from the lie of meritocracy and a game stacked against people without means, capital, education and skills.

It was really only through that revolution—the revolution of comprehensive public school education, coupled with the development of the social safety net—that countries like Australia were able to evolve into the modern, inclusive, egalitarian society that we enjoy today. To the extent that many people in Australia are able to participate fairly in economic and social life, it is because comprehensive school education came along to enable that.

But it would be a huge mistake to think the challenges for school education in Australia and its role in increasing opportunity, lifting social inclusion and reducing inequality were all tackled and conquered in the 19th and early 20th century. That is just not the case. I can remember being at high school in the 1980s. It was not at all uncommon in the 1980s, by the time you got to year 9, to be having conversations with your peers about whether you would go beyond year 10. When the Hawke government was elected, completion of high school in this country was 40 per cent. By 1991, through the efforts of the Hawke-Keating government, we were at 70 per cent. Now we are close to 85 per cent. That was a massive change, and a relatively recent one, but it is still not experienced evenly across our society. In 2016, only 60 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders completed high school. That is a substantial increase from 2008, when it was 45 per cent, but it is substantially below the achievement of the general population.

I have schools in my electorate that vary greatly—most members would. In my electorate, according to the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, I have a primary school where there are 71 students in the bottom quartile. I have a high school that has 61 per cent of its students in the bottom quartile of the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage. By contrast, I have schools where there is only one or two per cent in that quartile. That is the range of socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage within a metropolitan electorate like Fremantle. In other parts of the country the disparity is much greater and the challenge is much greater.

When it comes to Indigenous disadvantage, our school system has a particularly important role to play. One of the things I hold onto when I have looked at the Closing the Gap report over the last few years is the fact that when Indigenous kids—Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander kids—finish university their employment outcomes are no different than any Australian who finishes university. That is a heartening statistic, but the extent to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students finish high school and go on to university is still extraordinarily poor. Forty-six per cent of non-Indigenous students who complete year 12 gain a university entrance score. Currently, it is only about 10 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. If we consider that the concept behind needs-based funding is the idea that you get resources to where they are most needed and that you enable people facing disadvantage to have the kids of opportunities everybody should have, the circumstances of our Indigenous brothers and sisters make a compelling case for that kind of change.

The challenge at the beginning of the 21st century here in Australia—it is a big challenge—is to address our falling comparative performance, to achieve fairness and consistency across this nation and schools across this country and to provide a mechanism to deliver additional funding to schools that need it most. This bill and this policy abandon that challenge. It categorically fails to help our school education system take the next step. It is a failure of imagination and it is a failure of leadership. This bill and this policy reduce funding overall—that much we know.

In my state of Western Australia—which exists in a slightly anomalous situation because the former Liberal Barnett government did not sign up to needs based funding in any way, shape or form—the gap is not between what the Labor policy would have delivered and the plan that has just been released and is contained in this bill; the gap is in the budget papers of the former Barnett government. They had an expectation based on their conversations with the current government of increased funding over the next four years. They carried those figures in their budget papers—the budget papers of the new Western Australian Labor government has just inherited—and there is a $650 million hole in schools funding for Western Australian schools between what the Barnett government carried in its budget papers and what the Turnbull government is now proposing to deliver.

This bill and this policy reduces funding most sharply to the states that need it most. Schools that need assistance the most are in the Northern Territory, and the Northern Territory faces the largest cut. After the Northern Territory, the state that needs help the most is Tasmania, and it faces the next-biggest cut. This short-changes public schools. Public schools do the heavy lifting in the task of increasing opportunity, decreasing inequality, working to deliver the Australian promise of egalitarianism in this country. Public schools teach 80 per cent of Australia’s poorest children, 80 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids and 70 per cent of kids with a disability. And under Labor’s program 80 per cent of the funding from the Commonwealth would go to public schools. Less than 50 per cent of all funding under the Turnbull government’s program goes to public schools.

This bill fails in the critical area of securing a shared effort and shared commitment from the Commonwealth and the states, and that was one of the key elements of Labor’s plan. The coalition has committed to providing by 2027 only 80 per cent of the fair funding level to private schools and 20 per cent of the fair funding level to public schools. But there is no requirement that states and territories increase their funding. That means there can be no confidence whatsoever that Australian schools will reach a fair level of funding, which is 95 per cent of the schooling resource standard—not by 2027, which is eight years later than Labor’s program, and, more than likely, not ever.

When you take all those things together—all those shortcomings, all those failures—you can understand why this bill is not just a huge cut in funding, not just a huge delay in funding, not just a failure of leadership in what should be a shared effort between the Commonwealth and the states to a step change in education in this country. This bill is simply not needs based funding, when you get down to it. Needs based funding is the next step in Australian school education that we so badly need, and this bill fails to deliver it.

I am the son of a teacher. My mum is 70. She still relief teaches. She teaches special needs kids. When I was young she taught kindergarten. At one point I attended a mixed school of hearing impaired and deaf kids at which my mum taught. I am the beneficiary of a number of government schools. My parents parted ways when I was pretty young, and we moved around. I went to Subiaco Primary; Margaret River Primary, in the south-west, and back up to Fremantle Primary School. I went to John Curtin Senior High School, and then I went to Swanbourne Senior High School. I did a year at a school in India when I was eight or nine. I spent a year and a half at a junior high school in Long Island, New York, when I was about 12 or 13. So, I have seen a few schools.

I did not have to overcome any particular disadvantage other than moving around, but I was enormously assisted and shaped to be the person I am today by government school education, by public schools. I still remember my high school English teach, John Cox, who made it a kind of noble enthusiasm for otherwise boisterous young Australian blokes to enjoy English literature, and that became a lifelong love, something I went on to study at university and did my masters in. I had a maths teacher, when I first started at Swanbourne High School—I had missed a lot of maths and did not have the foundations—and sat next to a kid who seemed to know what he was doing, and half the time I copied what he was doing to get by, and the rest of the time I guess I started becoming a bit of a class clown. I can remember that Mrs Livesey used to have this stock phrase that she used to say about every test: that the results went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

I remember coming into her class one day and she said: ‘Students, I’ve got the results of your test. As usual, the tests went from the sublime to the ridiculous. One student got 20 out of 20 and another student got zero.’ I could not believe that; I though zero was just too funny, and I said something silly. I said, ‘Seriously, how could you get zero?’ And she said: ‘Mr Wilson, I would sit down if I were you. I’m holding the paper that got zero, and it’s got your name on it.’ She took me aside after that lesson and said: ‘Josh, I know you are playing the clown but I think you can do a lot better at maths. I am prepared to stay after with you and help you learn how to factorise trinomials, but I am not going to give up my time lightly. If you are serious about it, I will stay after school with you; but, if you are not, let’s not waste our time.’ I did take her up on that, and I actually went on to do higher maths subjects in my last few years, and it was really only because of that extra effort. It made a difference in my life. It makes a difference in the life of every kid. But it needs to be better and it needs to particularly make a difference in the lives of Australian school children who need it most.

School education is the best hope for any society that wants its children to know the joy of learning, to get a fair chance to be whatever they want to be, to benefit from the economic, social and personal development that learning opens up and to be shaped by caring and inclusive school communities, principals, teachers and staff, friends and networks of families that make up those communities. Labor in government grasped the nettle of the next big step change in schools education. That is what the Gonski plan was going to be. This bill walks away from that work and that opportunity. It is not Gonski 2.0. It is not a watered down version of Gonski— (Time expired)

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