PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: The Australian Education Bill 2012 is an extraordinary bill and this is an extraordinary debate, because we are discussing a bill which expressly says that it does not create rights or duties that are legally enforceable. I believe that this will be unique in Australian history: a discussion in this chamber of a bill which does not appropriate any funds and has no legal impact. We are also debating it at a time when the House of Representatives is inquiring into the bill; we are receiving submissions and hearing evidence beginning this Friday. So it is extraordinary on two counts: a bill with no legal impact and a debate when an inquiry is underway. The bill, however, does allow us to comment on school education and the proposed Gonski reforms, because at least the intent of this bill is to establish a framework for school funding—not that it has any legal impact, but the intent is there. There is a great deal to discuss in relation to school education, the necessary reforms for school improvement and whether the Gonski proposals will actually make any difference. My fear is that the proposed reforms—what little we know of them —will cost billions but make little or no difference to educational outcomes. Worse, they will penalise schools, particularly Catholic and independent ones, that are already doing very well. There are two things that the government’s reforms seek to do: first, to introduce a new schoolfunding system, particularly for non-government schools, where the federal government has primary responsibility; and, second, to improve the outcomes of all schools. The government directly links the two together, suggesting that there is a solid causal connection between funding and outcomes. This belief that there is a direct causal connection is indeed the foundational principle of the Gonski report and of the government’s direction.
The bill itself adopts the language of Gonski, suggesting that ‘funding will be allocated according to a formula that calculates an appropriate amount for every school in recognition of the costs of providing a high quality education’. The assumption is that if the school has the ‘appropriate’ level of funding—whatever that is, and it remains undefined—then school outcomes will automatically rise. This assumption, which underpins the government’s entire approach, does not stack up. There is a considerable body of research that shows thatlarge amounts of money can be spent on education with little impact on outcomes. Indeed, one can examine Australia’s own school performance over the last decade. We have increased school funding by 41 per cent in real terms but have gone backwards in standards both in absolute terms and relative to other nations. The Catholic school system in Australia does better than the public school system even after adjusting for socioeconomic backgrounds, and this is despite the Catholic school system operating on 10 per cent fewer resources than the government school system. Finally, some remote Aboriginal schools will have funding of $60,000 or $70,000 per student but have catastrophic outcomes. Clearly funding does not directly equate to better outcomes. Funding is, of course, important, but it is not the essential determinant of outcomes, and to suggest that the answer to our failing standards is simply to give all schools the ‘appropriate’ level of funding, as Gonski and the government suggest, is not based in reality. What does matter in relation to funding, however, is certainty and fairness. The current SES system, introduced in 2001, is not perfect and can be improved, but it does provide those two things. It provides certainty for four years in advance based on a model that is non-corruptible. It also provides fairness in that it gives more funding to schools that cater for poorer communities and less money to schools that cater for wealthier communities. Importantly, this funding is indexed according to the real costs of education increases—the AGSRC index, an indexation rate that Labor fails to commit to. Also importantly, the model does not disadvantage parents who wish to spend more on their kids’ education through higher fees. The government has not only criticised this model since it was first announced but made out that it is the worst thing ever passed in this parliament. Indeed, Stephen Smith, when he was shadow education minister, called it the ‘destruction of our egalitarian society’.
Of course, Labor’s criticism of the SES system was always more about politics than about substance. The fact that it has taken Labor 13 years, including six years in government, to put up an alternative funding model suggests that the SES system may not be all that bad. If it really were the destruction of our egalitarian society, why did Labor commit to extending the SESfunding system from 2009 through to 2012 when it was in government, and then extend it again for a further year to the end of 2013?
Despite the government’s rhetoric, I have concerns that the new funding model that the government will eventually put up for scrutiny will fail the fairness test. I am particularly concerned for low-fee Catholic and Christian schools, which cater for more than 20 per cent of all Australian students. Their funding is likely to be cut in real terms, meaning higher fees for parents already struggling with cost-of-living pressures. We have not seen any detailed modelling from the government, but the modelling undertaken by the state and territory governments and nongovernment school authorities reveals that some 3,254 schools would have funding reduced under the Gonski formula. This would include several schools in my electorate, including St Luke’s, Our Lady of Lourdes, St Jude’s and Holy Trinity.
The reason the schools will have funding cut is twofold. First, the Gonski model is based on schools charging fees that Gonski believes parents can afford, even if the school deliberately keeps fees low to make it affordable to all. Second, the government will not commit to AGSRC indexation. Over time, therefore, schools will lose funding in real terms. I encourage schools who are following this debate to do the mathematics. A school could potentially get a small boost to funding in year 1, but if the indexation rate is lower that boost will quickly be lost for every year thereafter. Indexation is critical and the government will not commit to the current formula. I also suggest that Catholic and other religious schools stay vigilant in relation to their right to employ teachers of their own faith. This is a principle that should be in the bill, but it is not. As members will know, Labor and the Greens have form in trying to remove this right. There are other principles that should be included in this bill, and the amendments which Christopher Pyne on behalf of the coalition has put forward should be adopted.
I mentioned that the intent of the government’s reforms is to do two things: to introduce a new funding system and to improve student outcomes. Let me now come to the second part of this: student outcomes. We have a serious problem in this area. We are now the lowest performer of any English-speaking nation at year 4 level. We are ranked 27th in year 4 reading. We are ranked 18th in maths and 25th in science. The Grattan Institute notes that, in Shanghai, the average 15-yearold maths student is performing at a level two to three years above his or her counterpart in Australia. The average 15-year-old is 15 months ahead of Australian students in science and 13 months ahead in reading. Similarly, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea, 15- year-old students are now one year in advance ofAustralian students in maths and about half a year in front in science and reading. We are entering the Asian century, yet we are not keeping up with Asia’s education standards.
What needs to be done? The research is remarkably clear. First, we need higher quality teaching. Research shows—indeed, the research of the member for Fraser —that a student with a top 10 per cent teacher learns at twice the pace as a student with a bottom 10 per cent teacher. Any person who has been a parent intrinsically understands this. The government acknowledges the desire for higher teacher quality, but its measures will be ineffectual. Its main effort is the teacher professional development standards, which is a huge bureaucratic exercise that will do little to improve teacher quality. Teacher quality will only improve if four things are done—first, attracting higher quality people into teaching. We, unfortunately, have seen a collapse in teacher entrance standards in recent years. Up to 21 per cent of students entering teacher education courses have an Australian tertiary admission rank, or ATAR, below 60, which is the lowest of all the categories listed in government reports that collate this information.
In the world’s leading performing systems, they only recruit students from the top 20 to 30 per cent of high school leavers, and this should be the model also for Australia. The teacher education faculties also need to be improved. We have serious concerns about some of the quality there. Some of the things they have been teaching in the past have not been based on evidence —for example, even teaching teacher graduates how to teach phonics rather than just whole language in reading. In some cases, they are almost like quasi sociology departments rather than teacher education faculties. We think these faculties need reform and they need reform where there is closer connection between schools themselves and the faculties, where some of the leading schoolteachers can be teaching the next generation of teacher graduates and teachers.
Third, there needs to be ongoing feedback from other teachers to constantly improve the existing cadre of teachers. It seems bleedingly obvious to do this, but it is not consistently being done in all schools, and the research says that it makes a big difference.
Finally, lifting teacher quality requires being rigorous in moving on those who are underperforming. The Grattan Institute finds that, if the bottom 14 per cent of teachers were replaced merely with average quality teachers, we would have the best performing system in the world. I am not suggesting that those underperforming teachers immediately be removed; what I am suggesting is that many school principals find that there are teachers in their schools who they struggle to move on because it is very difficult to do so.
Teacher quality is most important. The second thing that needs to be done is to have a more rigorous curriculum. The standards of our school children cannot exceed that set in the curriculum. I have previously mentioned that many of the countries in the region are now performing well in excess of Australian standards. I think our curriculum needs to be more rigorous. We need to benchmark it against the leading nations in the world, and we should be keeping up with those leading nations.
Finally, we need more autonomy for school principals to hire, fire and manage their affairs—that is, to be more like non-government schools in that regard. We need to give the school principal the ability to manage their school and then be accountable for the outcomes.
No leader of any organisation can be accountable for their outcomes if they cannot properly manage its affairs. Many other things could be done to improve the outcomes for students in Australia, but these are the essential things that underpin the coalition’s position: improve teacher quality; improve the rigour of the National Curriculum; and, finally, give school principals and school communities more autonomy to get on with the job they are supposed to be doing.
We know what needs to be done to improve outcomes, but it needs the courage to implement it. I am far from convinced that the Gonski reforms will have any real impact, but they will cost the taxpayer billions of dollars, and those billions of dollars at present are all being put onto the government credit card. I suggest to the government that they closely examine the proposals that the coalition has put forward: to lift teacher quality, to increase the rigour of the curriculum and to give school principals greater autonomy. If they do those three things I think we can be assured that we can lift school education outcomes once again and be in a position to get Australia back into the top-performing countries in the world, from a school education perspective.