I rise to speak in support of the Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011. This is an important bill and broadly speaking it is a good bill. It is important because it concerns the largest and most significant part of our education system—the school education system—and because it concerns the funding that they receive from the Commonwealth.
Our schools cater for 3.5 million students: 2.3 million in the government school sector and 1.2 million in Catholic and independent schools. By and large we have outstanding schools in this country, as judged by the international PISA results—although there were some concerns which showed themselves in the most recent PISA results and I have made comment on those previously. Our schools educate our children for the future. Our schools are about the future and, importantly, they have the greatest influence on our children outside that of parents. So any bill that concerns schools is an important bill. School funding bills are particularly so.
This is a good bill, by and large. I say that because it extends the existing funding arrangements for schools for another calendar year to the end of 2013. Importantly, it also extends the funding system for non-government schools—the SES or socioeconomic status system—until the end of 2013. By the end of 2013, that system will have been in place for 13 years. That system was introduced in 2001 by the Howard government, under Dr David Kemp. In 2004, Dr Nelson brought the Catholic schools into the SES system, so now all non-government schools—independent and Catholic schools—are part of that system.
The model is based primarily on providing funding to schools according to the wealth of those families that those schools serve. So the wealthiest schools receive the least money; they receive 13.7 per cent of the cost of educating students in a government school. The schools which cater for the poorest families receive the most money; they receive 70 per cent of the cost of educating a child in the government school system. The system is also based on some fundamental core principles, and I will mention two in particular. The first is the principle of school choice. This is a very important principle on this side of the House, and we will continue to uphold that principle and continue to fight for it. It is also based on the principle that every student should attract some level of funding, regardless of which school they attend. The only thing that should differentiate the level of funding which that student attracts is the wealth of the parents of students attending that particular school.
Parents under the SES system are encouraged to also contribute financially, if they choose to do so. They are not penalised for doing so. The SES system also enshrines what is called the AGSRC—the average government school recurrent costs—indexation method, which typically ticks over at about five to six to seven per cent per annum, so that school funding basically keeps up with rising school costs. These are very important attributes of the SES system. It is a good system and it is a transparent system. It is by no means perfect but it has worked very effectively now for 10 years, and with this bill it will work effectively for 13 years.
The weakness of this bill, however, is that it only extends the system for one additional year. Most school assistance bills go for four years. The 2000 to 2004 schools assistance bill went for four years; the 2005 to 2008 schools assistance bill went for four years; the 2009 to 2012 schools assistance bill went for four years. If the government were serious about the SES system—as it seems to indicate by putting this bill forward—then it should extend it for a further four years, not just for a single year. However, we know that the government is not serious about the SES system. It does not support this funding model. So, while we are happy for it to extend the system for an additional year, we fear what is planned from 2014 onwards.
We know that the government do not like this system because they have been explicit about it since the system was introduced in 2001. They have maintained a campaign against this system since 2001, and often against the non-government school sector itself over the last 10 years. I point to a number of comments from senior frontbench members of the government. I will start with Julia Gillard: she said that the system was fundamentally ‘flawed’. She said that it did not deliver on the basis of needs. She complained that it made no allowance for the private resources that a school has. Jenny Macklin, when she was Education Minister, used to rail against the SES system, day in, day out. Kevin Rudd said that he had ‘grave problems’ with the system. Craig Emerson criticised the system. Mike Kelly said that the system was ‘ridiculous’ and ‘totally crazy’. But probably the most stinging criticism came from the Hon. Stephen Smith when he was Education Minister. Stephen Smith, the dark horse in the leadership race on the other side of this House, said:
You see there the destruction of our egalitarian society. The destruction of a chance for a fair go, a fair opportunity for access to education for all Australians.
When he was Education Minister that is what he had to say about the SES system, but I presume he will be coming into this chamber to support the extension of it for a further year.
Let us look not just at what the Labor Party have said about this funding system but also at what they have done. At every election they have promised to repeal or at least review the system. At the last few elections they have promised to cut funding to non-government schools. No-one in this chamber would forget the 2004 ‘hit-list’ election when it was promised that dozens of schools would have their funding cut and hundreds of others would have their funding reduced or cut over time. They also promised to cut funding for non-government schools at the 2001 election and at the 1998 election. They have only supported this particular system for the 2009-12 quadrennium, and now for a further year, largely for political reasons: they did not want to have a fight with the non-government school sector and 1.3 million parents going into the 2007 election. Despite those stinging criticisms which I have mentioned, they continued to support it.
But what is to come? We know that they do not like the system. We know that the government is doing a review of the SES school funding system. But we also know a few other things in relation to non-government schools in particular. We know that the Labor Party has been deeply antagonistic towards Catholic and independent schools in the past. We know that their alliance partners, the Greens, are even more antagonistic towards Catholic and independent schools. The Greens committed at the last election to not providing any public funds to non-government schools. We know that some of the key funders of the Australian Labor Party, the teachers unions, have similar views to the Greens. We also know that the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, the Hon. Peter Garrett, will not guarantee that schools will not lose real funding in the future.
I believe that parents whose children attend non-government schools should be very nervous about the review that is coming up and the proposals which will be put in place following the expiration of this schools assistance amendment bill. What is more, I am concerned that subsequent to the expiration of this particular bill a model which has been tried in the past and discredited in the past will be put in place. It will most likely be a model which is based on the fees that a school collects rather than on the wealth of the parents—that is, it will assess the fees first and, if required, provide top-up funding to a school, from the public purse, to meet a defined benchmark of $12,000 or $13,000 per school. This was basically the model that existed before the SES model came into place in 2001. This detailed model was taken to the 2004 election, elements of it were taken to the 2001 election and all the indications are that a similar type of thing will be introduced from 2014 onwards if the government is still in power.
It may sound superficially attractive to take the school fees into account before you determine the public funding which a non-government school receives, but it has fundamental flaws. Most importantly, it creates a disincentive, if not a penalty, for parental investment into schools. Under such a model, if parents put more money into their school through higher fees then the government funding would be reduced. That makes no sense to me. We have also seen in the past that the system can be somewhat corrupted. That was the case with the ERI system that existed before the SES model was introduced. Importantly, this moves away from the core principle that every child should receive some government assistance for their education regardless of which school they attend or the fees and the contributions made by their parents.
In practice, if such a model is introduced, it will likely mean that many schools will have their funding cut in nominal terms and certainly in real terms. It may be in the first instance that only a couple of hundred schools will be listed to have their funding cut but, if the model that is introduced is anything like the previous models that have been introduced, over time hundreds of non-government schools with relatively modest fees will also have their funding reduced in real terms.
We will be watching very closely the school funding model that comes out of the review that is currently being undertaken by the government. We are concerned that this is being overseen by Mr Garrett; this does not inspire confidence. We are concerned that it will be negotiated in conjunction with Bob Brown, so it is likely to be even harsher on non-government schools than the Prime Minister herself would want. The proposed model would have to appease the teachers unions—the Prime Minister cannot afford to lose more support from the Left of her party or she will suffer the same fate as Mr Rudd.
We will be watching very closely in the months ahead, and parents will be very nervous. I said at the beginning that the current SES system is not perfect, but it is transparent, it is difficult to manipulate and it creates the right incentives for parental investment. I support this bill, because it extends that system for a further year, through to the end of 2013. But we will be watching very closely what the government proposes for school funding following that period, and ideally the SES funding model will continue after that time.