Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

Australian Education Amendment Bill 2014

I rise today relishing the opportunity to speak from an informed position on education but a little wearily, having to speak on yet another amendment bill. This Australian Education Amendment Bill is making changes at the edges of current legislation, changes that are acceptable and necessary when you are working at the edges without a view to deep reform. In fact, most bills introduced into the parliament during my time here have been amendment bills—not new nor progressive, innovative and forward-looking pieces of legislation but amendment bills; bills that either implement cuts, tinker at the edges like this one and delay programs, rather than drive the reform needed to improve educational outcomes for students across our diverse communities.

The bill has three components—all of which, under the circumstances, I and Labor support. First, the bill establishes a mechanism to allow the minister to make payments to schools for a reason prescribed by regulation. The government has announced that this will facilitate the payment of around $6.8 million in support to boarding schools in 2014-15. This will assist schools with more than 50 Indigenous boarders from remote communities or where more than 50 per cent of boarders are Indigenous and come from remote communities. We, of course, support this measure. We know that this is just one of many steps that the government must take to close the gap in school education for Indigenous children.

This bill also changes the funding transition rules for independent special schools so that their funding is not worse off from next year. Finally, it seeks to delay by at least a year the implementation of school improvement plans.

The amendments we debate today to ensure funding for Indigenous students and students with a disability would not be necessary if the findings of the Gonski review were being implemented as promised by this government. This government inherited a national agenda, an expectant school sector. The work had been done. There was consensus. The country was reform ready.    All sectors were on board.

The detailed research and consultation processes across the country that created the much-needed reforms that would ensure equity across our schools through the student loadings were delivered by Labor. In it were six additional funding loadings: one for small schools,    one for remote schools, one for Indigenous students, one for students with low English, one for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and, importantly, one for students with disability.

That is why this bill is such a disappointment. It highlights this government's failure to deliver on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the Gonski review represented. What this bill highlights is that the expectation and readiness for a national approach to education is being unpicked one layer at a time. And in doing so, this government and this minister are breaking solemn promises made before the election to all school sectors and all states. Minister Pyne said, 'You can vote Labor or Liberal and you'll get exactly the same funding for your school dollar for dollar.' The Prime Minister said he was on a unity ticket on school funding. Now, the Minister for Education suggests that education is not the federal government's business, that the SES model was working well. Despite the review finding that more investment was needed, the minister said that 'schools are awash with money'. Clearly, what the Gonski review found was that it was not serving this country and our students well.

It is the federal government's business because we cannot improve learning and outcomes across the country with a piecemeal, often ill-informed and a state-by-state, sector-by-sector funding approach. The case of the students with disability highlights why we need a national approach. Definitions of the disabilities that attract extra support vary significantly across the different states and territories, and so does the average level of support which is delivered in those jurisdictions. There are ranges from $4,000 to $40,000 per student. The Gonski review highlighted this and the previous government acknowledged that further work needed to be done before this could be addressed nationally.

Labor funded the More Support for Students with Disabilities program to the tune of $100 million a year to make sure that those students who need the most assistance got the assistance that they needed, and to allow time for data collection and further collaboration with the states and school systems on disability funding to ensure that the final loading would give students the resources they needed with the planned implementation of the loading for 2015. Now, this bill confirms that this will not happen and we are rushing through an amendment to make up for the fact that the work has not been done.

The variations reflected across the states and between the sectors in the disability area are similarly reflected in other areas of resourcing. Victoria is a case in point. It has long used a needs-based funding model while other states did not, nor did the private sector. Victoria decentralised and enshrined school autonomy over 15 years ago while other states did not. The state-by-state difference is the reason we need a national approach to improve student outcomes in every school in this country. This government was left with not just the findings of the review but plans for implementation, and sector and state agreements in principle. The hard work had been done. The research supported the need and provided many of the answers, beginning with a model that focused on student need and provided the resources at the school level to minimise inequity and drive improvement.

The bill before us for debate today highlights this government's and this minister's lack of understanding. He should be embarrassed to bring this bill before us. If he understood the urgency on the ground, if he understood the link between education and endeavour, between a skilled community and an innovative future, and between equity and outcomes, he would be embarrassed. But I fear he does not understand these things.

In Victoria, indeed probably in most states, school improvement plans have been a feature for years. A positive outcome of the Gonski funding review was to ensure that school improvement plans were a feature in all schools. Schools take their role seriously and welcome the ability to show improvement—the schools I know in Victoria do. They love to show how additional funding has been utilised, to reflect and review current practice and to plan next steps. That is what a school improvement plan delivers. Putting off school improvements plans for another 12 months just stalls our progress.

This bill does not innovate; it seeks to delay the introduction of school improvement plans. What could more markedly demonstrate this government's lack of passion when it comes to school improvement? I cannot remember a time when we had a less interested education minister. Where are the major education speeches by this minister? Where do you see him seriously engaging with teachers, principals, parents, carers or indeed school children? When do you see him meeting with international experts or key education researchers? Where is his vision for the future of our students? I would accept a minister driving education change based on strong-held beliefs, based on quality research and deep discussion with the industry. However, I regard this tinkering at the edges approach as an insult to the educators and it must be a real disappointment to parents. Those I feel most for are the students.

The minister's record to date is poor. Indeed, as a former teacher I would probably mark him—unlike the Prime Minister—with an 'F' for fail. His report home would read, 'Must try harder and stop obstructing the class. We assume he is bright; he talks all the time!' Minister Pyne's record to date has been to cut the fifth and sixth year of the Gonski funding; to cut $80 million from schools and hospitals over the next decade in partnership with the Minister for Health; to lock school funding increases to CPI from 2018, meaning that instead of a 5.1 per cent increase per annum it will drop to 2.5 per cent; and he has reverted to throwing crumbs in program plans for schools to scurry after, rather than delivering the nationwide promise that was Gonski.

What I hear on the ground from my former education colleagues in Victoria paints a very depressing picture. When I ask principals about their budgets for next year I hear about a lack of transparency. I hear that there is no acknowledgement of an increase in funding, that there is no evidence of the loading based model that was supposed to be in place. Premier Nap   thine and Victorian Education Minister Dixon seem to be deliberately keeping schools in the dark. Funding allocations for next year are presented in an obscure and confusing way, making it very difficult for schools to determine if they are receiving the Gonski money as promised. TheAge reported on the weekend Minister Pyne saying that 'Commonwealth funding for the 2014 to 2017 funding period it is settled', while Victorian officials claim they cannot release details under FOl because 'they relate to ongoing negotiations between the Commonwealth and Victoria'. I worked in education for a long time. I have seen a lot of federal and state ministers for education come and go but I have never seen an education minister shy about spruiking funding. It is usually done with great fanfare and bold number headlines. That is not what is happening in Victoria with Minister Dixon.

In conclusion I will support this amendment bill because I would not see a student in this country go unsupported. I would conclude, however, with a final observation. This amendment bill is indicative of this minister's agenda to wind back the Gonski reforms, to prevent the equity-driven reform he inherited. This minister seeks to break the cross-sectoral consensus on a fairer and more effective way to fund schools—a consensus hard won and hard fought, unknown in this country, where all sectors are united behind improving our schools and the way to do that. He seeks to wind back the clock to the Howard years of dissent and argument. I offer, as a case in point, the latest review of the curriculum.

I say as a former teacher in this place that this obsession with politicians about the what of curriculum over the how is breathtaking. An article this week in The Conversation by Misty Adoniou is at pains to explain how teachers plan and how to tear the national curriculum apart, to put content on one side and then say that general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities should be cut because the curriculum is cluttered is a complete misunderstanding of the way classrooms operate and the way teachers, as professionals, pan for education. I recommend that those in this House read this work. We did not need a review of the national curriculum; we needed the national curriculum to be worked on in classrooms and to have professionals give feedback on it.

As a previous educator, this minister has disappointed me in that he seeks to perpetuate privilege and to undermine equity and improvement. I would in this place use this opportunity to call on those concerned with education, on those who work in any of the sectors across our country to resist the temptation to divide and fight over the crumbs being offered to us by this government and to continue to speak with one voice to continue to demand what was promised.


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