Programme for International Student Assessment

I thank the member for Bass for raising education in this place and keeping it on the agenda. Having been a school principal, I have a deep understanding of the ins and outs of school funding. It is fair to say that when I talk about education funding reform I am, to use the words of the Prime Minister, sticking to my knitting. On both sides of the House we are, at least on the face of it, in broad agreement that urgent reform of the education system is required—as we have just heard from our previous speakers—although I am a little puzzled that money is actually being identified as the problem.

The coalition's pre-election pledge that 'every single school in Australia will receive, dollar for dollar, the same federal funding over the next four years whether there is a Liberal or Labor government' seemed unequivocal. But it is now apparent again here today that this was just a cynical ploy by the LNP to gain power. Let us be clear: by breaking this promise on the Gonski reforms, those opposite are willingly and stupidly stealing from our nation's potential. The member for Bass makes the point that education funding has increased by 40 per cent with no apparent improvement in educational outcomes as a justification for going back on a promise. This is at best naive and at worst deliberately cherry picking stats to bend a predetermined narrative.

The most compelling figures coming from PISA are around inequity. It is the ball and chain that is holding this country back in education performance, and to say otherwise is disingenuous. The Gonski report followed intensive consultation across the education sector. It asked teachers, principals, academics, politicians, economists and private and public schools—all stakeholders had a say, and all were listened to. The Better Schools Plan that came from this report was wide-ranging and addressed the issues identified for improvement, some of which we have heard mentioned today by those opposite.

For the first time ever across Australia, state schools, Catholic schools and independent schools agreed on a way forward. The politics were removed in most states. The work was done and the way was clear. Now we see a slinking away from these commitments. Last week in Senate estimates we heard the proof of it. It was revealed that the states have clearly been released from their pre-election education funding commitments. These funding commitments were one of the structural pillars that held up the Gonski reforms. With states now free to slash their education funding, the government has reduced Gonski to ruins. In its place? The member for Bass makes the point that schools need greater autonomy, which of course was in Gonski. He might be surprised to find out that Victoria did just that under the Kennett government many years ago, and it was called Schools of the Future. Victorian schools are well down this path. It worked well for a few schools in the initial years, but it made life very difficult for many others.

The minister might want to talk to leaders and parents who lived the experience of being thrown into a competitive environment where autonomy ruled but support for schools to make the transition was minimal. He might also want to ponder what impact autonomy without support might have on equity, because there is a real danger, as was seen in the first years in Victoria, that inequity could be further embedded. Some schools had parents well equipped to take a school forward in partnership with a principal, while others did not. I might also add that, having lived this experience myself, I saw an enormous amount of money moved from classrooms to marketing campaigns in the early years, sometimes indiscriminately. He might be further surprised to find that, in a tale of two states, while Victoria travelled this road, New South Wales did not and still centrally control their schools. After 20 years, there is little or nothing between the two states in terms of educational outcomes. Giving schools greater autonomy is not the magic bullet it is claimed it to be. It will not do the work that the Gonski report set out to deliver.

Education is the cornerstone of democracy and it is the single most effective way of breaking intergenerational disadvantage. We can only conclude that this government does not want to break intergenerational disadvantage. I call on the government to honour its promise and put in place the Gonski measures, as intended by the former Labor government and all who signed up to it.

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