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Tony Abbott’s broken Gonski promises will hurt every Australian student

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 9 Jul 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:34):  The Australian Greens are pleased to endorse the majority report and recommendations of the Senate Select Committee on School Funding and we have also provided our own additional comments. Like many in the community we were outraged at the multiple policy backflips and duplicity of the current government when it came to education policy, both while in opposition and since last year's election. It is highly regrettable that the government has shown contempt for the work of the Gonski panel, which was the most comprehensive evaluation of Australia's school funding ever and provided a way forward to eroding the public-private battle and ensuring every student can receive a high-quality education in Australia.

The Australian Greens condemn the current government's disregard for a genuine needs-based, sector-blind funding model. As the Gonski review panel found, the huge disparity in measures like reading and mathematical skills between the most and least privileged students are '... the direct result of a sector-based, needs-blind funding model.' Nonetheless, education minister, Mr Pyne, has consistently denied that there is inequality in the Australian schooling system, let alone shown any willingness to address it.

The Australian Greens equally condemn this government's abandonment of the fifth and sixth years of funding. It was very clear to us as a committee that this will mean hundreds of schools across the country will never reach the schooling resource standard. In other words, thousands of Australian children will miss out on the best education this country can provide, often solely because of their family circumstances. The deplorable conclusion is that a failure to deliver the full funding amount will entrench privilege in education in Australia. It will leave so many schools, particularly government schools, below the schooling resource standard.

Although the Australian Greens were highly critical of the process the previous government went through in responding to the Gonski panel's recommendations, we were pleased to support the Australian Education Act 2013. While the act did not implement the full range of recommendations from the Gonski review of school funding, we knew it would begin to provide the framework for a better education for every Australian child.

It would begin to turn around a trend of increasing sectarianism in Australian schools whereby people's destinies are increasingly determined by their postcodes rather than their potential.

Despite the support of the Greens to work with the previous, Labor government to legislate and effectively Abbott-proof these most needed reforms, the previous, Labor government chose to pursue politics over progress. They delayed a response to the Gonski recommendations for more than 14 months and then sought to negotiate with states in the heat of an election year. This was unwise. Dr Ken Boston, a Gonski panel member, spoke of the scramble to secure an agreement to deals in which the fundamental Gonski principles became a secondary consideration. It was also exceedingly unwise of the Gillard government to ignore the Gonski panel's recommendation to establish an independent board, a national schools resourcing body to manage the negotiations with school sectors and state governments. As well, the Australian Greens are critical of the previous government's decision to so heavily backload the funding into the final two years. It is this which has enabled the coalition to cut so deeply. It is this which we predicted.

The Australian Greens believe the Gillard government must bear some of the responsibility for the fact that this once-in-a-generation chance to fix huge inequality across Australian schools may be lost because of its failures in negotiation and implementation. However, we also note the destabilising influence of the previous opposition on this issue. They shamelessly sought to discourage state Liberal governments from signing up to the Gillard government's offers and undermined the consensus built with school sectors and other stakeholders.

Ultimately, the Australian Greens acknowledge the previous government's many achievements in beginning the transition to a genuine needs based, nationwide school funding system. As a result of their work, some of the fundamental structures of Gonski are in place. The principles of the Gonski review are strong, sound and fair, and the Australian Greens have consistently lobbied for this reform and remained dedicated to putting the future of our students first-especially those who suffer educational disadvantage.

As those in this chamber hear so monotonously regularly, those on government benches like to say they are 'cleaning up Labor's mess'. If they had any intention of making this more than a meaningless mantra, they would have done so by continuing the work that was started and pursuing a nationally consistent needs based funding model. Of course, this government has no intention of fixing the inequalities inherent in Australian schooling. They have abandoned the Gonski principles because they never believed in them. The idea that money should not be able to buy privilege is something that would threaten many Coalition supporters and MPs who benefit from power and privilege. And so the government has sought to misrepresent what the Gonski reforms stand for.

Throughout this committee we have heard members of the government regularly referring to Gonski as 'throwing money at the problem'. It is, of course, no such thing. The Gonski funds were to be specifically targeted to alleviate disadvantage. The only money being thrown around is in fact the no-strings-attached money this government is shelling out to Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. That is throwing money around. Indeed, this money does not even have to be spent on students; the Northern Territory government has confirmed it will direct the money to capital works.

The school funding model of the Howard years saw increased spending going to schools in the top end of town. Of course, giving more resources to the already resource rich does not make much of a difference, and that is why we have seen a slide in performance. By contrast, Gonski funding looks at targeting the areas of greatest need to reduce the equity gap and lift educational outcomes across the country.

I was very pleased the select committee was able to hold a hearing in my home state of South Australia, where we visited two schools: the Immaculate Heart of Mary Primary School and the Darlington Primary School. Both these schools showed us how strategic and targeted funding can be used to achieve outstanding results for students-and these are students from backgrounds of educational disadvantage. Darlington Primary School, for example, has been able to significantly lift student literacy and numeracy achievements through diligent use of their National Partnerships funding. They are an example of public education where the shared values of the staff and parent community creative a welcoming, inclusive environment. It was wonderful to see the opportunity it offers its children, many of whom are from Aboriginal, new arrival and lower-SES backgrounds.

The committee also received hundreds of submissions from schools all across the country, and we congratulate the Australian Education Union for coordinating these submissions as well as for their ongoing advocacy for a more equitable school funding system. These submissions spelled out how schools would use the extra money to help disadvantaged students in their school-from hiring specialist literacy and numeracy teachers to programs to improve student wellbeing. Education minister Christopher Pyne should read these submissions closely if he truly wants to understand what the coalition's cuts will mean for individual students.

I would like to thank all the organisations and individuals who made submissions to the committee and particularly those who gave up their time to attend hearings and give evidence to the committee. I also wish to place on record my thanks to the secretariat for the huge amount of work they have put into this inquiry with the range of witnesses, the extensive travel, the number of additional submissions and the sheer volume of figures and data to be analysed and compiled in the report. It is a very thorough, large and complex report. It is, indeed, one of the more complex inquiries I have been involved with, and I believe the quality of this report reflects the dedication and support the secretariat has provided us.

In conclusion, the Australian Greens cannot strongly enough express our disappointment about the coalition's intention to perpetuate inequality and entrench privilege in education by abandoning the Gonski reforms. The Australian Greens believe every Australian child should to have access to high-quality and affordable education no matter what their background. The public education system is the only guarantee of this right because it is the only system which is guaranteed to be open to every child irrespective of the wealth, background or sexuality of the child or their parents, yet it is under serious threat from the policies of the Abbott government. As such, the Australian Greens are pleased to endorse the majority report and recommendations of the committee: primarily that the Abbott government reinstate the full funding scheme and deliver on its election promises to be on a unity ticket. We commit to continued advocacy for a more equitable funding arrangement.(Time expired)

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