SUBJECTS: Back to School; School funding; Literacy and Learning Tutoring Programs; Opus Dei Schools; Chinese students studying in Australia.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: This week millions of students head back to school. There’ll be lots of excited students and lots of happy and relieved parents, including me. Let's hope that this year we don't have more of the chaos of COVID, of home schooling and schools having to hand out RAT tests.
We've got plenty of challenges in education. One of them is the continuing fallout of COVID. We saw that last year with a big drop in attendance rates. You only have to talk to principals or teachers to know that the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns is still with us. And that's one of the reasons why this year we're going to roll out more than $200 million in a wellbeing boost to help students right across the country to bounce back from the impact of COVID. That'll mean, on average, about 20 grand to each and every school across the country to spend on things like psychologists or counsellors or school excursions or school camps - the sorts of practical things that we know make a big difference to student wellbeing.
School attendance, as I said, is a massive issue, and this isn't something that was just hit by COVID. There's evidence that school attendance rates have been dropping now for 10 years, and we see it amongst boys and girls; we see it in every year from kindergarten right through to the end of school; and we see it in every State and every Territory. When I've asked for advice about why this is happening, all I get is crickets, and that's why I've said that I want this on the agenda for the next meeting of Education Ministers that happens next month.
There’s another big challenge, too, and that's the shortage of school teachers across Australia. This is a crisis that has got progressively worse over the last 10 years. That's why, last year, I focused fairly and squarely on this issue and developing a national teacher workforce plan. That involved consultation with teachers and principals and other education experts and working hand in glove with Education Ministers across the country, and we signed off on a national teacher workforce plan late last year. This year is all about implementing that and starting to turn this around. We can't do it overnight. It's not going to happen in an instant, but we've got to turn it around because there's nothing more important in education than a great teacher in a classroom, and that's why this will be top of the agenda for Education ministers now and for many years to come.
And then, finally, it's about making sure that where children fall behind that they catch up. We got a Productivity Commission report that came out two weeks ago that was brutal in its assessment of the former Liberal government's education plan. What it showed is that if you're are child from a poor background or you're from the bush or you're an Aboriginal Australian, then you're three times more likely to fall behind. We've seen improvements in literacy and in numeracy at primary school over the last decade, but we're seeing the gap growing in the education of children from poor backgrounds and children from wealthy backgrounds. I don't want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on how rich your parents are or where you grow up or the colour of your skin, and that's why this will be a top priority for me this year.
Happy to take some questions.
JOURNALIST: What do you hope to achieve by renegotiating the Federal and State funding arrangements for schools?
CLARE: Two things. One, we want to make sure that 100 per cent of schools are 100 per cent funded; and, secondly, we want to make sure that that funding is tied to the things that will really make a difference to children who are falling behind. I spoke about that just a moment ago. Funding's important, but so is what it's spent on: making sure that it's spent on the things that are going to make a real difference.
Today, Grattan’s put out a report talking about literacy and numeracy tutoring programs. Getting children out of the classroom who are falling behind and providing them with extra support to catch up. The Productivity Commission recommended that two weeks ago as well. That strikes me as a pretty good, sensible example of what can and should be done to help children that are falling behind. I made a commitment - all Education ministers made a commitment at the end of last year - to establish an expert panel to work on what additional funding should be spent on, and in the next few weeks I'll announce the composition of that panel and their terms of reference. That's the sort of thing I want them to have a deep dive on and a good look at.
JOURNALIST: And given that the SRS funding isn't at 100 per cent, are you willing to make up the shortfall there?
CLARE: We committed before the election, and stand by it now, that we’ll work with the States and the Territories to get all schools to 100 per cent funding. I really welcome what Chris Minns has announced today. This is what I've been talking about now for months: funding for the schools that need it and funding spent on the things that are going to make a difference to children who really, really need it. So, I am glad that he's made that announcement, and Labor at a Federal level stands ready to work with the State and Territory governments to make sure that we get all schools to that funding level. The big challenge for us is which level of government contributes what and over what period of time. What we know is this; at the moment, non-government schools are funded above the SRS. They go back down to 100 per cent of that at the end of this decade. On current trajectory, government schools will top out at 95 per cent around the end of the decade. In some States, it's around about 2027 and in some States it’s later, but there's a gap. The question is, who funds it and what's it invested in? And I'm committed to working with Education Ministers right across the country to make sure that we get all schools to their 100 per cent level of fair funding - but spent on the things that make a difference.
JOURNALIST: And just your response to the allegations that we've had some Sydney Opus Dei aligned schools like Tangara that have been teaching misinformation to students, especially given the amount of Commonwealth funding that goes to these schools.
CLARE: These are serious allegations, and I welcome the decision to refer this to the New South Wales Education Standards Authority.
JOURNALIST: And the ban on Chinese students studying at foreign institutions online, what are we expecting those flow-on effects will be for Australian universities?
CLARE: It is good that Chinese students are coming back. I understand the Chinese Government has made a further statement overnight with some more flexibility for students returning to Australia and other nations. This creates challenges with getting on flights, getting visas, getting accommodation, but my Department, the Department of Education, is meeting with the Department of Home Affairs this afternoon to make sure that we're putting in place all the measures that we can to assist with visa processing.
Great. Thanks very much, everyone.