National Catholic Education Commission Dinner Forum

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Could I first say, I bring the sincere apologies from the Education Minister Christopher Pyne. He has a number of very serious Cabinet commitments this evening, but I know he wishes he was able to join us.

The dialogue between parliamentarians and yourselves about the future of Catholic school education is a critical part of our unique education system.

But it’s also a two way process. It’s not just us talking to you, it’s much more important we hear from you.

The Coalition values the Catholic education system, both the education it provides but also for the moral and spiritual support that underpins much of Catholic education.

In a society that sometimes seems to lack that moral compass, the value of this blend of education values cannot be underestimated as a benefit to our society.

The story of Catholic education in Australia is an extraordinary one. It’s a record of equipping the nation with people who participate effectively as parents and citizens in our community, and across all aspects of academic, professional, commercial and civic life.

It’s not just made up of staff. It’s the sacrifice of parents and community leaders. I referred to this in my maiden speech, as my mother has just retired after over 40 years as a Catholic primary school teacher.

The Coalition has long recognised this.

The first funding as we all know, and as the Minister has pointed out recently, came from Sir Robert Menzies for school science laboratories, which was itself the first comprehensive step of federal funding for non-government schools.

One of the more important elements of this to me, is that this was the first step to ending one of the biggest scars in Australian society, which was one of sectarianism.

Catholic schooling in Australia is enormous with 1700 schools and with an enrolment of more than 700,000 students – and might I add growing fast – along with 78,000 employees and countless volunteers.

Yet the current environment provides its own ongoing challenges. In this sense, education policy cannot be framed as necessarily disconnected from a wider socio-economic environment.

It’s important for us to point out that we’ve inherited a budget situation that makes new investment in education more difficult than ever. We have total deficits over the coming years predicted to be over $123 billion, which is many multiples of what was predicted only months ago.

We live in an increasingly globalised world - we must compete and perform better to stay ahead. We have a great record of genuine reform and managing economic and social change and education is frontline in this.

The government’s education priorities are no secret. They were clearly and unambiguously announced by the Minister when he was Shadow Minister and our education platform has been regularly restated since.

First, it is about restoring stability and certainty back into the funding system from the chaos, sometimes threats and bazaar-like politically driven bargaining processes and unrealistic expectations that occurred previously.

Hence, the implementation of our election promise of providing stable funding for the next four years – 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and maintaining the amount as originally promised.

The Abbott Coalition Government is providing $2.8 billion of additional funding to schools over four years beginning in 2014, after reinstating the $1.2 billion funding removed by the previous government. Total Commonwealth funding of schools is estimated to be $62 billion over the next four calendar years.

In short, the Coalition Government is:

• Providing  75% more in additional funding to schools compared to the previous government ($2.8 billion versus $1.6 billion)
• Increasing Commonwealth funding for government schools on average by over 10% per student per year, over the four coming years
• And increasing Commonwealth funding for non-government school students on average by over 5% a year over the same period.

Second, to ensure the funding system is working, we will soon begin to review, as was originally envisaged under the current system, indexation arrangements and other loadings. The states and other non-government groups and the Catholic sector will be consulted. We’re committed to ensuring your views count.

Third, as also promised, these reviews along with this government’s repair to the Commonwealth’s budget, will feed into the future education funding arrangements for the next four years beginning in 2018.

Fourth, the education debate and hence education policy in Australia needs a shift from its current obsession about funding and complex funding models that few understand, to focus on what should be the prime driver for education – quality.

Quality education best promotes our economic wellbeing, effective citizens, individual confidence and self-esteem and most effectively tackles disadvantage.

In this, I’m not saying funding is not important but the facts are that between 2000-2009 spending on all schools in Australia increased in real terms by 44% and in the decade up to 2012 increased by 39% in real terms and has continued to increase. Australian spending on education is above the OECD average. During the same period class sizes have been reduced by an average of 40%.

Yet the latest PISA results show a continuing decline in Australia’s student performance relative to other countries across mathematics, reading and scientific literacy;

Neither in Australia nor in OECD countries has increased spending been matched by better student outcomes.

To achieve quality, we need to act on the overwhelming Australian and international evidence and practice evidence of what works.

It is not funding alone but where and how it is spent that counts.

As we have stated in our four pillars of our Students First policy that stress;
o Developing quality teaching
o Promoting school principal autonomy
o Engaging parents more actively in education
o Ensuring there is a rigorous and relevant curriculum

As part of these measures the Minister has initiated reviews of the national curriculum and teacher education, launched the Independent Public Schools programme, and will be making changes to the current Australian Education Act to reflect our policy goals and reduce its ‘command and control’ elements.

Fifth, and perhaps the most important long-term goal of this Federal Government is to establish the right policy framework that achieves the following four outcomes:

• That reflects more appropriately the Commonwealth’s Constitutional powers and responsibilities as well as competence in education, the role of the states and Australia’s unique system with public and non-government providers;
• That appreciates the realities of the nation’s financial capacities;
• That promotes coherence so that interdependencies in policy, are understood and new initiatives are sequenced appropriately to ensure minimal administrative burden and maximum impact;
• And finally, that really act on the evidence of what works to improve education performance, putting students first rather than that of vested interest groups, and establishes an ongoing process of genuine reform.

Our aim and the aim of the Minister personally, is a quality education for all Australian students. It will take time but the Coalition is here for the long haul. There will be more announcements over the term of this government as the aforementioned education reviews report, as the National Commission of Audit findings are released and our budget situation clarified.

Our policy responses over the term of this government will be rolled out systematically, based on clear principles and made in consultation with all providers of education, including the Catholic sector.

The Catholic education sector is a vital partner in achieving these goals. I look to this sector for ideas, for advice and for support.

If I could add my own personal experience, being a product of 13 years of Catholic education, my mother having taught in the same school which now hasn’t had a member of my family at the school for the first time in 40 or so years.

I understand what makes the system so strong, aren’t necessarily things in the budget. It’s the volunteers, and bringing communities together.

We were talking earlier tonight that the most undervalued aspect in this debate is the social capital that your schools create.

Being new to this portfolio, one of the things which I’ve reflected on over the last six months, is that I see some of the same old arguments and prejudices against choice and non-government education.

There are some that see diversity as a threat to some sort of desired solidarity. Can I give you this commitment; the Coalition does not.

Excellence and quality are not a threat to equity – they are a step towards it. And this government is committed to diversity and choice and ensuring all students benefit form the best education.

Our commitment to choice, if I might use a phrase, is a tenet of our education policy faith.

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