TUESDAY, 27 JUNE 2023
SUBJECTS: A better and fairer education system; School funding
JOE HILDEBRAND: Welcome back to Afternoons. One of the things that I am extremely passionate about is education. I think it is the most important thing in any society. It is basically the linchpin by which everything else flows. It is the trigger for economic productivity, economic growth for people getting jobs, getting off welfare, for people having happy and healthy lives, and again, it reaches into every single facet of life.
Studies have shown that, you know, even just early learning, you go to pre-school, you hear a certain number of words when you’re a toddler even, and that can have massive impact on your whole life’s trajectory. It can have an impact on whether you’re more likely to have a high-paying job, less likely to go to jail, less likely to be on welfare benefits, more likely to be healthy. It’s an incredible – it’s honestly as close to a magic bullet as we’re got.
And so when I picked up The Daily Telegraph this morning and saw that there were schools in Sydney, and one in particular, that receive more than half a billion dollars from their donors, and yet they’re still getting tax payout funding on top of that, I just thought, “Well, hang on a minute, that just doesn’t make sense.” We’ve got ‑ and everyone knows, everyone who’s listening knows that public schools, probably in their area, are starved of funds, they never have enough, parents are being asked to kick in for special activities all the time, there are fundraisers going on all the time run by the P&C, and I’ve been to plenty myself, and at the same time we’re giving millions of dollars of your money and my money to a school that’s already raking in hundreds of millions of dollars ‑ and good on them, good luck to them ‑ from their own school communities, and that just does not pass the sniff test as far as I’m concerned, and it is something that an increasing number of people are saying we simply must fix.
Clearly, the system, the formula that has produced this result is broken, and the man who’s charged with fixing it joins me on the line right now. Education Minister, Jason Clare, welcome to Afternoons. How are you?
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: G’day Joe, I’m fantastic. How are you, mate?
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, mate, I’m really, really good, and I know you’ve been, and we’ve worked together in the past on, you know, trying to reform the school system and making sure that it’s fit for purpose and that it is addressing the areas of greatest need. But your blood must boil when you see these sorts of results coming out from the fairly complex Federal and State school funding system. I mean this is clearly a perverse result where you’ve got a school like Knox Grammar that’s getting half a billion dollars from private donors, and yet still getting taxpayer funding over the top of that?
CLARE: Like you, mate, I’m a proud product of public education. I think you went to Dandenong High, didn’t you?
HILDEBRAND: I did indeed, yeah.
CLARE: Yeah, and I went to Canley Vale.
HILDEBRAND: You went to Canley Vale, that’s right, yeah.
CLARE: Indeed. Non-Government schools across the board ‑ not all of them, but almost all of them – are funded above the level that David Gonski recommended years ago, but they’re on a trajectory down to get to 100 per cent of what David Gonski recommended by the end of this decade. The real problem here is that no public school is.
HILDEBRAND: Yes, it’s incredible.
CLARE: Except for the ACT, no public school is. I think in New South Wales with the extra investment that Chris Minns announced before the election and has repeated after the election, they’ll get to about 95 per cent of what that should be by 2025; Queensland a bit later and Victoria a bit later; Northern Territory not until the middle of this century. And so, there’s a funding gap that needs to be fixed there for public schools, but not just funding, but reforms that need to be tied to that to make sure that we fix some of the big problems you just spoke about in your intro.
HILDEBRAND: It is extraordinary, and one of the sentences, and I encourage anyone to read The Daily Telegraph article, because one of the sentences that will blow your mind is a quote from you saying, “We are going to reduce the amount that private schools get to 100 per cent.” Like the idea that you would reduce their entitlement to 100 per cent. But that is what has happened because the formula has been so manipulated. Why is it that private schools, and again there are a lot of really great, low-fee private schools, especially in the Catholic school system that make sure that everyone gets an education, whatever they can afford, and they certainly deserve Government assistance. But what is it that has enabled private schools to get more than they are supposed to get under the formula that Gonski himself put to the Government? Was it this political fear that they had to say, “Well, no school will be worse off” or is there something more perverse going on?
CLARE: Maybe if I explain the formula, Joe, because it is a bit complicated. But basically, what David said is there’s a certain amount of money that’s needed for each and every student, depending upon whether or not you’re in primary school or high school, and at the moment it’s about $13,000 for a child at primary school and about $16,000 for a child at high school, and what David’s formula says is, if that child has a disability, for example, or if they live in the bush, in a more remote part of Australia, then you put on a loading, you put on an extra investment to help that child, and the same operates in reverse. In you’re at a school where ‑ a non‑Government school, like Knox that we’re talking about here at the moment, where the average income of the parents is very, very high, then they take that into account with something called a “capacity to contribute” and they lower the amount of money that Governments provide.
So what that means in practice is that for the average student at the average school, full funding means $16,000 per student at high school; at Knox, it means $3,000. So, most of the money that Knox drags in is not Government money, it’s fees, it’s investments, it’s all the rest of that.
HILDEBRAND: But why does Knox ‑ why does a school like Knox ‑ and again, I don’t want to declare a class war or anything, and that’s certainly not my style, or yours, but why does a school like Knox that clearly has more than enough capacity to pay for all of its students’ educational needs, why does it get any Government funding at all?
CLARE: The honest answer to that, Joe, is the formula that was set up by David and that 20 per cent baseline on capacity to contribute. Wherever Government money is invested in a school like Knox, I think what’s important is that taxpayers know what the money gets spent on; that there’s a bit more transparency than we’ve seen over the course of the last few years. I’m thinking of King’s, for example, where they wanted to put a plunge pool in for the principal, and that was the third pool that the school was going to get ‑‑
HILDEBRAND: It’s extraordinary, yeah.
CLARE: ‑‑ that doesn’t pass the pub test. We don’t have enough information as a Commonwealth Government on where taxpayers’ money goes to when it’s invested in schools, whether it’s Government or non‑Government, and I want this money to glow in the dark, I want taxpayers to be able to see what the money gets spent on.
And so the review that we announced a couple of months ago, which is about; one, making sure that we do properly fund public schools once and for all and that we use that money on the sorts of things that will help kids to catch up who fall behind at primary school and help more kids finish high school, that review is also looking at how do we make sure that money glows in the dark.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, absolutely. And obviously, the most important thing is that public schools are fully funded and adequately funded, we don’t just want to make a scapegoat out of Knox. But again, I can’t understand how a school that charges fees of up to $36,000 per student, which is already multiple times what the Gonski formula says is needed for even the most disadvantaged regional student, so they’re already charging those fees, so surely that cost is covered, and surely, therefore, there has to be some kind of, I suppose, institutional means test for who actually gets this money. And again, I would love to ‑ I want to see the money go to, you know, low-fee paying Catholic schools so that, you know, Catholic people, or people for whom, you know, faith is important, Muslim schools, Jewish schools, whatever it may be, can go to a school that supports their faith and their believes. But that is not this, is it?
CLARE: No. And what you’re talking about here is a school which is, you know, a sort of 0.01 per cent of non‑Government schools. Just before I was on air, I was up the road from my office at St Felix Primary School in Bankstown. You’re talking there about a low‑fee-paying Catholic school, I think the fees are about two grand.
CLARE: My wife went there, fantastic school. It’s changed a lot since she was there, but still delivering a fantastic education. So, you’re talking about something pretty different.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, exactly.
CLARE: But I don’t want us to forget about our public schools. They’re not fully funded at the moment, we need to fix that funding gap, but we also need to fix this: over the last six years we’re seeing fewer kids finish high school than there were six years ago, and in particular, the kids that aren’t finishing high school at the rate now that they were six years ago are kids in public schools.
HILDEBRAND: Exactly right.
CLARE: The percentage of young people in public schools finishing high school has dropped from 83 per cent, six years ago, down to 76 per cent, and we’re talking about a world now where it’s more important to finish school than it was when you were at Dandenong, or I was at Canley Vale High.
HILDEBRAND: Yes, absolutely.
CLARE: This is your ticket to the show, almost every job requires you to finish school and then go on to university, and if statistics like this don’t tell you that serious reform is needed, I don’t know what does. The funding gap is billions of dollars, and we need to make sure that taxpayer money, once it’s invested, is invested in a way that’s going to help kids at primary schools to catch up who fall behind, and there’s plenty of them, and make sure that more young people from public schools are finishing high school, because if they don’t, then it’s going to affect their life, the life of their kids, the communities they live in, and as you said at the start of this interview, this is the key to making sure that we’ve got the skills we need so that we’re a prosperous country in the future.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, absolutely. And just getting back to that formula and how it managed to get so skewed, what sort of impact, once you get the private school ‑ and again it makes your blood boil to even think that it’s been allowed to get to this point ‑ but once you get the private schools down to 100 per cent of what they’re entitled to instead of getting more, and get the public schools up to what they should have been getting all along, how are you able to readjust that formula and make sure that that integrity is there, and what sort of ‑ I mean you mentioned there was a gap in some billions of dollars ‑‑
HILDEBRAND: ‑‑ that will all come, I hope, from the upper end of the sort of elite private school allocation and go to the public schools, is that right?
CLARE: No what we’re working on at the moment is, number one, the review led by Dr Lisa O’Brien on what the money should be spent on, but next year there will be negotiations between myself and Education Ministers around the country about who contributes what to fund this, and how we do it.
We’ve got most non‑Government schools on a trajectory down to 100 per cent of what David recommended by the end of this decade, but as I said, no public school is at the moment. We want to see all schools funded at the right level, and we want to make sure that money is spent in the right way, so taxpayers get value for money and our kids get a great education.
HILDEBRAND: So what you’re saving from bringing down the allocation to non-government schools isn’t going to be enough to make up the gap that ‑‑
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, it’s extraordinary, isn’t it?
CLARE: You’re talking about more funding than that.
HILDEBRAND: And again, and you know, I don’t want to pick on Knox or Trinity or The King’s School or Cranbrook or anything that are getting taxpayer funding, but I just think of some of the schools in, you know, in your/our neck of the woods in Western ‑ South West Sydney, I went to Granville Boys High where they just had an incredibly transformative principal who was just ‑ honestly just ‑ it’d make you weep almost, he did it all with El Jannah Chicken too, and you know, Punchbowl where your friend and mine Jihad Dib just turned the place around from, you know, again literally a no‑go zone, a place that in his own words looked more like a prison to a place of excellence where kids were proud to go.
You see schools like that which are literally, you know, I mean Jihad Dib was getting stuff done at Punchbowl High with [indistinct], he was getting people to, you know, he was getting the local soccer club to mow the oval in exchange for being able to use it on weekends.
You think about what a sum like $12 million could do for some of those schools and the whole transformative effect it would have, whereas for Knox, it’s just, you know, it is, it’s just another plunge pool, or it’s just another, you know ‑ I mean Knox, it takes about 15 minutes to drive past the joint. They’re not, you know, they’re not struggling for a dollar, I guess, and I still can’t get my head around why any ‑ why there is not a threshold at which the taxpayer assistance just stops.
CLARE: Joe, I was down the South Coast near Nowra a couple of weeks ago, visited a local high school there, and they took me into the woodwork room, and I thought I’d been transported back in time to the 1980s. This looked like a classroom that I was in at Canley Vale High, and I’m pretty sure Canley Vale High is better than that now, but you’re right, there are public schools around the country where you don’t see anywhere near the investment or the support that you’ll see at a school like Knox or Cranbrook or King’s; that’s exactly right.
My job is to make sure that working with fantastic people like Prue Car and Chris Minns, and Premiers and Education Ministers across the country, that we help to fix that, that we fix this funding gap, but even more importantly we fix this education gap, because at the moment if you’re a child from the western suburbs of Sydney, and you’re from a poor family where Mum and Dad never finished school, then you’re more likely to be falling behind at primary school, yourself, and not finish school either. And at a time when that’s more important than ever before, if we don’t fix this, then it’s bad for them, but it’s bad for our whole country.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, absolutely. Look, I’ll let you go and get on with that job. More strength to your arm. And thanks so much for joining us on Afternoons.
CLARE: Good on you. Thanks mate.