Television Interview with Greg Jennett – ABC Afternoon Briefing – Wednesday 13 March 2024


SUBJECTS: Building a better and fairer education system; Northern Territory public school funding; Universities Accord Report.

GREG JENNETT: Now, back home, the Northern Territory has become the second of two jurisdictions to strike a deal on the renewal of lucrative school funding packages. Western Australia, you might remember, was the first. In the Territory’s case, the billion-dollar arrangement is especially noteworthy because it tries to wipe out funding disadvantage in only four years. Education Minister Jason Clare still has plenty of negotiating left with all the other states though. He too was in Darwin for today’s Cabinet meeting.

Jason Clare, welcome back to the program. This is a major commitment that you’ve made to Northern Territory public schools there in Darwin today, bringing them to 100 per cent of their needs funding. Of course, the Northern Territory starts very much at the back of the pack here nationally, doesn’t it? You’ve got Western Australia on a deal to 100 per cent in a year or so, Northern Territory in four. The question is, are you being too ambitious in playing catch up here for the Northern Territory?

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: I don’t want to leave one State or one Territory behind. I want to make sure that we fund all our public schools properly. This has taken a long time and the investments that we make in our public schools, if we target it in the right area, are critical to making sure that kids catch up when they fall behind, that they keep up and that they finish school and then go on to TAFE or university. And I want to make sure that’s as true here in the Northern Territory as it is in any other part of the country.

At the moment in the Northern Territory, the schools are only funded at about 74 per cent of the level that David Gonski said that they should be. That’s way behind all other States and I don’t want to leave them behind. That’s why I say this is a big day for the Territory and it’s a landmark day for public education in Australia. A billion-dollar investment, $700-odd million by the Commonwealth and more than $300 million by the Northern Territory Government to make sure that we get all schools, all public schools in the territory to that Gonski level, that full and fair funding level. And we’re bringing it forward. It involves doubling the amount of funding that the Commonwealth puts in from 20 per cent to 40 per cent. But it’s also bringing forward that day where schools are fully funded in the Territory by more than 20 years.

JENNETT: It is a lot of money, but it’s also only as good as the local Education Department’s ability to spend it. And the NT is unique in so many different ways. Getting teachers is going to be critical to this. Can any of the money, will any of the money be used for special incentives and allowances to overcome the first problem, which is actually a shortage of teachers, especially in remote areas?

CLARE: You’re right. There’s nothing more important than a teacher in a classroom, and we don’t have enough of them right around the country, but particularly in the NT. We want this money tied to the sort of things that are going to help kids who fall behind to catch up in the classroom. So, things like small group tutoring, but also investments that are going to help our teachers, give them the resources and the support that they need, and also investments in things like mental health that support kids to make sure that they’re going to school, but also to make sure that they’re keeping up at school.

The Northern Territory is different to any other part of the country. There’s more disadvantage here than any other part of the country. The challenges here, mate, are about three times as big as anywhere else in the country. NAPLAN started this week. If you look at the NAPLAN data, about one in ten kids across the country are below the minimum standard that NAPLAN sets. It’s one in three here in the Northern Territory. So, the challenge is three times as big. And the cost to properly fund a child’s education here in the Territory are almost twice as big as they are across the rest of the country.

Let me explain that because I think it’s important to understand how the Gonski funding model works. There’s a base level of funding for each child and then there’s extra funding for children based on their level of disadvantage. So, the average amount of money that should go to a child in a school across the country is about $21,000. But in the Northern Territory, because there’s so much chronic disadvantage, it’s about $36,000. So, the problems are bigger, the funding need is bigger, and that’s why the Commonwealth needs to take this extra step.

JENNETT: All right, now that makes sense. Even if you succeed on the provision of teachers, there are still those other embedded disadvantages that come with extremely low attendance rates, particularly in Aboriginal communities and among Aboriginal students. So, how does this package address that?

CLARE: That’s a good point. You can’t fix everything in the classroom. Kids often bring a lot more to school than just their lunch, if they’re bringing lunch. It’s all the challenges of intergenerational unemployment. It can be even more extreme than that, where a child is not sleeping with a roof over their head, or they’re crammed into a house with about three or four other families. And so the announcement that the PM made yesterday, that $4 billion investment in extra housing in the Territory is a key part of that. So is the work that we have to do in health and in making sure that there are good jobs here in the Territory. It’s all interconnected, but I don’t want that to take away from how important it is to fund our schools properly and have the resources in the right places. So, when kids fall behind when they’re little, they’re identified, and you’ve got the early intervention to make sure that they catch up.

I mentioned a minute ago that one in three kids here in the Territory fall behind when they’re little. Only one in five catch up by the time they’re in Year 9. And only one in 17 Indigenous kids who fall behind when they’re little have caught up by the time that they’re in the middle of high school.

It explains why kids aren’t finishing high school at the rates that we need them to and why, in fact, in some parts of the country, in some schools, particularly public schools, we’re seeing the rate of people finishing high school going backwards, going down over the last six or seven years. We need to turn that around.

JENNETT: Yep well, there are, as you say, peculiarities about the Northern Territory as a jurisdiction. You’ve now bagged deals, in principle anyway, in the NT and in WA. Can I take you, Jason Clare to the task ahead with other states?

Now, you might be aware that your home state of NSW is spitting chips about the processes used to engage states on education funding packages, health funding packages. You’ve got state Treasurer Daniel Mookhey saying NSW will now be the last state standing when it comes to engaging the Commonwealth on these key agreements. The entire process is absurd. They pose the question, is this accidental or deliberate, that NSW is being left at the back of the queue? What’s the answer to that question?

CLARE: I’m working with NSW and all the other States and Territories on this right now. I want to do a deal with every State and Territory on this. I want to make sure that every public school across the country is properly funded and that’s going to involve, just like here in the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth putting extra money in and the States putting in extra money as well, and importantly, tying that funding to the sort of things that we know work.

It’s important, Greg, to make the point here that the deal that we’ve announced today, this billion-dollar deal in the Territory, isn’t just a billion dollars from the Commonwealth Government, it’s about $700-odd million from the Commonwealth Government. But the Territory Government’s putting in more than $300 million as well to get from that 54 per cent figure up to 60 per cent. The NSW Government, for example, have said in the past that they would fully fund all of this themselves. I’m not asking them to do that. I think the Commonwealth should chip in and the States should chip in as well. And they’re the negotiations that we’re having right now.

JENNETT: It sounds like you’re asking or signalling to them that they need to come to the party with more. Is that the essence of the dispute, if we’re calling a dispute, between NSW and the Commonwealth right now?

CLARE: I’m not going to negotiate it on the telly. You negotiate face-to-face. But the approach that I’m taking here is that, number one, we should all want our public schools to be fully funded. This has gone on too long. We’ve got to set a path here to make sure that we fully fund our schools. That it should be the Commonwealth and the States working together. And that means the Commonwealth chipping in extra, and it means the States chipping in extra. But it also should mean that we tie the funding to the sort of things that we know are going to make a real difference.

I released the Universities Accord Report a couple of weeks ago, mate, that says that we’ve got about 60 per cent of the workforce with a TAFE qualification or a uni degree today, and that by the middle of the century it’ll be about 80 per cent of the workforce that will need a TAFE or a university qualification. We’re not going to get there at the rate that we’re getting people finishing high school at the moment, and it’s going backwards at the moment. So, this investment that we make in our public schools is going to be critical to make sure that more people catch up, keep up, finish school, and then go on to TAFE or uni.

JENNETT: I doubt there’s any disagreement on that. Just finally, on numbers. 25 per cent, I think, is a share that some states are pressing you on. Do you rule out meeting 25 per cent of their school education costs?

CLARE: The States aren’t asking for 25 per cent, mate. I think they’re saying that the Commonwealth should chip in the full 5 per cent. It’s no secret that we’ve said we think we should go half, half, 2.5 per cent each. But those negotiations we’ve got to wrap up by the end of the year, form a National School Reform Agreement for the next decade, and make sure that this is not just about money. I don’t just want to fix that funding gap. I want to fix that education gap, not just here in the Territory, but right across the country. Wherever we’ve got kids falling behind at school, I want to make sure that money is invested in the sort of things like catch up tutoring to help a child who falls behind, to catch up and to keep up and make sure that we’ve got more kids in our public schools and right across the nation finishing high school and then going on to TAFE or uni.

JENNETT: All right well, that is an unfinished project and the subject of further negotiations. Many, I’m sure, Jason Clare, between you and state and territory counterparts, but you’ve got the Northern Territory squared away. Thank you for finding time on a busy day for Cabinet Ministers there in Darwin.

CLARE: No worries. Thanks, mate.