Education Funding

Mr RICHARDSON (Mordialloc) — It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak on education from a policy standpoint and to talk about two key pillars of education: capital funding and the resourcing of our schools. I have sat in this place for the duration of the debate. I was hoping to get something from the member for Ferntree Gully that was a little visionary — a bit of policy orientation. I wanted some gusto, but we were left with a lacklustre performance about when funding was allocated rather than the substance of this matter of public importance. It was pretty lacklustre and poor.

The member for Euroa was all over the place. We want to see her step up into The Nationals’ leadership, but she was a bit lacklustre this time. Maybe we will have to wait a bit longer.

To get back to the substance of the matter of public importance, it contains three key elements that I want to focus on, but particularly elements 1 and 3. They are the notion that education is an economic enabler and that education is an enabler of equality in our communities, whether that be our disadvantaged communities or whether it be students with disabilities. That is going to be the focus of my contribution.

It was Gough Whitlam who back in 1969, during an election pitch for equal access to education, said:

Poverty is a national waste as well as individual waste. We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer — a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste.

This statement neatly encompasses what should be considered to be some of the key pillars of our education system: to address inequality, to bring about economic outcomes through education, to reduce poverty in our society and to diminish disadvantage. These elements are critical, and when we see a lack of investment in education or any transferring away of funding we are denying the next generations of Victorians the opportunities to break those causal links.

During the term of the previous government we saw significant cuts — a halving in capital works funding. That is a terrible shame because that money had to be found from somewhere else. It is money that did not go to the proper resourcing of our schools. When you take that much money out of the system, we are all the poorer for those outcomes.

I was talking to my local schools and they were talking to me about a lack of funding for the Gonski education agreement. They were genuine when they said that they had not seen any of the funding. It is a poor outcome for our community and it is a poor outcome for our students. The Victorian Auditor-General found that during the coalition’s term of government Victoria’s reported expenditure was just under $12 000 per primary school student and just under $15 000 per secondary school student, or 14.4 per cent and 11.4 per cent respectively below the national average. That should have rung alarm bells for the previous government. It should have said, ‘We have such disadvantage in our system that we have to address the shortcomings’. But instead we had a black hole of $850 million in the Gonski funding.

If we think about where our economy is heading, we realise that by 2030 we will have a population fast approaching 8 million people. We are an ageing population and those who are coming into the workforce over the next 15 years will be supporting our pensioners and our retirees, who will be moving into the next phase of their lives. The children who are starting their journey in school today will be entering the workforce during the next 15 years. In a globalised economy where we are competing for positive economic outcomes in the Asian century it is critical that we give our children the best possible start and the best possible opportunities.

Economic levers are really limited in the state system, and we rely significantly on our federal counterparts in terms of investments not only in education but also in infrastructure. One lever that the state does have, however — and it is a long-term economic lever — is education. If we do better in education, do better over the long term and take a long-term view of education, then we will benefit as a state. We will compete better against the other states, and Australia will compete better as a nation.

One key point I said at the start I wanted to touch on is that education is an enabler of equality. I want to provide two examples to the house. One is a special needs school in my community, Yarrabah School. In 1990 Yarrabah School had 19 students with special needs. It now caters for well over 160 kids with special needs, and just over 60 are coming through in the early childhood space. This is a fantastic local school whose numbers have grown by 700 per cent, and it desperately needs that funding to support its kids.

I have visited Yarrabah School a number of times, and one story I was told is that when the school has child applicants who do not meet the funding requirements, such as the rigid IQ cut-off of 70 that we all hear about, it then needs to make a hard decision: do those kids go into the mainstream system, where it is known there is a funding gap, or can the school take on those kids and try to wear that budget and funding cost in the system? It is a hard choice, because a lot of the time the school is telling families it cannot accommodate their needs. Every now and then, however, Yarrabah steps up and says, ‘We’re going to take those children on, and we’ll wear the hit’.

When you then have a limitation on the Gonski education funding and that resources funding the education minister was talking about — when you do not have that funding supporting those schools — schools like Yarrabah cannot make that decision; they cannot make that discretionary call and support extra students. It is the same with a school such as Parkdale Secondary College, which is in my area and which does so much for children with special needs. I was just there last week. That school has spent extra aid funds to support these children.

The loadings in the Gonski education funding reforms were clear. The national partnership agreement was clear. Those extra loadings are to support children who are disadvantaged; that is the absolute fundamental principle. Members should not take my word for it. They can refer to the statements and comments made by parents. I was looking at a contribution made online by a lady named Jane Salmon. It states:

Picture the headmaster offering to refund your $3000 deposit if you hurry up and surrender your boy’s place to a more ordinary three-year-old. You have a fortnight to adjust your expectations and make up your mind.

It then goes on to quite sensibly say:

Why do we do this when every dollar spent before the age of nine saves $70 at 17 …?

It is a good point in relation to the experiences we confront.

Something else important to note is the report completed by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in 2012, which finds that barriers to funding for children with special needs include funding limitations, lack of specialist supports, inadequate knowledge and training in disability among teachers, lack of time for teachers to provide an individualised approach for students with disabilities and discriminatory attitudes.

While children with special needs are enrolled in around 85 per cent of our system’s schools, 15 per cent of schools still do not have the capacity to take on such children, and schools have to have that hard conversation with parents where they say, ‘We cannot take on your child. You have to find another option’. That is absolutely exacerbated in regional and rural communities where the next school might be many miles down the road. It is a poor outcome for our communities.

Given the stories that parents tell and these findings and information, including that evidence from 2012 and the findings of the Auditor-General relating to 2011–12, one really struggles to understand why those national partnership agreements, including agreements about those important loadings, were not honoured. It was not the then opposition saying these things. It was experts, on whom we rely to drive policy and drive economic outcomes in our state. Why was that not relied upon? Those opposite will have to answer that question before their constituencies, because it is as clear as day to me that the evidence put previously by various organisations absolutely pointed to a desperate funding need. It is an absolute shame that that was not honoured.

We have, however, an opportunity with the new Prime Minister. I note that I am led to believe that the former Prime Minister today resigned by fax. Do not worry; we have the electronic whiteboards now and a few other such things — a few emails and the old scanning machine! This presents an opportunity for the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to step up and honour the funding agreements, to partner with the state of Victoria and to give these children the best possible opportunities and best possible outcomes. I call upon him to partner with the Premier to try to identify these opportunities for our schools, because, after all, if we do not get good education outcomes, it is our communities and our society that will suffer into the future.