Monday, 3 June 2013
Australian Education Bill 2012; Second Reading
Thank you, Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2012. I take the member for Braddon at his word. He is a very good man. It is just a pity that none of what he says is actually in the bill. As a matter of fact, on Sky News on Australian Agenda on the Sunday morning just a couple of weeks ago, Minister Garrett was asked by Paul Kelly, the journalist, if he could guarantee funding, or what was the funding model for schools next year, and he simply cannot answer.
It is interesting to note also that the explanatory memorandum is actually a larger document than the bill itself. The explanatory memorandum is chock-a-block full of phrases such as 'an excellent education', 'quality teaching', 'quality learning', 'empowered school leadership' and the like. This bill is supposed to be the framework to lay the foundations onto which we put the dressing which will make up the future of the education system of the nation. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but the framework to a structure, or the laying of foundations, should be rock solid. It should be the rigid formwork onto which layers of detail can be laid, whilst keeping the shape and the structure and the integrity intact, as it was intended. This bill does none of that. It is chronically open to interpretation. Reading this bill and the explanatory memorandum is a bit like watching that classic Australian film The Castle. What the minister is trying to get across here is the 'feel' or the 'vibe' of education, and it fails at any level to give any real direction.
This government came to office in 2007 with our current Prime Minister as the education minister. She promised an education revolution. We now have a glossary of terms such as 'an excellent education' and the like. They have had since 2007 to get something up, and here we are in June 2013 with less than three sitting weeks to go before the parliament rises, and we have a bill before us which is nine pages long, including front and back covers. We have a bill which is only 1,400 words long in its entirety, which is shorter than this speech I am about to give. We have a bill which is a brochure for education. What we do not have is a blueprint for education reform. What we do not have is a bunch of state education ministers standing there saying, 'We have had our input to this, and we truly believe that it is in the best interests of our nation that this is the way we go.' We do not have a collective of private, Catholic and Christian schools standing there saying, 'We understand what the minister is saying because we have worked with him. We have had our input. We know why he has gone this way. We know he values what we bring to the table, and we will be better off and better able to provide for our students under this scheme.' It does not happen. It is not there.
On the plus side, this bill lays out aspirational goals. Its three main goals are for Australian schools to provide an excellent education for all students, and as the member for Braddon said, who would disagree with that; for Australian schooling to be highly equitable, which again is highly commendable; and for Australia to be placed among the top five countries in reading, science and mathematics, quality and equity, recognised in international testing by 2025. All these are worthy and just. What this minister and government haves done, though, is go out of their way to not include the people who will have to deliver on these promises in the discussions and the arrangements. It is the states and the private and Catholic schools which will actually have to deliver on these things.
I have an issue when it comes to how this government deals with the states, and not just on education but on health, disability and anything else where the lines of funding are blurred between state and federal governments. While not wanting to use this bill or this speech as a platform for constitutional reform, the time has surely come when the federal government cannot continue to belt the states about the head with funding conditions tied to outcome conditions without any real consultation. If we are serious about educational reform, surely we must start with the states and the other education providers by finding out what they think. Wouldn't that be a good way to start, a great starting point? To agree to this funding model takes a huge leap of faith from state governments, or there are things being said behind closed doors about which we are not aware.
For a start, one of the tenets of the explanatory memorandum is quality teaching. This government makes the statement but then cuts funding—no, how does the minister say it, 'pauses payment'—to the university sector. This is the sector charged with providing the quality teachers. The cutting or pausing of payments to the tune of $2.8 billion from the university sector must be the greatest piece of irony from this government, which is fast becoming a cross between Yes, Minister and a Monty Python sketch. State governments will have to be convinced that they will be guaranteed funding which is, in the main, coming after three more elections. I would think that those states are so trusting on this that they should go down to the bank and get a loan now for future funding and then pay it back when this government comes good after 2017. Now, that would be a courageous decision, Minister.
Let me outline for the record what the coalition is putting on the table for the education sector:
1. Families must have the right to choose a school that meets their needs, values and beliefs;
2. All children must have the opportunity to secure a quality education;
3. Student funding needs to be based on fair, objective, and transparent criteria distributed according to socio-economic need;
4. Students with similar needs must be treated comparably throughout the course of their schooling.
5. As many decisions as possible should be made locally by parents, communities, principals, teachers, schools and school systems.
6. Schools, school sectors and school systems must be accountable to their community, families and students.
7. Every Australian student must be entitled to a basic grant from the Commonwealth government.
8. Schools and parents must have a high degree of certainty about school funding so they can effectively plan for the future.
9. Parents who wish to make a private contribution toward the cost of their child’s education should not be penalised, nor should schools in their efforts to fundraise and encourage private investment.
10. Funding arrangements must be simple so schools are able to direct funding toward education outcomes, minimise administration costs and increase productivity and quality.
Those are also aspirational statements. The major difference between these coalition statements and the goals of the government is that most of ours are already in place and being paid for. States, as well as other providers, have funding certainty under the current system. We are asking an awful lot of organisations to make this change for which the government is asking in the period of time in which they are being asked to do so. They have been left in the dark as to funding for next year, let alone in 2017, when the big bucks start rolling in.
I want to provide some insight into what I see as the areas where we can get better outcomes. I must declare an interest here, in that my wife is an early childhood teacher. But, to balance that, I went to state and private schools for my education, my children have been educated in the Catholic system and my brother has been a state school teacher as well as a primary and secondary school principal in the state system. Our conversations are quite often heated but always have the interests of the child at their centre.
This is the point of differentiation between where the debate should be and where the debate is currently held by this government. This government is and always has been more concerned with the politics of the matter rather than the matter at hand. They have made the Gonski reforms this all-powerful panacea for education. They have allowed this to become: 'No matter what you want, Gonski will provide.' They have allowed the branding of themselves as 'education revolutionaries' to override the outcome of the education debate. Remember, Gonski said that there would be an additional $6 billion per year spent on educational funding. That would be an additional $24 billion over the forward estimates. The government talk a good game, but while they are talking that game they are actually delivering a cut of $325 million over the forward estimates. If we did not change a thing and held to the current funding model, there would be $4.7 billion more spent on education up to 2016 than this big-talking government will deliver under the proposed legislation.
The government dispute both those figures—and, with the world's greatest accountants, you can make any set of figures work—but they cannot dispute that what Gonski has said should be done is a far cry from what they are delivering. My younger brother, Stewart, sent me a photo of his grade 3 class from Texas State School. It was 1970, and some of the kids had shoes on. There were 33 kids in the class. The teacher, Miss Baker, was a very stern looking young woman dressed in a white minidress to the right-hand side of the photo; there was no teacher's aide or carer—yet every student in that class could read, write, add up, subtract and divide. When I started grade 1, we were still using slates and damp sponges! We were the lucky ones who got the brand-new Cuisenaire rods to help us with maths. This was something my older brother, just two years before me, did not get. Everyone in my class, taught by Mrs Whitaker, could read, write, add up, subtract and divide. Where did we go so wrong that we are dropping down the list of education rankings? Children today are every bit as smart as we were, if not smarter. So it cannot be the children.
In my discussions with educators and parents in Townsville, we lament the lack of risks in children's lives. I am not trying to glamorise my childhood, but there was a certain recklessness to life that we do not have now. We were expected to fall off our bikes. Everyone broke a bone sooner or later. In that photo of my brother's class in 1970, there are bare feet and scabbed knees. We used to fall over, we used to climb trees and we used to spin around until we fell over. We disappeared as soon as we got home in the afternoon and on weekends, and did not come home until it was dark. We children would organise our own games and referee them ourselves. Now, all sport is organised and all activities are padded. We are seeing more and more children in schools with motor skill problems. They can get to level 117 on Call of Duty or whatever but they are not allowed to do a cartwheel.
I speak to school principals and teachers from all schools in Townsville regularly. Their concerns are the same. More and more we are asking our teachers to do more than teach. I cannot remember Mrs Whittaker ever being involved in what we did at little lunch or big lunch; her job was in the classroom. It seems our teachers are not allowed to tell a parent that their child is struggling or cannot do the work. It is simply untenable that they should suggest that a child should repeat a grade. It simply would not be acceptable to us parents. It seems the good of the child has slipped here and it may be more about how they will feel rather than their personal pride and self-esteem that they actually learn to do the work. When I speak to year 12 students about the end of school days, I wish them failure. I go on to explain that if they fail they have tried. If they keep on trying they will succeed. Like a football team, you learn far more about yourself and your mates from a loss than you ever will from a win. We learn far more in life from scabbed knees than we ever will from walking across soft grass.
I will make a sweeping generalisation: push that non-risk-taker attitude to its logical end. When you have children leaving school and going to university, they naturally want to feel safe. Many choose a degree in education because they have not done anything else than school. They see their teacher as someone they can trust and they follow into education. We are currently seeing in Queensland a drop-off rate of nearly 30 per cent between the first-year and fourth-year teachers. That is not in university but in the workplace. Suddenly they find themselves confronted with just how hard you have to work when you are a teacher. Suddenly you are not just teaching a classroom; you are wiping backsides of children who are not properly toilet-trained when they come to school; you are a marriage counsellor, a confessor and keeper of secrets; you are dealing with child abuse and suspected child abuse; you are dealing with parents' expectations; you are a social worker; you are the guidance officer for children who leave home—all this while trying to work in a national curriculum, while teaching to the test for NAPLAN and trying to bring a lot of reading and its importance in life into the classroom.
We need to do more for our children to get music, art, drama and sport into their lives. They all play their part in the development of the whole child. We need teachers to teach. I believe that good and great teachers are in the system now. I do not believe that the entry level to teaching should be raised or made more difficult, because I believe that teachers exist naturally. The ability to get an idea across in a way that the recipient gets it is the gift a good teacher has. The ability to get students to try is the gift that the good teacher has in spades. Teaching is not a job; teaching is calling or trade like nursing. You can have the skills naturally; you can pick up the skills if you are prepared to work at it. Some do not and move on to another career. Others do not and stay there, to the detriment of the child. We have to back our educators to do the right thing. That may mean that some principals have to sit down with a few teachers and have that hard chat. Every business and organisation deals with this; education is no different.
I was at a speech night for Ignatius Park College in Townsville. The principal, Michael Connor, addressed the audience. The thing that struck me about his address was his absolute belief in the youth of today and that we must address the issue of engagement in education. He implored parents to be involved in their child's education but to recognise that their child may not be perfect. His words were that sometimes learning is just plain hard work and the sooner we face up to that fact the better off we will be. We are all in this together: the states, the communities, the federal government are all in this together, and the sooner we start working together and trying to do this in a collaborative approach instead of coming in with an idea and forcing it on the states the better off we will all be in the long run.