House debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2020


Closing the Gap

7:30 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Education is at the heart of closing the gap. I want to make a few remarks today about the Closing the Gap statement as it relates to education. Four of the Closing the gap report's seven goals directly measure our education system, and the other three closely track its performance. Sadly, this year's report—of course, it has some positive elements to it—again contains more disappointment than encouragement. Of course, we all welcome the growth in year 12 attainment. We also welcome the development in year 3 reading and numeracy. This is particularly important because we know that, if children are struggling by the time they're eight years old, they very rarely catch up.

The early-year literacy and numeracy gains are great, and we're delighted to see them. They are improvements, and we have to look at how and why we've improved so that we can spread that improvement to other areas. However, overall, the results in reading, writing and maths are still nowhere near good enough. About one in four Indigenous children remain below minimum standards in reading, and about one in five Indigenous children remain below minimum standards in numeracy. School attendance has actually gotten worse over the last two years. If kids aren't going to school, they can't read, they can't write, they can't do maths—they are being denied a lifetime of opportunity.

Now in their third term, in their seventh year of government, the Liberals and Nationals have done nothing to turn this situation around. It's not the fault of the original Closing the Gap plan. It's not that we aimed too high. It's in meeting the targets that we have failed. It's not the fault of the students. It's not the fault of the dedicated teachers in school communities. In truth, we actually had a road map laid out to meet these challenges, and, when elected, those opposite tore up that road map. They chose to cut $500 million from programs aimed at reversing Indigenous disadvantage. The government chose to cut billions from our schools, particularly our public schools, including remote schools with very high Indigenous enrolments. In fact, the Northern Territory school system—the most disadvantaged in the country, with the highest percentage of Indigenous enrolments—was hit the hardest by this government's education cuts.

The sad thing is that we've got teachers, principals and school communities doing terrific work, but they're not getting the support they need. I've seen it myself, travelling around the country. I saw it at the Sadadeen Primary School in Alice Springs, a school with 130 students, over 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous. The teachers at that school have a motto: 'We work as a team, we aim high, we question and wonder and we are proud.' They're beautiful words, and they help shape that school's practice. It's inspiring to watch, and I've seen it in so many schools. The school runs a music program, cooking lessons, fitness and health classes—all integrated with a really intensive focus on literacy and numeracy. Sadadeen's principal, Elizabeth Verstappen, retired just last week, and we thank her for her wonderful service during her career.

Communities like this around Australia are harnessing their own creativity and energy, but they need resources to properly realise their plans. That's why funding matters so profoundly and why every dollar cut from education makes fixing disadvantage more difficult. Education underpins everything else. It's the platform that we build so many successes upon. As today's report acknowledges, when you cut the gap in higher education you also eliminate the gap in employment, which makes it all the more harmful when this government cuts money from programs that help achieve this. Four-year-old preschool, public schooling, universities, vocational education—all of them have seen cuts or uncertainty.

These are the building blocks of progress. They are the building blocks of success—individual success and our community's success—and each one has been undermined. If the coalition government is serious about turning around these trends and if it's serious about closing the gap, it needs to acknowledge this truth and it needs to fund education properly. Education is the key to success for every individual. We want every Australian child to get a great education.