Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Education Funding

4:50 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

As I am sure everyone in this chamber and those listening know, the Australian Greens have long been advocates for all Australian children having access to high-quality education. We realise that having access to high-quality education is vital to a child's future. From early childhood education through the schooling system to options such as TAFE or university, we believe that Australian kids have a right to educational outcomes that do not depend on wealth and location.

With the portfolios that I have, which include community and family services, disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, issues around education are always present and always on my mind. We know that for many of the people and the children that I deal with, who often come from disadvantaged families, having access to high-quality education is absolutely essential to their future. That is why the Greens are so passionate around education, because we know what the value of a good-quality education is. It is absolutely critical for ensuring that our children have the capacity to choose their own path in life.

I should acknowledge that I am the product of a good education and also that I had access to free university education, and I am always aware of that. There is absolutely no doubt at all that my family could not have afforded to send me to a private school or university if I had not had access to the system that was available in the late seventies and early eighties.

Decades of underinvestment in Australian schools has caused deep inequalities between our most advantaged and disadvantaged schools, and unfortunately these gaps keep getting wider. We know that high-quality public education is crucial to realising our vision of a smart and innovative Australia. We believe that the recommendations that Gonski made are critical to delivering our vision of a smart and innovative Australia, and part of that has to be high-quality public education. We have in fact been lobbying for reform to the funding model for decades. For many years we have been advocating for fairer school funding and urging governments of both persuasions to reform the funding model. We have been advocating very strongly for the implementation of the recommendations of the Gonski review to ensure—and this is absolutely fundamental—that every Australian child has access to a good education, no matter where they live or how much money their parents have. This is absolutely critical. In my home state of Western Australia, we are deeply concerned about the future of education—in particular, the cuts that Mr Colin Barnett intends to make to our WA schools. We are very concerned about disadvantaged kids who have no other way of getting an education other than through the public education system, particularly Aboriginal children in rural and remote areas in Western Australia. We need more investment, not less.

In August last year, the Western Australian government announced that a new funding model would be implemented from 2015. Under this model, schools will have a one-line budget item comprised of a salaries component and a cash component, with the capacity for resources to be moved between these two components. In his announcement, the Western Australian minister for education stated that the new model would be accompanied by 'reforms to improve the efficiency of WA's public education system, which include staff reductions where positions could no longer be justified'. Needless to say, that is causing some concern. While overall teacher numbers have been maintained in 2014, there have been reductions in central and regional office positions, particularly those of educational assistants. This is cutting very hard. I have had representations from constituents who are deeply concerned about the cuts to school aides—in particular, Aboriginal school aides in regional and remote areas.

The feedback that we have had is that it is often the school aides, particularly the Aboriginal school aides, who have been in schools in regional areas the longest. I am sure it is the same situation for schools in other states as it is in Western Australia, where teachers who have not lived in regional areas tend to come and go. We have teachers for a couple of years and then they go, but the aides are more often than not from the community, so they are the ones who have been there long term. They know the history of the school and the history of the students, which is particularly important when it comes to Aboriginal educational aides. Their funding has been cut. People have been moved from perhaps full time to part time. This is having a fundamental impact on children's access to education. Those aides are there for a reason, and that is to improve children's access to education. The story that we are hearing in Western Australia is that, because of these cuts, schools are losing this knowledge—and that is a tragedy for those students.

In Western Australia, there have been reports that the new funding model will result in class size increases, school closures and amalgamations. The school support program resource allocations, which provide students with additional support in literacy and numeracy skills and in dealing with behavioural concerns, will also be cut by a third. This is extremely concerning. It has also been reported that the education department has put a new levy on schools to cover the cost of long service leave liability. This is now impacting on parents. They are concerned about the future of education both in my home state of Western Australia and in other states. I would like to quote from Jane, from Western Australia, who says:

I have a year 6 and a year 9 child and am strongly committed to the public education system.

I have been increasing alarmed at the lack of funding for basics at the children's primary schools even extending to insufficient teachers, and longstanding teachers' aids being forced to leave even when they are an integral part of the community and workforce within the school.

Fiona, who lives in a small town in the south-west of Western Australia, says:

I have three children, two of whom are school age, the third is awaiting her big chance. The school they attend is a district high with less than 100 students from K to Year 10. It is staffed by fantastic teachers, professional and enthusiastic. I am concerned that with insufficient federal funding support our school will suffer loss of resources. We are small, but we are not insignificant. In the lives of our children and in the lives of those in our community the school is mightily significant. In fact there is talk of somehow making it possible for students to attend Year 11 and 12 through the school here (instead of kids having to commute two hours a day to the nearest regional high school.

I am very much in favour of the Gonski report and would like to see the recommendations tabled in that review put into practice. I'm sure our school and our students would benefit.

Of course, they would benefit significantly if they did not have to travel two hours to school. Again, when you live in a town where the students can only go to year 10, it is highly problematic for them when they have to leave town to continue to go to school.

Phillipa from Western Australia says:

I want a great public school system for all kids. I find myself in the difficult situation of needing to buy my first home and therefore knowing i will be moving from my current rental and my kids will change schools. Where housing is 'affordable' the schools are of a low standard. In a country with resources and relative wealth we shouldn't be questioning funding for a good school system.

These are the accounts of parents in Western Australia who are extremely concerned about the future of the public education system in Western Australia. It is time we got absolutely serious about how we fund education in Western Australia and how we fund it on a needs basis. I am passionate about education for the most disadvantaged. It is absolutely critical that we get this right for future generations.


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