Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008; Schools Assistance Bill 2008
I will resume from where I left off earlier on in the day in making some observations about the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 and the Schools Assistance Bill 2008. I was referring to an article published in the Canberra Times on 6 November 2008. The author was Rabbi Kennard, who is the Principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne—a very well known school. He made some very pertinent observations. He said:
Does the “compulsory” nature of the curriculum mean that Australia will follow the (no doubt caricatured) French model, whereby the minister of education could look at his watch and know what each child throughout his country would be studying? Will it follow the English system, where teachers were told exactly how to spend each minute of the daily “Literacy Hour” and could expect school inspectors to check-up that the first 20 minutes was spent in direct teaching, followed by the correct amount of group work and summation?
Or will the curriculum be closer to the Victorian system, which schools highly support? The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has devised the Victorian Essential Learning Standards, a “curriculum framework” which in detail describes the areas that students must be taught and the standards that they are expected to reach, while still allowing principals and teachers the right to exercise their professional judgment as to how best to achieve these results.
Rabbi Kennard, may I proffer, is only one of many principals of independent schools that are mightily concerned about the Schools Assistance Bill 2008.
Despite Minister Gillard’s claims of an education revolution in the last 12 months, I have to confess that I am an education revolution sceptic. What she has demonstrated in the last 12 months has been anything but an education revolution. In its first budget, Labor cut almost $400 million in specific programs targeted at improving standards and literacy and numeracy—something that parents are more concerned about than anything else. They scrapped the An Even Start—National Tuition Program, a program providing vouchers for tuition to the value of $700 for students who failed to meet the minimum literacy and numeracy benchmarks. They scrapped the $70 million Summer School for Teachers program, which was all about raising the level and quality of teaching that is offered to our children. To top it off, Labor also scrapped the $50,000 rewards program for schools that improve literacy and numeracy test results. May I suggest that the Rudd Labor government has bitten off more than it can chew when announcing an education revolution and promising to deliver a world-class education for every Australian student in every community.
As we have seen only recently, the promised ‘computer on every desk’—which has been amended to a computer on every second desk—for those students in years 9 to 12 was a flawed process and a flawed suggestion from the start. We have now seen, thanks to FOI, that the cost for that program has blown out another $800 million. I would suggest that Minister Gillard, as education minister, is seriously challenged in this portfolio. The Schools Assistance Bill 2008, in combining both appropriations and standards, is actually holding all principals of independent schools to account. I strongly suggest that there is much that needs to be considered to look at this and improve it for all students.
I am keen to participate in this debate on the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 and the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 but I only become aware of the debate earlier today. I am not one of those who follows education matters closely, but I fear that the government is going to make an enormous blunder that they do not fully appreciate. I am pleased that the minister at the table is Senator McLucas, who comes from Far North Queensland, and I am very pleased that the departmental officials are here because, if I am wrong in what I am about to say, I want them to explain it to the minister so that she can respond in her summing up of the second reading debate.
I want to indicate that unless I and the Catholic Education Commission, particularly in the diocese of Townsville, can be certain that the bills as they stand will not bring huge financial disadvantage to them, then I think the shadow minister will be introducing amendments—which might be all that is able to be done from the Senate. I do want Senator McLucas and the officials to listen very closely to what I am going to say. I know that the officials gave evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, and the committee appeared to be satisfied with the assurances by the department that the Catholic Education Commission in Queensland would be better off as a result of this legislation.
I might add that, strangely for me, I am not entering into this debate in a political sense. I am trying to address a wrong that the diocese of Townsville came to see me about and which I passed on to my colleagues who are more intimately involved in education matters. To put the background in place, the diocese of Townsville Catholic system looks after 391 Indigenous students, which is 59 per cent of Indigenous students who attend Catholic schools in Queensland. So, quite clearly, what happens to Catholic education in Brisbane, Rockhampton, Cairns and Toowoomba is not nearly as important as what happens to Catholic schools in the diocese of Townsville, because most of the students are in the Townsville diocese. They are either in Townsville itself, or at Abergowrie College near Ingham, or at Columba College at Charters Towers, or at Good Shepherd College at Mt Isa.
The problem is that this government is trying to change the current system, for reasons which everyone accepts are honourable. The current government says that there are too many buckets of funding for Indigenous students. They say, ‘It is too difficult and complex in an administrative sense, so we want to wipe the slate clean and make it a much simpler arrangement that will look after Indigenous kids. In doing that, we will put in some more money and we will guarantee that no Indigenous kid is worse off.’ That is a laudable goal. But as I understand the current situation, the schools are funded with a per capita grant—the SRA grant. I do not even know what ‘SRA’ stands for, but I am told that SRA is the per capita funding grant which all schools get. Then there are other buckets of money that go to various schools, depending on the different programs that the previous government, in their wisdom and experience, initiated over the years. There is one called ITAS, which I believe is related to homework, and one called RIS, which is another bucket of money. The end result, as I understand it—and I hope the officials will tell me if I am wrong—was that students received money not according to where they went to school, by remoteness or otherwise, but according to by where they came from.
One of the problems with the new arrangement is that, as I understand it, schools in remote areas are allegedly being paid better money—not students from remote areas. The situation that occurs in the Townsville diocese is that the Indigenous students come from remote and very remote parts of North Queensland—the Torres Strait out in the north-west, up in the gulf and the cape country. They are from very remote areas, but the schools are actually situated in almost city areas. The schools are not deemed to be remote and so the funding has fallen. In the old days, everyone would get a payment under the SRA scheme but then these extra buckets of money could be drawn upon for very remote students to assist them in their schooling in boarding schools in Townsville. This applies right throughout.
I understand the officials have indicated to the Catholic Education Commission in Queensland, ‘You will, overall, get more money’—and I think everyone accepts that. The schools in Brisbane will do very well out of this. They will get increased money per student. Some might say that the Catholic Education Commission, within itself, can say to Brisbane schools, ‘You’re getting a bit more than you should have got, but the Townsville ones, where all the problems are, are getting less than they would otherwise have got; so we will take some money off you and shove it up there.’
You say that, Minister—and you can tell me about that later—but this is not my logic; this is from the Catholic Education Commission and the Townsville diocese. Perhaps they are wrong, Minister. You may know more than them. The difficulty is that that might be able to be done within the Catholic system, but can you imagine a principal of a school in Brisbane when the Catholic Education Commission comes along and says to them, ‘I know you thought you were getting this money, but we’re going to take it off you and give it to Townsville because they are more deserving.’ They may be able to work that out, but it is going to be difficult.
I will talk about the situation of St Patrick’s College on The Strand in Townsville. This is a stand-alone school run by the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, as I understand it. Because it is not in the Catholic education system, it has no-one to share its funding with. So it will be down, according to the college’s figures, by over $100,000 in any one year. So St Pat’s on the Strand, because it is not part of the Catholic education system—it is a stand-alone Sisters of Mercy school—is going to be down by that amount. Abergowrie College and the Columba Catholic College at Charters Towers are both within the system but I am told that they will also lose money.
The Catholics have also mentioned to me the question of Shalom College in Townsville and a number of Lutheran and independent boarding schools in the Cairns region who also take a great number of Indigenous students. They indicate to me that those schools have no other system that can share the larger payments that go to the capital cities. There is also Mount St Bernard College in Herberton and St Augustine’s College in Cairns. Even the Good Shepherd in Mount Isa—which is not a boarding school but which has a large group of Indigenous students—will also be down by about $40,000. These figures have been given to me by people who should know.
People who gave evidence to the committee thought they had a very good hearing from the committee but were then disturbed by what the officials said. I have got some of the record here. For example, ‘Mr Smith said that there is a guarantee that will fix them all up.’ I again repeat that this is not an area in which I have a lot of involvement normally. I saw the bill for the first time today, so I have not been able to go through it and work out exactly how what was said at the committee hearings relates to the position before us. But those schools in the Catholic diocese of Townsville feel that they are going to be substantially disadvantaged. Those within the Catholic education system may be able to get recompense from the system by taking it off Brisbane schools and paying it to Townsville schools—though it should not be put on the organisation to have to make those decisions—but schools like St Patrick’s, which are not in the system, and schools like Shalom College, which do not have a system that can help them out, stand to lose very considerable amounts of money.
The work that those schools do with Indigenous students is beyond question. Everyone accepts that the Catholic schools and also those non-Catholic schools that I have mentioned—and I am sure there are a lot of others that I have not mentioned—do great work. But they seem to be being penalised, and I am sure this is unintentional. When they first came to see me, I said: ‘Not even the Labor Party would be this mean. I do not think that that is what they intended would happen; I think it is an unintended consequence that needs to be addressed.’ I know that my colleagues have also raised this issue, and I think Senator Milne and Family First raised this same issue in the committee hearings. To a degree, they were assured by the comments of officials that everything would be okay, but I am told that that is not the case.
The new arrangement talks about ‘remote schools’, ‘very remote schools’ and ‘non-remote schools’; whereas the previous arrangement used to talk about ‘remote students’ and ‘very remote students’. When those very remote students came into schools in a locality that was not remote, they were entitled to the higher payments because, in many instances, coming from very remote communities, they needed a lot of extra attention. Some of them need a lot more tuition in English and a lot more help with homework. Those other buckets of money under the old scheme allowed the schools that looked after these children from very remote areas to be properly funded so these children could be properly taught, because they had the money to do it.
In the notes I have been scribbling—and I cannot at the moment put my hand on them—I have written down the actual costs that will be incurred by individual Catholic schools in the diocese of Townsville. The schools stand by those claims, notwithstanding the assurances given by officials at the committee hearings. I am very concerned by what I see is happening, and I again repeat that I think it is an unintended consequence. I would like the minister, in his summation speech, to please address these issues. I will certainly be participating in the committee stage, where we can get more of a running commentary on the issues that have been raised.
As I said, since I became aware of these issues, and after talking with people in the Catholic school system this morning, the shadow minister has very helpfully prepared some amendments. Senator Mason, who represents the shadow minister in this chamber, will be moving those amendments in the committee, more or less to provide for regulations that would provide assistance to address the problems before us. In my limited understanding of this bill, not having had the chance to read it before I got up to speak, I would have preferred some major renovation of the bill to be included to make sure that these schools do not miss out. I am sure that the government does not want them to miss out. There is reference to clause 70, which relates to a guarantee.
If I am wrong in what I am saying and if the information I have been given is not correct, or alternatively if perhaps I have misunderstood the information given to me and people are going to say to me, ‘No school will end up with less money than they had previously’, then I would like the minister to name the schools by name and give me an assurance that, over the next funding period—which I think would be four years—none of those schools will get less than they got previously. The schools I mentioned are Abergowrie College at Ingham, Columba Catholic College at Charters Towers, St Patrick’s College on The Strand, which is not part of the system, the Shalom College in Townsville and those other colleges in North Queensland. I am speaking as a North Queenslander here and these are the schools that have contacted me. Also, I think everyone accepts that the North Queensland area schools more Indigenous children at boarding schools than any other location in Australia, so it is important for North Queensland.
My information is that the act does not provide for that. I am sure that that is not the government’s intention either. That is why, if the officials, with their much greater knowledge of the bill—and of course they drafted it—are going to say to me, ‘No, no; you’ve got it wrong, Senator Macdonald; you and the people who have been talking to you haven’t understood this particular provision of the bill’—or that provision, or that I didn’t understand quite what the section 70 Indigenous Funding Guarantee meant—then you can explain that to me in the committee stage. But in any case, I want someone to put on the record in this chamber that those schools that I have specifically mentioned will not, under the new scheme, do worse than they would have done under the old scheme. In many instances, Indigenous young people get the best education possible by leaving their home communities and coming into these schools and colleges that are closer to the bigger towns. It is essential that the schools continue to have the funding necessary to enable those children to be taught properly and to be given some chance in life.
I hope I have explained that in a way that the officials can understand. I just repeat, though, that those involved were not assured by departmental officials in the committee hearing. Everybody seems to agree on what we want to achieve but there is a genuine concern that the bill, as it now stands, will achieve that. There is a real fear that these schools, which do so much work for Indigenous young people up in the North Queensland area and the Catholic diocese, and also the Protestant and independent schools that deal with Indigenous boarding kids, will not do so well. Nobody wants to cut them back but there is a real concern that the new arrangements inadvertently will shaft them, and we want to make sure that that does not happen. So, in the second reading reply from the minister and then in committee I would ask for those assurances. (Time expired)
I want to make a brief contribution to this debate because I believe it needs to be said that these bills, the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 and the Schools Assistance Bill 2008, place the Senate in a very difficult position and, in my view, undermine the accountability function which the Senate performs by scrutinising legislation. By that I mean that these bills are vehicles, simultaneously, for an extremely large and important sum of money for the operation of non-government schools over the coming quadrennium—some $28 billion worth of funding for those non-government schools. They are also the vehicles for a series of significant but as yet not fully articulated changes in policy that affect those same non-government schools.
I refer in particular to the changes with respect to the new national curriculum framework and the changed and enhanced reporting requirements for non-government schools. What the Senate is being asked to do is to accept that, to achieve one objective, which is the funding of those schools from 1 January 2009, it needs to accept—in part, sight unseen—the other reforms which this legislation gives rise to. That, in my view, is quite an insidious position in which to place the Senate. We are being asked, in effect, to approve one at the cost of the other. There is obviously a game of brinkmanship going on between the government and the opposition as to who will blink first in delivering this important sum of money to non-government schools while at the same time allowing the Senate to properly scrutinise the details of the government’s changes in this area. I think that is quite unacceptable. There is no reason why the Senate should be held hostage to that tactic. I think the issues which the government has placed on the agenda through these bills, with respect to reforming the structure and reporting requirements of education, need to be properly debated. They should be debated in the full light of the detail of the government’s proposals, particularly with respect to the national curriculum, and that should be separated from the question of the money the schools need to operate from 1 January next year. Having said that, I will now comment on some of the detail of those changes.
The national curriculum is, in concept, a worthwhile development which needs to be explored as a platform from which to provide a standard of education which Australians can be proud of and which will sustain a brighter future for education in this country. Setting common standards between the states and territories is a worthwhile idea but, as to whether it actually benefits or disbenefits Australian education, much depends on the execution of that idea. I say that because if, by achieving a certain foundation of common standards through a national curriculum, we destroy the great strength of diversity in Australian education—the great benefits which are provided to parents in being able to choose the style and kind of education they want for their children by sending them to, say, a Montessori school, or a school with a particular religious background or foundation, or a school which offers the International Baccalaureate or something of that kind—we will have lost a great deal of value. We do not know whether the new national curriculum will place at risk those important elements of our diverse education system. I personally would prefer to see more detail of the curriculum on the table before the Senate is asked to sign a cheque to deliver that to the Australian government.
I also record my apprehension at the enhanced reporting requirements for Australian non-government schools in particular. At one level, you might say that it is axiomatically a good thing to have more information on the table, but greater scrutiny of that proposition reveals that there are significant potential downsides. As we know, non-government schools operate on the basis of requiring significant support from the Australian community. Some schools are able to encourage and receive private donations, endowments, gifts and donations in kind. It is possible that some of those benefits and donations to non-government schools may be placed at risk where the donor needs to disclose that. Again, we do not know the detail of how this will work, what exactly will be required, what exactly will be reported and in what form. That, I think, adds to the concern which a number of non-government schools put on the table very clearly during the recent inquiry into this legislation by the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
I note that the Labor Party, certainly at the state and territory level and to some extent at the federal level, historically has been opposed to more transparency with respect to the operation of schools. Reporting on schools’ educational outcomes and things of that kind have been matters which the Labor Party has resisted at both those levels of government in the past. Apparently, they now want more of it, so I am suspicious and I think the Senate needs more information about how these things will work.
I want to record my support for the concerns raised by Senator Macdonald. At the hearings conducted the week before last, the government’s representatives offered very strong assurances that the unintended consequence of potentially affecting adversely the funding levels at boarding schools, especially for Indigenous students, would be addressed in the implementation of this system. But, like Senator Macdonald, I would like to be assured again today by the minister in the chamber that non-government schools offering boarding facilities will not be adversely affected vis-a-vis their present position by the passage of this legislation.
Finally, I think it is quite unacceptable for the Senate to be held hostage by the linking of these as yet partially unexplained reforms to the granting of $28 billion worth of funding for the coming years. It is an exercise in undermining the accountability of the Senate, which I think is quite unacceptable but which we have come to expect from this government. I personally wish to see much more of the federal government’s agenda for non-government education clearly explained in this place and to the Australian community. It has not been explained; it has not been articulated. We do not know what the long-term prospects for this sector are. We do not know, for example, what will succeed the SES funding model when it expires and how the federal government proposes to proceed with its philosophical underpinning for its approach to non-government education. Until I know the detail of that, I remain concerned at the blank cheque which legislation such as this offers to the Australian government.
The incorporated speech read as follows
I rise in support of the Schools Assistance Bill 2008. The bill is a new mechanism to deliver Commonwealth funding to non-government schools from 2009 to 2012. It replaces the Schools Assistance Act 2004 which provided funding for both public and private schools. Public schools will now be funded under the National Education Agreement now agreed by COAG.
Briefly, this bill honours our commitment to continue the Socio-Economic Status (SES) funding and indexation arrangements to non-government schools over the next four years.
As we are aware SES funding is linked to the education and income levels of parents within a school district. Funding to the private sector is therefore based on the local community’s ability to give financial support to the school. The bill also provides recurrent funding in the form of supplementary assistance for Indigenous students at private schools.
Funding was previously appropriated under the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. The aim of this measure is to streamline assistance payments for each eligible student. The assistance payments will be indexed at the same rate as general recurrent school funding. It’s all about reducing red tape for schools and allowing them to get on with the job of educating students. Quite simply, this bill is part of the building blocks for a modern, high quality education system.
In total $28 billion will go to the non-government school sector over the next four years. Along with the National Education Agreement it represents an investment of $42 billion in our education systems. I believe the current debate surrounding the Schools Assistance Bill misses the point. The debate has moved on from public versus private. It’s moved on from how much funding should come from where.
It’s moved on from naming and shaming schools. It’s moved on from blaming educators.
Today it’s where it should be and that is—about student performance. Today it’s about standards and outcomes. Today it’s about transparency and assessment of educational institutions.
For too many years the Howard Government’s agenda was limited to cultural wars and naming and shaming schools. It was part of a political plan to play the blame game with State Labor Governments. Clearly their agenda was all about politics with little concern about educating our next generation.
Private schools are now concerned that new accountability measures will bring an unwarranted degree of media scrutiny. Whether public or private, media interest is driven by concerns—concerns of parents and the wider community about the performance of our schools. The fact is we need to commit new resources to make a difference. In order to identify schools most in need, we need information.
We need information on student performance. We need information on the schools resources. Our education system is now out of sync with the rest of the world. We are falling behind the countries we compete with as reflected in the 2008 OECD Education at a Glance report.
In 2005 when OECD spending on pre-primary education averaged 0.4 percent of GDP, we spent just 0.1 percent. It ranked us in spending at 24th out of 26 countries. It shows there is a consequence in failing to invest in education.
The story in the tertiary sector is much the same. Our expenditure was 1.1 percent of GDP. Again, less than the OECD average. If we want to compete globally we need to invest in education.
The aim of this government is to ensure every child has access to the highest quality education. Regardless of where they live or what their parents earn. We know young people from low socio-economic families are less likely to go onto vocational training or higher education. Should we accept this as the norm? No—we should not.
Today, too many young Australians leave school early and don’t make a transition to work. They end up unemployed or in casual jobs. Business as usual for these children isn’t good enough. Until we have a policy of transparency and assessment in schools, children will continue to be left behind. So what do we need to do to improve the quality of what goes on inside a classroom?
Firstly, we need to get back to basics. In order for our children to reach their full potential they need the tools and the tools are literacy and numeracy skills. Over the last twenty to thirty years there has been an intense debate about teaching methods. As a parent, I have followed the debate closely. I have come to the view that the teaching method known as phonics is fundamental to early literacy. This method allows children to be taught in a structured and comprehensive way. There is in fact a great deal of concern about the teaching of literacy and numeracy.
In a recent national telephone survey of parents, 92 percent wanted more information on their schools’ approach in this critical area. I, along with many other parents believe there should be a strong emphasis on grammar, punctuation and spelling. There is a difference between reading what is written and understanding what is written. But you can’t put the cart before the horse.
Secondly, we need a national curriculum that sets national standards for each child. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill 2008 passed the Senate last week. The new national authority will manage the development of a National Curriculum and a national system of assessment and reporting. A curriculum and assessment system that will be in used in every school in Australia.
I would enter one word of caution and that is national curricula should be about national standards. It should also be about minimum standards. Some children, some schools, some parents and some communities want to focus on effort, achievement and high outcomes.
In short, they aim by constant work to improve over time and achieve that mythical thing called excellence. It’s a worthy aim, a fine purpose and it should be encouraged.
We should be pushing up, dragging up and forcing up in terms of educational outcomes the bottom and the middle. So they can achieve the same results as some of the fine independent, catholic and state schools in this country.
It’s also important our best and brightest are not forgotten. We must continue to challenge exceptional students so they achieve their full potential, which brings me to centres of excellence and their importance in our education system.
In my home state, Perth Modern is a fully selective public school. That means entry is by academic test. The school has a proud history. It can boast of educating fifteen Rhodes Scholars, a prime minister, a governor general and numerous luminaries. Part of the purpose of national standards, national curricula must be to aim for excellence in academic achievement.
Thirdly, we need rigorous testing. Testing that measures a student’s performance against the performance of their peers, then measures the performance of their school and compares that performance of other schools in the area.
Finally, performance should be measured against students and schools around the state and nationally. Parents as well as government want this information. Teacher assessment while valuable as a guide is no substitute for peer comparison. Information on school performance is a national priority.
Our system will compare like with like. That is it will compare schools within a geographical and socio-economic cluster. It will inform parents on the progress of their child and the progress of their school. It will also inform government on which schools need help.
We all recognise that education is a partnership—a partnership of parents, schools, community and governments. For the partnership to work effectively we need to know where we are doing well and where we can do better. It’s not about ranking schools or creating league tables. It’s about providing information to parents on how their child is performing within their peer group. Their child’s strengths and whether there is room for improvement.
Parents also want to know if their school is meeting national standards. If not—parents want to know the government is willing and able to provide additional resources. Investing in education is critical. Not only to provide our young people with opportunity but to drive growth and to build a prosperous economy for the future.
The Rudd Government’s priorities are,
- raising the quality of teaching in our schools;
- ensuring all students benefit from schooling, especially in disadvantaged communities and;
- improving transparency and accountability of schools and school systems at all levels.
We want a school system that supports learning for every child, whether they attend private, public or remote schools. To achieve these priorities, we need a framework that is consistent for all schools.
The 2009/2012 funding agreement for private schools will require;
- participation in national assessments of students,
- participation in national reporting of student performance,
- providing school performance reports to the Minister and,
- making the information public,
- providing plain language student reports and
- implementing the national curriculum.
These six conditions are a significant reduction in the range of conditions and strings attached to previous agreements. Our focus is on accountability for educational outcomes, not flagpoles and cultural wars.
Another measure to be introduced is the requirement for schools to report funding sources. I recently raised this issue in during adjournment debate. As I have previously stated, this type of information in the past has been treated as commercial-in-confidence.
But the idea of a ‘private’ school is an oxymoron. In many instances private schools receive significant public funding. For example, the Commonwealth Government’s contribution is in fact, up to 50 percent.
State and Territory government’s kick in around 15 to 25 per cent. That’s a significant amount of taxpayer’s money in anyone’s language. Such a large investment requires the government to stipulate a framework for transparency and accountability.
Those opposite are stuck in an ideological time-warp. Debates about public schools versus private schools are the debates of the past. This government is heralding a new era of transparency, which, along with new investments in teacher quality, will make a difference for every child in every school.
For the first time in a decade, the Commonwealth Government is working with the States and Territories. We are working to ensure our ambitious education programs are implemented. There is a genuine enthusiasm to work together. To, deliver new ideas and a long-term vision to make education policy a national priority.
The Rudd Government is committed to providing Australia with an education system that is up there with the best in the world. We have left the time of divisive politics and policy apathy behind us. Australia needs to keep pace with the demand for skills and labour in a rapidly changing global and national environment. This government has a plan that places education at the forefront of the national agenda—where it belongs. The aim of this Government is clear. That’s what our Education Revolution is all about.
I commend the bill to the Senate.
The incorporated speech read as follows—
I rise today to support the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and The Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008.
It’s great to have an opportunity to speak about education, which is as I have mentioned often is a top priority for the Rudd Government and a personal passion of mine.
After 12 years of Howard government rule, our education system is in need of major reform.
- “In short, we have a 21st century economy with a 19th century education system, and it is leaving too many children behind.”
That is why we are undertaking an education revolution and that is why this bill is so important. Not only is it providing more funding for all our schools, it is also delivering new measures to improve accountability, transparency and teacher standards in the education system.
And this is not to be pessimistic about our education system. We are lucky in this country to have some of the best schools, teachers and administrators in the world. Our schools and our educational standards are of the highest order, but we must make the jump; taking our education system into the future.
Australian families need to know that their children are getting a modern education of the highest international standards, and should be confident that no matter where in Australia they choose to live they can send their kids to a top quality school.
It is also essential to move away from the social divide between public and private schools, something that this bill provides. Instead we need to move to a landscape where quality of education, a focus on individual educational needs, and transparency of educational institutions inform parental choices and more importantly each school’s performance.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, describe the twin goals of excellence and equity. Both are achievable and most importantly we should demand no less for our children.
Education is the best way of fighting inequality, providing opportunities for all children to lead fulfilling and productive lives.
These opportunities should not be limited by geographical or socio-economical particulars. All children, whether they live in the country or city and from whatever background, should have equal access to the same great education.
And in Australia we have the opportunity and the resources to make this equality and standard a reality.
What we have lacked has been national leadership in this area. What the past 12 years has taught us is that without strong direction at the national level, standards can drop, comparisons with other countries can worsen and our children can be short changed by the education system.
The Rudd Government promised at the last election to modernising our education system all the way from early childhood to higher learning. We have been working at it for a year and we are continuing today to deliver on that promise with this bill.
This bill links funding agreements to schools to certain requirements for a greater, more open education system.
Division 3 of the bill highlights the need for independent schools to participate in national student assessments. This will include an assessment against national standards in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
It also includes requirements for non-government schools to participate in preparing a national report on the outcomes of schooling. This will help greatly to inform the community about schooling across the country.
The implementation of a National Curriculum will ensure that across Australia no student is left behind on important minimum standards of knowledge.
And non-government schools will also be required to make reports relating to students and financial operations of the schools.
For the first time, there will be consistency and transparency across all recipients of government funding. It is important to note that there is no requirement placed on non-government schools by this bill that will not also apply to the public school system.
Firstly this bill continues to fulfil the Government’s election promise that no school will lose a dollar. Public Schools will continue to have their funding indexed to make sure levels do no drop below 2008 levels and the Socio-Economic-Status funding allocation will continue to ensure that funding goes to those areas and schools where it will have the biggest impact.
Independent schools, just like all Australian Schools, are committed to providing the highest level of education they can for their students. They will therefore receive $28 billion in funding for non-government schools from 2009-2012.
Despite comments from the Liberal Party, the vast majority of Independent Schools in Australia want this bill to go through. Who wouldn’t with $28 billion in funding at stake, but it is more than that: The Liberals claim that the reporting measures and national standards are onerous and unwanted; this is wrong.
Let’s just look at some of what the Dr Geoff Newcombe, Executive Director Association of Independent Schools of NSW has to say about the concerns raised by those opposite:
On the issue of the $28 billion funding:
- “It is absolutely critical that this bill is passed without delay so that independent schools have enough funds early in 2009 to pay their teachers and staff.”
On the concerns about the national curriculum:
- “Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has now indicated that the new Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority will be asked to look at ways in which the national curriculum can provide flexibility and allow for differences that still meet the required standards. This is reassuring and represents a commonsense approach to implementing a national curriculum that takes into account the diversity that is a feature of our existing school education system.”
On the concerns about financial disclosure:
- “The implementation of the proposed national curriculum and the new reporting framework were raised at a Senate Standing Committee inquiry into the bill. However, most independent school groups are confident that these issues will be satisfactorily dealt with in consultations with the Government.”
And he concludes that:
- “These, however, are matters best dealt with when the details of the Regulations associated with the legislation are known.”
On the obviously politically motivated objections of those opposite:
- “There are times when political differences must be put aside to allow for critical pieces of legislation to be passed for the benefit of the community.
- The Schools Assistance Bill 2008, which provides for the funding of nearly 1.2 million Australian students in more than 2,700 independent and Catholic schools, is one such piece of legislation.”
And he goes on:
- “What we don’t want is a situation where proposed amendments delay the bill until next year. This would be disastrous for many independent schools”
- “Attempts to amend the bill in the Senate may put at risk funding for non-government schools for the commencement of 2009. Certainty has been replaced with uncertainty …”
The sector knows that allowing transparency of performance and funding makes for a better more open education system.
They also know that national standards do nothing but benefit students. These are minimum standards but they are not low, they ensure that all schools that receive commonwealth funding offer education that delivers for our children. Such an arrangement does not impede the operation of different approaches to school but simply ensures minimum standards.
This arrangement is fair, equitable and what our children deserve.
Accountability and transparency in our government and non-government schools can only benefit students.
What we are seeing from the opposition today is the inadequacy of the Shadow Minister for Education Mr Pyne. Bent low under the shameful legacy of the Howard government and facing the vision of the Deputy Prime Minister, those opposite have responded with an argument against accountability and transparency.
We should never forget the Liberal’s record on education. Between 1995 and 2004 public funding of tertiary education increased by an average of 49% across the OECD but declined by 4% in Australia. This makes Australia the only OECD country where the total level of public funding of tertiary education decreased during that time.
The Rudd Government’s Education Revolution is well underway:
- Investing in Trade Training Centres in Schools, with a $2.5 billion injection to build new infrastructure to develop vital skills.
- The Digital Education Revolution has already delivered more than $116 million for almost 117,000 new computers in 896 secondary schools.
- We have spent $500 million under the better universities Renewal Fund to facilitate the rebuilding and repair of campus infrastructure.
- For early childhood learning the government is investing $114.5 million over four years, establishing 38 early learning and child care centres.
- $577.4 million has been allocated to develop a National Action Plan for Literacy and Numeracy. 29 pilot programs for two years will guild reform and development into the future.
- The Education Investment Fund with already 8.7 billion to provide future capital for education investment.
- Phasing out of domestic Full-fee paying places to ensure that merit is the only driver of access to higher education.
- The Bradley Review of Higher education.
- Establishing a national Curriculum for the first time to ensure that no student misses out.
- $62.4 million for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program.
- $28 billion to non-government schools in this bill.
This bill delivers on the Rudd Government’s election promises to undertake an education revolution in this country.
It moves the Australian education system forward and away from the traditional private sector public sector divide and ensures that all schools that receive government funding commit to certain standards of performance, transparency and accountability.
By blocking this bill the liberal opposition is denying non-government schools 28 billion dollars in funding. But more importantly they are holding Australian children back from a truly modern and progressive education revolution.
A revolution that I believe we need in Australia. Once again I add my support to this important bill.
The education of young people is one of the most important responsibilities facing every nation. While many decisions we make in parliament are focused primarily on the here and now the decisions we make about schooling form the foundation for the future of our nation and so it is with the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 and the Schools Assistance Bill 2008.
The Schools Assistance Bill 2008 has been described by some as a simple change or an interim measure until a full review of funding is made by 2011. However, this bill is much more than that. It contains within it an indication of what this government’s policy is going to be both for public and non-government schooling in coming years. Broadly speaking government schools are funded by the states while non-government schools are funded by the Commonwealth. However, some federal money does go to government schools and currently these funds, along with those for non-government schools, are handled together under the arrangements of the Schools Assistance Act. These arrangements end at the end of this year.
This bill seeks to stipulate funding arrangements for the period 2009 to 2012. However, it also represents a significant change in the way that Commonwealth funding is delivered to schools. The future funding for government schools will be provided through the National Education Agreement, or NEA, which is currently being negotiated with COAG, and I note the agreements reached at the COAG meeting last Saturday. Meanwhile the future funding arrangements for non-government schools are to be separated as stipulated in this bill. The main features of the bill are new reporting requirements, which will include information on performance, finances and programs. The government claims that the bill aligns the requirements for both government and non-government schools, which will allow for greater transparency and accountability across the sectors.
The bill also makes non-government school funding conditional on the implementation of the national curriculum. New funding arrangements for Indigenous students attending non-government schools are provided through the Education Legislation Amendment Bill. Essentially the new funding arrangements will tie funding to the student rather than to programs. The government estimates that this will result in approximately 1,200 more Indigenous students receiving additional support in school. Senator Macdonald has raised some concerns in relation to Indigenous students as to how the funding model is treated. I am very sympathetic to those concerns and I think they need to be adequately addressed in the course of the committee stages of this bill so that those students are not in any way disadvantaged.
The government has also decided to continue the current system of general recurrent funding for non-government schools. This model allocates funding according to the socioeconomic profile of a school community with more funding going to schools in poorer areas. Together, these measures are estimated to provide around $28 billion to non-government schools over the forward estimates period. Let me say at the outset, I believe that with public funding comes public accountability. Schools cannot accept taxpayers’ money without having responsibility back to the taxpayers. However, what this bill highlights is the tension between the independence of non-government schools and the growing dependence of these schools on Commonwealth government funding.
This bill has resulted in more correspondence to my office than any other bill during my short time in this place. In short, the concerns put to me have centred around three clear themes. Firstly, changes in the bill that are tied to recurrent funding for the start of next year, which makes schools fearful that if the bill is not passed promptly they will not be able to pay their teachers to run their schools. Secondly, the requirement for non-government schools to disclose in detail all their funding sources is unnecessary and will result in a greater gap between the sectors. Thirdly, the implementation of a national curriculum will severely restrict the flexibility, diversity and independence of non-government schools.
Let me firstly address the issue of public disclosure of funding sources. This bill, as I read it in its current form, requires non-government schools to disclose all sources of funding and empowers the minister to block funding to schools on a range of grounds including a lack of financial viability. I have reservations about these changes and I had a very good meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Gillard, the minister in charge of this bill, earlier today. I think it needs to be made absolutely clear that, in relation to the sources of funding, whilst the aggregate amount ought to be disclosed—and I think that is fair enough—disclosing the individual sources is something that goes beyond the pale. The unintended consequences of that could be quite severe and I do not believe that is the intention of the government, and I think it is important that that is something that is made clear in the legislative sense during the committee stage.
The lack of confidentiality, for instance, may discourage some donors who prefer discretion, while, on a practical level, the publication of donations may present a hit list for other schools in their fundraising efforts. I feel uncomfortable about these provisions that could potentially penalise schools for being more effective fundraisers. Instead of rewarding effort it may result in pressure to reduce school fees or make it harder to raise funds in the following year. While I do understand and respect the position of the minister in relation to this, in order to ascertain what the aggregate sources of income are—and I think that is the general intent of the government in relation to that—I am looking forward to the committee stage for that to be clarified. I am all for transparency but I am against unintended consequences and, as the legislation currently stands, those requirements with respect to sources, as I read and as others have read the bill, could lead to these unintended consequences. I believe that this issue of privacy of the disclosure of sources is something that needs to be dealt with in the committee stage.
The second issue that concerns me is the implementation of a national curriculum. Like all Australians, I believe it is vital that every student has the basics of reading and writing, of counting and calculating and of thinking and reflecting as well as the skills needed to learn for oneself. However, I also believe that there is need for caution when governments seek to standardise and set a curriculum. There are many headmasters placing demands on our schools and curriculum. Our curriculum needs to be responsive to the demands of the global economy as well as to the demands of local employers. Our curriculum needs to help our young people live in today’s rapidly changing society as well as to prepare for life in a yet unknown future. Our curriculum needs to underpin active democracy as well as to reflect the growing diversity of our citizens. Our curriculum needs to be detailed in its demands but flexible in its delivery.
What concerns me most about the government’s moves to implement a national curriculum is quite simply that we do not know what it will be. Students learn best when they see connections between subjects and the real world but, as yet, we do not know what the subjects will be, let alone what connections will be emphasised. While four initial disciplines have been identified, there is still no detail of what will be taught within them. I can understand the concern of a number of my fellow senators as to why schools should sign up to something that does not yet exist. How can the government make their funding dependent on schools adhering to the unknown?
This has been the subject of ongoing correspondence to and discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. I have been grateful for the information that has been provided by the Deputy Prime Minister’s office in relation to this but, in essence, the government’s response has been: ‘We will collaborate with the states on government schools and we will consult widely, as we have in the past, and this will take shape.’ I think that is a fair summary. I believe, however, that there ought to be more detail about the manner of consultation. For instance, it is important that, in the absence of providing the curriculum itself, the government crystallise its position on the principles of assessment, the expansion of national testing, the draft guidelines for formulating the national curriculum, the method for this formulation and exactly who is involved and how they are representative of the diverse range of non-government providers. These are the sorts of things that I believe ought to be crystallised in the context of the debate on this bill.
I am concerned that this could undermine the purpose of the non-government schooling sector: to allow for diversity in teaching approaches, choice by parents and differences in curriculum. It should not the role of any minister for education, bureaucrat or academic to be reaching down into the classroom with a big ruler and whacking teachers that do not teach whatever is in fashion in a standardised curriculum. There ought to be some flexibility there. I am not suggesting that that would be the approach of this minister, but I am concerned about giving that sort of power to a particular minister. I think Senator Carr will remember the debate of a few months ago on the issue of the national protocols for higher education. I was convinced by the government’s arguments there that you ought not to penalise higher education institutions if they stray from a one-size-fits-all governance model. It was not about curriculum, but I think there are some parallels with the principle there.
I note the view of the South Australian Primary Principals Association that one of the biggest challenges facing teachers is that the curriculum is already too crowded. I am aware of complaints by teachers that, with every new public crisis, ministers feel required to introduce a new schooling initiative to address it. If enough headlines say: ‘Dog bites child’, it is not long before teachers are required to find time to teach the new ‘dog safety strategy’. I do not say that flippantly; it is an example of the way in which curriculum can be driven.
Whether it be for religious, cultural or philosophical reasons, I believe independent schools need to have the space to teach creatively and diversely. But with public funding comes public accountability. No school should accept taxpayers’ support and then foster religious intolerance, teach homophobia or encourage racism. Neither should they ban computers, neglect basic literacy and numeracy or inadequately prepare students as future citizens. But I also do not think we should be forced to sign schools up to an unknown curriculum. There should at least be some guidelines with respect to that. We need to know what is going to be taught and why. It seems a strange argument to state that what is being taught can be separated from how and why it is being taught. To argue this is to argue for a model of curriculum where a teacher could be replaced by 30 laptops and a sheepdog. If one accepts the argument that a national curriculum will not prescribe ideology or constrain teaching principles, it still raises issues for different curriculum approaches, such as the International Baccalaureate.
My son is currently doing year 11. He is doing an IB course at a non-government school. He is working incredibly hard at it and is finding it very satisfying. It should be noted that my home state of South Australia has been acknowledged as a leader in the take-up of the International Baccalaureate. I think it is a world leader in terms of the number of students that have taken it up, and I have real concerns about the unknown and unintended consequences for the IB and other teaching approaches. I note that the Deputy Prime Minister has publicly stated that courses which have an approach that is based on excellence in education, such as the IB, should not be concerned. But I think it is still important that we have those guidelines and criteria.
I have been assured by the Deputy Prime Minister’s office that the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority will recognise well-established curriculum frameworks, but I believe that there needs to be a crystallisation of the matters that I have raised previously. We need to know how a national curriculum will integrate with an international program that has a broad range of learning areas, including areas of interaction, such as the IB. Does this explain what the implications will be for the international moderation and assessment components of the IB? Does it explain whether IB schools will effectively have to run two curriculums simultaneously? At the moment, we do not have the answers to these questions, other than some broad principles. Again, it has been very useful to have obtained the outline of those principles from the Deputy Prime Minister’s office, and I am grateful for that, but I believe there needs to be further crystallisation.
The final matter that I wish to note is the concern that has been raised about the speed of these changes—about whether it is necessary to deal with this curriculum issue now, in the context of this bill, as well as the basic impact of funding. If the bill does not go through, the funding of non-government schools will be compromised. Basically, it will be cut. In the communication that my office has had with school communities and with independent school associations, it is evident that they are in a bind. They want this bill to go through because of the funding—that is a primary concern—but also some of them are concerned. If this bill requires them to implement a national curriculum that is unfair or that somehow impedes their independence or their ability to deliver the best outcomes for their students, they are not happy about that. It is important that they are not put under that sort of pressure and that they have some comfort and certainty on the issue of a curriculum.
I think we could have had an alternative approach that would have balanced public accountability with independence and flexibility. I refer to a possible resolution that could be found through schools that receive public funding being required to demonstrate adherence to a public charter for schooling. That is something that is being looked at by Professor Alan Reid, a former dean of education at UniSA as well as the head of a recent review of the South Australian Certificate of Education. His current research with the Australian Research Council, as well as his 2003 discussion paper for the Australian Council of Deans of Education, puts forward the notion of a public commons for education. This public commons concept explores the responsibility of government and non-government schools to conform to public values of diversity and inclusivity in return for government funding. While I do not necessarily agreed with Professor Reid’s views, the idea of common resources being used for the common good around common public values is one that would have been worthy of further exploration had there been the time to do so in the processes involved in this bill.
There is a real concern that this bill, by tying funding to a national curriculum, is fundamentally unfair. I have said publicly that, if there is a crystallisation of what the curriculum will be in broad terms, what the processes will be and what time lines are involved, I believe that will give an adequate framework to allay the concerns of those private schools and those private school organisations that have expressed their concern.
I also note the claim made by the government—whether it is fair or not I suppose can be dealt with in the committee stages—that in February 2005 the coalition signed up schools to statements of learning linked to funding and that, at the time, no detail was provided. That is something that no doubt the coalition can reflect on or comment on in terms of what has been put by the government.
I believe that education policy should be about the long-term conditions of schooling, not short-term conditional funding. Education policy should be about better skills, not better spin. Education policy should be about good processes, not old ideology, and education policy should be about planning. I believe that the current bill, in relation particularly to the issue of the curriculum, needs to be better. There should be clarity in relation to the sources of funding. I believe that the government understands those concerns and that it was not the intention of the government to disclose private sources of donations.
Also, in relation to the whole issue of the qualified audit process, there ought to be some criteria by which a qualified audit, which could impact on a school’s funding, should be determined. That is why I believe a fair and equitable mechanism in the circumstances would be for the grounds or the criteria for a qualified audit to be the subject of a disallowable instrument—that is, a legislative instrument that could be the subject of disallowance by the Senate. I believe that would be an adequate and good safeguard in relation to the audit process.
I support the second reading of this bill. I reserve my position in relation to the third reading, but I believe that there are a number of reforms that the government is proposing that have significant potential for increasing accountability and for increasing transparency. These are good things, but I also think we need to be mindful of the concern of the non-government schools to ensure that there are fair outcomes in relation to this bill.
The Schools Assistance Bill 2008 provides $28 billion of funding to non-government schools for the years 2009 to 2012. Let me say at the outset that Family First supports a national curriculum and Family First supports a strong public and a strong independent school education system. Family First wants a curriculum that lifts education standards in Australia. We want a curriculum that encourages children to have a love of learning. We want a curriculum that challenges, inspires and enriches the lives of children.
However, Family First has a number of concerns with this bill. Of major concern to Family First is the degree of bullying being displayed by the federal government. The Rudd government is behaving like a bully in the schoolyard: ‘Give me your homework and hand over your lunch money or you’ll cop it.’ The government is trying to ram through this $28 billion school-funding scheme in the last sitting week of the year in an effort to bully schools into signing up to the government’s proposed but unseen national curriculum. How can you sign up to a national curriculum when no-one knows exactly what it looks like?
Many representatives from schools and schools associations that I have had discussions with believe that they are being held to ransom by the Rudd government over this bill. They say it is a case of being pressured to sign up to the unseen national curriculum if they want to see a cent of government funding. They say the Rudd government’s line is: ‘Trust us; we’ll give you the detail of the national curriculum eventually. Just sign up first.’
The government’s decision to refuse funding unless schools agree to the national curriculum has left independent schools stranded. The end of the school year is looming, and these schools still do not know if they will have the funding they need to maintain their programs next year. If the government really wanted schools to support its national curriculum, it would stop standing over schools like a schoolmaster from the 1940s and stop threatening them with the strap if they do not sign up to something they cannot even see. In case the government has not realised or noticed, education has moved on since the 1940s.
No wonder schools and parents are anxious. Let us think about what we tell our kids: ‘Don’t sign anything without reading the fine print. Don’t sign up for a mobile phone deal and don’t put your name to any contract without knowing the detail.’ So how can independent schools be expected to sign up to an unseen national curriculum without reading the fine print?
Family First is also concerned at the references to funding sources in this bill. Under section 24 of this bill, independent schools will have to declare publicly all the sources of their funding. Where does that leave the benefactor or company who wants to contribute to the school’s art room or music program and is not seeking credit and does not want to be hassled in the future? Bad luck—under the government’s scheme, he or she or their company is being named and identified as a target for every group and every individual seeking funding of their own. That generous benefactor faces being hounded by those after a quick buck.
Independent schools, like any organisations, are already bound by disclosure processes. They already have significant existing reporting requirements to government and they are happy to provide that information. Independent schools registered as companies limited by guarantee for administration purposes, like all other companies, already abide by existing reporting and auditing regulations. According to the Commonwealth programs for schools quadrennial administrative guidelines 2005-2008, under the Commonwealth funding agreements for non-government schools, all non-government schools and systems must:
… provide electronically a statement … to the Department by 30 April in the year following the program year … which contains particulars … such as all income received (gross) and expenditure incurred (gross) in operating the school and/or system and providing activities for students …
Information from the financial questionnaires completed by schools is published in the National report on schooling in Australia and other reports. So this information is already publicly available. Why does the government insist it needs more disclosure from these schools? The government knows that schools cannot commit to offering services to their students and parents from the start of next year unless these billions of dollars of funding are provided. That is why the Rudd government is holding independent schools to ransom, by threatening to withhold that funding. This would be a joke if it were not so serious.
Family First is serious about supporting education, both public and independent, and giving parents the option to make a choice about quality education for their children, whatever sector they choose. If the Rudd government were serious, it would allow the $28 billion to go through immediately, then deal with the curriculum and disclosure elsewhere. This would ensure children at independent schools are not deprived of programs next year. It would also allow time for independent schools to be fully briefed on the detail of the proposed national curriculum and for any concerns about the scheme to be addressed without the threat of funding cuts looming over schools. But it will not. For those reasons, Family First is standing up for schools and especially for the parents and students who choose to attend non-government schools.
Family First will move in the committee stage to split the bill, so that the $28 billion of funding can go to the schools without delay, while we wait for the Rudd government to do its homework—to bring back for marking—and develop the detail of the national curriculum next year. Family First’s amendments will also ensure the schools provide adequate reports on the programs they provide from government money, while removing the unnecessary detailed disclosure of other funding.
I will take this opportunity to sum up and to thank everyone for their contribution to the debate on the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. These bills provide an estimated $28 billion over four years for schools, beginning on 1 January 2009. They are an essential step forward in the government’s education revolution agenda, combining investment with transparency and accountability. They provide certainty for schools across this country. We should be clear about precisely how many schools we are talking about and how many students. We have 2,728 schools directly affected by this legislation. Enrolments in non-government schools, according to the latest figures I have available, are in excess of 1,148,000 students. They are the people we are talking about here. When we talk about the future and we talk about certainty, we should squarely focus on those people that are directly affected by this legislation.
What we are seeking here is a new era of transparency, of quality, of better resourcing, for both government and non-government schools. In the debate, we heard some mention of resourcing. I think it is important to draw the Senate’s attention to precisely how much money we are talking about. I have mentioned the $28 billion for these two bills over four years from 1 January 2009. But that has to be seen in the context of the overall commitments this government has made to school education, which are now in excess of $58 billion over a five-year period. There has been an increase in resourcing for school education, as part of the education revolution, of some 29 per cent. So we are moving from a situation where, under the old quadrennium, there was some $32 billion to a situation now where, as a result of all the various funding arrangements that have been announced and through various legislative measures, there is a figure of $58 billion over five years.
Senators in this chamber, therefore, will be obliged to make some pretty stark choices. I am sure Senator Mason is only too well aware of this proposition, and I trust he has communicated it to his colleagues. We have some stark choices before us. It is in the power of this chamber to make the decision as to whether or not this $28 billion goes to those students that I mentioned, the 1.148 million students, from 1 January next year. That is a stark choice.
From what I have heard from the debate today, it is quite clear to me that the Liberal Party are opposed to the transparency, opposed to the accountability and opposed to the development of a national curriculum. They have been arguing this position right throughout this year, so the question of timing that has been raised in the debate is of course quite fallacious.
What we have is a situation where the government has sought to see an education revolution, a revolution in transparency and in terms of a quality curriculum, and it is part of our intention to bring more resources to the education of children right throughout this country to lift standards and ensure that we strive for excellence in every school in this country. We have heard from the Liberal Party that their actions in this matter are being taken in the name of the rights of parents. We say that the program that the government is advancing as part of its education revolution is very much about the rights of parents—the right of parents to know what is going on so they can make informed choices about the future of their children’s education. That is precisely what this legislation does. It allows parents to know what is going on in their local school, as is their right.
The Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 are an integral part of the Labor government’s education revolution, and these bills are being introduced in conjunction with the new financial arrangements negotiated between the Commonwealth and the state and territory governments through the Council of Australian Governments. They are a very important part of the funding arrangements to ensure the future of quality education in this country.
Senator Macdonald has raised some questions. He started by saying he had not actually read the legislation. He then went on to say he did not know much about the legislation but he wanted assurance about their operation. It is his right as a senator to do that. We will give him the assurances that he is seeking in the committee stages of this bill.
Senator Xenophon has also raised some issues with the government. The government gives its firm commitment to the non-government sector that they will continue to be included as active and equal partners in the development of a national curriculum and in the process to recognise well-established alternative curriculum frameworks and reporting authorities once it is established in early 2009. The Australian government will ensure the development of this national recognition process is a priority through ACARA and that representatives from the non-government sector will have a seat at the table with the government sector during the development of this recognition phase. The Australian government gives a further commitment that, until such time as ACARA is established, the non-government sector will continue to be included as an equal and active partner in the development and specification of the national curriculum that is being led by the Interim National Curriculum Board. I understand a series of amendments to that effect have been circulated standing in my name.
The interim board has also released its framing papers from each of the learning areas of English, mathematics, the sciences and history—they are available for public comment until 28 February 2009—and it has indicated that it will release its final recommendations on the specifications of the national curriculum in term 1, 2009. The interim board has indicated that it will establish drafting teams drawing across the government and non-government sectors to establish the content and achieve standards for each learning areas. This means that those in the non-government sector will have the opportunity to directly participate in the drafting teams that develop the specifications of the content of the national curriculum. They will have a hands-on role in the development of the curriculum.
The interim board has been very clear in the 10 principles that it set out on page 4 of its scoping paper The shape of the national curriculum: a proposal for discussion.
- i) The curriculum should allow jurisdictions, systems and schools to implement it in a way that values teachers’ professional knowledge and reflects local contexts.
- j) The curriculum should be established on a strong evidence base on learning, pedagogy and what works in professional practice and should encourage teachers to experiment systematically with and evaluate their practices.
It goes on to say, in relation to the national curriculum, that:
There will be scope, as there is in state and territory curricula, for teacher professional judgement about what to cover and in what sequence, about how to reflect local and regional circumstances and about how to take advantage of teachers’ special knowledge and teachers’ and students’ interests.
As the Deputy Prime Minister has said before, the national curriculum will not be a straitjacket for schools. It will not specify down to the very last lesson. Clearly, we actually have a higher opinion of teachers and the professional quality that they bring to the task than the opposition does. The system will leave the decisions on how the curriculum is delivered to the judgement of schools and teachers. It will not interfere with the ability of schools to incorporate the content of the national curriculum into their own educational philosophies or their pedagogical approaches. They will be able to continue to offer local curriculum arrangements within the requirements of the national curriculum.
The development of the national curriculum provides an opportunity for the curriculum and the national assessment program to be properly aligned. There is clearly an appetite amongst those in the education community for that alignment. Consideration of aligning the national curriculum with the national assessment program will be a matter for the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. It is possible that the council will seek advice from ACARA on how best to achieve that alignment. The representatives of the non-government sector on ACARA’s board will ensure the non-government sector is well placed to communicate its views on any kind of alignment between the curriculum and the assessment. So, as a matter of and as per the arrangements of all governments, the final national curriculum will be signed off by the Council of Australian Governments after it has been endorsed by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. ACARA will have responsibility for recommending the national curriculum to MCEETYA. This is an important point because it reminds us of where the driver of the national curriculum has come from. It was back in April 2007 that the states and territories agreed that the Council for the Australian Federation report The future of schooling in Australia was to commit the development of a national curriculum. This commitment to the national curriculum has been reiterated by the states and territories through the national education agreement announced at COAG on 29 November 2008. It was also agreed by MCEETYA through the national declaration on the educational goals for young Australians that will be released in the next week or so.
It has taken us some 30 years to reach this historic agreement—you could hardly say we have rushed into this! It has taken 30 years of discussion, but at last we are there. The interim board has indicated that the review of the national curriculum should be initiated in about 2013 or 2014, to ensure that its content remains relevant to students. This is in keeping with the usual good practice of curriculum renewal cycles operating in the states and territories and internationally. A curriculum does not remain static or fixed in time, no matter how many politicians say that it does. It must grow and must evolve. As such, the Australian government will be strongly supporting such a review of the curriculum.
Let me restate for the record the way in which the non-government sector can be assured about its equal and active participation in the development of the national curriculum. The non-government sector is currently represented by three members of the non-government sector on the interim national curriculum board. This provides an assurance that the non-government sector will have the opportunity to participate as active and equal partners in all—and I emphasise ‘all’—of the process that the interim board uses to development the national curriculum. The non-government sector is specifically represented on the board of the new authority, ACARA. It will be a partner in whatever is developed in relation to curriculum assessment and reporting. As we have already seen, the development of the national curriculum is being conducted in an open and transparent manner. Many members of the non-government sector have already participated in the national and regional forums that the interim board has held across this country to shape its early advice on the national curriculum. This is the kind of open consultation process that we would expect, and of course it will continue.
The Australian government has committed itself to ensuring a strong relationship between the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the non-government sector during the development of the national curriculum and the national recognition processes—and you would expect nothing less. This will ensure that the non-government sector knows it can speak openly and frankly to government officials who will work with the non-government sector to ensure that there are processes and protocols in place for ensuring that there is in fact a two-way communication on these issues. This will build on the strong existing relationships that have already been in place between this government and the national peak bodies of the non-government sector. We have heard their testament to that effect throughout the Senate inquiry into the Schools Assistance Bill.
I would like to conclude by saying that this government, unlike the previous government, genuinely recognises and respects the role of the non-government sector as an equal and active partner in the development of the national curriculum. We are committed to working with the non-government sector on the issues. We are committed to listening to the non-government sector on the issues. We committed to ensuring that all young Australians receive the best quality education and have the best equality of opportunity that this country can possibly provide. We are putting forward a total of $58 billion to back up that commitment.
Original question agreed to.
Bills read a second time.
Sitting suspended from 6.32 pm to 7.30 pm