Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Statements by Senators

Education Funding

12:58 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon in senators' statements to put on the record some remarks around the significant announcement that was made by the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, about reform that is needed to continue the improvements that have been implemented by Labor with the announcement of the Gonski funding reforms. The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, announced the 'Your Child. Our Future' suite of reforms around education that, I think, are absolutely vital for the future of this nation. It represents one of the most significant improvements in school education that we have seen in two generations in this country.

Labor understands that improving access to a quality education is the critical dimension of enabling the success of individual students through the school. So it is about your child; it is about your grandchild; it is about those individual children. But it is also about ensuring that the collective investment of the country in a fine education for each young Australian is a benefit to each one of us in this nation. These are the children of a nation—the children of families and parents, certainly, but the children of a nation—who will be our greatest resource going forward. We need to invest in them, and we need to do it in a way that is sustainable and a way that makes sure that that whole sector can plan for excellence in education for every single child. And I do mean every single child, no matter what their background, no matter where they live, whether it is in the city or the country or in remote or regional areas around the country, no matter whether it is in Catholic schools, independent schools, government schools or schools of any particular philosophical bent. We live in a country, a nation, where every student should be able to walk through the gates of any school and know that they are going to get a fine education. Sadly, that is not the case.

The government opposite promised in the lead-up to the last election that they would fund Gonski reforms in full. They had placards outside polling booths saying they would match—

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Dollar for dollar!

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

dollar for dollar the funding that was committed by the Labor Party for a full six-year cycle, which was a carefully consulted, carefully constructed response to the reality that inequity in Australian schools is growing and growing. They said 'dollar for dollar', but they did not put any of the fine print. They did not even bother to put fine print on that. How cynical they are! They did not bother to even put the fine print: 'Oh, we're going to match it for dollar for the first four years, but, sorry, for years 5 and 6, forget it; the deal's off.' That is what they are attempting to justify in their comments around education today and what we have heard from them in the last couple of weeks.

We know, and that is why we have committed to your child and our future: the opportunity for all students to benefit from a $37.3 billion investment in every child across the entire nation. I have been—as I am sure other senators sitting here today and you yourself, Acting Deputy President Sterle, have been—to many, many schools where you see the investment of parents in trying to create safe and wonderful learning spaces for those children, with P&Cs that run barbecues and sausage sizzles one after the other. In terms of the energy that parents put into schools, it has got to a point now where we have seen parents fundraising for basic books for kids trying to learn to read in kindergarten. We see parents fundraising to try to get a speech pathologist to a regional school because children have clear and palpable needs. They do not need any more diagnosis; they actually need some funding to get a response. Where we have seen those Gonski dollars invested—and certainly I have witnessed it in the state of New South Wales—we have seen a transformation of outcomes for the schools where that money has been able to flow and to create that change of engagement with individual students.

I really want to speak, if I can, briefly, about the impact of being able to fund the right type of education for students when they need it. By focusing on every child's needs, we know that we are not just attending to the disadvantages that come from low socioeconomic background or the evidence that shows us that Indigenous students are finishing school up to three years behind others in their cohort, and we are not just responding to students with disability or students with limited English or small schools or rural or regional issues, although they are the elements on which the Gonski needs based funding is going to be delivered. By attending to the reality of those children, we improve the learning opportunities of every single child in a classroom because having the resources to help kids learn what they need to when they need to means that there will be more individual attention for every single student in those schools, more one-on-one support, more early intervention programs, so that students do not fall behind.

Once you have fallen behind, it is a hard thing to catch up, and it is hard for teachers when they see these needs and they cannot get their hands on the resources that they need. Those resources might be in the shape of a speech pathologist. They might be in the shape of a specialist teacher to come in and do a reading recovery program. There is genuine distress that teachers express to me—and parents too—when they know that a child would massively benefit from an early intervention of a reading recovery program and there is only funding for three students to get that program instead of the seven who need it.

That is what this funding package, 'Your Child. Our Future', is set to redress—that criminal abrogation of responsibility for making sure that every child in every school gets the needs based help that they deserve to make sure that they are able to continue their learning successfully after an intervention. We are talking about funding for remedial literacy and numeracy support in every school that becomes possible with the 'Your Child. Our Future' policy implementation from Labor. We are talking about extension classes to challenge students that are excelling in classes. We are talking about increased year 12 completion through more alternative and vocational pathways so that all students can leave school with the skills that they need for jobs. And we are talking about access to specialist allied health support, not just speech pathology but occupational therapy, a critical part of helping some young people at various ages re-engage with schools and get the skills that they need to be able to build on that success. Early intervention is critical. Early intervention for kids who need it benefits all the students in a classroom because it makes more learning possible for every single student.

There is so much more that I want to say about our policy, but I also want to take the opportunity right now to speak a little bit about one of the elements that has emerged in Mr Shorten's comments, around supporting children with disability. There was a report tabled over the holiday period here in the Senate—Senator Sue Lines was the chair of the inquiry—about disability and access, or limited access, for students with disability in schools. A significant amount of the problems with access is because there is not adequate money to provide for the needs of those students in our schools. I want to say that community acceptance and awareness of disability has come a very long way in many, many fields. Just a few decades ago, wheelchair access, disabled ramps, hearing loops and braille signs were all things that we did not think would become a common part of schooling, but they have become that. The problem now is that, while we have increased awareness and inclusion for the disabled population, in many places that is not happening at our schools.

The Senate Education and Employment References Committee inquired into this, and it is clearly time to end inaction. Also, it is clearly time to fund and redress the imbalance that exists with the inability of schools to support students with need. The inquiry found astounding evidence that students with disability are routinely refused enrolment. They are offered, if they are lucky to get inside the school gate, part-time engagement at school, and they are frequently bullied and abused. It was gruelling listening to hear story after story from parents and peak groups. The evidence they gave us was quite shocking. I go to a quote from Theresa Duncombe who said:

When you walk into a school, you get greeted by closed doors as soon as they know you have a child with disability… it is no good having policies, guidelines, disability standards and all the various acts and the human rights if at the school gate it does not happen.

Her comments were echoed by more than 300 submissions to hearings in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane last year. This culture of exclusion has often grown up and been facilitated by the financial pressure that schools are facing. So when those opposite pull out the argument that money does not make a difference, I ask them to read those 300 submissions and look at them carefully, because the truth is our kids, every single one of them, need better funding for education and it is only Labor that will deliver it. (Time expired)