Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2023


Education and Employment References Committee; Report

4:51 pm

Photo of Penny Allman-PaynePenny Allman-Payne (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the interim report of the Senate Education and Employment References Committee, on the issue of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms.

The Greens opposed this inquiry from the outset because we saw it for what it is: a way to divert everyone's attention from the real issues impacting students, teachers and schools. This interim report has shown that we were right to do so. It is no surprise that we are seeing an increase in behaviours of concern in the classroom. The vast majority of socioeconomically disadvantaged kids and kids with a disability attend a public school, and right now nearly every single public school in this country is underfunded. What this means is teachers are trying to teach kids in classrooms with windows that don't open, heaters or air conditioners that don't work, technology that fails and no time or space to make adjustments for students who need them. For students with complex needs, it means they don't have access to the specialist support that they require.

Everyone working in the education system has a right to feel safe, secure and protected in their workplace. Schools have a unique place in society, serving as both places of education and workspaces. It's teachers who are bearing the brunt of broader socioeconomic challenges and the persistent and chronic underfunding of public education. Instead of facing this head on, the Labor and Liberal parties are happy to perpetuate the myth that teachers are to blame, that they just need to be better prepared and learn to better manage behaviour. We are forcing students into an environment that is not inclusive, where the support and resources that they actually need do not exist. And then we expect overworked and underpaid teachers to simply hold it all together. This is insane.

By focusing almost exclusively on training and pedagogy, the Liberal and Labor parties are missing the point. Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion found, through freedom of information, that nearly half of suspended and excluded students have a disability and that students from First Nations communities and in out-of-home care are also disproportionately represented in these statistics. Why, in a wealthy country like Australia, are we not actually addressing the causes of disadvantage? Why do we just accept that hundreds of thousands of kids are coming to school hungry? One in six kids in this country is living in poverty. Why do we just accept that many kids have no choice but to attend a school that isn't able to provide them with support for their disability or trauma or other complex needs?

Governments do nothing to address disadvantage and then they punish our kids by forcing them into public schools that perpetuate that very disadvantage. The single biggest influencer on a young person's educational outcomes at the moment, and that is including according to PISA, is their level of socioeconomic income. Let me say that again: at the moment, the biggest influence on how well a young person is going to do at school is their family's income.

The Liberals can bang on all they want about a stricter curriculum and their discipline fantasy. I point out that teachers already explicitly teach behaviour. The state education system in Queensland requires every school to have a set of behaviour expectations and to communicate them to students, parents and carers. The idea that we would task ACARA with creating a subject called 'behaviour' is simply ludicrous.

All of this means nothing when kids are being taught on empty stomachs, are sweltering or freezing in demountables, or are without access to the additional adjustment and supports their disability or learning difficulty demands. We should call this for what it is: a misdirection. Scripted routines and approaches are a profoundly simplistic way to manage students in the classroom. They are the equivalent of educational first aid, which is required when we don't meet students' complex needs in the first place.

I point out again that PISA, in its most recent report, told us yet again that the kids at the top in this country are doing just fine and the kids at the bottom are the ones who are falling further behind. I'm not hearing calls for scripted routines and behaviour curriculums in the schools where kids are doing okay. Again: it's the equivalent of educational first aid, which is required when we don't meet students' complex needs. It demonstrates a failure to understand outside drivers, as well as removing any space for nuance, empathy and, importantly, freedom for teachers to manage their classroom using their expertise and judgement. Do you want to know why teachers are leaving the profession? Because their autonomy is being taken away from them. Teaching is not just a science. It is an art as well as a science. Again, I remind you that the kids at the top are doing okay and no-one is telling those schools to start scripting their routines and introducing a behaviour curriculum.

It seems that Labor and the coalition have no interest in actually making meaningful changes to education. If they did then they would want every student in this country to have access to a fully funded quality education. But they don't. Even with the government at the moment it's: 'We're on a pathway. We're taking steps.' Come on, people! We need to get this done and we need to get it done now. Instead, we continue this endless theatre of misdirection and finger-pointing, blaming teachers, shaming parents and carers and leaving our young people without hope. In a rich country like this one, that is unacceptable.

Debate adjourned.