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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
Electoral education

HAYTHORPE, Ms Correna, Federal President, Australian Education Union

MURPHY, Mr Dan, Federal Research Officer, Australian Education Union


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I remind witnesses that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. The evidence given here today will be recorded by Hansard and will attract parliamentary privilege. I invite each of you to make some brief introductory remarks before we proceed to questions.

Ms Haythorpe : Firstly, may I acknowledge that we are meeting on the lands of the Wurundjeri people, and we pay our respects to the custodians of this land, both past and present. I will speak on behalf of the union, and Dan will supplement that as required. But first I will give some background information. We represent approximately 190,000 members employed in public, primary, secondary and special schools; the early childhood sector; and the TAFE and adult provision sector—fairly broad coverage in terms of our membership. Our members provide civic and citizenship education to the majority of Australian school students, and we have consulted with them very broadly about this issue in the delivery of this curriculum area to facilitate our submission to the inquiry.

The feedback we are providing to you today is based on that consultation with our members. I guess there are a couple of key themes. We believe that it is fundamentally very important that students receive a comprehensive civics education, including electoral education, because it is a foundation for their ongoing participation in society beyond schooling as well as being part of their education within the school setting in terms of participating in some of the democratic processes that take place in the school setting. However, due to current political conversations in the education sector, I think there is a challenge for schools and for teachers to ensure that civics and electoral education receive the priority and support that is needed in order to be effective. You would be aware that there have been recent conversations around what the priorities of schooling should be, including an emphasis on teaching the basics of literacy and numeracy or a focus on the STEM subjects with respect to science, technology, engineering and maths and also with NAPLAN testing of literacy and numeracy, I guess that has enhanced the public comparison of schools with the MySchool website, and that has also highlighted that focus. In this context we think it is very important that we do not neglect the broader objectives of schooling, and that includes developing reflective and socially aware young people who understand what it means to live in a democratic society and how they can fully participate in that society. Teachers take that responsibility very seriously in making sure that civics education is a vital part of the school curriculum.

Recently the Education Council tasked ACARA with making changes to what has been described or coined the crowded curriculum. One of these changes, within the primary curriculum, is that the subjects of history, geography, economics and business, and civics and citizenship will now be combined into one learning area, and that learning area will be called humanities and social services. We would be concerned if this lessened the emphasis on these subjects. We consider that those subjects are actually a core foundation of a student's broader education. So, I wanted to make you aware of that.

In terms of the delivery of electoral education and the resources that are available to schools and to teachers, you would be aware that around Australia most students receive education on civics and the electoral system in the upper primary school years, in years five and six, but also it is covered in some of the secondary school curriculum as well, as part of the humanities courses that are offered in lower secondary. Our members have provided feedback with respect to their access to materials and the need for ongoing professional development in this area. Currently teachers involved in providing electoral education will combine their classroom resources from a variety of sources, including the online resources that are available through the Australian Electoral Commission or the Parliamentary Education Office. Interestingly, regarding the previous conversation about Scootle, Scootle was not actually raised formally by our members as part of this consultation process, but we are aware that our members belong to a number of professional learning communities, and as lifelong learners they quite often interact with each other in collecting and collating materials for curriculum areas.

But our teachers have expressed a desire for more detailed teaching resources, including things such as some guided lesson plans, activity sheets or work samples. We would hope that the development of curriculum documents for the teaching of civics and citizenship under the Australian curriculum would be done in close consultation with teachers and with the profession. It is very important that they are part of the conversation, because they are intricately involved with the provision of that education in their classrooms. So any material that is posted to some of the online services, such as the Parliamentary Education Office website, should also be created in consultation with the teaching sector.

Our members speak very positively about the resources that are available to them. One of the very useful services is that provided by the AEC with respect to assisting in student run elections within the school setting—elections for school captains or student representatives. I think that is a very positive interaction for students, getting them involved in the processes within their own schools.

One concern that was raised by members coming out of teaching programs is around making sure that initial teacher education provides the student teachers with the skills and understandings that they need to be effective in this area. We note that this was a concern raised in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters review of civics and electoral education in 2007. It is very important that there is provision made for initial teacher education.

We also have very positive feedback about the visits to Canberra and the engagement of students in those visits. They are rated very highly in terms of their educational value, particularly if those visits take place within a sitting week or if there are parliamentary colleagues available to supervise or interact with those visits. However, there was a concern raised about equity and making sure that all students can access that process. For students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, the cost of travel associated with the visit can be quite prohibitive and perhaps preclude them from that experience. So we would recommend that there be consideration given to making subsidies available and whether they reflect the needs of students from low-socioeconomic communities.

That probably brings our submission today to an end. We are happy to take questions.

Senator KETTER: In your submission you highlight that the resources available are varied in quality. The issue of Scootle did not come up. I am just concerned. How do teachers get access to this material? You mentioned professional development groups. It seems ad hoc to me, and I know how busy teachers are with all the things that are on their plates. We should be making it as easy as possible for teachers to get access to quality materials which are relevant to the stage that they are at.

Ms Haythorpe : Yes, I agree. I think your previous comment that teachers are overworked and underpaid quite generally reflects the issue that teachers face in being time poor. Their capacity to spend hours on a website, looking at Google or curriculum resources online, can sometimes be very restricted. Teachers will support each other within their own learning communities, within their own schools or within partnerships in their districts. Quite often teachers who are involved in the provision of civics education and the curriculum have established networks of people they can call on in terms of understanding parliamentary processes or using the Australian election services. I think any mechanisms which can be brought into play to make sure that information is collated and readily available can only assist teachers in delivering this education.

There are a number of online curriculum forums. They are independent of the education system, but quite often teachers will post their lesson plans or their ideas around curriculum materials. So that is another service available to people, but certainly the notion of auditing what is available online and having it in a consolidated, comprehensive format and one that teachers themselves have contributed to is very important.

Senator KETTER: It seems to me a deficiency in the system. Scootle seems to have the filters that assist teachers, but we have heard that not all of the materials are on Scootle. In fact, it has not even come up as part of your research. I will just move on to your views about how we overcome the problem of the crowded curriculum. There are so many other things on the agenda. STEM is also a focus at the moment. How do you feel about teachers being designated as champions within the school on, say, civics and citizenship as a way of trying to break through and give the necessary focus at a particular school on this important topic?

Ms Haythorpe : There is a broad conversation taking place about the crowded curriculum at the moment. When you speak to teachers in schools, they will tell you that the crowding occurs with many things that are outside of the curriculum, with additional programs that come in. It is very important for teachers and our members in particular to offer a very broad curriculum that sets the student up to be a contributor to society beyond schooling. That means we do have to cover the broad curriculum. I am concerned about combining four subjects into one learning area, particularly when you look at the fact that literacy and numeracy can be taught across the curriculum and is in fact reflected in all subjects. It is very important.

On the notion of having champions in schools, I would say that in many schools the champions are already there and that you have teachers who are very passionate about teaching subjects in the humanities and social sciences, making sure that students understand the democratic processes and the roles that they can play in those processes.

Senator KETTER: There would be concern about matters that are outside the core coming in and crowding the curriculum, but I would argue that civics and citizenship is front and centre with the Melbourne declaration. If we are not focused on turning out young people who are engaged with our democratic institutions, then we might as well give up the ghost now. If we are moving down the track towards a humanities and social sciences omnibus subject, how do we ensure that this important area is not overlooked?

Ms Haythorpe : We hold this curriculum in very high regard because, as I said, we want to make sure that students have access to a broad curriculum. I think that question has to be a conversation that happens with the profession, because teachers are very passionate about this area. Certainly what we have seen with the political conversation that is happening around the crowded curriculum, which has happened with the ministers at the Education Council, may actually compress the teaching of civics and citizenship, and that would be of grave concern to us.

As a learning area, it is something that can go across the curriculum as well. There are many processes that take place in a school and in other subject areas where you can bring in the core learnings of civics and citizenship and make sure that children have access to those learnings.

Senator KETTER: Is your organisation prepared to play a part in consulting with your members, who are the profession, to come up with some suggestions as to how we address that?

Ms Haythorpe : Yes, absolutely. We are very happy to play a part. This is a topic of great concern to our members and they would want to be part of any consultation process that takes place.

Senator KETTER: I look forward to taking you up on that.

Senator RHIANNON: You spoke in your opening remarks about ongoing professional development. Did you mean by that that it is inadequate at the present time?

Ms Haythorpe : It is not necessarily that it is inadequate, but it is the case that teachers, as lifelong learners, are very passionate about their professional development. I think some of the questions from the senator have indicated that what we see now is a very broad layer of resources that are available. The question for our members is how they interact with those resources and how they keep at the forefront of those resources. The way to do that is to make sure that they have access to professional development so that they can keep up with any changes in terms of democratic processes, legislation or parliamentary processes.

Mr Murphy : I think it was raised in particular reference to the introduction of civics and citizenship under the new Australian curriculum. A bit of a common theme raised amongst our members with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum, and changes, is that there is time and professional development supplied with that to enable them to make a successful transition, rather than it just be another thing that is lumped on them for them to make all of the adjustment—that they are given time and whatever assistance and professional development is required to make that a successful transition.

Senator RHIANNON: That sounds like a recommendation that you would be suggesting we probably should make?

Mr Murphy : Yes, that is in our recommendations.

Ms Haythorpe : Yes, we do make the recommendation. We have five recommendations in our submission.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, that is good.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I am interested in recommendation 4, I think, from your submission, about the electoral commissions collaborating to develop an electoral education unit. You are suggesting that the Electoral Commission do that in consultation with the education department. How would you see that rolling out?

Ms Haythorpe : These are not actually our recommendations. These are recommendations from the 2007 review, which we wanted to bring to your attention as recommendations that should be revisited.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Do you support those recommendations?

Ms Haythorpe : Yes, we think that they should be revisited. Recommendation 4 is the recommendation that refers to providing statistics. Is that the one?

Senator CAROL BROWN: No, I am talking about—

Ms Haythorpe : My apologies—yes, dot point 2.

Senator CAROL BROWN: developing actual electoral education by the various electoral commissions. What is your view on that recommendation?

Ms Haythorpe : Our members have advised us that the work that they do with the Australian Electoral Commission is very valuable and the units that are provided are very valuable. We would support any future work that might be undertaken by the electoral commissions, if that is done in consultation with the teaching profession about what might be needed at that level.

Senator CAROL BROWN: With your recommendation about the PACER, the rebate for parliament and civics education, you obviously believe that the ability for our school children to go to Canberra and to look at how parliament runs firsthand is very important. Currently, as I understand, the rebate is based on distance. Has the AEU given any thought to how that might be reformulated to actually enable children from lower socioeconomic households to have a greater participation?

Mr Murphy : Not in great detail, except that the main reason that distance is a disincentive or a barrier is cost related—flights and so on. Obviously there is a bit of a time factor as well. The short answer is no, but, within each state jurisdiction and nationally through ACARA's ICSEA measure of socio and economic disadvantage, there are plenty of measures that are used at both levels to classify a school, and you can come up with a criteria under the Gonski funding formula or the formula under the Australian Education Act, which we are still working off. There are levels of quartile 1 under the ACARA ICSEA measure that qualify you for loadings, so the data or the matrix is there for coming up with some sort of criteria and we think if there is some use of them, and that is put in as an example—

Senator CAROL BROWN: So an extra loading—

Mr Murphy : You could do it. You could come up with a system to distribute the money, including on socioeconomic status as well as distance from Canberra. Let us be honest: probably a bigger disincentive for more people is the cost of those trips to Canberra than it is distance.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I totally agree.

ACTING CHAIR: In the United States teachers are offered weekend and summer holiday professional development opportunities. Reportedly they are well received and very effective in supporting and promoting effective delivery of civics education. Would you feel that the boot camp style of professional development and training during school holidays would be well received by teachers, or would teachers prefer to use the courses online that are accessible on demand?

Ms Haythorpe : The reality now is that many teachers access courses in professional development in their school holidays. The opportunity to be in a room with colleagues who are also working on the same curriculum area is, I think, highly valued by the profession so that is something that would be supported.

ACTING CHAIR: As there are no further questions, I thank you for your attendance, Ms Haythorpe and Mr Murphy.

Proceedings suspended from 11:47 to 13:05