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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13559

Mr GARRETT (Kingsford SmithMinister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (11:08): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill makes amendments to social security law to improve the operation of the income management system and to improve school attendance.

In regard to income management, the government believes all Australians should be able to share in the benefits of this strong economy, and enjoy the financial and social benefits of work.

The government's Building Australia's Future Workforcepackage addresses entrenched disadvantage in targeted locations by helping to stabilise families and to remove barriers to participation in work and the community.

The amendments in this bill will expand income management in five of the most disadvantaged locations in the country.

They will give greater flexibility to the operation of income management. For example, the refinements would allow the vulnerable welfare payment recipients measure to be activated on its own in a particular area, instead of in conjunction with the long-term welfare payment recipients measure and the disengaged youth measure, as is currently the case.

A new external referral income management measure, known as supporting people at risk, is being introduced. This will allow referrals from a wide range of state and territory authorities on a similar basis to referrals under the current child protection measure, and will help ensure income management assists those people most likely to benefit.

For example, to support the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory alcohol measures, this bill will enable people referred by the Northern Territory government's Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal to be placed on this new measure of income management, thus reducing the proportion of income available for alcohol.

Additionally, the rules applying to a person who is subject to income management in a declared area and who moves to another location will be clarified, as will the school exemption criteria for the long-term welfarepayment and disengaged youth measures.

A second measure in the bill amends the provisions in social security law that underpin the government's improving school enrolment and attendance through welfare reform measure, or SEAM.

SEAM is one aspect of the Australian government's strategy to improve school attendance and engagement. The amendments allow the possibility of an income support suspension to be integrated into the Northern Territory government's Every Child, Every Day attendance strategy.

School attendance in parts of the Northern Territory is unacceptably low—as low as 40 per cent in some schools. With such a level of absence, a child cannot build a sufficient foundation in literacy and numeracy to enable them to succeed in later schooling and in the modern world.

The Gillard government has invested significantly to improve the quality of education in schools in the Northern Territory. On top of base funding provided to government and non-government education authorities, our additional investments in the Northern Territory include:

$16 million to expand preschool services

$70 million in funding for Northern Territory schools in disadvantaged communities

$50 million for teacher quality and literacy and numeracy initiatives

$46 million for 200 additional teachers

$256 million under the Building the Education Revolution program for school infrastructure

A further $10 million for classrooms in remote schools, and

$12 million to build trades training centres.

In four years we have made substantial progress in addressing shortages of early childhood services, teachers, teacher housing and classrooms in Northern Territory schools. The COAG Reform Council's recent report shows progress is being made in preschool participation and early years literacy. The recent evaluation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response found that some 57 per cent of people surveyed strongly agreed that the school in their community was better now than it was three years ago.

This work must continue, but it is clear that for these improvements in schools to translate into improvements in educational outcomes for students, regular school attendance is essential.

Improving attendance can never be done by governments and schools alone. For all the funding that governments invest and all the skills that teachers bring to their schools, we still ultimately rely on the parents to get their children ready and to the school gate each morning.

While the overwhelming majority of parents understand the value of education and are making sure their children are in class and learning for their future every day, there are a number who do not.

The overwhelming opinion of Aboriginal people who participated in the Stronger Futures consultations in the Northern Territory was that they wanted action to hold to account those parents who do not send their children to school.

The amendments in the bill enable a new, integrated approach to managing cases of poor school attendance in the Northern Territory. They complement and strengthen the Northern Territory's Every Child, Every Day strategy and boost that government's own efforts on school attendance.

According to this approach, if a child is not attending school regularly, the school will convene an attendance conference with the family to talk through barriers to the child's education. The conference will agree on an attendance plan.

The attendance plan will include actions that the family commit to undertake, for example, walking the child to school in the mornings or providing a place for the child to study at home. Support from a social worker will be available to help the family meet their obligations under the plan.

Importantly, the attendance plan can also include actions that the school or other parties will undertake, for example, providing a school uniform or resolving an issue around bullying that may be contributing to the child's disengagement.

This is a collaborative approach that attempts to improve attendance in partnership with the family. However, it is important that there be a lever to ensure families engage in this process. If a family refuses to participate in the attendance conference, or refuses to agree to an attendance plan, or fails to live up to their agreed actions in the attendance plan when other parties to the plan fulfil their commitments, then their income support payments may be suspended until they do.

If the family complies within 13 weeks, their income support payment can be reinstated with full back pay.

This is a sensible approach that apportions responsibility for school attendance appropriately between the school and family, and it recognises the crucial role that attendance plays in ensuring that children everywhere, and especially in the Northern Territory, get an adequate education.

I commend this bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.