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Tuesday, 1 February 1994
Page: 31

Mr FREE (Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training) (4.14 p.m.) —I move:

  That the amendments insisted on by the Senate be agreed to.

It is not my intention to address these matters at length. They were discussed in this House on Saturday, 18 December. Briefly, on Friday, 17 December last year, the Senate successfully introduced several amendments to policy related clauses of the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill affecting new schools, the broadbanding of the disadvantaged schools program and the country areas program, and arrangements for responsibilities for independent schools under the national equity program for schools.

  On Saturday, 18 December, the government took the bill back to this House and accepted the Senate amendments concerning new schools policy. As I said at the time, some good things were lost as a result; in particular, we have lost the capacity for discretion on late applications for schools wishing to amalgamate or rationalise their operations. I pointed out at the time that schools will no longer be able to introduce new levels of education progressively, that is, year by year, but instead would need to introduce years seven to 10 in one go with a minimum of 100 students, which I believe would impose substantial difficulties on many schools. Nevertheless, we agreed at the time to accept the Senate's wishes on this matter, but I indicated also at the time that I reserved the right to revisit this question at a subsequent time.

  The Senate amendments with which we disagreed, causing the bill to be sent back to the Senate, concerned the responsibilities for independent schools under the national equity program for schools. The Senate has insisted on its original amendment and the government is accepting that today. I reiterate that I am surprised that the independent sector, by its support for these amendments, is actually asking for close ministerial involvement in this particular area of their operations. It is more often my experience that independent schools are telling the government to go away and let them get on with it. If the independent schools really want ministerial intervention in their equity programs, I will certainly be accepting that invitation. The only way that I can see that it can be managed equitably and fairly is to operate equity grants for all independent schools through the recommendations of a national independent equity authority which I believe I will need to establish to provide advice.

  In its reconsideration of the bill, the Senate did agree with the government's position on broadbanding, that is, that the disadvantaged schools program and the country areas program should be broadbanded to allow states the flexibility to target better the needs of disadvantaged students and students in country Australia. I thank in particular Senators Bell, Chamarette and Margetts who were able to have a second look at this matter and consider the government's position more closely. This was at a time, of course, when the Senate was also considering the native title legislation. I express my gratitude to those senators for being able to take a second look at this matter.

  I should also acknowledge the concern of many members of the opposition, particularly those from the National Party and those from the Liberal Party representing country areas who expressed their points of view fairly forthrightly during that earlier debate. I should offer them some reassurance.

  During the recess the Australian newspaper of 5 January reported on a study which demonstrated that school location in itself did not have a significant affect on student achievement, despite a widely held belief that children living in remote areas are educationally disadvantaged. The quite comprehensive survey carried out by Curtin University research fellow, Dr Deidra Young, covered 12,500 primary and secondary students who attended metropolitan, rural and remote schools in 1992. It found that socioeconomic background is the main determinant of academic performance as school, not school location. I will quote three paragraphs of Dr Young's remarks which were reported in this newspaper article:

  Students from higher socio-economic areas consistently outperformed students from lower socio-economic areas. This was true irrespective of school location.

  While Aboriginality and socio-economic status of the school consistently influenced school performance, this was not true for the size of the school and school location. Students attending schools in lower socio-economic environments were also likely to display lower levels of performance regardless of location.

  It was not the location which appeared to influence the students' performance, but rather whether the student was Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and whether the student attended a school in a low socio-economic status area.

In short, I can offer that reassurance to the opposition and I can tell those opposite that broadbanding will allow for the effective targeting of youngsters both in city and country Australia. The legislation will allow us to better meet the needs of needy children in rural and remote Australia.