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Wednesday, 27 August 1997
Page: 7153

Mr ENTSCH(10.07 a.m.) —I rise today to speak in support of the Indigenous Education (Supplementary Assistance) Amendment Bill 1997 . The Indigenous Education (Supplementary Assistance) Act 1989 was aimed at redressing a real difficulty that many educators of indigenous Australians have due to language and cultural barriers. One such educator in my electorate has informed me that, when many of the Torres Strait Islander students start at his college, they test three to four years behind their peers.

With this goal in mind of getting indigenous Australians off to an equal start in life, the federal government introduced changes to the act in 1997 to improve ways in which funds were to be directed to institutions where they have maximum impact on improving educational outcomes for indigenous students. This involved setting up a minimum percentage of indigenous enrolments at 10 per cent of the school's total, plus setting a minimum number of 20 indigenous students, or five indigenous pre-schoolers, enrolled in a school for it to be eligible for assistance.

These two measures were to ensure that schools with significant indigenous enrolments would be assisted as it is these schools that are likely to focus on their indigenous students through special programs. It became clear, however, that one of these changes—the setting of a 10 per cent minimum indigenous representation—in some cases is severely disadvantaging some of the very students whom the government is striving to help.

The 10 per cent requirement has the unforeseen and undesired effect of denying supplementary financial assistance from the Commonwealth to educational institutions with significant indigenous enrolments. The non-government school census showed that, out of a total of 10,853 indigenous students enrolled in non-government schools, 1,428—or 13 per cent—of those students attend non-systemic schools in which the indigenous enrolments are less than 10 per cent of the total enrolment.

Experience has shown that the 10 per cent requirement has excluded some of the very deserving institutions from receiving supplementary funding with respect to their indigenous students. A number of schools in my electorate of Leichhardt were adversely affected by the indigenous education strategic initiative program's 10 per cent requirement. While the number of students and educational workers is not numerically great, the impact of those affected would be profound, especially at St Augustine's College and St Monica's College in Cairns.

St Augustine's perhaps gives the best example of the need for this amendment bill. So I will focus my remarks on this institution. For 25 years, St Augustine's College in Cairns has actively encouraged indigenous students to enrol and has become Queensland's largest non-government provider of education of boys coming from Torres Strait Island communities. In 1997, nearly 10 per cent of all indigenous male students in the non-government sector in Queensland attended St Augustine's College.

During these two decades of service to the far northern indigenous community, the college has recorded some notable achievements, especially among Torres Strait Islander students who form the vast majority of their indigenous enrolment. The following are all firsts, certainly state wide and probably nationally for St Augustine's. They had the first Torres Strait Islander in Australia to obtain a medical degree; the first Torres Strait Islander to obtain a commercial pilot's licence; the first Torres Strait Islander to obtain a diplomatic posting overseas; the first Torres Strait Islander to study architecture; and the first Torres Strait Islander to become a national athletics champion.

They are certainly great achievements because of the way in which they are able to deal with the special needs of these students. While many of these firsts are impressive, far more so are the many hundreds of past indigenous students who have become teachers, psychologists, social workers, artists, tradespersons, community leaders and other productive members of our society. All of these have come from St Augustine's.

Last year, St Augustine's College enrolled between 70 and 85 indigenous students, thus easily meeting the minimum 20 indigenous student enrolment criteria. Because it is such a large school, the percentage of indigenous representation falls below 10 per cent of the college's students. This injustice and inequity, which this amendment will resolve, is highlighted by the fact that another school less than an hour's drive from St Augustine's College with an enrolment of 30 could receive indigenous education strategic initiatives program funding when St Augustine's, with twice the enrolment, is ineligible for any assistance.

Since writing to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone) on behalf of St Monica's and St Augustine's on 17 February this year, I have been greatly pleased with the degree of consultation that has occurred leading up to this practical amendment. This amendment bill will remove the requirement for at least 10 per cent of enrolled students to be indigenous before a non-government, non-systemic preschool, school or vocational education and training institution can be funded under the indigenous education strategic initiatives program. This will enable institutions where there are significant numbers of indigenous students but where these students represent less than 10 per cent of their total enrolments to qualify for funding under the act, as is the case with St Augustine's in Cairns.

Given that the requirement of the act that a school must have a set number of indigenous students—five for preschools and 20 for other institutions—by retaining these minimum thresholds, the government avoids the situation where its money is spread too far and where a great number of schools receive a very small amount which has no real benefit.

Having analysed the implications of removing the minimum enrolment requirement against the cost-effectiveness of delivery, the argument against removing the minimum enrolment requirement remained strong. Thus, the amendment leaves in place the requirement for there to be a minimum of 20 students in a non-government, non-systemic vocational education and training institution and for there to be a minimum of five students in a non-government, non-systemic preschool. These limits will avoid the administrative expenses of providing small amounts of money to small numbers of scattered students. It will also provide a situation where there will be little or no benefit for individual students from the provision of small grants.

I take note of what the member for Werriwa (Mr Latham) said with regard to his intention for the amendment. Initially, I was very much of the same view and argued quite strongly about that. I spoke to a lot of the schools in my area about the possibility of reducing those numbers. While there are some schools with one or two students, they had problems with the small amount of money that we are talking about here on an individual basis. It was impossible for them to set up any specific program that would give a maximum benefit to the students. At least with that limit of 20, there is sufficient funding to get an indigenous specific program in place and to get a very positive outcome.

I am quite happy to talk to you further on that. It was something that I felt was appropriate at the time. But after speaking with the schools, the educators and some of the indigenous communities themselves, they felt that it was probably better that they ensure that the kids go to a school where there is that minimum of 20 children so that they have that greater involvement rather than having one or two children in a school where they are not going to get any benefit from these indigenous specific programs. I am certainly happy to talk to you about that later.

The second amendment will permit the adjustment of grants under the indigenous education strategic initiatives program in line with cost increases for the period up to 30 June 2000. The appropriations for these years are in subsections 13B(4), (5), (6) and (7) of the principal act. Inclusion of a cost supplementation provision in the principal act will bring the program into line with other educational programs. I commend the bill to the House.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —Before I call the next speaker, I might say to the member for Leichhardt that I am glad he is prepared to talk to me. I hope he is prepared to talk to the member for Werriwa also. I call the honourable member for Robertson.