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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9781

Dr THEOPHANOUS (12:17 PM) —I also have pleasure in speaking in the debate on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1999 , which is very important because it has allowed us to have a wide ranging debate on issues concerning education, especially school education. The fact that we are involved in this debate is a positive thing, even though obviously the government's agenda is unfortunately a narrow one when you consider the very many issues that have been raised, especially by the Labor members, in relation to education.

We should begin with a statement of a fundamental principle, and the fundamental principle is that education is a right. It is not a privilege. It is a fundamental human right, a right which is recognised in international forums and also recognised as part of the Western tradition and, indeed, increasingly now throughout the world—even in those countries which unfortunately, because of their poverty, are not able to provide educational systems.

Australia, of course, has the ability to provide a very high quality education system for its citizens. It is not a poor country in that sense. Unfortunately, many children do miss out on a quality education and, in that sense, we are limiting their ability to fulfil and achieve what is their right in society. In my book Understanding Social Justice in 1994, I spoke about the universal social right of education and I said:

It is of critical importance in ensuring that the individual achieves their full potentiality and plays a full role in society. And in making this decision, the value of education should not be assessed only in terms of economic efficiency and social welfare. Equally, if not more important, is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society and to take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his or her own worth.

If we begin with that starting point and we look at what is happening in Australia in terms of education, we see that there are serious problems. For example, we have the situation where an increasing number of kids are now actually dropping out before they finish high school. That is the reversal of a trend where, during the years of the Labor government, we had increased the participation rate and the number of children that finished high school.

I was very disappointed to receive recent figures which show that that trend is now going the other way—in my electorate, for example. In other words, more children are leaving school before they finish secondary education. This is something that we ought to be ashamed about because, as I mentioned before, we are a society that can afford to put resources into education both in the public schools and in the other sectors and to ensure that children are encouraged to stay at school at least until the end of high school.

Of course, education has a quality dimension, and we need to talk about that as it is important. But we also need to ensure that children have the capacity to stay at school and to get that quantity of education over the years. As society gets more sophisticated and more complex, and as the demands on the individual in terms of his or her education become greater, it is ludicrous that we have a situation where children are not staying at school for as long as they did a few years ago. This is of course a class phenomenon. The minister talks about how, with this bill, he wants to reverse the class phenomenon and do something about disadvantaged children, but he has certainly not tackled the full sense of the problem. If we look at the poorer, working class areas of Australia, it is there that we are seeing an increase in the number of children dropping out before the end of secondary education.

The minister thinks that one way of achieving a better result here is to insist on greater numeracy and literacy. I do not disagree with that. I do not disagree that we ought to be looking at literacy and numeracy as a major factor but it is not the only factor; it is not the only reason that we have children from poorer backgrounds dropping out of education. There are other significant and important reasons, and they have to do with the circumstances of the parents and the families from which those children come.

The fact is that under this government, and all of the indicators show this, the poor are getting poorer. Poverty is increasing in this country—notwithstanding the gloating of the Treasurer about a growing economy—and so are social dislocation and social problems. This is due to unemployment and other factors. The fact is that the salaries of the poor are so low that they are not able to afford certain basic things. Sure they can afford food, but can they afford school books for their children? Can they afford a tutor, if one of their children is having a problem? Can they afford any additional resources? The answer is no. Invariably what also happens is that the schools in those areas do not have the support for the teachers—in terms of teacher aid, et cetera—to help these disadvantaged kids.

So we have a cycle of poverty and disadvantage. We have a situation where the resources provided, especially to the government school sector in those areas, are insufficient and so the situation gets worse. The minister thinks that if he gives some money to the schools—in terms of a program to improve literacy and numeracy—that is going to help the situation. It will help it to some degree but it is not seriously tackling the problem. There is no doubt that, unless we put in more resources to balance educational opportunities and allow every Australian child to at least have an equal chance, we will not have a situation where they can go to university or college.

When I was first elected, which is some time ago during the last period of the Fraser government, the number of kids who finished secondary education in the Broadmeadows area, which is the poorest area in my electorate, was appalling. As a result, those children never had the opportunity to go to college or university or to get into a profession even though, in terms of intelligence and ability, they compared equally with children from other areas. Indeed, those children who managed to break through and get to university did extremely well compared to children from private schools and other places. But those that did not break through never got the opportunity—at least not for many years; some of them went back as mature age students and pursued various things—to do further education.

Once the opportunity for education is lost, it is lost for a hell of a long time, if not forever. That is why the teaching of children at school should be a major focus of this nation. We have to compete with the rest of the world where, in per capita terms, spending on education is much higher than it is in Australia. We think we can just get away with the bare minimum but that will not work. We need to spend more on education because it is an investment not just in the future of our children but in the future of our whole society.

Having said that, we need to talk about the direction of our educational programs. It is very interesting that the minister has in here additional funding for the Asian Studies Program. I support that funding but the problem is that it is one-dimensional. It should be part of an overall program that concentrates on developing the cultural resources of our people and that means focusing on ourselves as a multicultural society and a society with an indigenous culture.

If you look at what has happened, you will see that, while we have put some additional resources into the Asian Studies Program, we have actually cut back on community language programs. We have cut back on those programs that have helped to maintain links with the cultures of the people of our multicultural society. This not only will result in a situation where we become culturally poorer but also will be to the economic disadvantage of Australia. If we have people of Italian background whose children learn Italian, or people with a Russian background whose children learn Russian, or whatever it is—

Mr Price —What about Czech?

Dr THEOPHANOUS —Any language the honourable member for Chifley would like to pick. I was just picking a couple of examples. Take someone with an Arabic background who speaks the Arabic language: their children will be bilingual and will then be able to help us with those languages in an international context. We can spread our educational resources internationally. We are doing that, but we can do more, and we would do more if we paid more attention to these issues. In addition, economic and trade links with those nations around the world are strengthened when we have people who are bilingual and able to communicate with those nations.

Unfortunately, bilingual education in Australia is going down according to recent statistics. This is a very sad thing. It is very sad that bilingual education is going backwards in a nation with such a multicultural background. Of course, the minister thinks that we will have this Asian Studies Program so that we can encourage people to study four key Asian languages and that might help. It may help the situation, but it is not enough. We need to draw on the fact that we have many citizens who come from a range of backgrounds and we need to support resources in bilingual education.

While we are discussing this, there is another matter. I have here a statement released today by ATSIC which is headed `Northern Territory bilingual education loss, a breach of human rights'. That is a statement from ATSIC issued today. What has happened is that the Northern Territory government has withdrawn funding for bilingual education for Aboriginal children. On the one hand we are saying that we want to support reconciliation and the Aboriginal people, and we want to support them in the retention of their cultural traditions, but on the other hand, instead of putting resources into these things, those few resources that existed are actually being withdrawn.

This is a disgrace on the part of the Northern Territory government—especially the Northern Territory government—but the Commonwealth has a responsibility in these areas and we should be showing a bit more backbone in relation to actions against the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. It is not as if overall education for Aboriginal people is progressing. In fact, we are finding it very difficult to retain it at the same level. We should be providing a lot more resources for the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

When it comes to the question of providing resources for multicultural education, which I have mentioned, we should be aware that this is not merely the provision of money for language teaching. We need also to have programs in our schools that are directed towards giving children an understanding of the nature of the society in which they live, and that includes something about our history and the role of the indigenous people in our history.

It also includes an understanding of the fact that we are a society which is based on a migration of people from nearly every country in the world and that we have come together in the building of a multicultural policy. Since we have come together in the building of that multicultural policy, we need in our educational resources to provide for an understanding of this multicultural society by all children, whether they have a mainstream or ethnic background. We need our children to have an understanding of the diversity of our society. We need them to understand the richness of the different cultures participating in our society and, as I mentioned earlier, we need access for children to other languages. This understanding can be greatly enhanced through bilingual education. Way back in 1975 the federal Schools Commission provided a report which stated:

Comprehensive planning to meet the needs of migrant children must address itself to the question of their identity and self-esteem. The migrant child needs to be viewed in the context of his family and ethnic group affiliation if his individuality and integrity are to be respected and if his educational experiences are to be directly related to his actual life. . . . The variable interest among adult migrants and their children in maintaining dual cultural identity must also be taken into account in planning. It follows that the multicultural reality of Australian society needs to be reflected in school curricula . . .

Since that report, we have made significant developments in multicultural education and in bilingual education. But, as I mentioned, in the last few years we have been going backwards. Let me illustrate this with an example: in my electorate I had three communities come to see me the other day—Turkish, Arabic and Vietnamese. For more than 20 years they had been using the local school for Saturday teaching of languages and culture. What happens? The recently elected school council decides that they no longer want this, even though more than 70 per cent of the people who go to the ordinary school during the week are of non-English speaking background from these societies. This is the sort of thing which shows that we are going backwards. (Time expired)