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Monday, 20 October 2008
Page: 9545

Ms BURKE (4:02 PM) —I rise to support the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. One of the joys of sitting in the Speaker’s chair for much of the day is that you get to hear lots of speeches. I have listened to quite a few on this legislation today. I listened to the member for Dunkley, the member for Kalgoorlie and the member for O’Connor, and the constant criticism was that we on the Labor side are the ones who create this ‘them and us’ mentality within the education system. But all of those speeches were about creating a ‘them and us’ system.

What those opposite are saying is this: ‘Parents out there whose children are at non-independent schools—government schools—are bad. They are obviously rotten parents. They are obviously bad parents because they are not sacrificing enough because they are sending their children to government schools. They are not doing enough to support those government schools.’ Everybody in this place knows that that just is not true. Everybody on the opposition side goes to countless fundraisers at government schools.

I spent my weekend at two of my fantastic schools. The Mont Albert Primary School had an art show on Friday night. It was out of this world. It was put on by three of the parents. They got some phenomenal artists. Out of the sale of the art that was on display at the Mont Albert Primary School, a state government school, they raised much needed funds. The school supports a whole lot of recently arrived migrants who are not able to attend the school because they are in a bridging visa E situation and they are not eligible to be within the state school system because they are non-residents. The school will continue to support those kids through the funds raised, as well as giving much needed facilities to the school. The art show was held in a hall that was built through funds raised by the parents over years at the Mont Albert fete.

On Saturday, I went to Our Lady’s Primary School in Wattle Park, a local Catholic primary school that was having its annual fete. It is one of the big things in the neighbourhood. Annually, you run into literally everybody at the fete at Our Lady’s. I ran into all my nephews, I ran into my mother, I ran into my brother and his son and I ran into half the kids and parents from my school, the Wattle Park Primary School. It is a great day and we go to the fete because we want to support education in our electorate. We do not divide; we support education.

I am really over the opposition bemoaning parents who send their children to all sorts of schools, because it is wrong. There are parents out there struggling day in, day out to send their children to independent, non-independent and government schools, to send their children to TAFE and to send them off to university. They should not be lambasted for not having the resources or the desire to send their child to an independent school.

I am not going to bag independent schools; I went to one. I am a proud product of the Catholic school system. I praise my parents, who sent their five kids to Catholic schools from prep to HSC. Think about it: my dad was a bank teller. He did not have a lot of money. And my mum only returned to the workforce much later in life to teach within the Catholic education system. We are proud of that. We are proud of the fact that they then managed to send five of their children, the first generation, to university. It would never have happened unless we had had Labor governments, because we are the ones who introduced support for non-government schools. I am sorry: I am sick of the ‘them and us’ argument, and it is the opposition that keeps running with it.

The Rudd government came to office last year on a platform that highlighted several key areas in which to invest significant resources. On top of the agenda was introducing an education revolution to the Australian schooling system. We made a commitment to the Australian public that we would develop a new educational framework for investment and reform in Australian schools. Through 2008, we have been working towards that goal, setting the foundations for Australia to be at the forefront of educational outcomes into the future. Already we are beginning to see tangible components of the education revolution throughout Australia, with computers being rolled out in schools, new trades centres being planned and an education tax refund available for expenses that have occurred since July of this year.

The Rudd government also made a commitment to right the wrongs of the past and made Indigenous reconciliation a focal point of its tenure in office. The commitment of this government to the issue was made clear when the Prime Minister formally apologised to Indigenous Australians for the oppressive laws and policies of former Australian governments. One of the key messages to arise from the apology was that reconciliation through apology and acknowledgement, while vitally important, is not enough on its own. The Prime Minister committed the government to closing the gaps that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in key areas such as education.

It is in the context of these two interconnecting issues that I address the chamber today regarding the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. Throughout the years of the Howard government, school funding was delivered without regard for overall quality and with little strategic framework. The Rudd government has rightly positioned education at the forefront of its agenda and will implement measures that will achieve fairer educational outcomes. A world-class educational system is pivotal to Australia’s economic and social future. It is imperative that we invest now to ensure the continued economic and social progression of our nation and that we put in place a framework from which our schools can achieve world-class outcomes.

The Schools Assistance Bill will appropriate $28 billion for non-government schools for the years 2009-12. This bill is part of the Rudd government’s minimum $42 billion commitment for schools funding during this period. This bill is in keeping with the government’s election commitment for non-government schools during 2009-12, and it will give certainty for funding for non-government schools, focus on quality and apply transparency and accountability requirements that are consistent with those for government schools. Let me reiterate that: these are things that we already require government schools to provide. It should not be an impost on non-government schools to provide them, and we are giving them certainty into the future. I certainly know from talking to the staff of the fantastic non-government schools in my electorate—Avila College, Emmaus College, Huntingtower School, Kingswood College, Mount Scopus Memorial College, Our Lady of Sion College, PLC, St Andrews Christian College and Wesley College—that they are all appreciative of the certainty of the funding.

A perpetual focus of Australia’s schooling debate for many years has been the competitive relationship between government and non-government schools. This debate stems from concepts that are somewhat misguided. There are schools from both sectors that struggle with limited resources as they attempt to serve the community. This government has signalled that it is time to move on from the past debates about the funding of government and non-government schools. Instead, we have committed to put our energy into improving the quality of school education for all students. We have indicated the need to take a national approach to our schools through a comprehensive strategy that aims to achieve higher quality in all applicable areas. One of the schools in my electorate that I mentioned, St Andrews Christian College, is a school that started from nothing and is now a growing, vibrant school. They are facing uncertainty because the land they are currently renting from Vision Australia has been sold from under them. This is a certainty in a very uncertain time for the school community of 300. By the end of 2009, they will have no home to locate to. I am working hard with the school because it is a vibrant school that many parents in my electorate choose to send their children to in order to enjoy that community. You are not going to go out there and say, ‘You are a bad school because you are a non-government school.’ We are working with all our schools, and I want to assure the community at St Andrews that, hopefully, we will be able to resolve this situation that is getting a bit stark.

To achieve this goal, the Rudd government is working with the Council of Australian Governments, COAG, to develop aspirations and policy directions that will set the framework for investment and reform as we move towards a world-class education system. This will result in a national education agreement, which will be finalised through COAG by the end of this year. This COAG reform agenda will result in all governments in Australia working together to improve outcomes for all children through agreement to a single set of objectives, outcomes and outputs which will deliver consistent schooling across the whole of Australia. Again, I am not sure why there is concern about national consistency. At the end of the day—at year 12—that is what we already have because that is the set of standards that most kids apply to when they are looking for their end result. In Victoria it is the dreaded TER result. Nowadays it seems you have to get 99.9 to get anywhere in this life, and if you are not going to crack the old 99.9 it seems to be fairly devastating. Most schools work towards that final agenda, because those exams—in Victoria it is the SACs—are all set at the same level. Schools are already working towards a basic curricular formula.

We are not going to implement something that is one size fits all, because we do recognise that, within certain school sectors, the religious nature of the school will form a requirement of what they teach. I know that at Mount Scopus Memorial College, the largest Jewish school in the country, the study of Hebrew is probably high on people’s agendas. It certainly is within that school, and we will continue to respect that. This national education agreement will allow the government to tackle its three major priorities for reform: raising the quality of teaching in our schools; ensuring all students are benefiting from schooling, especially in disadvantaged communities; and improving transparency and accountability of schools and school systems at all levels. The $28 billion Schools Assistance Bill is a major building block in constructing a national framework for schooling that meets Labor’s election commitments.

Non-government schools in my electorate will welcome the introduction of this bill to parliament. Chisholm is home to many non-government schools, as I have said, that will feel reassured by the funding stability the bill offers by maintaining SES funding and indexation arrangements, one of our 2007 election commitments. Chisholm is an extremely diverse and multicultural electorate. My constituents will therefore welcome the fact that this bill targets funding for the teaching of languages other than English, with a commitment of $56.4 million over the next four years for the teaching of Asian, European and Australian Indigenous languages in non-government schools. This bill will also provide $43 million over the next four years for the English as a Second Language—New Arrivals Program to ensure newly arrived migrant and refugee school students receive support in learning English. These commitments will be well received in Chisholm, as will the government’s continued commitment to the key areas of numeracy and literacy.

An important reform to stem from this bill is the creation of consistent education reporting and accountability across all schools and sectors. Collecting and reporting on a comprehensive range of school information is critical to ensuring a fair and effective school system and for identifying and addressing the needs of students at risk of educational disadvantage. Greater school accountability was a theme that Labor heavily emphasised prior to the 2007 election. It is a theme we will now deliver on through this bill with the implementation of a simple and strong system of performance information reporting. This bill will see schools deliver high-quality accountability and reporting in a manner that will be far less burdensome than previous arrangements. It will significantly reduce much of the red tape that resulted from reporting obligations imposed by the former government and will focus on five key areas: national testing, participation in a national report on the outcomes of schooling, provision of individual school information, provision of reports to parents and the publication of information by schools.

My endearing nine-year-old got her AIMS test recently for the grade 3 standards. She dutifully informed me how she compared against everybody else in the class, so do not think it does not go on. She knew where she fitted into that band, and she was a bit devastated that her best friend, Clare, got a couple of better scores than she did. So it is not just us who look at these things and want to understand them; it is actually our children too. Even though she had done brilliantly across the board, and I tried to emphasise to her strongly that she really did not have any worries, she went away feeling that she was not quite good enough in spelling.

It is important that government receive detailed school-level data in order to target resources more effectively in areas of need. The community cannot have a proper, fully informed debate about whether or not schools are funded adequately without information about the needs and capacities which children bring to each school and how well the school is equipped to meet those needs. Parents in my electorate of Chisholm will welcome easy-to-understand, meaningful reporting on how their child is progressing at school and how their school is performing in comparison to others. This will equip parents in my electorate with the evidence they need to make informed decisions regarding their children’s schooling. As mentioned, it will also assist the government in identifying areas where additional assistance is required. These same requirements will also apply to government schools, meaning that every parent in Chisholm will have access to the same level of information relevant to their children’s education. This does not mean league tables.

This legislation sees the government honour its election commitments to non-government schools. However, it is important to note that the government will, of course, deliver Commonwealth funding to public schools. This will occur with the arrival of the national education agreement mentioned previously, which the government is working on through the COAG processes. This will result in three important new agreements for schools which will improve teacher quality, improve literacy and numeracy standards and assist disadvantaged schools and communities to achieve desired outcomes.

Constituents in my electorate are well aware of the importance of Indigenous reconciliation and closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Many of the schools in Chisholm actively celebrated the Rudd government’s apology in the first sitting week of parliament this year. Whilst I do not have an Indigenous community within my electorate, I do have two non-government schools, Avila College and Wesley College, which actively support Indigenous education in other areas. Wesley College is actively trying to preserve a couple of Indigenous languages—they are being taught and fostered within the school—and they are assisting a remote community with creating a dictionary for Indigenous language. So people in my electorate will be welcoming these measures.

A central element of this bill is the provision of additional funding estimated at $5.4 million for all non-government schools where 80 per cent or more of the students are Indigenous and for non-government schools in remote areas where 50 per cent or more of the students are Indigenous. These schools often serve some of the country’s most disadvantaged children, and it is therefore vital they receive significant support from the government.

This bill amalgamates several separate components of funding for schools with Indigenous students that were previously funded under the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act. The Rudd government will provide an estimated $239 million over four years under this newly combined Indigenous funding guarantee and Indigenous supplementary assistance. The government’s commitment to improving the education standards of Indigenous Australians through this bill aligns with our commitment to closing the gap between the educational outcomes of Indigenous Australians and those of non-Indigenous Australians.

It is on the issue of Indigenous education that I come to the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008, which will amend the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. These new arrangements will result in more funding being provided to Indigenous students by the Rudd government, with more than $500 million being appropriated between 2009 and 2012 for Commonwealth-led initiatives and partnerships.

Initiatives such as the Sporting Chance Program will be maintained through this bill. It will provide support to the expansion of literacy and numeracy programs for Indigenous students and offer professional development support to assist teachers in developing individual learning plans for Indigenous students. This bill will see the Northern Territory receive an additional 200 teachers and three new boarding colleges for Indigenous secondary school students—and, from listening to previous speakers, I know this will be welcome. This bill will dramatically reduce red tape and improve flexibility for education providers to focus on closing the gap in the education outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The changed arrangements for schools will provide greater flexibility in how they support Indigenous education to achieve agreed outcomes.

The vitally important goals of halving the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement, halving the gap in year 12 or equivalent attainment and halving the gap in employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians are key priorities for the Rudd government. We are working with government and non-government education and training providers to meet these goals. The introduction of this bill can make a signification contribution to closing these educational gaps, which are crucial to improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

Prior to the 2007 federal election, Labor committed to undertaking an education revolution and to introducing reform aimed at closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The two bills I have spoken about today are at the core of these issues and the Rudd government’s agenda for a better Australia. The implementation of these bills will allow us to move forward confidently and work towards a world-class educational system that is supportive, fair and structured to dramatically improve the educational fortunes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. Both bills will receive the support of my constituents in Chisholm. I commend the bills to the House.