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Monday, 20 October 2008
Page: 9596

Mr NEVILLE (7:34 PM) —I want to make it perfectly clear—as I have in the past in this chamber—that I am not an apologist for either private or public school systems, but I am a fierce advocate of choice and equity in education. I represent a provincial seat with two major population centres with private and public schools, with a number of smaller towns that are fortunate to have their own schools, and country areas where the schools are quite often the essential centre of the community. My kids have gone to both types of schools; I am familiar with both systems.

At first blush, to many the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 will seem like a continuation of the coalition’s policy—and in some part it is. I can see the member for Solomon has stayed in the chamber, and he laments that it looks like the resurrection of the private schools against public schools debate. When you get down to the fine print in this bill and the various covenants laid down in a series of conditions for grants, it is in them that you see the real intent. Is it any wonder that Senator Scullion wanted to alert the people of Darwin and the Territory?

Mr Hale —I bet you not one of them closes!

Mr NEVILLE —They may not close, but I think they are going to have a much more torrid time than they did under the previous government. Let me give one example. The establishment assistance grants were made available by the previous government to non-government schools. There was $500 per full-time student equivalent for the first year of the school’s operations and $250 per full-time equivalent in the second year. That was very important in getting non-government schools established and, quite often, it was helpful to the state system because it was in an area where perhaps you could not justify two state schools but where you could justify a state school and a private school. Under this bill, that provision has been thrown out. I would ask the member for Solomon: that gives you no worries?

One of the most contemptible aspects of the previous Labor government’s regime—I am talking about the Hawke and Keating governments—was its implementation of the so-called new schools policy. In effect, it was the exact opposite; it was a no new schools policy. It was a surreptitious measure of Susan Ryan’s to limit the number of non-government schools, and any objective observer would say that was the intent and that is what happened. One could be pardoned for believing that we are moving back that way. I ask the member for Solomon: why else would you contemplate reintroducing it if you did not have some secondary intent in doing so?

Of course, we have a number of conditions laid down for SES funding, too. I will not go into all of those, because they are quite extensive, but I will pick out a few. They say that you must agree to testing, benchmarking and assessment. I am not against those, but it is interesting that when we first proposed that in the first half of the Howard government’s regime it was bitterly opposed by the ALP and the teachers union, as was one of the other conditions: that school reports had to be fair in their assessment of students—that they could not use generalities, they had to use real assessment tools—and that the reports had to be understandable to parents. That was opposed, too. Now these things are coming in. On top of that, there is the further condition that they must accept the government’s curriculum. I will come back to that later, because I have some reservations on that.

While the SES was nominally adopted by the ALP at the last federal election, it is clear that they are in a mood to water it down. Several Labor MPs in speeches on the public record opposed the spirit of the SES, including the member for Prospect and the member for Eden-Monaro. They were quite unapologetic in their view. If we go back one further election, we had the spectre of Mark Latham and his infamous hit list of private schools—schools that were seen to be sufficiently well endowed to be punished for their success or for the generosity of their P&Cs or their old boys associations.

I remind the government that the capacity to fundraise is not limited to non-government schools. It is open to any government school association to do the same thing. Indeed, I have a number in my area that have been highly successful in raising funds for school facilities—in fact, two assembly halls. It is no mean feat for any school, private or public, to raise that sort of money. Why then would you punish the non-government school for the generosity of its school community, given that the same parents who have helped raise this money also pay fees over and above their voluntary contributions to the school?

The requirement in the bill that schools must report all forms of income is quite insidious. Quite apart from giving competing schools insight into what other schools are doing, it is an infringement of commercial-in-confidence. If the government knows that the school has a particularly highly motivated P&C which raises quite a deal of money for a school, or that a school has an old boys association that is providing sports equipment and the like, or a local committee runs bingo for the benefit of the school, what business is that of the government? That is over and above work done by the community. I have personal experience of all three of those. Some of my kids went to a school in Bundaberg that raised money through bingo. The old boys of the boarding school I went to got together and raised money for a rowing shed and skulls and all that sort of paraphernalia so that they could get into the Head of the River and those sorts of sporting events. Having seen that firsthand, I would be horrified that schools would have to account for that sort of thing to the government.

Where does the government’s intrusion into the privacy of a school stop? If I were cynical I would say that having this sort of information on the public record would be used by Labor further down the track in modifying the SES funding. And what would the method be? First, flush it out; second, demonise it, which Latham did; third, win public sentiment through the politics of envy—‘What about these rich schools of King’s and this and that?’—and then, with Lathamesque aplomb, change it. Sadly, for his sake, he did not get the chance to do it.

Let me now deal with the philosophy of SES funding. The formula which is used is based on the socioeconomic status of the various census collection districts in Australia, and all the students are placed in the CCD areas. That means that a school that has these CCDs under its influence receives money according to the socioeconomics of the kids who come from those CCDs. Nothing could be fairer than that.

Mr Perrett —Why do 80 per cent not do it?

Mr NEVILLE —They do.

Mr Perrett interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Order! The member for Moreton will not interject outside of his place in this chamber.

Mr NEVILLE —They do. It is quite simply that the CCDs are the basis upon which funding for those schools is paid. That is a fair system. It is also an encouragement to some of the more affluent schools to take on a cross-section of less affluent kids by way of scholarships or reduced fees or whatever it might be. That enriches the profile of their school and it gives other kids the opportunity to go to good quality schools.

Under that system, when the coalition government was in power, the schools that drew students from challenged communities could get up to about 70 per cent of the cost of educating the student. That certainly still placed a burden on the family—30 per cent for people from low-socioeconomic areas was a big effort. The ones who have been bleating about the more endowed schools should recognise that those schools serving the wealthiest communities ended up with only 13.7 per cent of that figure—of course, the schools in between moved on a sliding scale. That system deliberately left school fees and the school’s assets out of the equation, because, as I said before, it would unfairly penalise parents for spending their own time and money on the kids’ education.

Under the former coalition government, a record amount of funding was delivered to state schools. For many years, Labor state and territory governments failed to match the level of school funding provided by the coalition government. For example, in 2006-07 the states and territories increased their funding to state schools by an average of 4.9 per cent, while the Australian government boosted its funding by 11 per cent. At that time, if the states had bothered to keep pace with the Commonwealth’s investment, there would have been an extra $1.4 billion available for funding our state schools.

In this argument, and in all others, we must recognise that taxation, whether it comes from income tax, the GST or state taxes, comes from the pockets of the average taxpayer. The ultimate test of fairness is seeing where the money ends up after going through the state and federal systems. In the 2005-06 financial year, recurrent government spending per student—that is, the funding of pupils—in state schools averaged $11,243 per student. In the non-government schools, it was $6,287—nearly half. Total funding to state schools for the same financial year was $2.3 billion from the Commonwealth, $23 billion from the states and an estimated $1 billion from parents, a total of $26 billion. Funding for the private schools was $5.1 billion from the Commonwealth, $1.8 billion from the states—pretty measly, I might add—and $4.7 billion from the parents in school fees and through the enhancement of the schools in the other ways that I mentioned before, a total of $11.6 billion, less than half the funding.

Let me move now to literacy. I must admit that I am concerned about the requirement that schools entering into a funding agreement with the Commonwealth must implement the new national curriculum in mathematics, science, history and English. Let me qualify that: if it was the core curriculum, I would agree with it. But, until we see the extent of these requirements, there is a doubt in people’s minds that this will be an all-embracing thing which will decide absolutely everything that is taught in the classroom. I agree with consistency of content and testing. I have serious doubts, however, that the national curriculum being developed by the government will deliver that.

Firstly, parliament has little idea of what the national curriculum will look like, because the framing documents have just been released for some scrutiny. Secondly, the philosophies of a number of the people spearheading the creation of these documents are political in the extreme. For example, the history curriculum is being overseen by Professor Stuart Macintyre, a former member of the Communist Party—not that there is anything wrong with that today, I suppose. But it does give an insight into his background. His major works include histories of Marxism in Britain and the Australian Communist Party.

In the English curriculum, we have Professor Freebody, a leading advocate of critical literacy—whatever that means—in Australian English courses. According to Professor Freebody, literacy education is not about skills development and not about deep competence. That troubles me. Although we have only just laid our eyes on the framework crafted by Professor Freebody, I have to say that I simply do not accept that being literate does not require a person to have skills or competency. Literacy is the very foundation of all future learning. Once children can read and write, they can go on to higher levels of learning and they have the ability to teach themselves without guidance.

A large number of people who come into my office from businesses around town tell me that kids find it difficult to put the simplest letter together, that they cannot punctuate and do not know where to use a capital letter, a comma, a semicolon or whatever. That troubles me, too. Literacy goes beyond literature to functional expression. If that is failing then we all fail. I acknowledge that various learning difficulties or disabilities will always prevent a percentage of people from acquiring basic literacy skills. But any attempt to dumb down the national curriculum by suggesting that literacy is not at the core of literacy skills is quite outrageous.

Parents are urged to read to their children, our teachers bust their guts to give their students the best education possible and the community in general laments declining literacy standards. And if competency and skills are not fundamental to reading and writing, why are there national campaigns for the Reading Writing Hotline for people who need a helping hand with their literacy? This runs in contradiction to the government’s own policy. I urge those drafting these frameworks and those working on the development of the national curriculum for English, history, science and mathematics to set the bar high, not low, in spite of the apparent rush job in getting this material together.

The government knew that these bills had to be passed by the end of this year to ensure some continuity of funding for non-government schools, but the framing documents have only recently be completed and this parliament is expected to pass these bills with scant scrutiny of those documents. Worse still, the government is saying that if it does not get its way on these bills it is going to pull them. That is a form of blackmail that I have not heard before in my life.

I would like to talk briefly in the minutes remaining about the so-called education revolution. One of the great benchmarks of this revolution was going to be every child in secondary school having a computer. Then it was going to be every child in year 9 onwards; then it was every child in years 10, 11 and 12; then it was going to be a computer between two children. Now it will be implemented if the states can employ the requisite levels of electric power to be able to run the computers. What a bleeding indictment of Labor governments across this country. It is an indictment that they cannot even get three-phase power into schools to run such things as computers, the modern office equipment that kids have to learn how to use, and even things like air conditioning in hot areas.

Under our system, Investing in Our Schools, I used to go up there, and it was simply marvellous to see what you could do. At $600 a computer, you could get 20 computers into a primary school in a little country area for about $12,000. It was a joy to go to those schools, and if it had been left to the Labor state governments they would still be waiting for them. You, Deputy Speaker Scott—not that I want to involve you in a political way—would know that only too well, having 52 major towns in your electorate.

Finally, I come to Australian technical colleges and the new trade training centres in high schools. I am ambivalent about this. All schools do have trade training centres—or didn’t you know? Haven’t you been around your high schools in the past? Some might argue they could be at a higher standard; some might argue they could have some more technical equipment. One particular school in my electorate, Kepnock State High School, had a principal, Siegy Schmieman, who was an absolute wizard at getting good equipment for his schools. He did not need a government trade training program to do that.

Why would we want to close down the Australian technical colleges? It just makes me wonder if the Labor Party has heard about the school-to-work transition, because this is an important feature of getting kids work-ready. There are two fine examples of that—I have not got time to describe them—in Toolooa State High School and Tannum Sands State High School in Gladstone, where school-to-work transition was mastered at a very high level. I do not think that these trade training centres are going to add a lot to that.

I support the amendments to this bill and I call on the government to treat all schools fairly in the process.