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Monday, 20 October 2008
Page: 9601


Mr PERRETT (7:54 PM) —I want to clarify my background. My authority to speak about education does not come from the fact that my children went to school—I only have a three-year-old, and he has not gone to school yet. It comes from 11 years of teaching in private and state schools and five years of being a union organiser in private schools as well. In the interest of clarification to the member for Hinkler, I was a candidate in the 2004 election, so I did have a bit to do with the previous ALP education policy. I assure those opposite that if anyone is trying to blow the class war dog whistle it is not this side of politics. We have a very simple education policy which is about giving the best education to all students in Australia. We are not trying to revive a carcass that is long dead. With that background, I rise to speak in support of the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. The former will secure funding for non-government schools until 2012, while the latter will help improve education outcomes for Indigenous students throughout Australia. I will address the Schools Assistance Bill first.

This bill provides $28 billion for recurrent and capital funding for the non-government school sector and, in doing so, honours the government’s election commitment to continuing the existing indexation arrangements known as socioeconomic status or the SES funding system. It was touched on by some of the previous speakers in that it utilises the CCDs, the census collection districts—the smallest data collection districts used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics—of the parents of the children enrolled at the school. It was interesting to hear the member for Hinkler outline how a school that he was connected with had deliberately targeted people with low socioeconomic status to artificially inflate the SES rating for that school. It is certainly something that I had heard rumours about, but it was interesting to hear the member for Hinkler say that it was a targeted activity in some schools.

Under that system, the higher a school’s SES score, the lower the per-student funding rate—in other words, the wealthier a school community, the less it received in government funding. That was seen to be a reasonably fair initiative; every fair minded person supports the aims of such a funding arrangement. I say ‘the aims’ of it because, as I inappropriately interjected earlier when I was away from my place, the system did not quite work. So many schools, approximately 80 per cent or so, are funding-maintained schools. Still, the aims of it—judging a school by the wealth of a parents—are something every fair-minded person would support.

However, in the lead-up to the last election the Rudd government made a commitment to bringing about an education revolution in all Australian schools, public and private, Catholic and independent, city and country. We want an education revolution to take place in all of these schools. We were not interested in what the sign above the school said or what religious symbol was over the school entrance; we wanted to make an assessment of what was best for the school community irrespective of where students came from. Our education revolution is about raising the quality of teaching in our schools, ensuring that all students, especially those in disadvantaged areas, are benefiting from schooling. It is also about improving the transparency and accountability of schools. Transparency and accountability are not swearwords.

The legislation before the House establishes a platform to help meet these objectives in the non-government schooling sector. As a condition of funding, all schools will be required to sign up to the national curriculum by 2012. The National Curriculum Board is currently developing this curriculum. I was interested to read some comments from the member for Warringah in an article in the Australian from 13 October under the heading Call to study more British history. The article said:

OPPOSITION frontbencher Tony Abbott wants school students to study more British history, saying Britain has shaped the world and should get the credit for it.

The National Curriculum Board today will release a draft curriculum which places a greater focus on world events in history classes.

Mr Abbott said he was in favour of world history but said the focus should be on Britain.

“People have got to know where we came from, they’ve got to know about the ideas that shaped the modern world, and in a very significant sense, the modern world has been made in England,” he said in Canberra.

…            …            …

“We are a product of western civilisation, in particular we are a product of English-speaking civilisation.”

It is certainly interesting to see the member for Warringah’s focus on understanding world history and the important role that the English, particularly, played in world history. He does talk about the British at one stage but he seems to focus on the English; that is no disrespect to the Welsh, the Scottish or the Irish. Unlike the member for Warringah, I believe that we should have a particular world focus. I was doing a bit of research for this and asked: why do we have a subject called English? Charles Dickens certainly did not study English. Shakespeare certainly did not study English. He spoke English but he never studied English; he might have had a bit of Latin and a bit of Greek and some of the other classics. But if we delve down into why we study a subject called English, one suggestion is that it might be from Thomas Macaulay’s speech back in 1835, ‘A minute on Indian education’, where he stated:

We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue.

He was talking about the fact that the British were colonisers. One of my former lecturers, Helen Tiffen, in her book The Empire Writes Back states:

The study of English has always been a densely political and cultural phenomenon, a practice in which language and literature have both been called into the service of a profound and embracing nationalism.

There is a suggestion from Batsleer’s work in 1985 that the:

… historical moment which saw the emergence of ‘English’ as an academic discipline also produced the nineteenth-century colonial form of imperialism.

Viswanathan suggests that:

British colonial administrators, provoked by missionaries on the one hand and fears of native insubordination on the other, discovered an ally in English literature to support them in maintaining control of the natives under the guise of a liberal education.

From this it can be seen that basically the colonial administrators of places like India saw that the culture, particularly the literature of England, was something that could be used to help control the natives, so to speak. That is why they came up with this suggestion: ‘Rather than teach Latin or Greek, why don’t we come up with a subject called English?’ So, back in the early 1800s, they turned to the professors at Oxford and Cambridge and said, ‘What should be the works in the canon? What are the significant works of literature that the good citizens of India should be studying?’ So the chairs of Oxford and Cambridge at the time—in the 1830s, 1840s or 1850s—said, ‘Obviously the poets we studied when we were young are very important.’ Who had they studied? Of course, they had studied the Romantic poets—Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. That is why, in the schools of South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan or Australia, every student, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s, studied Wordsworth’s The Daffodils. Every student studied the same works of literature deemed appropriate by the dons of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1800s. Of the schools of English, one was created in Oxford in 1893 and one at Cambridge in 1917. That is why we need to unpack the member for Warringah’s comment about why we need to focus on English. Obviously he was a loyal student of English history and maybe of English literature, I am not sure—I know his football team allegiances; I cannot speak for his literary allegiances—but we have moved on quite a bit since then. Unlike the member for Warringah, I believe in an Australian literature. That is why I am a strong supporter of the National Curriculum Board. It is a great way to look at the flavours of Australia, of our national dish. I think we have moved on a bit from roast beef. I think we now have some Australian flavours in our national dish.


Mr Hale —Barramundi.


Mr PERRETT —Yes, barramundi—I will take that interjection from the member for Solomon—and there are lots of other flavours. In fact, while we do have a national dish, obviously Queensland is a bit different from the Northern Territory, from Western Australia, from Tasmania, from Victoria et cetera, so we will still need to have the local flavours in this national dish, be it barramundi or something else. We still need the other types of literature that are peculiar to certain areas, because obviously a student from the middle of the Northern Territory is not quite the same as a student from the middle of Sydney.

As a former teacher of English, I am a strong supporter of this government initiative and, as someone who still has a lot of friends who are teaching English in private and state schools, I can say that people are quite excited about this initiative. As I touched on with the history of the subject which we now call English and which we take for granted, it has changed quite a bit from its original intent to now being all but the lingua franca of this part of the world. The subject of English was just as much about learning about English or British culture as it was about the study of a language.

Back in the 1800s the British understood the importance of culture as a unifying force and, perhaps, as a controlling force, so it is appropriate that more than 100 years later we do the same in Australia, that we step up to the idea that things have changed since Federation. At the time of Federation Australian citizens were basically British citizens. Now Australian citizens have a different dish in front of them, hopefully. The horse and buggy days are over and we need a much more palatable national dish for the digital age.

The bill before the House also introduces a number of other conditions on funding to ensure greater accountability and transparency in the sector. As a result, Catholic, Anglican, Christian, Muslim, grammar, Jewish and independent community schools will all be required to do some quite straightforward things that are aspects of accountability and transparency. Firstly, they will have to participate in national student assessments and reports on schooling outcomes. There is nothing controversial in that, despite the suggestions from those opposite. Secondly, they will have to provide individual school performance reports to the minister and plain language student reports to parents. What is controversial about that? What is sinister about that? Nothing at all. Thirdly, they will have to make publicly available information about a school’s performance. I should stress that these are not new initiatives. Every decent school is probably already doing a lot of these things, such as providing plain-language student reports and making information about school performance publicly available. If you get on the web and look up the schools in your electorates, you will find that most schools—state and private—are already doing many of these things.

This bill before the House also contains a new financial accountability measure requiring schools to report all funding sources. These funding conditions are about ensuring that parents and school communities can have a clear picture of how their school is performing; then they will be able to compare like with like. The small Catholic primary school in the middle of the bush that I attended will not be compared with Brisbane Grammar—it is in the middle of the city with different resources. It is more important to compare like with like and let parents make assessments about how their school is performing, especially with regard to the funding sources available to that school. The Minister for Education will be able to make informed decisions about which schools are succeeding and which ones need more support to lift their standards. This bill only addresses funding for non-government schools as public school funding will be negotiated at COAG and delivered through the national education agreement.

The Rudd government are serious about ensuring our kids get the best education possible and we are committed to a new era of cooperation to achieve this aim, not the old turf wars of the past. The national education agreement will provide the same measures for accountability for government schools as this bill provides for non-government schools. As I said at the start, the Rudd government are committed to making decisions based on the students, not whatever sign is above the school gate. Many teachers from my electorate have expressed some concerns to me about grading schools. However, there is agreement that the community benefits from comparing like schools with like schools in similar environments, and this will transcend their concerns. I stress that this is not about league tables. On occasions, it is hard to assess the great work of people like learning support teachers or the people that put extra time into sport, music and those things. This is why we are not a government that are about league tables. I have got some incredible schools in my electorate, including places like Southside Education, which has a significant Aboriginal population. A lot of their students are people with special needs. There is also Milpera State High School, which is basically the first school that people attend when they arrive in Brisbane as refugees. Places like Yeronga State High School have significant migrant populations as well.

I now turn to the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. The bill is a key part of the Rudd government’s efforts to halve the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade. To halve the gap is a great commitment. Indigenous education, school attendance and school retention rates are simply not good enough and we must do more to support Indigenous communities to improve education. I saw this in my five years of being a union organiser with the Independent Education Union. I got to go to a lot of schools—predominantly Catholic schools, obviously, but also Anglican schools and independent schools like Wadja Wadja High School and the Murri School. They are both Aboriginal independent schools. Wadja Wadja is west of Rockhampton and the Murri School is across the road from my electorate in Acacia Ridge. It is great to see how this initiative will flow on to these schools.

This bill amends the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 to provide more than $760 million for Indigenous education programs. Of this investment, $160 million will go towards preschools and vocational education and training providers working with Indigenous students. This funding will come into effect in time for the new school year. Away-from-base Abstudy payments will receive $109 million, which will help fund education providers with Abstudy recipients who are undertaking distance education, and $505 million will fund target initiatives to boost Indigenous education. This will deliver (1) an additional 200 teachers for the Northern Territory; (2) three boarding facilities in the Northern Territory; (3) the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program introduced by the opposition; (4) the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program; (5) the Sporting Chance Program; and (6) other targeted initiatives. I commend those opposite for the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program, and I do so in a fair dinkum spirit of bipartisanship. It is a great initiative.

The above points are only part of the government’s $1.5 billion investment in Indigenous education over four years. As we saw with the apology on my very first day in the parliament, symbols are very important but actions speak louder than even the most noble of words. That is why it is important to be able to back up words with actions. The bill before the House also contains a number of reporting requirements for the minister to ensure that open and accountable government is taking place. The minister will be required to report on outcomes such as Indigenous enrolments in preschool, progress on the National Indigenous Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, and the year 10 and year 12 retention rates for Indigenous students. Indigenous families will be able to go on the web and find out how the school they intend to send their children to is progressing. The Prime Minister will also report on progress on closing the gap for Indigenous Australians on the first sitting day of parliament each year.

This bill proves the government is serious about improving Indigenous education. We do not believe it should sit in the too-hard basket any longer. All Australian children deserve the same education opportunities regardless of their parents’ bank balance or where they live. It is all part of the Rudd government’s education revolution to raise the standard of education around the country. This commitment includes a half-billion dollar investment in early childhood preliteracy and prenumeracy; halving HECS for those studying maths and science at university and then halving HECS again if they choose to pursue a career in teaching or working in maths and science; a new national curriculum in the core subjects of maths, science, English and history; a new national action plan on literacy and numeracy; $2.4 billion in education tax refunds; and a $1.2 billion digital education revolution to give every year 9 to 12 student access to a computer. We are investing $30 million to boost education for Indigenous children in remote areas, including a trial linking family and welfare payments to school attendance. This is the plan the Australian people voted for and it is the plan we are committed to delivering. The bills before the House are another step along the way to achieving this education revolution. I commend the bills to the House. (Time expired)