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Tuesday, 28 November 2000
Page: 19923

Senator ALLISON (4:02 PM) —I want to indicate that the Democrats will be voting against the government's motion today. The Democrats reluctantly supported the ALP's amendment to divert the $57 million or so from category 1 schools to special education funding, and our reluctance stemmed from the failure of the ALP to do more than tinker with the edges of this unfair SES formula. I remind the Senate that most of the Democrats amendments would have produced a much fairer model, and our preferred amendment would have seen a 12-month extension of the current arrangements so that a proper debate could be conducted and so that we could look at not only a fairer model but what is actually required to fund a decent level of education across the board. As an outcome of that review, we would have understood that the $6,000 or so which is currently spent on every student in government schools is hopelessly inadequate. Of course, private schools understand this, and that is why in some cases the fees in such schools are even twice that amount. If you top that up with both federal and state funding and other income to the school, you are looking at many schools spending almost three times as much on their students as we spend on students in government schools.

However, to get back to the motion of the government today, special education is an area of enormous need. There is far more that the federal government could be doing, and so we support the extra injection of funding. It is a disgrace, for instance, that the strategic assistance per capita grants have been broadbanded into literacy and numeracy funding. It will make it just that much harder to identify from year to year how money is being spent and on what. Special needs encompass far more than literacy and numeracy. No doubt it gives Dr Kemp some pleasure to boast that his government is spending more than ever on literacy and numeracy, but a fair amount of this so-called new money is really just old money being recycled. It is also disgraceful that Dr Kemp's promise to non-government schools that they would be no worse off was not extended to special needs students in government schools. I think that it is simply cheap and miserable of this government to reduce the per capita rates for secondary students from $126 to $102. I see that this amount has been increased to $110, but it is still a very small amount and it is still not enough.

This government still refuses to address the resourcing issues raised by learning disabilities and difficulties. There is no national strategy on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder four years after the National Health and Medical Research Council recommended a federal policy to tackle this very alarming issue. It does not seem to faze Dr Kemp that hundreds of children are being medicated for ADD and ADHD. Medication is supposed to be a last resort, but for most families it is the only resort because testing and multimodal treatment are prohibitively expensive. I would like to see some of this extra $50 million or so go towards formulating an appropriate response to these realities. Under this legislation, non-government special schools will be funded at 70 per cent of the average government school recurrent cost, which, as I said earlier, is just over $6,000. This seems a meaningless, arbitrary figure when you consider how labour and resource intensive it is to deliver quality education to many children with disabilities. Under this legislation, most special schools will be getting funding increases of around $40,000 a year, with the biggest increase being $180,000.

It seems only fair to support an amendment which will quadruple the per capita amount for special needs students in government schools and double the amount going to non-government schools. However, what bothers me about this legislation is the fact that, although it will be easier for non-government schools to take in students with special needs, there is still no requirement for them to do so, even in return for the extra cash. Parents of children with disabilities say that money is often not the primary issue here. Resources are often cited by non-government schools as an obstacle to taking children with disabilities, but they say schools are often reluctant to take on students with intellectual disabilities in particular because they do not want to complicate things or to sully the institution's reputation for academic prestige.

The Democrats would be very interested to know how many students with disabilities attend the category 1, 2 and 3 schools that are getting so much out of this formula. Not one has come out publicly to say that they will take on more students with special needs. I suspect they are usually shunted off to underresourced government sector schools. I wonder how many parents Dr Kemp spoke to about this issue. One group, Queensland Parents of People with a Disability, say that if Dr Kemp really did consult with the community, are they not part of it—because he did not consult with them. The fact is that for most parents of children with special needs there is no such thing as choice. For all Dr Kemp's rhetoric about choice, these families will not gain much, if anything. Eighty per cent of children with disabilities are educated in the government system. Some non-government schools, I am told, accept special needs children if they already have siblings at the school and their parents are in a position to make a financial contribution. Other parents with strong religious beliefs are unable to place their child in a school that would inculcate these values. In the government system, they are continually under pressure from departments to put their children into underresourced special schools or to withdraw them altogether from schooling.

I am hearing of children who travel far more than they should because education departments will not inject funds to make schools, especially in rural areas, wheelchair accessible, for instance, at least not without a fight for which the parents have no time or energy in most cases. In northern Queensland, one child has been told he can attend school only two hours a week because that is the total time available for him to be assisted by an integration aid. Children with autism spectrum disorder displaying challenging behaviour are not getting the supervision they need or that their classmates need in order for their education not to be disrupted. Many of these children are intellectually quite advanced and are not suited to the curriculum at a special school. I have heard of one 14-year-old who has not attended school in three years because there is no money for a professional to be brought in to manage his behaviour. Another child has had his aid completely removed and is at home full time.

As I travel around speaking with parents of children with disabilities, these stories keep being brought up. It is clear that neither state nor federal governments have addressed this problem with any seriousness. When you contrast the circumstances of such children with the resources available to students in schools which are so generously taken care of by this legislation, we can see pretty stark differences in terms of the priorities of this government. The Democrats will not support the government's motion. We think this is not ideal but it is an amendment which we did support at the time, and we will continue to support it.