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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 35

Senator HUMPHRIES (4:19 PM) —Before I talk about the failure of the education revolution, I want to address the last point that Senator Milne made, which has also been made by other speakers in this debate, and that is the claim that the Howard government allowed public school funding to slip during its time in office. That claim is based essentially on a trick with the numbers. Senators should be aware that during the life of the Howard government there was a significant increase in the number and the proportion of school students in Australia who attended non-government schools. Of course, the constitutional arrangements in Australia are very clear: the federal government has prime responsibility for the funding of non-government education and the state governments have responsibility for the funding of state schools. And it was that growth in non-government school enrolments that drove an increase in the size of the non-government funding sector. But it is absolutely not true to say that the Howard government neglected the funding of government schools. I illustrate that point by observing that, in the life of the Howard government, enrolments in government schools increased across Australia by approximately two per cent and funding of government schools by the federal government increased by more than 70 per cent in real terms. To increase funding by that level over that period of time is not an indication of neglect, and those opposite should know better than to manipulate figures in that way.

On the matter of public importance, let me say that I think the education revolution launched by the government is essentially a slogan in search of an intellectual underpinning. It is also in search of some real dollars to make it actually work. I see in this policy nothing but intellectual drift; a sense that the government hit upon a great idea—a sexy idea—that the pollsters said would really turned people’s knobs before the election last year, and the details of how this would actually work to change the landscape of Australian education were to come later. The details are coming through in dribs and drabs, convincing nobody that Labor has a coherent and consistent approach towards improving education outcomes in this country.

The best evidence of that phenomenon is the speech that the Prime Minister gave a couple of weeks ago in Canberra at the National Press Club to announce the so-called philosophical underpinning of the education revolution. He talked about transparency in education, performance reports for schools, the right of school principals to be able to hire and fire teachers and performance pay for good teachers. They are great ideas, but where do those ideas come from? They were borrowed directly from the education reforms announced by the then education minister, Brendan Nelson, in 2004.

Senator Nash —It was hardly a revolution.

Senator HUMPHRIES —As Senator Nash has pointed out, it was hardly a revolution. In fact the nearest we got to a revolution was apparently in the Labor Party caucus when these plans were announced. People were saying: ‘We have been opposing these approaches for some years. We have been opposing performance pay for teachers. We have been opposing league tables for schools. We are not in favour of that. Why are you announcing it, Prime Minister?’ Indeed, the question remains: what exactly is Labor’s approach? Why was Labor prepared to back state governments that resisted these reforms during the life of the Howard government? Why are they now prepared to back them in the face of, presumably, some misgivings on the part of the state governments now that they are in government at the federal level? It just does not add up. Labor is thrashing about to try and find some basis for proceeding.

While they are doing that they are also cutting back on the essentials of a solid education system, which was so important to the way in which the former federal government implemented education reform and improved education outcomes. The best illustration of how badly they have mismanaged this exercise is their abolition of the very successful $1.2 billion Investing in our Schools Program. I do not think that there is a single senator in this chamber who would not, at one stage, have gone to a school in their state or territory and seen the good that that program did to the fabric and the morale of both government and non-government schools across this country. That program made an enormous difference to the quality of outcomes students were getting. Incidentally, it was purchasing computers for schools at a much greater rate than we are seeing at the present time. How many computers have appeared on the desks of Australian students as a result of the Rudd government’s education revolution? Not one. We are yet to see the very first computer arrive. When it does we will no doubt have a big media splash about it. But so far there are no results for this program. We delivered many, many computers to government and non-government schools through Investing in our Schools and, sadly, that program has been abolished.

We have also seen, courtesy of the former government, the release, very belatedly, of national literacy and numeracy tests. The tests were conducted in May and it was only in the last week or so that these test results have been finally released, making them much less useful to Australian schools and parents than they should have otherwise have been. It tested students in years 3, 5 and 7.

Having established that certain students have certain problems, the question then needs to be asked: what can a government committed to an education revolution do about assisting the particular needs of those students? Again, we had an answer to that question. We had the Even Start National Tuition Program of $450 million to provide tutorial vouchers worth $700 per student to ensure that students in this country who were falling behind had some means of catching up. As we know, no school system, no matter how good, is capable of making sure that every student marches at the same pace. For those that fall behind we had a solution. What has this government’s response been to that particular program? It has been, of course, to abolish Even Start with $450 million down the gurgler.

Their Trade Training Centres in Schools program was much vaunted as the answer to the problem of shortages in trades across the country. Again, it was poorly conceived and has produced very little in the way of tangible results. Just 34 schools across Australia are to receive funding to date. That is 1.3 per cent of the nation’s 2,600-odd schools, and it is very doubtful whether the funding allocated will produce any meaningful outcomes for schools in terms of building the appropriate facilities, maintaining them, depreciating them and providing for staffing and training and so forth. So the education revolution so far is a miserable parody of the promises that were made to the Australian community and we have yet to see them realised. We have yet to see the philosophy behind this revolution properly explained to the Australian community.