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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9772


Mr LATHAM (11:37 AM) —The member for Prospect summed it up perfectly in her conclusion: education is the best way for governments to make a difference on behalf of their citizens in an era of globalisation. Education is the best way for governments to disperse opportunity, income, privilege and power in a globalised environment. This is a wonderful opportunity for socialists on this side of the parliament. We have always been frustrated in industrial age politics with concentrated economic power and privilege—big holdings of industrial capital and people deprived of a decent income and decent opportunities in life because of the holdings and the concentrated power of a privileged few.

Now in the information age economy we have a magnificent chance to disperse power and privilege because so much more of the opportunities, the incomes and the privileges of our society lie in the skills of our people—in the opportunity for everyone to have a good education. This is a liberating opportunity for government because only government, only the public sector, can give each of our citizens the opportunity of a good education. Only government and the work of the public sector can skill up each and every one of our citizens to be competitive in the global environment.

Education policy now is a wonderful chance to disperse social and economic opportunity. If we in this country could truly develop a learning society, one where each and every citizen has good skills and good educational qualifications, we would have produced not only a good society but an inherently fair society. That is the magnificent opportunity of the information age. If so much more of economic and social power is going to be determined by skills, government has a magnificent opportunity to equalise society through its work in education policy—that is, to give everyone the skills to compete, to participate socially and to be involved in their local community. Education has just become so important not just for the growth of the economy but for the whole fairness of our society.

That is why bills such as this—that is, the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1999 —are critical. They are critical to recognise not only the benefits of the knowledge economy and the knowledge society but also the need to engage in fundamental education policy reform. Schools funding and schools outcomes in Australia need to be massively improved if we are to disperse economic and social power and produce a fair society.

Let us have a look at the way in which we have structured the funding of schools in Australia. We have a dual funding stream where predominantly non-government schools are funded by the federal government whereas government schools are funded by state government budgets. The end of the state aid debate in the 1970s was never designed to produce this particular outcome: where the states are engaged in cost shifting.

The Victorian government closes down government schools, knowing that a federally funded non-government school can open up on the same site, use the same buildings and provide an educational service to the same community. The end of the state aid debate was never designed to produce this outcome. It was never designed to allow the states to shift the cost of education onto the Commonwealth, knowing that the Commonwealth picks up the costs of the expansion of the non-government sector. We need to unite the two funding streams. We need to bring the federal and state government money together—a single pool of schools funding in Australia—and distribute that funding according to equity principles.

Unfortunately, we have a situation now where the non-government school budgets have grown because the Commonwealth budget is relatively strong, whereas government school budgets have been squeezed because of the financial problems of state governments. As I say, the end of the state aid debate was never designed to produce this outcome, particularly a government such as this which increases non-government school funding for political reasons—appealing to some constituencies, allocating scarce school funding for a political reason instead of an equity reason.

We need to unite the two funding streams and produce equity funding throughout the school system. In practice, this means we have to define a minimum national standard for every school in the country. We have a strong schools system throughout Australia flawed only by the fact that its quality is very uneven. I have been to schools in the north of Queensland which can barely afford airconditioners let alone computers to improve the skills of their students. I have been to schools that are in old buildings with antiquated facilities, with antiquated teaching arrangements and a shortage of staff. Compare those schools in regional Australia to some of the high-tech, modern, advanced schools that we can find in some of the inner city areas.

We have schools that are all about the information age of the next century, schools that are very advanced. If you took people from that school environment and put them into the disadvantaged schools, they would not believe that it was still called a school. They would have to go back to the 1960s—the era of chalk and talk—and they would not think you were still talking about the same learning institution. We need to even out this very imbalanced quality in our schools system. We can do that only by defining a minimum national standard for each and every school. The purpose then of the single pool of school funding would be to fund every school up to the minimum standard.

Let us set the standard as to what we want every school in Australia to achieve by way of information technology, quality facilities, teacher-student ratios and vocational education facilities. The minimum standard is not hard to set. Equally, it is not hard to pool the Commonwealth and state funding, but it is difficult to get a proper distribution system.

Things have been happening within the federal department that point the way forward. For instance, the distribution of non-government school funding in Australia is now according to a sophisticated formula based on the need of each and every non-government school. If it is possible to determine the needs of non-government schools and have a sophisticated method of government funding distribution, it is possible to apply that same methodology to government schools.

So why couldn't we have a single distribution system with one variation: recognition by the federal and state governments that, if someone makes a choice to put their children into a non-government school, there should be a parental contribution? It would be possible to have a single funding pool, a single minimum standard throughout the country and a distribution system that brings every school—whether it is government or non-government, whether it is in urban or regional Australia—up to the appropriate standard. As I say, the only variation would be the commonsense recognition that those who use non-government schools have decided to move outside the public system, and therefore should pay an appropriate parental contribution.

Even there, it is possible to have an equity weighting for what sort of contribution should be made. I would argue that in the eastern suburbs of Sydney—in some of the elite private schools—the parental contribution should be massively greater than in the non-government parish schools in my electorate. The equity tools are available, and they are being provided by the advanced information technology now deployed by the federal department. We can produce a proper equity distribution of funding in our schools, we can end the problem of state cost shifting and we can at long last overcome this barren, bitter and divided debate about state aid. It still concerns me today that we have people in the education sector in Australia who say, `This is a contest between government and non-government schools.' It is not. It is a contest between the schools that are doing well, the schools that are rather affluent, versus the schools that are still in need. That is the great issue. It is not about ownership in the Australian school sector; it is about equity and opportunity, bringing every single Australian school up to a decent standard and doing it on the basis of enlightened federal government intervention.

I now move to the question of literacy and numeracy. Again, we have had something of a divided debate on this issue. There are those who say we should lower standards, we should relax the requirement for testing in our schools. I say that is a misguided approach. I say a school without testing is like a hospital without nurses, a school without testing is like a police station without policemen. We must have testing in our schools. Testing of students, assessing their learning abilities and disadvantages, finding out the results, putting in place the remedial strategies and encouraging competition and improvement among students are the basis of a good school. So there should be strong regard for testing and standards in our school system.

Just the same, we should not associate that with a narrow, fixed curriculum. We should not associate that with inflexible teaching methods. There should be a third approach, one which recognises the benefits of customised learning. I have argued previously in this parliament that one of the mistakes we have made in education is to assume all students learn the same way, to assume there is only one form of intelligence. We need to recognise diversity—different types of intelligence, different learning habits, different ways of educating young people in this country. There are different types of intelligence, and we need early assessment of those intelligence types in our schools. The curriculum, learning methods, teaching materials and facilities—the entire teaching approach—should be built around the intelligence type of the student.

Some countries overseas are pioneering this approach and it is producing magnificent results. It is a customised approach to teaching. It is not an argument about standards and testing; it is an argument about how students best learn. That surely is the best way to run our schools and our classrooms. We need to end the barren debate not only about state aid but about standards and testing. In this country at long last we should build teaching methods and curriculum around the intelligence types and learning methods of each and every student. That is the best way to improve standards and literacy and numeracy outcomes.

Another point needs to be made on literacy and numeracy and that is that you can never start soon enough. You can never have enough early intervention in this sector. I am an advocate of universal preschool in Australia. Each and every four-year-old in this country should have access to preschool education and, as they go through that system, there should be some early assessment of their learning ability and learning disabilities—such as a hearing or speech impediment. By the time they turn five and move into the school system, their teacher would then have an inventory, an assessment, of their learning abilities and disabilities upon which they could then act in the school environment. So we cannot start early enough in the challenge of improving literacy and numeracy.

I know the member for Lilley, who is at the table, has been talking about early intervention in parenting; that is very, very important. But early intervention in parenting needs to be matched by early intervention in education policy. We should have in this country universal preschool. Every single four year old in Australia should have access to a preschool education. There should be an assessment of their learning situation at that age so the school teacher and infants have a flying start. The school teachers would have the flying start of knowing the issues concerning their pupils and they could then put in place the appropriate early intervention literacy and numeracy strategy.

The other thing that needs to be done on this agenda is to broaden the learning environment. We have this bad habit in Australia of thinking that learning only comes out of institutions, out of the formal school institution. In fact, learning in our society is a 24-hour-a-day habit. Learning does not stop when students leave the school boundaries at 3 o'clock in the afternoon; it carries on in the home learning environment. It is long overdue for Australian governments to have close regard for the importance of the home learning environment. We need a national effort to improve the outcomes of parents as educators, to make sure all parents, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are familiar with the curriculum, have good literacy and numeracy skills themselves, can help out with homework in the afternoon and can provide a good role model valuing education. In fact, we need not only good results in the school learning environment; we need good results in the home learning environment. This is a critical extension of government education agendas.

As I said, it is most important in disadvantaged areas. I believe each and every parent in Australia would want to improve the learning opportunities for their children, but some are reluctant to get engaged in homework, some are reluctant to value education in the home because of their own skill difficulties with literacy and numeracy.

We should have a system that identifies those parents and helps them out. This government talks about mutual responsibility. It should apply to educators—not only requiring people outside the labour market with time on their hands to undertake these programs but also giving them the training and the skills to be effective educators in the home. For instance, why don't we bring in retired teachers to help out with homework in disadvantaged areas? Why don't we bring the retired teachers in each afternoon to show how homework is conducted, what the school would be expecting and the appropriate role of the parent? If the parent still has a difficulty, they should move into literacy and numeracy programs that improve their own skills because, ultimately, that is the best way to improve the skills of their children.

We need a national effort, a parents as educators program, that links the home and the school learning environment and ensures that every young Australian grows up with good opportunities in the school and the home. One of the problems we face is the tragedy of intergenerational unemployment in some parts of Australia—families where the cycle of employment disadvantage passes on to education disadvantage. We are talking about grandparents, parents and the next generation who not only lack employment opportunities but also lack basic education skills and qualifications. We need to bust that crippling cycle. That crippling cycle needs to be busted up by this parents as educators program and the fundamental recognition that learning happens outside school institutions. The home is all important.

I mentioned the importance of customised learning earlier. This is the other big initiative that needs to be pushed in schools policy—to have a learning profile for each student so that curriculum, learning methods and learning materials can be built around the student. This is the best way to not only deal with literacy and numeracy issues in the early years of schooling but also deal with the growing middle school crisis in this country. We have an enormous crisis in middle schooling years with the huge drop-out rate of 10-to-15-year-olds. This is, unfortunately, a problem more among boys than girls—young men rebelling against the school, rebelling against the whole idea of gaining an education and, sadly enough, rebelling against society itself.

Anyone who drops out of school at an early age these days is effectively dropping out of society because they will never have the skills to be effective in the labour market. They will never have the skills to give themselves a good career. We need to address this middle school crisis. Unfortunately, the Howard government has done nothing about it. The minister talks about a lot of issues in education, but he never talks about the middle schooling crisis and the need to build improved learning opportunities for early adolescents.

I now turn finally to the question of choice. The minister's rhetoric is based around choice, but choice can be a false concept in schooling. Choice can be an exclusive concept. If you are a low income family in a disadvantaged part of Australia, you have no choice in your education opportunities. The only choice is the local government school, the neighbourhood school, provided by the public sector. There is just no room in the family budget for any non-government school fees. Choice is an illusory concept as developed by the federal minister, Dr Kemp. The real issue of choice in the school sector should be about school governance. The choice that should be opened up in all our schools is for parents to play a bigger role in the governance of their local school, whether in the government or the non-government sector.

I am a supporter of the charter school movement. This is where the government remains a provider of school resources with school management devolved to self-governing groups of parents, teachers and citizens. Advances in information technology have made it possible for governments to fund the education needs and risks of a particular school catchment. Research has shown that this approach positively affects the level of trust and mutuality among parents. It also improves education outcomes. Every single survey in the school sector has shown that if parents are more involved in the school their children will have better results at the school. Again, it is the link between the home and the school learning environment.

The real choice that should be developed in the Australian school system is for parents to become more involved in the governance of their local school. I am not a supporter of big centralised government departments. I am not a supporter of big centralised unions or big corporations. I believe in the dispersal of economic, social and political power. That is how I began these remarks. In the school sector, dispersing power relies on a decentralised system of school governance. The charter school movement needs to come much more on to the agenda of federal and state education policy. It is part of a long list of reforms. We have a huge job in this area. Unfortunately, this government does very little to build up the importance of education in the public sector and very little to produce meaningful school education reform.