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Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Page: 6

Ms MACKLIN (9:29 AM) —Labor supports the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (Cape York Measures) Bill 2007 to amend the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. It will provide an extra $2 million in 2008 for literacy initiatives in the Cape York region of Queensland. The $2 million is expected to fund the Making Up for Lost Time in Literacy accelerated literacy program, otherwise known as MULTILIT, which is operating in Cape York in Queensland.

It is also expected to fund the establishment of student education trusts to encourage families to save for education costs. These student education trusts are voluntary trusts, where families can make regular contributions to cover the costs of their child’s education—such as for uniforms, books or excursions. We support the bill for two reasons: firstly, because, even though it is very small it recognises a very important part of Labor’s policy commitment to close what can only be described as huge gaps in the literacy and numeracy outcomes of Indigenous children across Australia including in Cape York. Secondly, the two initiatives to be funded through this bill are other examples of the need to fund evidence based programs. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in the programs that this government funds, but these are good examples of evidence based programs getting the additional funding that they need. At this point, I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

 “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House provides bipartisan support for:

eliminating the 17 year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation so that every Indigenous child has the same educational and life opportunities as other Australian children;

Labor’s positive policy approach towards narrowing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous educational outcomes by:

(a)   providing universal preschool access for all Australian four-year olds, including Indigenous four year olds;

(b)   committing additional funding towards intensive literacy and numeracy programs across Australia;

(c)   developing new programs to tackle the gap in numeracy outcomes between Indigenous and other Australian children;

(d)   implementing the Australian Early development index for all Australian children starting school; and

(e)   introducing Individual learning Plans for all Indigenous children in Australia”.

I want to go back to May this year—the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum—when Kevin Rudd, the Leader of the Opposition, announced that Labor would commit to a key target in the area of education: to at least halve the difference in the rate of Indigenous students at years 3, 5 and 7 who failed to meet reading, writing and numeracy benchmarks. We intend to do this over the next 10 years.

The Leader of the Opposition also said that Labor’s policies will be driven by measurable goals and evidence based programs developed in partnership with Indigenous people. To support our Indigenous education commitments, we announced nearly $22 million over four years to expand intensive literacy and numeracy programs for Indigenous children in our schools. In particular, we said we want to see intensive literacy programs, such as the one we are debating today, MULTILIT accelerated literacy and the Yachad Accelerated Learning Project, all of which provide a heavily-structured approach to teaching literacy. Labor has gone further than indicating that we will support these intensive literacy programs. As part of our $22 million commitment, Labor will develop a new intensive numeracy program, and implement it, in the first instance, at a pilot stage. Unfortunately, the federal government has yet to sign up to this policy.

It is remarkable that there are no major equivalent programs in numeracy to those which we are debating today in literacy. There are many children struggling in literacy and this requires the intensive approach that is now in operation for literacy. The gap in education outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children is widest in numeracy, and getting wider over time. In year 3, 80.4 per cent of Indigenous children meet the numeracy benchmarks. By year 7 this falls to 48.8 per cent, according to the National report on schooling in Australia 2005. So, fewer than half of Indigenous children in year 7 were numerate at a basic level.

I find it particularly shocking that these figures demonstrate that the longer the children are at school the further they fall behind. Unfortunately the figures show that our schools are not delivering for these Indigenous children. No government serious about improving the lives of Indigenous children should be sitting on their hands when confronted with such a shocking figure, but unfortunately that is what we have seen, particularly in the numeracy area, over the last period of time. I call on the government to provide funding for literacy and to deliver concrete programs to improve numeracy skills so that these shocking figures for Indigenous children can be turned around.

There are four other major policy commitments that Labor have made to support intensive literacy and numeracy programs for Indigenous children. Unfortunately, the government has also failed to support any of the policies that Labor have put forward. Most importantly, Labor have pledged $450 million towards universal access to preschool for every single four-year-old in Australia, including every single Indigenous four-year-old. We are guided in this by two principles: firstly, that it is never too early to invest in a child’s learning but it can certainly sometimes be too late; and secondly, children must be allowed to be children and learn through play and fun activities.

On this side of the House we know that early learning is absolutely critical. We know this as parents but we also know it from the research by people like Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has shown that the return on human capital is very high in the early years of life and diminishes rapidly thereafter. That is why, for the life of me, I cannot understand why this government continues to refuse to do anything about the 100,000 children in Australia, including many Indigenous four-year-olds, who do not get access to preschool education.

There is also research from the leading developmental researcher Jack Shonkoff, who argues that from birth to age five ‘children rapidly develop foundational capabilities on which subsequent development builds’. Yet, the Productivity Commission estimates that around half of all Indigenous children do not have access to preschool, and this government is doing absolutely nothing about it.

We also saw in the figures the OECD released overnight that Australia’s effort continues to receive the wooden spoon award. We are the worst in the developed world when it comes to delivering preschool education for four-year-old children. What a shocking indictment on this government, which has been here for 11 years. We are the worst in the world, even though there is so much evidence from other parts of the world that intensive early intervention programs in disadvantaged communities—for example, the very well-known Perry Preschool Project in the United States—can produce large social and economic benefits for individual children and for their communities. The research clearly shows that before children start school they need to be ready, willing and able to learn. That way, they will do so much better when they get to school.

Labor’s plan will make sure that every single Australian four-year-old child, including all of our four-year-old Indigenous children, has the right to 15 hours a week of early childhood education delivered by a properly qualified teacher for at least 40 weeks of the year. I find it extraordinary that the Howard government has ruled out matching Labor’s promise to provide this early learning and preschool education for all four-year-old children. On 25 July this year, the Minister for Family and Community Services was reported as saying that it was up to the states to provide preschool education. That is leadership for you. While the minister is out there playing the blame game and blaming somebody else, our children are missing out.

Most Indigenous children, unfortunately, are already behind when they get to school. The shocking figures that I have already quoted show that they fall further behind the longer they are at school. Labor has also announced that, if we are elected, we will roll out the Australian Early Development Index nationally, at a cost of $16.9 million over four years. This is a rigorous checklist across five developmental areas to determine a child’s needs when they start school so that both parents and teachers can home in on the areas that need to be addressed for each individual child. Once again, the minister is funding a small part of the Early Development Index but has failed to commit to a complete rollout nationally.

Labor has also announced that, as part of the rollout of the Early Development Index, we will fund the development of a specific index for Indigenous children to take into account the differing cultural and language features of the early child-rearing environments of Indigenous families. At the moment, MULTILIT, the literacy program that we are supporting here today, operates from year 2 onwards. In our view, it is very important that we have ways of assessing children’s needs prior to that.

Labor has also announced that, after the development checklist has been completed for each Indigenous child starting school, each child will have their very own individual learning plan. This will be updated twice a year for every year of schooling up to year 10. We have to turn around the yawning gaps in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Labor will do that by funding intensive literacy and numeracy programs, by making sure that we have the developmental guidelines in place from the day that they start school and by also making sure that every single Indigenous child in Australia has an individual learning plan so that up until year 10 we are constantly assessing the child’s achievement and progress so that, if they start to fall behind, action can be taken by both teachers and parents to keep them up to the mark.

Every Indigenous child would have these learning plans, which would be developed by teachers in consultation with parents to make sure that they work for each individual. They will take into account the teacher’s professional judgements, the results of assessments—including the national literacy and numeracy tests—and the development index that I mentioned before. The plans would identify both the strengths and weaknesses of every child so that we can turn around their disadvantage. The plans will also target the basics and the need for intensive reading, writing, and numeracy programs so that children can advance through school more successfully.

Labor has also pledged $34.5 million over four years to provide professional development support to teachers to enable them to complete these learning plans. Parents will be able to access the plans so that they can be part of their children’s learning at school. Once the children’s learning needs have been identified, the funding and intervention programs that are needed can be targeted and implemented more effectively. This will benefit children. We have seen these initiatives working for Indigenous children in Cape York. The Queensland government is already implementing individual learning plans and working with the Cape York institute to provide intensive support and mentoring programs in Cape York and the Torres Strait. With respect and commitment from both teachers and parents, I am sure that we will succeed in delivering this program nationally to give Indigenous children the opportunities that they have not had before.

In June this year, the Leader of the Opposition endorsed and agreed to fund the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership’s welfare reform plan for four Cape York communities—Mossman Gorge, Aurukun, Coen and Hope Vale. This plan is expected to implement a range of initiatives to make family and welfare payments and housing conditional on school attendance and the proper care of children. As proposed by the Cape York institute, this would be done through four family responsibilities commissions, one in each of those communities. This local statutory body would ensure that welfare benefits go towards the benefit of children. We endorse the key elements of this plan. There must be an expectation in those communities that, first and foremost, children are safe; children are attending school; schools are provided for children to attend; adults do not behave in a way that puts their children at risk, either through alcohol or substance abuse, family violence or gambling; training is available; people do their best to seek work; and, tenants in public housing should comply with their tenancy obligations.

We all know that low school attendance, lack of safe housing, as well as horrific child abuse and neglect are all deeply connected to levels of welfare dependency. So we are particularly committed to intensive support for education in these Indigenous communities and to very tough measures to help break the cycle of welfare dependency, to get people into work and to turn the chances for these children around.

Returning to MULTILIT, I want to commend the program and look at the results it has achieved. It was originally established in 1996 at the Macquarie University Special Education Centre and has been on extensive research and trialling to teach low-progress readers effectively. Since then, it has grown significantly with outreach services provided through the Exodus Foundation and at tutorial centres in Gladstone, in Central Queensland, and in Coen on Cape York.

According to the year 2000 evaluation of MULTILIT, low-progress readers in years 3 to 6 attending a single primary school made mean gains of about 20 months in both reading accuracy and reading comprehension over two terms when experiencing an attenuated MULTILIT program for under two hours per day. It is very good to see that such progress can be made in primary school because, as I said before, we know from the latest National report on schooling in Australia that the number of Indigenous children who meet the reading benchmarks falls from 78 per cent in year 3 to just under 64 per cent in year 7.

I have also seen other successful remedial programs, particularly the accelerated literacy project and the Yachad Accelerated Learning Project. These programs are operating in many schools in remote and regional communities around Australia. The accelerated literacy project, otherwise known as the Scaffolding Literacy program, assists low-achieving students to catch up to the average level of the rest of their class by using age-appropriate books to develop their reading, writing, comprehension and spelling skills to a high level very quickly.

Analysis by Charles Darwin University shows that students undertaking accelerated literacy improve their reading ability at an average rate of 1.73 year levels per year—around 21 months progress in reading a year. Similarly, the Yachad Accelerated Learning Project aims to deliver improved literacy and numeracy outcomes for students in remote and rural locations in Australia through accelerated learning principles and techniques developed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

I also understand that the student education trusts that are in the bill before us today have been tested in Indigenous communities with success. According to the Department of Education, Science and Training, a recent trial in the community of Coen had an 80 per cent take-up. I have also seen firsthand just how successful the Family Income Management program has been on Cape York in helping families to save money for their children’s education and for household goods, food, bills and other basics. I certainly hope that the student education trusts can further build on the initiatives that are working well on Cape York.

It is critical that, across the parliament, we support initiatives based on evidence and demonstrated success. That is certainly the case with MULTILIT and the Family Income Management program. However, it is not always the case with other programs in this area. Unfortunately, the government has a habit of starting programs, giving them grants for a short period and then seeing them fold. What is really needed is constant long-term progress and support where there is evidence that a program is working.

There is no question that the terrible levels of Indigenous disadvantage are not going to be tackled with flash-in-the-pan initiatives or half-baked ideas. What would be helpful, in addition to the money that the government is putting on the table for MULTILIT today, is a baseline survey conducted at the start so that we would know where Cape York children were up to with their literacy. We should make sure that, as the program rolls out, we assess its impact so that, in future, we can judge whether or not it has been successful. We need to know what we are dealing with before we put in place or extend programs. We know that, in the case of MULTILIT, it has worked very effectively elsewhere; however, as a discipline, we should always do the baseline work on a program first and assess its effectiveness as we go along.

We know that education is critical to children’s life chances. We must take a hard-headed, evidence based approach so that we can assess the measurable goals and targets, if we are to have any hope of success. I support the bill that is before us today.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Is the amendment seconded?

Dr Emerson —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.