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Monday, 21 March 2011
Page: 2405

Ms O’NEILL (1:14 PM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011 and against the amendment moved by the Manager of Opposition Business in the House. This bill confirms the Gillard government’s commitment to ensuring the certainty of investment in all Australian schools. As I have discussed with many teachers in my electorate—many of them former colleagues—the government’s review of funding for schooling is a-once-in-a-generation chance to build a community consensus around education needs for our community and our nation.

As the Prime Minister and the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth have said on many occasions, Labor is all about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to get a great education. The Prime Minister’s words that ‘all children need to be supported in their education, regardless of where they go to school’, ring in my ears as an educator. We understand that as a government we must support all children to learn—no matter what way, shape or form that education may take. With the passage of this legislation, we will be able to continue to provide recurrent and capital funding to non-government schools while the review is conducted. This will provide certainty to Catholic and independent schools to enable them to continue to give their students a good education.

As a teacher with over three decades experience in Catholic education and as a participant in the preparation of teachers for engagement in all education settings, I can tell you how much confidence in continuity of funding is really appreciated. Labor values participation in education, and our credentials are on display for all to see in all of the education initiatives, including this amendment bill. We value participation in democracy and we celebrate diversity—and nowhere is this celebration of diversity of more fundamental importance than in the education sector.

I am mindful of the overarching goals for Australian schooling articulated in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians in December 2008. It clearly sets out for us a commitment to promoting equity and excellence, and that is at the heart of this amendment bill. The goal of the Melbourne declaration is for all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. This is the work of Australian teachers, and they need certainty in order to be able to continue to do that.

It is through education that our children learn the principles of democracy and about the choices that they can face as they work and play as part of our wider community. We are a diverse community: multicultural and of many faiths. Families need to be able to choose where they send their children to school and they need to feel comfortable and confident that there is an easy match between the principles they are espousing at home, the language with which they espouse those principles, and the place in which their children take their first steps into a wider community.

We have a fantastic education system in this country. It is a system that has grown over hundreds of years and has developed into the world-class education system that our students experience today. The system itself reflects our diversity; from the very earliest days, Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian groups ran schools in the new colony. One can only imagine the much better life outcomes our first peoples would have experienced if their spirituality and knowledge had been respected and embedded in a curriculum that honoured and engaged young Aboriginal learners in ways that linked to the discourses and cultural practices of their first community, their families and their local communities.

Regardless of such values in the past, I know from personal experience that right now there are thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers out there who are committed to and excited by the prospect of awakening in students a deeper understanding of the rich world in which we live. These teachers work in a huge range of schools. I know that they teach because they are passionate people, they care about their students, they care about our society and they care about our schools—all of our schools and all of our students.

Teachers arrive at tertiary settings from all schooling sectors and they return to our varied schooling sectors—all of them. These teachers are teaching in state schools, Catholic schools, independent schools, selective schools, Jewish schools, Christian schools, Islamic schools, Steiner schools and, most importantly, schools in Indigenous communities. They are teaching the standard curriculum, which is soon to be a standardised national curriculum. They are doing it in a range of settings and in a rich range of cultural, religious and philosophical perspectives. Schooling in Australia is reflective of and embedded in a rich tapestry that is a sign of a healthy democracy.

I know that there are tens of thousands of dedicated students who are eager to learn, eager to participate and eager to engage with their community. Every day, kids around Australia get up and go to their school. They go to schools that are as diverse—perhaps even more diverse—as the range of individuals represented in this chamber. These children go to school not just to learn but to meet other kids and socialise. We have all seen just how valuable learning is, how life changing and transformative a good education can be.

Parents want to see their children educated in the best possible environment; they want them to learn in a supportive, caring, engaging and exciting atmosphere, and there needs to be a wide range of schools that offer a ‘best fit’ for unique kids. I know these parents want to see their children growing, developing and learning about themselves and about the wide and wonderful world in which we live. I know parents want to see their children grow up with aspirations and dreams. They want their children to unpack all of their talents, all of their intelligence and to rise to the talents within their minds and bodies. They want their children to engage with our society, to have a positive impact in our community and to contribute in a great way to our nation. I know this, because I want all of these things for my own children.

To clarify why this bill is so important: the bill provides the certainty and security that is so vital to the non-government education sector. By securing funding for Catholic and independent schools until 2013, we are allowing these schools to continue their work of providing a positive and valuable choice for the education of many students around Australia with certainty. As a government, we must provide this certainty, because we are committed, 100 per cent, to seeing that each and every student in our nation receives not just a good education but a great education.

We want to be a government that sees education not as a public cost burden but as a public investment and a commitment to a positive future for our youth. Indeed, education really is an investment in the future of our nation. It is an investment in the development of our communities and in the development of our families and our youths’ future careers. It is an investment in the growth of equality, tolerance, compassion and democracy.

This bill is so important because it provides consistency to the education sector in a time of critical change. There are exciting things going on in Australia’s education system, including the development and careful delivery of a national curriculum. We must do what we can to take the pressure off schools while these changes occur. Removing the ambiguity around funding is one way we can do that.

This bill is important because it provides a $3.5 million funding guarantee for Indigenous education in 2013. This Labor government has a proven track record of positive engagement with the first peoples of Australia. It is another core value of our party. We welcome opposition bipartisanship, but we are the party that made the apology and we are the architects of closing the gap. This bill continues the long road to recovery; it continues our efforts to see that we make amends for past injustices; and it continues our commitment to reducing the inequality between Aboriginal people of this country and those more fortunate.

Another important aspect of this bill is that it secures recurrent funding support for some of our most disadvantaged students in rural and remote areas. The Labor Party approach Australia’s future with optimism. We approach the office of governance with absolute positive resolve. It is through clarity and collaboration that we can further enhance our education so that it supports all students, no matter how they came to be where they are. By supporting this bill we are supporting the great work of every teacher in every child’s education. We are supporting schools that make an invaluable contribution to our great democracy.

I would characterise the proposed opposition amendment as an unproductive retreat from bipartisanship on education. The proposed amendment removes from the act the implementation date of 31 January 2012 and it replaces it with a date set by the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth by legislative instrument. It also inserts a clause that requires the date set by the minister to be no earlier than the date before which he or she is satisfied that the curriculum will be implemented in government schools in each state and territory and if it appears that implementation in government schools will not occur by this date, the minister must set a later date. The current act provides that a funding agreement for non-government schools must implement the national curriculum prescribed by regulations for primary or secondary education, or both, as applicable. This requirement must be satisfied on or before 31 January 2012.

Mr Garrett interjecting

Mr Pyne interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms K Livermore)—Order! The shadow minister and the minister will have their chance in the debate on the amendment.

Ms O’NEILL —I am sure the minister’s wise words have been very edifying. On 8 December 2010 all Australian education ministers agreed to endorse Australia’s first national curriculum and endorsed the curriculum implementation time line that the Australian curriculum in English, mathematics, history and science be substantially implemented by the end of 2013. All schools—both government and non-government—will, therefore, have in place our first Australian curriculum from foundation to year 10 in these subjects by that time.

I have been assured by the minister that the government has a process in place for resolving this issue in consultation with the sector as appropriate. A careful and respectful consultation is a far superior method to that advocated by those opposite. This rushed amendment by the opposition will not deliver anything but alarm and division. The government has no intention of treating government and non-government schools differently in relation to implementation of the Australian curriculum. We will work constructively with the non-government sector schools to implement a sustainable solution.

There was never an intention or an expectation that this matter would be dealt with as part of this bill, and neither the member for Sturt nor the non-government school sector have raised it with the minister. The only place this issue was raised was in a release by Christian Schools Australia—which, when contacted, agreed that they were happy with the government’s current process and issued a revised statement.

The amendment proposed by the member for Sturt is ambiguous and would result in unreasonable uncertainty for non-government schools, as the schools’ required implementation date will be dependent on the progress of each state and territory. The amendment could require the minister to change the implementation date for the non-government sector irrespective of the time lines agreed by the ministerial council—and that is completely unsatisfactory.

If one state or territory government is dragging its heels in meeting the deadlines set by the ministerial council to implement the curriculum, this could then jeopardise the implementation in all non-government schools across Australia. How careless, how foolish and how short-sighted. This amendment will not give our schools the certainty they need. I commend the bill to the House without amendment.