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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 976


Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (18:39): In my opening remarks I want to quote Sir William Deane. The quote was included in the newsletter from my son's school, St Edward's Christian Brothers' College, at East Gosford, on the Central Coast. Sir William Deane showed great leadership in this country and he articulated very clearly that we can tell something about a community by how we treat people. He said:

You can tell the worth of any community, any nation … by how it treats its weakest members.

We can talk about the weakest members in our society in a range of areas, but as a former teacher and as a mother, I think there is expertise about understanding very deeply that when your child is weak at school or performs weakly at school you know there is a life of disadvantage ahead for them.

Who indeed are our weakest members? From the Gonski review we have a much clearer picture about what that constitutes—it constitutes our weakest students. That presents a challenge to us as a government that seeks to enable people to have access to high-quality education.

In terms of what the Gonski review delivered—which I might say was the first major review of the whole of schooling in 40 years, and not surprisingly the last one was done under Gough Whitlam's Labor government—we found a very disturbing fact. Apart from all of the detail, this is right at the heart of the finding: Australia has a very significant gap between the highest- and the lowest-performing students. In fact, this performance gap is far greater in Australia than many OECD countries, particularly those with high-performing school systems. One of the most alarming statistics that came to my attention was that in the reading literacy area the gap between Australian students from the highest and lowest economic, social and cultural status quartiles were found to be the equivalent of almost three years of schooling. So, if you came from a low economic, social or cultural group you could attend school for all 13 years and finish year 12 and still be three years behind your counterparts.

I have heard much of what has been said by the opposition speakers—the member for Sturt, the member for Grey and the member for Aston. The member for Aston has claimed that the three simple things he articulated at the end of his speech will fix up the Australian schooling system and everything will be okay. The reality is that there is no simple solution to the challenges that have been discovered by Gonski and that are borne out when we compare our data with that of the OECD. A simple argument like teachers needing to be able to teach phonics as being the key for making successful readers exposes how inadequate the member for Aston's understanding is of the complex nature of teaching and getting kids to read. Teachers need every single tool in their toolbox, phonics certainly being one of them, but that alone is no solution to the literacy challenges we are facing in this country.

In addition to that miserly view of what needs to be done, we have had the fear campaign of the other speakers, particularly the member for Sturt, who in his usually strident voice has come in here with a litany of things to be frightened of. 'Be afraid of the future', he almost says—'Be afraid of increased funding. Be afraid of Gonski.' He articulated that the whole of education has 'completely and manifestly failed'—I think those were his words. This hyperbole, this exaggeration, this creation of fear and negativity is something we have seen before. We saw it in the lead-up to the carbon price, but we saw that reality land, and the fear that was generated by those opposite dissipated, because the reality of investing in that structural change has brought about significant positive outcomes for the Australian people.

In the same way, and using the same methodology, we see the opposition in here today creating fear, alarm and a sense of concern about this significant change, which is designed to put more money into education to assist students and enable them to be more and more successful, making sure that we do not leave young Australians behind.

So, in some of this time that I have been allocated to speak on the bill, I do want to get onto the record what it is that we are seeking to do, which is articulated very well in the preamble to this bill, 'A bill for an act in relation to school education and reforms relating to school education, and for related purposes', in the first comment:

All students in all schools are entitled to an excellent education, allowing each student to reach his or her full potential so that he or she can succeed and contribute fully to his or her community, now and in the future.

A pretty common statement that I reckon parents would be making as they are dropping their kids off would be, 'Yes, that is what we believe we should be getting out of education.' Yet those opposite are going to oppose this bill. In our preamble we also say that:

The quality of a student’s education should not be limited by where the student lives, the income of his or her family, the school he or she attends, or his or her personal circumstances.

And that is exactly what is proposed in the Australian Education Bill: to attend to those critical things.

For those who might be listening to this debate as they are driving home, maybe having picked up the kids from school and running around to try and do extra things with them—

Mr Robert: And they'd have nothing better to do than listen to this!

Ms O'NEILL: The member interjects and says that Australians might have nothing better to do than listen to this, but the fact is that Australians do listen to the radio; they do understand that important things are being transacted here today and we should not be making light of the fact that this Australian Education Bill—

Mr Robert interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms K Livermore ): It was a good-natured interjection, but there will not be any more.

Ms O'NEILL: is actually going to change, significantly, the outcomes for those people who have been left behind in a system that was not adequately funded.

This bill will ensure that there is a base level of funding that we know is generally associated, with many, many students, with enabling their success. But there will be other critical dimensions for which there will be additional funding provided, particularly in the areas of kids who come from a low-socioeconomic background. And why does that matter? Because the reality is: when kids get to school they are all at different levels, and it is important that we attend to that difference.

In some of the classes in which I taught my students as they were getting ready to become teachers, I used to show them a video of students approaching their first day at kindergarten. There were two extremes shown in the video. One was of a young boy whose parents were highly educated professionals who lived in a city with access to lots and lots of educational material. He declared that one of the most fun things for him to do on the weekend was to go to a museum and explore and experience that museum. In contrast was another little boy, the same age, born in the same country. He was asked if he liked to read. He was an excited young boy, and he indicated that he wanted to read. But when he went to get his 'books', the things that he pulled out were actually the flyers that had been delivered to the letterbox. They were his books. They were his only books. And his attempts to read were very, very noble. But we cannot begin to think that those two young men were approaching school with the same level of capacity to engage with school—the same level of cultural capacity and cultural assets.

And the fact is: when teachers get those kids in their first year at school, they need the resources to be able to do the job. It makes my skin crawl to hear the teaching profession so maligned, with simplistic solutions: 'If we just raise the score', or 'If we just do this', or 'If we just do that', we will fix the whole problem; 'It is all the teachers' problem.' Many, many teachers—indeed, I would hazard to say, the majority of teachers—want to do a fantastic job but have been debilitated over many years by being unable to access the level of support that they need, the level of support they need for professional development, the level of resources they need to be able to deliver the type of curriculum that individual kids need, the type of resources they need to respond to the different levels of kids in their classrooms. At the earliest age, when you have not got those resources to interact with young people, you end up creating a completely inequitable system where the tail-end drags the whole thing down, and that is what we are seeing, sadly, in our results compared to our competitors internationally.

We are saying with this piece of legislation that where you go to school should not be a problem. The quality of education should not be limited by a school's location, particularly for those schools in regional Australia. This government understands that regional Australia has been overlooked for far too long, and certainly was during those sad years of the Howard government.

In terms of health, we can see statistics that show that people have been dying of cancer in the regions far more than they have been in the cities because of the failure of the coalition to invest in infrastructure to provide access to proper treatment. In the same way, kids in regional schools have not had access to what they need. In health, this government has put in 26 regional cancer clinics. And in this bill we seek to put in the remedy to the distress of students, parents, teachers and the whole community of people in regions who know that their kids deserve a fair go but they are just not getting it. We are ready to redress that. We are ready to put money on the table. We are ready to negotiate to ensure that every Australian has a fair go, a fair crack, at a good education, and those opposite are determined to oppose it. The shameful comments we have on the record so far this evening just indicate how low they will go in their efforts to prevent that equitable outcome.

We say in this piece of legislation that it is essential for Australian schooling to be of high quality and to be highly equitable in order to create a highly skilled and successful workforce, strengthen the economy, increase productivity and lead to greater prosperity for all, because you cannot tell which of those children in each of those classes who needs those extra resources could be the greatest leaders of our country in the fields of business, science, the arts, or political and civic engagement. Every kid needs a chance to have access to high-quality education, and where they are disadvantaged we understand that teachers need to be given more money, more resources and more capacity to pick up those kids where they are and lift that standard.

It is often said that really bright kids will do well wherever they are. However, Australia's statistics are showing that apart from that very top echelon of kids who are indeed doing very well, hugely by their own effort, the system is failing to respond to the students who are lower down. Sadly, I have to say that is particularly the case in the secondary setting. There are many challenges for us to face but we will not be able to fix them by continuing to blame teachers. We need to put money in and make the changes that have to be made.

This bill says that Australia is a prosperous nation with a high standard of living and that if we want to continue to have that we have to continuously improve school performance. This bill is directed to that end. We need students who have the capacity to engage with Australia's region. We do have a focus on Asia in this 21st century. This bill will enable that engagement. Future arrangements will be based on the needs of Australian schools and school students and on evidence of how to provide an excellent education for school students, building on the reforms that we have undertaken so that we can get a picture of where Australian students are. That picture needs to be fleshed out to become much, much richer; a dataset collected about really outstanding success for students in schools. But there is no point in attempting to fatten the pig by weighing it more often. We have to make sure we put in the money to allow the teaching professionals to get on and do the job, and enable our students to become more and more successful so that they can compete with the very best to be in the top five countries by 2025. That is our goal.

Schools are formed when we have partnerships between teachers, students and the community. These schools will change our nation. They will improve our nation, they will improve our productivity and they will improve our civic life if they get the chance to do the right thing. The reality is we are facing a great challenge with incredible cuts in education funding at state level and this is not going to be an easy bill to negotiate through with the states. Since September last year, significant progress has been made and, in the lead-up to COAG in April, I am confident that even the Liberal governments of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, who have cut so harshly into the education budgets at the state level, will see the vision that is offered by this piece of legislation, will buy into that vision and actually believe that there is a better future for Australian kids, and get on board and enable us to do that job for the future of our nation.

Mr Shorten interjecting