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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 998


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (20:06): The 43rd Parliament has been fractious but busy, noisy but productive. There is no more important a matter that we could grapple with in the remaining months of this parliament than improving our school education system. The Prime Minister has, rightly, made it her highest priority. Education is what raises us up. It ensures that we have the opportunity to be the best people that we possibly can be and to make the best contribution to our country. That is why it is core business for Labor governments to ensure we do our bit to reform and improve our education system.

This is an important piece of legislation, but it is not our first attempt to improve the lot of our schools, our school staff and our students. Since 2007 we have doubled the amount of money we are spending on the school education system. We have made significant advances. We are working on and introducing a National Curriculum in English, science, maths and history into classrooms right across the country. We have provided record support of over $200 million for students with disabilities. We have put more power into the hands of over 900 school principals through our $64 million Empowering Local Schools scheme. We have delivered an extra $243 million in this year's budget alone for the Literacy and Numeracy National Partnerships in Schools program to enable that important program to continue its work. We have invested an additional $30 million into Indigenous students under the Focus Schools programs. Also, importantly, we have announced another $1 billion for early-childhood education, giving every four-year-old in Australia access to 15 hours a week of kindergarten or preschool. These are the sorts of reforms you would expect from a government that truly prioritises education and reforming our education system.

The bill before the House today has a long history. It started with the commissioning of a review of our school education funding system by Mr David Gonski. He engaged in a national debate, consulting far and wide, not only with educators, with parents and with experts within the field but with business. He looked in Australia and abroad. He found that we have a good education system here in Australia, but when we compare ourselves to other countries in the world, indeed even other countries in the region, we are falling behind, particularly in the areas of maths and science, the keys to our national productivity and to the ability of students from our schools to engage not only in the national economy but the international economy.

He also found that the gap between the highest-performing and lowest-performing schools was growing. Whilst the answer to this problem did not lie solely within the funding of our school system, it was a significant part of the problem, and additional funding was a significant part in reforming and improving our education outcomes.

This bill is not the first part of our reform process, but it is about making sure that every single student can succeed to his or her best ability; it is about creating the conditions for our high achievers to excel; it is about ensuring that we have more high achievers; and it is about ensuring greater success for those who are failing. The bill is about improving education outcomes for all, making all of our schools great, where every school has the capacity to lift each and every student to achieve to the best of their ability. To this end the Australian Education Bill outlines a plan for further reforms to address educational disadvantage and to ensure that by 2025 Australia is ranked as a top-five country in the world for education performance.

The National Plan for School Improvement contains a number of elements that will ensure that every school will have great teachers; the performance of every school is improved; parents and the community have more information about school performance; and more help for students who need it. The bill commits the government to provide funding on a needs basis to support schools in the future. Funding will be tied to parties agreeing on implementing reforms to ensure that funding is directed in an accountable and transparent way to where it needs to go, and in the ways we know make a difference. Funding will be based on a benchmark amount for each student in each school. In addition to the benchmark, loadings will be added to address educational disadvantage, which will ensure extra funding for students who need extra support.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our schools and ensure every student gets the opportunity to reach their full potential. When negotiations are completed with the states and territories, the government will update through further legislation to improve the operation of the agreed new schools funding model.

I have had the opportunity to have a discussion with schools, parents and educators within my electorate. I have asked them what implementing the recommendations of the Gonski review to school funding would mean for their schools, for their students and for their kids. I had some impressive responses. Dapto High estimated that they could receive up to $1.4 million in additional funding for their school. What would they do with that money? They would provide a special needs teacher in every faculty to support students who needed it. They would improve faculties and resources for their autism classes. They would improve online resources for students and teachers. It means having a textbook for every student in the school for every faculty. It means having an interactive white board in every classroom. It means more staff training, a specialist literacy teacher, an additional teacher librarian to teach literacy and promote reading, and renewing the library, because it has not been upgraded or had any modifications on it since it was built in 1975. It would provide resources to assist students to move into the workforce. It would provide funding for a specialist AIM teacher to assist Aboriginal students. It would fund a homework centre, provide a breakfast club every morning of the week instead of the one morning of the week that they currently operate. The list goes on and on. These are not exorbitant or immodest requests. Indeed, if you were to ask many people in this place they might be shocked to know that a school in an electorate such as mine did not have access to these sorts of facilities.

I asked teachers at Albion Park High School to share their hopes with me about what the Australian Education Bill might mean if it was passed by this parliament. Suzi Roth, a teacher at the school, told me it would make a dramatic difference having a teacher's aide. In her experience, having a teacher's aide caters to the diverse needs of all the students in her class. I happen to know many of the students in that school and I know that there are diverse needs, with many coming from disadvantaged or challenged backgrounds. A teacher's aide would make a real difference.

Edward Kent, a language teacher, said the principle of funding schools on the basis of need would enable his school to provide individualised support and learning opportunities to their students. Stephen Taylor, a science teacher whom we spoke to, put in a plug for a new science lab at his school. Phil Seymour, the principal at Hayes Park Public School, thinks that the Gonski funding will mean his students will have the best opportunity to reach their full potential, with more resources and the flexibility he needs to drive improvements in student outcomes. Dorothy Cass, the principal of Primbee Public School, speaks of the great work her teaching and support staff put in in improving the outcomes at her school—another disadvantaged area. Dorothy believes that significant additional funding allocated on the basis of student need will help her school continue to make the great improvements they have been making with the national school partnerships funding. Cheryl Trusket, another local teacher, looks forward to accessing effective resources and programs with a shift to needs based funding. I have had feedback from Elizabeth Negro of Dapto, who talked and wrote about the importance of the funding benchmark and the school resource standard, which will ensure all students, including our brightest, will receive an equitable amount of funding. Local parent Bronwyn O'Keefe hopes that all students will have access to the same support that her daughter had when she was at school. Ron Watt, another local parent, believes that needs based funding will mean improved outcomes for non-English-speaking students in his area and an improved curriculum for all students. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate within my electorate: teachers, parents and students—all of them, because they have played a part in ensuring that this bill came before the House today.

There is a great appreciation for the work that the Gillard Labor government has done in improving the education system in the 63 schools in my electorate. They know that they have already received over $96 million through 136 BER programs in the electorate, including the upgrading of 27 classrooms, 14 libraries, 20 multipurpose halls and two science and language learning centres. We have 19 schools participating in the Smarter Schools National Partnerships, and we have had over $7 million approved for four trades training centres in my electorate—all great commitments to improving education outcomes for students in Throsby.

I would like to make a few observations about some points that have been made within this debate here in the parliament and elsewhere. Some have said that the most important thing that we can do in the education system federally is to ensure that parents have a choice in what school they send their kids to. Well, I believe in choice. I am the product of both state and Catholic education systems. But we have to be frank: a parent does not have real choice in the education of their kids if the only reason they are sending their kids to a private school is because the local public school does not have sufficient resources to provide a decent standard of education for their kids—that is not a real choice. Parents should have the choice of sending their kids to a private school or a selective school on the basis that the curriculum meets their needs, or it aligns with their faith or religious belief, or they have an expertise in sports or engineering or the arts—that is a choice. But you do not have a choice when you have to divert your child from the state system to a private system because the state system does not have the resources.

We have had a discussion about the importance of teacher quality, and I concur with those who say that teacher quality is key to improving education outcomes for our students. But if you are serious about this you need a plan to improve teacher quality, and all I have heard from the other side so far in this debate—their only plan for improving teacher quality—is to make it easier to sack teachers. Well, that is not a plan for improving teacher quality. You can get a lot of improvement in teacher quality if you have additional funding in a school which will enable the school to employ relief teachers so that existing teachers can go off and engage in a course of further learning or professional development in a specialised area needed in that school. You can get teacher quality by better funding and assisting that school to improve the quality of their teaching.

You can get improvements in education through a better curriculum, and we are doing that, but funding is critical. I will tell you one way that you will not improve education outcomes, and that is by slashing $1.7 billion from the school education system as the New South Wales Liberal government has done. They have slashed over 2,400 jobs from public schools and TAFE. They have cut funding from 272 special needs schools and axed a program to replace over 5,000 demountable classrooms. They promised 200 new literacy and numeracy teachers in schools by the end of this year, but that will not occur; they will only deliver 50. So funding is not everything, but it is important.

What will not work is if we, in embracing the Gonski recommendations to improve funding of and quality in our school education system, seek to put more money into the top of the bucket while, at the same time, the state premiers, like Premier Newman in Queensland and Premier O'Farrell in New South Wales and Premier Baillieu in Victoria, are getting a big tool and sticking a big hole in the bottom of the bucket and draining money out of the bottom of it. That will not improve teacher quality. That will not improve education outcomes for our kids. We need to enlarge the size of the funding pool—not by putting more money into the top of the bucket and having it drained out of the bottom, but by ensuring that the federal government and state governments work hand-in-hand to ensure that we take this once-in-a-generation opportunity in the interests of our kids.