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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8787


Mr PYNE (SturtManager of Opposition Business) (16:22): I rise to speak on the Schools Assistance Amendment Bill 2011. The bill will amend the act to repeal the current implementation date of 31 January 2012 and substitute a new provision enabling a standing regulation to prescribe a national curriculum and associated implementation time frames. This means that, subject to the passage of this bill, there will no longer be a deadline or due date in legislation from when the national curriculum is required to commence. Instead, to allow for future additions and revisions to the nation curriculum, the government is proposing that any version will need approval by the Council of Australian Governments' Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood, formerly known as the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs. The implementation time frames will be prescribed as those agreed by the standing council.

This bill before us today is clear evidence that the Labor Party have failed to deliver on their commitment to a nation curriculum. If they had delivered on the national curriculum I would not need to stand here today before the parliament to talk to this bill. The explanatory memorandum of the bill states:

At the time of the Act's drafting in 2008, an implementation deadline of 31 January 2012 was anticipated for the development and rollout of the national curriculum across the school sector. Given the phased approach to developing the national curriculum, the extent of consultations undertaken in its development, and the need for flexibility in implementation, a legislative amendment is necessary to better accommodate this phased curriculum development and implementation process.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, originally said in 2008, when she was the Minister for Education, that the curriculum would take three years to develop and be ready to implement by January 2011. The Prime Minister also claimed, before the last federal election, that one of her biggest achievements was delivering a national curriculum. She made statements prior to the federal election such as: 'This nation's talked about national curriculum for 30 years. I delivered it.' The truth is that after nearly four years of Labor the curriculum documents for the first stage of a national curriculum, years K to 10, in the areas of English, maths, science and history still remain in draft and have not been given final approval by each of the states and territories.

Due to the well-documented bungling of a national curriculum the final version has not been approved by the ministerial council to date and most states will not even begin implementation until 2013 or 2014, so the original legislation needed changing. I also helpfully pointed out to the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth earlier this year, when a one-year extension for the current funding arrangements for non-government schools was being considered by this parliament, that he would need to remove the requirement for non-government schools across Australia to implement the curriculum by January 2012. Much to my surprise he appeared to have missed that the 31 January deadline might have been a problem, or perhaps he was, as usual, asleep at the wheel. In an attempt to assist the minister for school education, the coalition sought to fix this for him and remove the 2012 start date, but he did not, inexplicably, support the coalition's amendment.

Obviously the coalition recognises that this needs changing. Schools cannot implement a curriculum that is simply not ready or is still in draft. For this reason we will not oppose the bill. Instead, the government has had to introduce a entire new bill to fix the curriculum oversight rather than simply addressing it earlier in the year by eating humble pie and supporting the coalition's amendment. We find ourselves debating this bill because the Labor government, one of the worst in our nation's history, is incapable of delivering anything on time or on budget.

Schools need funding certainty, and for this reason we will not oppose the bill. Nevertheless, this bill has provided a further opportunity for considering how the government might be able to improve on existing arrangements related to the curriculum process.

The coalition supports a national curriculum in principle. Our concerns are not with the concept but, rather, the direction the curriculum is heading under Labor. I can assure you, Deputy Speaker Slipper, that these concerns are shared across the entire education sector. The Australian Curriculum Coalition recently wrote to me, the minister for school education and all state and territory education ministers outlining a number of concerns about the government's progress, or lack of progress. The government cannot possibly stand here today and suggest that the curriculum is going well. Please do not make us laugh with the claim that it is on schedule.

The Australian Curriculum Coalition comprises 10 peak bodies from both the government and non-government sectors. It includes the Australian Association for Research in Education, the Australian College of Educators, the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, the Australian Education Union, Lutheran Education Australia, the Australian Special Education Principals Association, the Australian Professional Teachers Association, the Australian Secondary Principals Association and the Independent Education Union of Australia—not a group that you would normally see gathering together to oppose a government measure. The statement opened by saying:

The Australian Curriculum Coalition (ACC) believes that it is imperative at this midpoint in the development of the Australian Curriculum that thoughtful and considered deliberation be given to implementation of critical elements of the proposed curriculum.

It has become evident to members of the ACC that underpinning principles of the national curriculum have not been given adequate regard or sufficient resources committed to their development and that federal, state and territory governments are on the verge of endorsing a curriculum that does not meet the objective of the Australian government of: delivering a world class education system to ensure Australians are armed with the knowledge and skills to meet the demands of the 21st Century.

The letter then goes on in detail to describe each of the activities that the ministerial council promised to address last year, when the draft curriculum was being considered.

Final approval was not given to the national curriculum, as was originally planned by the government last year, due to a number of deficiencies with it. But do not just take my word for it. I will read an extract of the council's communique from December last year to make my point here, because I have noticed that the minister for school education in recent interviews on this subject has been very misleading. The council wrote:

Ministers agreed to a number of steps towards achieving the next stage of substantial implementation of the Australian curriculum by 2013. These will include:

establishing a national common approach to the achievement standards across all States and Territories, and trialling and validating that approach

states and territories developing additional material to support effective implementation of the curriculum to accommodate their different curriculum development, approval and implementation requirements

further refining and adjusting the curriculum content as a result of validating achievement standards and structured feedback from teachers

finalising a clear overarching framework that assures the place and integrity of all learning areas within the context of the overall school curriculum and different State and Territory structures

developing the curriculum content and achievement standards as required to meet the needs of special needs students

engaging with the teaching profession in the implementation of these processes to ensure comprehensive preparation for substantial implementation by 2013.

So far from the curriculum being historically endorsed, as the minister for education would try to lead you to believe, what actually happened last year was that all ministers agreed that a whole lot more work needs to be done before the curriculum can even think of being approved.

Have any of these issues been addressed nearly nine months later? Apparently not, according to the Australian Curriculum Coalition, and it will come as a shock to members of the House to discover that nine months later virtually nothing has been achieved. The Australian Curriculum Coalition made the observation:

Disappointingly neither time, resources nor political will has seen these matters seriously addressed.

They called on the federal, state and territory education ministers to immediately commit to the priority work needed to develop a genuinely 21st century curriculum by addressing the matters of concern raised by the sector and fulfil the intent on the resolution of that important MCEECDYA meeting last year. They noted:

Without this resolve, Australia is in danger of producing and adopting a national curriculum that is little more than a ' content revamp ' of mid-twentieth century curricula.

There is, however, an example of at least one minister who has acted since the Australian Curriculum Coalition's scathing letter and does have the resolve to see these issues addressed. Just last week the Hon. Adrian Piccoli, the Minister for Education in New South Wales, announced the New South Wales state government's decision to delay the introduction of the new Australian curriculum by at least a year until 2014. He acted upon the expert advice provided by the New South Wales Board of Studies that the curriculum is not yet of a high enough standard to be introduced into New South Wales. He has also suggested that federal resources for teacher professional development are needed before the curriculum can be adequately rolled out in New South Wales.

His decision has been met with widespread support from education stakeholders in New South Wales, including the NSW Teachers Federation—not know to be a friend of the coalition—and non-government school sector bodies in that state. Even the NSW Teachers Federation President, Bob Lipscombe, who has had much to say about the perceived inadequacies of the coalition over the years, has said:

The Australian curriculum's not ready to be implemented in NSW. We must be careful to ensure that when we do implement it we don't do it in a way that undermines the already high curriculum standards in this state. There are issues around the overarching framework it fits in and importantly there are also issues around the resourcing that will be put in place to support its implementation. Until these questions are addressed by the Federal Government, then a delay is quite appropriate.

The Federal President of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, while charming, is not known to be a supporter of the coalition's policies in education. Even he said:

We still have a series of concerns with respect to the development of the national curriculum … we're also seriously worried by the absence of any funding to support the implementation.

So the coalition and the Australian Education Union are on a unity ticket opposing the implementation of a national curriculum that is neither ready for nor married with the required resources to ensure that it can be introduced successfully. The Independent Education Union President, Chris Watt, said:

We've been saying for a long time that getting the content right is important and it looks like we might be getting towards an end point, although teachers still have not seen the final documents …

It appears the only person who does not have any concern about the national curriculum process is the hapless Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth.

If a national curriculum is to serve the learning needs of our children, the implementation process must not be hurried in the manner of the minister for school education's Home Insulation Program, or the Prime Minister's bungled schools hall program. This is just too important to get wrong. I would have thought the member for Kingston would have thought that it was time for the minister for school education to get a policy right rather than to get it in. The minister for school education was so determined to implement his pink batts program that he was prepared to do so without the necessary protections being in place for householders to ensure that they did not face burning ceilings or even the tragic deaths that eventuated out of the implementation of the minister for school's disastrous pink batts program. That program will live in infamy as one of the most unsuccessful programs in the history of this place since Federation, and yet again the minister for school education is doing the same thing with the national curriculum.

Experts agree that the content will overwhelm teachers with no funding or support for the necessary training for the rollout to succeed. And doesn't that sound familiar? They are the criticisms that the national electrical organisations made back when the minister for school education was the minister responsible for the pink batts program. They warned the minister that there was not sufficient implementation funding and that there was not sufficient training and of course we saw the tragic results that the minister for schools presided over. While he did not lose his scalp over his disastrous performance as a minister, it certainly contributed to the axing of the former Prime Minister, the member for Griffith, on that infamous day last year.

For these reasons, and because we want to try to help the government in spite of its hopeless approach, the coalition will move two amendments. The first relates to the importance of ensuring that schools are provided with appropriate support and assistance to implement the Australian curriculum. That amendment states:

(1) Schedule 1, item 1, page 3 (lines 8 to 11), omit all the words from and including "require" to the end of subsection 22(1), substitute:

(a) require the relevant authority for the school or system to ensure that the school, or each school in the system, implements the national curriculum prescribed by the regulations in accordance with the regulations; and

(b) provide such funding as is necessary to ensure that each teacher in the school or system has received professional development in the implementation of the national curriculum in accordance with a nationally consistent professional development program.

Currently there is no nationally agreed or consistent approach across jurisdictions to ensure that all schools are receiving the support in the area of teacher professional learning to be able to implement the Australian Curriculum. This point was made by the Independent Schools Council of Australia's submission to the inquiry into this bill. They said:

ISCA would like to highlight the importance of ensuring that schools are provided with appropriate support and assistance to implement the Australian Curriculum. Currently there is no agreed or consistent approach across or within jurisdictions to ensure that all schools are receiving the support required to implement the Australian Curriculum, particularly in the area of teacher professional learning.

Again, Deputy Speaker D'Ath, you do not need to take my word for it that this issue is only relevant to non-government schools. Unions representing teachers in government schools in Queensland and South Australia, from where the member for Kingston comes—and, in fact, from where the member for Brisbane comes—have now added their voices to the concerns of New South Wales that the necessary training and support required to implement the curriculum are not in place. Perhaps the member for Kingston, having observed the redistributed boundaries for South Australia, now believes that she is so untouchable in her seat of Kingston that she no longer has to listen to government school teachers or government school principals or the parents of children in government schools.

Ms Rishworth interjecting

Mr PYNE: Maybe she, like the Prime Minister, has adopted the Marie Antoinette approach to politics—which is to say, 'Let them eat cake!'—when they cannot ensure that their teachers have the adequate training and professional development. Perhaps she has adopted the approach of wondering why these people are unable to—

Ms Gambaro: I rise on a point of order. Madam Acting Deputy Speaker D'Ath, I draw your attention to the noise across the chamber and I ask that you bring the member for Kingston to order.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs D'Ath ): Thank you, Member for Brisbane. There has been some interjection from both sides. I ask that both sides of the chamber remind themselves that the member for Sturt has the right to be heard in silence.

Mr PYNE: I very much appreciate the support and protection of the member for Brisbane. The member for Kingston is becoming ever more brutish as her margin increases and she believes that she does not need to pay any attention to the voters in her electorate of Kingston.

Last week it was reported that Education Union members in South Australia have asked the state government for a 12-month delay until 2014. I have been advocating for a long time that there needs to be a clear national plan for teacher professional development and specific resources allocated by the government for this. The government's National Partnership for Teacher Quality, which provides funding for teacher support, is not explicit that funding is set aside for the purpose of supporting teachers with respect to the national curriculum.

The coalition's second amendment seeks to include clear representation of the non-government school sector with respect to decision-making processes for future time lines for the national curriculum. That would read:

(2) Schedule 1, item 1, page 3 (after line 11), after subsection 22(1), insert:

(1A) The national curriculum must not be prescribed unless the non-government school sector has had input into its development through membership and/or observer status on the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs Senior Officials Committee.

[national curriculum—non-government school sector Input]

I have written to the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth previously asking that he give consideration to representation on the standing council or on its advisory officials committee, the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs Senior Officials Committee. I believe that having representation at this level would be beneficial to add an extra layer of consultation on a range of issues affecting the sector and this representation would be a valuable source of strategic advice for any government in the future. This would provide a formal mechanism by which the non-government schools sector could be adequately and appropriately consulted in the lead-up to decisions regarding implementation time frames for the national curriculum.

You will note that in its submission to the House standing committee inquiry into this bill, the National Catholic Education Commission's submission notes:

…that a significant number—one in three—students in Australia attend non-government schools, and that neither national non-government school peak body has any representation on the Ministerial Council of Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs, the body that governs the work of ACARA and thus the work on the Australian Curriculum.

Having improved representation on the standing council's senior officials committee would add a safeguard that non-government schools would be adequately and appropriately consulted in the lead-up to decisions regarding implementation time frames.

It seems unthinkable to me that with the number of parents who have chosen to send their children to non-government schools—namely, one in three—they are not represented on the appropriate bodies that make the decisions in relation to education in Australia. The member for Bass comes from the state where there has recently been a crisis of confidence in the education minister. The Greens leader tried to close dozens of schools until I made a trip through Tasmania highlighting the issue and drawing attention to the failures of the state education minister. He then, within days of my leaving Tasmania, reversed his position. I am glad to see that it is still possible to put political pressure on any kind of government to ensure that they reverse a bad decision. I am glad that the minister there, Nick McKim, listened to the concerns I highlighted during my trip through Tasmania by holding public rallies and backed down from a very bad decision. I went to the member for Bass's electorate in Launceston and spoke to non-government schools there. You would think it was an important enough issue for him to lobby the minister for school education in relation to the representation of non-government schools on a national body such as this.

I do realise that 'improved representation' could also mean something as straightforward as receiving agenda papers and draft minutes from either the standing council or the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs Senior Officials Committee. Nevertheless, my amendment, if adopted, would enable improved representation of non-government sector authorities on this body. If I were minister for school education, I would certainly take up the opportunity and be grateful to have representation by the non-government sector at this level. These two modest amendments would go a long way in alleviating some of the reoccurring concerns about the curriculum process and have been endorsed by non-government sector authorities, both the NCEC and the ISCA. The government need to act to address the concerns being raised over the curriculum processes. They need to act now and take action to prevent further delays to the curriculum.

Defence families across Australia are frustrated that there is still no national consistency of curriculum between the states after four years of Labor. And I know the member for Fadden has a particular interest in the defence families in his electorate and, as a former of the defence services, he knows full well the pressures that defence families are already under because of the strenuous lifestyle that they lead and the pressures and stresses under which they are placed. As the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth has pointed out there are 80,000 students that cross state borders through the period of a year. These students are depending on the minister for schools to start addressing some of the practical issues that are leading to the delay of a national curriculum in schools.

I also read the House standing committee's report on the inquiry into this bill. I noted the committee's comment that this bill is uncontroversial. While I agree with this statement in part, in that non-government schools cannot possibly be expected to implement a curriculum in a mere six months time, the events that have led to this are most certainly not uncontroversial. Unless the minister for school education starts taking some serious remedial action to save the national curriculum, many people in the sector are beginning to doubt whether it is ever going to eventuate.

I hope the crossbenchers take some time to deliberate on the coalition's suggestions for improvement and consult with the non-government sectors, who have indicated to me that they support these simple and modest improvements. I have written to the crossbenchers on two occasions outlining my amendments and seeking their support. I would remind the crossbenchers that my previous amendment on the earlier bill, which did not receive majority support, would have removed the deadline from the legislation, alleviating the need for this new change.

My amendments today are necessary as well and I hope they will receive support. I would remind the crossbenchers that, if I had been listened to previously by the government and by the crossbenchers, we would not be here listening to my speech today. Some members of the chamber might regard that as a silver lining. However, unfortunately, because of the ineptness of the minister for school education, we are here and I am needing to once again point out the inadequacies of a very weak minister, a minister who is like a pane of glass at cabinet meetings—you could look straight through him and nobody would even know he was there. Education is far too important to be in the hands of a minister who is a pane of glass and who has no influence at all on the decision-making process.

I would also point out that even though in July he was putting out press releases attacking me as the shadow minister and claiming that the Computers in Schools program was on track for delivery this year—even though we had pointed out that the government would deliver 45 per cent of the program in six months, having delivered 55 per cent in three years—the decision had already been made by the government in June that they would not be able to meet the deadline. But nobody told the minister for school education. In June the government had already decided—as shown in leaked documents that were in the Australian Financial Review last Thursday—that they would not meet the deadline for Computers in Schools this year and yet a month later the poor, old minister for school education was putting out a press release saying that it was on track and on schedule.

The problem is that nobody tells him what is going on. That was his defence when he was the minister for pink batts program. He always used to have excuses—the tram got a flat tyre or 'The dog ate my homework'. The reality is that he is not up to being the minister for school education, and it is far too important. There are 3.6 million students in schools across Australia. They are relying on the minister for school education to get it right. God help them!