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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8798

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (17:09): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Schools Assistance Amendment Bill 2011, a bill which amends the Schools Assistance Act. The substance of this bill is quite straightforward: it amends the requirement, which presently exists under law, that non-government schools must implement the national curriculum by 2012.

Why is such an amendment necessary? Sadly, it is because we have once again seen from this government a demonstration that there is a vast gulf between its lofty ideals and frequently stated ambitions and what it actually manages to implement by stated deadlines. Let's be clear: this bill is not about whether the national curriculum is a good idea in principle. The coalition supports a national curriculum in principle. We do not have concerns with the broad concept but we have significant concerns with the direction in which the national curriculum is heading under the Gillard Labor government, and amongst our concerns are the consequences of the national curriculum—and the way it is being amended—for the independent schools sector.

In the brief time available to me, I want to make three key points. Firstly, the national curriculum process is a mess. The date, which is supposed to be met, keeps failing to be met, and overall the government is having great difficulty in achieving its targets. The second point I want to make is that the process which is being carried on and, indeed, the legislative framework are incidentally quite revealing of the underlying hostility of the Labor Party to the independent school sector. The third point is that the amendments which we have proposed seek to redress the balance and give independent schools a fair go and fair representation in the national curriculum process.

Let me turn to the first proposition which I wish to advance, which is that the national curriculum process is in a mess. It is, you may think, a surprising proposition that a process being managed by a national government should be disorganised and failing to meet the stated time lines. Sadly, as with so many other aspects of the Rudd-Gillard government's poor track record of administration and implementation, when it comes to the national curriculum, we are seeing the very same level of poor performance, poor implementation and a yawning gulf between what is promised, what is claimed and what is actually delivered.

Let me join my coalition colleagues in once again reminding the chamber of the commitment of the claim made on 15 April 2008 by the then minister for education—before she achieved her glittering and sudden ascent—when she said:

A national curriculum publicly available and which can start to be delivered in all jurisdictions from January 2011—

which, if you are following the calendar closely, you would note is in fact some seven months in the past as we speak.

As Prime Minister, the member for Lalor had this to say:

This nation ' s talked about national curriculum for 30 years. I delivered it.

Let me again join with my coalition colleagues in making the point: it has not yet been delivered. It is a statement of aspiration. The performance does not match the rhetoric, and we see this so often from this government. Who could forget the tearful farewell from the former Prime Minister listing a series of accomplishments, which so many times fell short of the claims that he made? Or I could note the recent claim by the Prime Minister in another field, telecommunications, where she is now claiming to have delivered the structural separation of Telstra. Let me assure the Prime Minister: Telstra is not structurally separated; it remains a dominant and vertically integrated company. In field after field of which, tragically, the national curriculum is one, we see this yawning gulf between the stated aspirations of this government and the sad track record of underachievement.

The current legislation, the act as it presently stands, the Schools Assistance Act, provides that non-government schools were to implement the national curriculum by January 31 2012. Against this target, it is timely to ask: what progress has been achieved to date? Phase 1, the draft kindergarten to year 10 curriculum for English, maths, science and history has been drafted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority and a final draft will be presented to education ministers in October this year. Phase 2, covering the learning areas of languages, geography and the arts, is still under development; and a phase 3 will be required to cover the remaining learning areas identified in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. The curriculum for senior secondary years is one where work is only just beginning. It is quite likely that the development of a national curriculum for these years will require a very significant period.

The clear reality is that the national curriculum is nowhere near ready for implementation by 31 January 2012. What did the New South Wales Teachers Federation President, Bob Lipscombe, have to say about this? He said:

The Australian curriculum ' s not ready to be implemented in New South Wales. 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.

I might add that that is a sentiment which I have had put to me by teachers in both non-government and government schools in my electorate of Bradfield, including, for example, senior maths teachers at Normanhurst Boys High School, amongst many others.

As the House was advised earlier today, in an attempt to assist the government in dealing with this looming administrative problem, the shadow minister for education, apprenticeships and training proposed an amendment in March this year, but at that time the government minister seemed unaware of the problem and failed to support the coalition's amendment.

Mr Briggs interjecting

Mr FLETCHER: It has been put to me that this is a minister who does not have a tremendous track record of implementation himself, as the owners of a number of houses which now lie in smouldering ruins could ruefully testify. So it is perhaps no great surprise that the notion of preparing and being ready to implement a program by the stated date of 31 January 2012 was not something that the minister and member for Kingsford Smith, for the moment, was able to do. I am shocked at the implication that a familiarity with project management and even Gantt charts were possibly not within his previous experience as a leading Australian pop music star, but that is another matter.

Let me turn to the next proposition I want to put to the House, which is that this process and this legislation reveal the underlying hostility of the Labor Party to the independent school sector. The financial impact of this bill, stated in the explanatory memorandum, makes this point very clear. It highlights that the amount of funding provided to non-government schools under the Schools Assistance Act is $8.1 billion for 2012-13, $8.8 billion for the next year and $9.5 billion for the third year. These are substantial figures and the Labor government is clearly proposing to apply a very blunt instrument whereby, if non-government schools are not able to meet the prescribed time frames, their funding is at risk.

Let me be absolutely clear: the coalition are very strong supporters of both independent schools and government schools. In my own electorate of Bradfield, we are privileged to have an outstanding group of independent schools, an outstanding group of Catholic schools and an outstanding group of government schools. I am enormously and repeatedly impressed by the work and commitment of the teachers, parents and other stakeholders in these fine institutions. I make this point: on this side of the House we recognise the synergy in education policy between having a strong independent school sector and having a strong government school sector, because we recognise, as some seem not to, that independent schools take pressure off the government school system.

We also, therefore, are very concerned that the Labor government has not made adequate provision for non-government schools to have their say regarding the national curriculum on matters such as implementation and timing, because non-government schools have not been provided with any representation on the appropriate government bodies. There is no specific non-government school representation on the standing council, nor is there any such representation on the committee of its advisory officials, the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs Senior Officials Committee.

As the National Catholic Education Committee noted in its submission to the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment:

NCEC notes that a significant number—one in three—students in Australia attend nongovernment schools, and that neither national nongovernment school peak body has any representation on MCEECDYA—

the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs—

the body that governs the work of ACARA—

the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority—

and thus the work on the Australian Curriculum.

The Independent Schools Council of Australia represents a sector with 1,090 schools and around 550,000 students, accounting for almost 16 per cent of Australian school enrolments. Its executive director, Mr Bill Daniels, said in that body's submission to the House standing committee:

The non-government school sector, including at the state and territory level, should be extensively consulted on all aspects of the implementation of the Australian Curriculum including implementation timeframes.

The third point I want to make is that the amendments which the coalition have put before the House seek to give independent schools a fair voice in the national curriculum process. That is why we have moved our amendments. We note that the claims which have been made by the Labor government concerning the breadth and depth of the consultation process to date in fact tend to use that as an excuse for the fact that the national curriculum process is running late. The explanatory memorandum to the bill has this to say:

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 …

Et cetera, et cetera—you can see the excuses forming here. But we make the point that a consultation process must adequately take account of the views of all stakeholders, and the governance processes must adequately make representation for all stakeholders. We also note that non-government school sector representatives told the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment's inquiry into the Schools Assistance Amendment Bill 2011 that they believe that the issue of appropriate representation on the Senior Officials Committee is becoming ever more significant given the expanding and developing role of the committee. Therefore, if adopted, the coalition's amendment would provide the government with an option to provide non-government school sector authorities with observer status on the Senior Officials Committee, either instead of or in addition to membership, and this could in practical terms allow non-government school sector authorities to receive agenda and briefing papers for both the ministerial standing council and the Senior Officials Committee in advance as well as draft minutes in retrospect.

Some may say that this is a modest amendment; we do not agree. We think it is an important improvement to the process which would give adequate representation to the interests of the independent school sector in what is a very important reform process which applies to every school across Australia—government schools, Catholic schools and independent schools. I have argued today that the process has not achieved administrative excellence; instead it would undoubtedly be said of the government, if it were being given a report card by one of the many excellent teachers in any one of the many excellent schools around Australia, 'must try harder—has good intentions but does not always finish his or her work', because that is the position that the government is in at the moment with the national curriculum.

It is a matter for regret that the poor administration of the national curriculum by this government makes the bill necessary. On this side of the House we have made it clear that we support the substance of the bill, but we certainly do not support not giving independent schools an appropriate voice in the curriculum process.