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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8802


Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (17:24): I rise to support the amendments moved by the Manager of Opposition Business, the Shadow Minister for Education, Apprenticeships and Training, the member for Sturt. In doing so I follow a very high-quality contribution from the member for Bradfield, who is keeping up the usual standard of his contributions in this place. He spoke thoughtfully about some very important concerns—the standard of education in our country and the direction that it is taking and the way the government is plans to implement the national curriculum through the Schools Assistance Amendment Bill 2011—that are close to the hearts of many of us in this place. The member for Bradfield summed up our concerns very well in his contribution, so I do not intend to go through them in the same detail as he did. They were also placed on the record very well by the shadow minister earlier today. But I do want to touch on a couple of the issues raised and how they relate to my electorate of Mayo.

Many of us in this place understand the importance of a high-quality education. The Liberal Party has pursued policies which are about achieving standards in education for some time now. We take the view that government should try to encourage the education sector, whether it be the government sector, the Catholic sector or the independent sector, to produce students with the highest possible education standards so that they can meet the demands of industry for jobs and go off to university, if it suits them, and get a higher level of education so that they have an opportunity to create their own prosperity and improve their standard of living and the national well-being at the same time.

Obviously, standards in schools are very important in what a national curriculum sets out, and I am supporter of a standardised approach across the country so that there is some consistency. I think, though, that we have to be very careful that we do not take away from a competitive approach across the different streams and get to the point where people are being dictated to about what they can and cannot teach in their schools—there needs to be some flexibility in government's approach to the matter. The argument that the voices of non-government schools in this debate need to be heard more loudly is a very important part of the second amendment that the member for Sturt is pursuing, because there is a concern amongst parents' groups at non-government schools in my electorate that there is a pursuit by some of a political agenda through education.

Mr Lyons: There is.

Mr BRIGGS: The member for Bass over there seems to be having some entertainment at his own expense. There is a concern that, during the early stages of its drafting, the standard national curriculum has been turned into a way to indoctrinate kids in certain philosophies rather than used to give them an opportunity to get the broader education that we on this side of the House believe will ensure that they are best prepared for future opportunities within our society.

The amendment that the member for Sturt proposes will be an important step in ensuring not only that the process is kept on track—because, as the member for Bradfield observed, the minister in charge of this process has not been labelled particularly confident in his career thus far as a minister, and keeping him under watch in the implementation of the curriculum is quite an important thing to do—but also that what comes out of the drafting of the curriculum is of good quality. That is very important to those of us in this room who are going through the education journey with our own children. Parents take a great deal of interest in how their children are being taught and what they are being taught, so parents are actively engaged in and raise issues about the quality of education and the restrictions that some would like to place on it.

We know that there are members of the Labor-Green coalition government who are against the independent sector. They do not believe that the independent sector should be funded to the extent that it is, and by stealth they would like to have both the Catholic independent sectors defunded to a significant degree. There are also concerns about where the national curriculum is going, and we should be very conscious of that, because independent schools and Catholic schools provide choice for parents who want to have a values based education as well as an educational standard for their children. I know there are some in this chamber who have benefited greatly from that independent stream in their upbringing. They might have been misguided in some of the ways they went about their education and future careers from that opportunity, but they still benefited enormously from the opportunities the independent stream gave. In that respect I think people will recognise that the independent and Catholic sectors do provide those choices for parents that they should be able to provide. There are some concerns about using this national curriculum to constrain the direction that some schools would like to take in their teaching.

The amendments that the member for Sturt, the shadow minister for education, has proposed are good amendments, and I am sure they are amendments that the government will support because they bring a couple of issues to bear which have not been thought out by the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth. I know there will be some concern on the government side that the minister in charge has probably missed a couple of these points on the way through.

The first amendment as drafted gives additional support to the rollout of the national curriculum. It is an issue which has been raised extensively by members of the opposition, and the shadow minister has articulated a need for that change quite well. I think this is an amendment that makes much sense. We have had all sorts of claim of credit for the national curriculum being rolled out successfully: so far we have had the Prime Minister say during the election campaign:

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

Of course, so far we have not seen it delivered. As the member for Bradfield outlined it will not meet the 31 January 2012 deadline, so there need to be some changes made to the time lines that the government has set for itself. It is another failed delivery of a promise that it has built up. Ultimately, more than anything else, the detail of this national curriculum needs to be right; it needs to ensure it has heard all the voices and that it is not written in a prescriptive manner that is about pursuing a politically ideological agenda. It needs to be about ensuring that children come out with the best standard of education that they possibly can.

As I said earlier, the Liberal Party has for some time had a strong commitment to standards in education. Back in the 2004 election campaign we famously had the simple, plain English report card that Brendan Nelson, who was the minister for education at that point, pursued quite heavily. It was good policy and it was good politics because parents wanted information about how their children were performing and they wanted it in a simple fashion. They wanted to be told how their children were achieving and how their children were going at school in a way the parents understood so that they were part of the education journey with their children. It is ultimately a very important aspect of education that the parents are engaged and are part of the education journey along with the school.

Again, this gets back to a concern that some have that the curriculum being pursued is to be very specific and focused on a political perspective rather than on a broader education. In that respect, I note that the IPA, the Institute of Public Affairs, has raised some concerns about the direction of some of the early drafting of the curriculum regarding a very heavy focus on Indigenous and Asian culture, without similar weight being given to our British heritage, our Western values or our Judeo-Christian traditions, which are so important to the fabric of our society and the fundamentals of where we have come from and where we will continue to go. This is an important aspect which has been forgotten. In their contribution the IPA has raised some very important points, which should be considered as a reason for increasing the size of the committee to have that non-government voice as part of this consideration in the first place. So there is a broader consideration that the voices of the 30 or 40 per cent of parents who choose to go through the non-government Catholic education sector are heard in these deliberations.

Ultimately, we want a national standard across the education field. We want to ensure that the differences in the standards of education between states are reduced as much as possible. But I do not think we want to standardise completely the opportunities for schools to exercise their ability to teach, and to achieve the standards they wish to achieve, in their own special way and through their own special contribution. In that respect we support the objects of the bill, but we think there are a couple of points where we can improve it. We hope that the government will see the wisdom in following our two proposed amendments. They are good amendments which will improve this bill and ensure that this minister, who we know so far has not had a glittering career of delivering policy, does not do the same to our education system as he did to pink batts.