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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10400

Mr GARRETT (Kingsford SmithMinister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (15:58): I assure the member for Lyne that this Labor government recognises the crucial importance of education in the life of the nation, particularly for those who are at school and making their way along their learning journey. I agree with him that it is a clear question of choice—whether governments are prepared to make the necessary investments to ensure that all children in all schools are educated to the greatest capacity. He is right; I do note there is a significant gap for regional students. It is one that, as a government, we are very well aware of, as we are very well aware of the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Education is the great enabler. That is something that this Labor government understands and believes in strongly, and we will do everything within our power to bring improvements in education to fruition.

It is the difference for many people between poverty and prosperity. It is a way out of disadvantage. Particularly for those living in communities away from the cities, perhaps with a lesser degree of service or opportunity, it is absolutely crucial to their capacity to be the kind of person they want to be and to have the jobs they desire for the future. And there is no question at all about the linkages that occur when we talk about education and productivity. Just by simply completing year 12, we are adding over 10 per cent to an individual's income. We can see that the jobs for highly skilled Australians are growing at a rate much greater than those for lower skilled employees. So for anyone listening to this debate, anyone concerned about the future prospects of young Australians, education is absolutely central.

I do note there are significant regional student disadvantages. We see non-metropolitan students scoring lower on the Australian Early Development Index, so that means fewer students going on to university than has been the case before; although, as the member noted, we are seeing welcome increases in parts of the country. The fact remains that in a state like New South Wales almost 35 per cent of students from metropolitan areas who complete year 12 go on to university; only slightly more than 10 per cent of students from non-metropolitan areas do. The necessity for us to make sure that we have an appropriate focus and level of support for students in remote, in rural and from disadvantaged communities is absolutely understood.

Look at what this government has already done in making sure that education sits right in the middle of our agenda and in providing the necessary reform, focus and investment nationwide. For the first time, we have a national curriculum. They said it could not be done. For the first time we have the MySchool website providing an unparalleled amount of information for parents, for communities and for teachers on how schools are travelling. The testing that is now done for the first time through NAPLAN provides an opportunity for us to get a strong sense of how our students are achieving and identifies what we as governments need to do to help them achieve better.

The quantum of funding from this Labor government has been significant—about $65 billion over a funding cycle, nearly double what was paid and invested by the previous Howard government. It is the case that the Gonski panel review found amongst other things that we now are in a period of educational decline in comparison to our international counterparts, a decline that is judged to start from around the year 2000, a decline which reflects in part the neglect on the part of the former government to make sure that education policy and investment was being applied in appropriate measure.

We have had national partnerships on literacy and numeracy for teacher quality into low-SES communities, national partnerships that have been applied across jurisdictions, into states and across school systems—government and non-government. It is particularly important for people to understand that not only has this government provided more investment but it has made sure that that investment is shared between states so that they are able to put into practice in their schools those programs that can make a difference, and shared across systems as well, government and non-government. The fact is we have been through a period of unprecedented reform and investment in education, a reflection of this government's understanding about how crucial education will be to the prospects of the nation in the future.

Let us think for a moment about the environment we inhabit: we have skills shortages identified as a crucial issue for us; we have the Asian century as it is called under way with a number of nations to our north competing vigorously, with their education systems performing well and with additional economic and political weight; we have a globalised economy where the tempo of economic activity in our region is increasing; and we have a concomitant requirement to make sure that every young Australian has the skills they need to get the high-paying jobs of the future to be able to compete in that global environment and to set us up as a nation for future sustainable prosperity. It is the young people going to school now who are our most important national resource for the future and it is those young people that we are focused on and have been focused on ever since we came to government.

We have announced that we are willing to sit down and start working with the states on what we call, rightly, the National Plan for School Improvement. This comes on the back of the first serious look at education funding we have had in the 40 years, the Gonski panel review into funding. Mr Gonski, a Sydney businessman, with an eminent panel of educationists from across the education sectors and across the political landscape delivered to governments and to this government a report with clear findings: we are experiencing education decline and there is a growing gap among students from low socio-economic communities and others in their educational attainment. The Gonski panel recommended we ought to give consideration to a way of funding education that is based on the identified needs of students in all schools, and we have agreed to do that. We are willing to do that and we are going to do that. But everybody has a role to play. It is about choice and it is about commitment. Our choice is for the students in Australian schools now and in the future. Our commitment is to ensure they have the support they need to be the best they can be. I was pleased to see Andreas Schleicher, the ED of the OECD Education Directorate, make some welcoming comments to the way in which this government has responded to the Gonski panel. It is particularly important given that we still sit a little below the OECD average when it comes to investment in education.

So I think that any fair-minded assessment of what this government, firstly, has done; and, secondly, intends to do, would need to recognise both the level of support and investment in education, the amount of reform that has happened for the first time—reform that has involved education stakeholders, the states and the Commonwealth—and also the challenge in front of us. And that is the most important challenge that this nation faces: how do we set ourselves up for the future, how do we make sure that every young Australian is educated to their full capacity and is able to get the jobs of the future which pay better and which contribute significantly to our national income?

We are very clear about the choices that we want to make as a government. I was pleased to be able to indicate to states that I think the loadings that were recommended by Gonski panel in relation to both low-SES and to Indigenous ought to be amended to provide additional opportunities for support for students in low-socioeconomic communities. We will potentially increase that loading from the 25 per cent quartile to the 50 per cent; and for the Indigenous loading, recognise that any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kid in any school deserves a level of support, and that is what we will be proposing and putting to the states.

The member for Lyne's matter of public importance addresses not only how significant education is for regional and disadvantaged communities but also concerns about cuts in education budgets. The fact is now that, wherever we look, and wherever there is a coalition government in power, the first thing that they do is apply cuts in education and cuts in health. In New South Wales we now have a $1.7 billion cut in education that has been put forward by the minister. The consequences and the scale of that cut are extremely significant: 600 jobs going from public education; 400 jobs from the front offices; $116 million that comes out from the non-government schools that the Leader of the Opposition believes is in his DNA to support, and that it is an injustice to support government schools—but I will let that go. But what this means, as that sector tells us, is fewer teachers, less support for disadvantaged students; and 800 jobs are to go from TAFE as well.

And we are seeing it in other states—in Victoria, stripping funding from schools to pay for things like excursions and pencils for children from low-income families; and in Queensland, cutting funding to principals and parents organisations, and to music and literacy initiatives. At the end of the day, I say to members opposite: you are judged in government and in opposition by the commitments you make to better the capacity for every Australian to do the best that they can and to have the best education made available to them.

When it comes to the question of choice, from coalition governments in states all we have seen so far is a willingness to cut education and other services. After 16 years of continuous investment in New South Wales—it has been 16 years since cuts of the magnitude that are proposed by the O'Farrell government have been in place—we hear very clearly the kind of impact that those cuts will have.

But I think, in concluding, it is important for us to join the dots. Because the fact is that we have had a commitment to education in this parliament that is significant, substantial and which we want to have endure. In order to do that, we have to look at what the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Treasurer and the shadow minister have got on offer on education. They have on offer already identified cuts in education of $2.8 billion. The shadow minister was jumping up yesterday saying, 'There are no cuts! There are no cuts!' I simply refer him to the announcements by the leader and by the shadow Treasurer in the budget reply. They are all there; on the record.

But there is more than that. When he has been asked about whether there will be additional cuts in education, the shadow minister has never ruled them out. When he was asked by Paul Bongiorno, he effectively conceded that that would happen. As well as that, when we were talking about the level of investment that had been a feature of New South Wales Labor governments in the past here in the House, the member for Sturt thought that this was a matter of some hilarity.

We stand at a really important point here because, if we are going to make sure that we set ourselves up for the future, everybody knows that an investment in education is absolutely necessary. If we are going to make sure that young Australians in school now are able to come through into those jobs in the future, they need the access to TAFE, they need the support within the school setting—and, if they are regional students, they need it especially. We have recognised that in our National Plan for School Improvement. We have indicated a willingness to contribute additional investment to ensure that the needs of every Australian student in education are met. It is those opposite, the Leader of the Opposition and state Liberal-National Party governments which are now, at this point in time, doing the complete opposite—sending us as a nation in the wrong direction and, as a matter of choice, applying cuts to the very things that we need to see supported in the future.

When the shadow Treasurer was asked this morning, three times, whether he would rule out cuts to education and called education 'a waste', he made perfectly clear the coalition's position on this issue—and I have made ours perfectly clear as well. (Time expired)