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Thursday, 21 March 1985
Page: 532

Senator PETER BAUME(10.10) —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

The document we have before us and the statement by the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) represent major statements on education and on policy as it relates to non-government schools. What we are seeing is a major attack upon the rights of parents in Australia. It is a major administrative attack because these arrangements provide a means by which the emergence of new non-government schools, or some new non-government schools, may be prevented. It will lessen the capacity of parents to give effect to their choice about the education of their children, and on that basis the Opposition will not have a bar of it.

The Government has accepted the recommendations, so this document does not represent just proposals; the recommendations represent the policy of the Government. We are entitled to look at them, to say what those recommendations will mean, and to set out why we think they are unfair, inappropriate, and not in the best interests of Australian children. What the Government failed to do by frontal attack on non-government schools in 1983 it is now trying to achieve by administrative attack, which has been going on continuously and will continue through 1985.

We on this side of the Parliament desire a first class system of government schools for Australia. I will go even further and point out that some honourable senators on this side actually went to government schools, unlike the Minister. I can remember my time at North Sydney Boys High School. The Minister, of course, has never seen the inside of a government secondary school. That is a fact. At least we not only support government schools, some of us actually attended them. That does not alter the fact that this document, which concerns non-government schooling in Australia, will provide major headaches for those who are in the non-government sector--

Senator Messner —The Government is out to destroy it.

Senator PETER BAUME —It certainly is. The Government is out to destroy the non-government schools. This document provides the administrative structure for containing and confining the emergence of new non-government schools. It is a major departure from established practice and a major departure from the principle that parental choice should be given primacy in this area.

The report sets out to redefine what will be called new schools, and I will come back to that point. It sets out with a definition of what is a developing area and that definition contains the key to the way in which the Government will control new non-government schools. The guidelines contain an implicit threat that once a priority list has been established the Government may, by manipulating its Budget appropriations, simply not fund those proposed new non-government schools which are low in the priority order. That will prevent the emergence of some new non-government schools in Australia by denying them the funding. The agenda, which is made clear in the statement, is to force people to remain in government schools, even if that is not their desire. I wish to make a point about that: Three out of four Australians have their children educated in government schools, most of them by choice. Most of the schools I visit are government schools and I regard them as good quality schools giving good education. But where parents have a desire to have their children educated elsewhere they should be able to have that desire reflected in the funding policies of government. This document advances arguments as to why that choice should not be honoured.

Some of the statements in the document make this quite clear. The document actually sets out on page 7, in paragraph 20, the following statement:

A continuing significant decline in the government school sector's share of overall enrolment is likely to change substantially the social composition of the student population in government schools, with potentially significant negative consequences for the general comprehensiveness of public school systems.

It goes on further in developing the same argument to say that competition adversely affects government schools. Part of the answer to the problem in Australian schools today is for the less preferred sector-whichever that might be in some regions-to lift its game. It is not a question of making the barriers to entry or the barriers to funding so high that people cannot exercise their free choice. The document points out, quite correctly, that between 1972 and 1982 enrolments in non-government schools increased by some 17 per cent, by 100,000 children. What does that mean? It means that some parents were prepared to put their children into schools which generally were less well resourced than government schools, had larger classes and poorer physical plant, and they were prepared to pay from their pockets extra money to exercise that choice. That is what it meant, and yet over that period 100,000 extra children enrolled in the non-government sector-an increase of 17 per cent. Over the same time the government school sector also increased its enrolments, but by only 60,000, or 3 per cent. So it is quite clear that there has been some general trend by Australian parents to exercise their choice in favour of the schooling they want. Funding policies have allowed community preferences to be reflected in practice but, as I say, at real cost to the parents who pursue what they value. Whether their values are right or wrong is a separate question. We, on this side, happen to think that the values they espouse should be supported in public policy.

Not only that, but the enrolments in the non-government sector have varied within the components of the non-government sector. In fact, we have seen over the last few years different kinds of schools emerge, including more community schools and schools from minority religious groups, and a range of groups now seek public funding to establish their schools and have them supported, even in well developed areas of population. The document really gives itself away when it says in paragraph 11:

There is now a general understanding that the development of new school places in one sector cannot responsibly be considered without reference to the overall effects of the planned provision of schooling services . . .

That is what the teachers unions have been saying for some time. I spoke to the teachers unions when I was Minister for Education and I can say that they are totally against any state aid to any child in any non-government school. This is the kind of proposal which has been put by those who are interested in planning in education. They are not concerned with parental choice, they are concerned with the efficiency of the system. In their minds, the economic use of resources should take precedence over the preferences and wishes of parents. The real challenge for education in Australia today is to ask in a positive way why it is that so many parents are voting with their feet. We must then ask how we can make parents prefer the government system, which costs very little in terms of cash to the parents. That is the real challenge; not to make it more difficult for parents to exercise their choice, whatever that may be. To argue otherwise is an argument for having more control over the rights of parents to make life more difficult for them.

There are several features of this report to which I wish to refer. The definition of new schools, which the Government has now accepted as policy, is contained in recommendation (1). Part of that definition is simple enough and in fact is not controversial, but there is one part of it which seeks to define as new schools, and therefore subject to all the procedures contained in the rest of the report, existing schools which want to undertake a change in character, resulting in a significantly increased or different clientele. Consider that for a moment: An increased clientele. Maybe, if the school wants to increase its size significantly, it will then be considered as a new school and will be thrown back into the pot. As I will demonstrate later, the potential will then exist for it to lose the funding which it presently gets for the support of the parents who send their children to that school.

The definition of the ways in which an existing school can be redefined as a new school opens up an endless series of threats to any school at all. Even if it has parents beating down the doors to enrol their children, it is a threat to that school to attempt to meet the needs of those parents. Their definition of new schools is one of the worries. I hope that, in the application of this recommendation, which I understand may take place through various committees to be established at State level, people will realise that, if this is applied with any kind of clumsiness, it can in fact do great harm to education and to children.

The main problems, however, relate to the planning provision which the Government is proposing. Recommendation (6) talks about planned educational provision. At State level it wants to ensure that the provision of schools, whether they are government schools or non-government schools, will fit into a planned provision of education in that region. Implicit in that is that, if it can be shown that there is adequate school provision already, there will be precious little sympathy for anyone who wishes to establish a new school in the same region. I must say again that this is one aspect whereby the needs of the system and the needs of system efficiency are being placed ahead of parental choice. This is being done quite explicitly. In this report it is acknowledged that some of the parent groups and independent school groups find this proposition obnoxious. Indeed, it can spell the end of expansion of non-government schools of any kind which do not fit in with the Government's agenda or which do not meet the Government's priorities.

If planned educational provision is a problem, the budgetary proposals are even more horrifying. The Government has indicated that at State level proposed new non-government schools, in the light of planned educational provision, are to be allocated a priority; high priority for funding, medium priority for funding, low priority for funding. The Government, at the time of the Budget or at the time of the guidelines, will indicate an amount of money which it will provide for new schools, both for capital and recurrent expenditure. It is quite apparent from this document that the real possibility exists that the amount of money will not be sufficient to provide funds for all proposed new non-government schools and that the new schools proposed which do not get a high priority may in fact get no recurrent funds at all.

Let me remind the Senate that under the previous Administration we had the same requirement that there be State registration of any new non-government school. We required that there be a non-profit organisation. I was very close to developing some minimum enrolment requirement. I do not object to the fact that the Government has laid down some minimum numbers. Having met those conditions, we, as a matter of principle and policy, were willing to give recurrent funds to any schools that were established, provided they met those conditions. We are now faced with a proposal where a priority list will be established. The Government will then decide its budget priorities. The possibility exists that some new non-government schools will receive nothing and they may never receive anything. This is part of the Government's program to cut back the expansion of schools in the non-government sector. I must say that the non-government sector was not attracted to this proposition. In paragraph 59 of the report the following words appear:

However, a significant number of groups and individuals within the non-government sector expressed concern at the use of budgeting as a planning tool and found unacceptable in principle the notion of a budget mechanism which could result in the exclusion of some initially eligible schools from funding or allow government to restrict the number of students in new non-government schools for whom recurrent funding would be provided.

I want to say on behalf of the Opposition that we share the concerns expressed by those groups and individuals within the non-government sector. We think they have got it right. We think the concern they expressed goes to the centre of the problem. We reject entirely the idea of putting into the hands of this Government a budgetary capacity to give no funds at all for the support of some Australian children whose only crime will be that their parents have decided that they want them educated in a certain school in a certain place. This matter is not going to rest here.

Government senators-Oh!

Senator PETER BAUME —I notice that Senator Giles, a former candidate of the Council for the Defence of Government Schools, intervenes. I know that the honourable senator has a view based on her beliefs, but I want to tell her that DOGS is a discredited group, and the views for which she stood for Parliament as a DOGS candidate are discredited views in the Australian community. We in the Opposition place value upon freedom of choice in education. What we have here is a paper and some recommendations which express the Government's view on the value clash that exists today in Australian society-the clash between choice as a principle for policy and between system needs and system efficiency as a basis for policy. The acceptance of these recommendations in the report and Government action which may flow from them represent a major threat to parents who want to choose non-government school education in new, non-government schools. I tell honourable senators that parents all around Australia want to establish new, non-government schools for their children. They now face a threat in respect of funding. Why should one sector be held back if parents want to support it with their time, their commitment and their money as they are doing now?

This report is a continuation of the broad pattern of administrative obstruction which has occurred since the Government was elected and which has become more marked since the frontal assault on non-government school funding was turned back about 16 months ago. We are not interested in the kind of philosophy which this Government endorses. We are not interested in equality of outcomes as a primary goal of education. We want equality of opportunity. We are not interested in placing system efficiency and system needs ahead of parents' and children's needs. I do not mind if some government school facilities end up underutilised if the parents in the community are not willing to place their faith in those schools as places for their children to be educated. I say again that the challenge will be for the government systems to lift their game. The first way to do that is to try to do what Mr Cavalier is doing in New South Wales; that is, to take on, to curb and to beat the teachers' unions in their agendas which are destructive of education. These proposals will impose new administrative costs on those who seek to promote or establish new non-government schools. The bureaucratic load will also be felt within the Schools Commission. We will be watching very closely the way in which this Government proceeds to try to implement these recommendations. If we find that non-government schools, properly conceived, registerable, non-profit, having given due notice and having gone through these procedures--

Senator Giles —And accountable.

Senator PETER BAUME —Let us stick with what is in the statement. If those schools, having met with all the requirements, are then told that because they are low priority schools according to this Government's anti-non-government school agenda they will get no recurrent funding, that will be a tragedy for Australian education. This Opposition will continue to watch, to fight and to make an issue of this if the Government moves even one inch to limit or to deny parental choice of schooling.