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Wednesday, 27 March 1985
Page: 895

Senator MACKLIN(3.53) —The matter of public importance brought forward by the Opposition today is:

Labor's cold war of attrition against non-government schools.

This is a topic which we have discussed on innumerable occasions in the Senate in the past few years. I am not at all sure that throughout the rather protracted debate a great deal of additional light has been thrown on the problem. Certainly what has occurred is a heating up of the political context and presumably political parties find that useful. Whether or not it assists kids' education in schools is neither here nor there; if one can get a few votes out of it, I suppose it is worthwhile-hence the cynical values that exist in political parties and the way in which the population outside views politicians and how they abuse various factors which occur in the community.

It is a pity that we are debating this issue again. When I look back at the matters of public importance in education debated during that last three parliaments, I find that there have been no matters of public importance debates on the following subjects: The education of isolated children; migrant language education; adult illiteracy, which is widespread in our country; Aboriginal education and the problems of cultural interchange; disadvantaged programs for the mentally and physically handicapped children in the community; pre-school provision; technical education for young adults preparing them for the workforce; retaining needs of adults; further education provisions; and college and tertiary education. That is a sorry history when time and again we discuss this particular topic as though it were the only matter of public importance in education in Australia.

Senator Teague —Why don't you bring in one yourself?

Senator MACKLIN —We get only one. If Senator Teague knew anything about the arrangements in this place he would have kept that comment to himself. The Opposition does not want to discuss these important matters. That is patently the record. People do not want to discuss that extraordinarily wide range of matters of public importance in the area of education.

Unfortunately we are having another go at resurrecting a brawl between two important sectors in schooling; that is, the private and public sectors. I would have thought that the settled situation is that we will continue in Australia to have two sectors involved in schooling. I believe that principle is accepted by all political parties represented in this Parliament. That the bulk of recurrent funds to both sectors will be provided by the public purse is a position which has been accepted by the Liberal and National parties and by the Australian Labor Party. Therefore, what we have now come down to is nibbling at the margins for the sake of a political debate.

I think that the advances that have been made in the past few years have been made almost solely despite that debate and not because of it. The advances that have been made have been made by the people who run those two sectors talking to one another and discussing their mutual problems. They have discussed the difficulties of teaching children in 1985 whether it be in a private school or a government school, the difficulty of coping with the social stresses which are being imposed more and more on our families and the recurrent problems that gives to teachers in the classroom. Then there are the problems that teachers have in confronting the needs of pupils in the classroom and the needs the teachers themselves have in updating their own information base and in coming to grips with new technologies and new information. Those types of problems do not know any boundaries. They are experienced by teachers and pupils regardless of whether it says on the gate of the school that it is the local parish Catholic school or the local State school.

By and large the children who are in those schools come from identical backgrounds within Australia. They come from backgrounds in which their parents are struggling hard to make ends meet. They come from parents who want the best for their children and the best future that is available for their children. Quite frankly, the vast bulk of Australian parents are fed up to the back teeth with what politics is doing to education in this country. They want an end to the acrimonious debates in this Parliament. They want agreement on what is wanted for all our children because they are all citizens of this country. It is not a matter of grasping from one group and giving to the other or grasping from the other group and giving it back; it is a matter of coming to some type of settled agreement about the fact that we have enormous problems with the educational system in this country, enormous problems in the schools and enormous difficulties in terms of the regeneration and redirection of educational institutions.

Essentially the problems of the Catholic, independent and state schools are identical and ultimately they are not a matter of money. Ultimately they are not even a matter for the school structure itself; they are a matter for the society finally to agree on what it wants out of those institutions.

One of the major problems that most people have is that almost everyone alive in Australia today has gone to a school at some time in their life; hence, they fail to realise the very short history that schools have as educational institutions. Schools, as they are presently constituted, are not of very long duration. It may well be that the pressures being imposed upon schools now will mean that they may not exist in their current form for too much longer. There are already signs in various parts of the world of the breaking up of education systems under the types of pressures, strains and demands that are being placed on them. Quite frankly, schools can do well without the type of silly debate that goes on in this place. Most teachers can do well without this sort of thing.

The last report brought into the Senate, concerning the establishment of new non-government schools, was formulated by a panel, the majority of whom were from the non-government sector. One would not know that, even after having read the report, unless one turned to the front of the report to see that that was the case. In other words, most people working in the area now have got down to bedrock; they know that most of the recurrent funds will come from government. They have got down to discussing how it is that we can co-operate in a far better and more effective way to help as many children in this country as possible get the best education they can out of the dollars available.

A lot of rhetoric, discussion and high-flown speech making is indulged in for public consumption in an endeavour to drum up a little political support and probably a few votes here and there. I re-read in preparation for this debate a speech that I made in this chamber on 9 September 1982, during the time of the Fraser Administration, and I wonder whether or not, if the suggestion I made in that speech had been taken up, we would still be having these debates. I suggested that if the people actually involved in education, who do the hard yakka at the work face as distinct from all of those celebrated amateurs who wander around the place telling everybody else what best to do with their lives, were allowed to get together without the Press-with all due respect to the Press-and to have a long discussion about their needs and what agreements they could reach, there would be very few difficulties that they could not resolve by the end of the day. In all the meetings I have had with administrators and teachers I have found a concurrence of views, not a disparity. I have found that their major concern is for the kids in this country, and we are indeed blessed by the vast majority of teachers and administrators we have in both of our education systems. Their knowledge and understanding of what is required would easily overwhelm the differences which politicians attempt to construct for them.

I would have hoped that such a conference could take place; I still hope it does take place. It need not be held in this chamber or in the other place; indeed not even in Canberra, and certainly not with the Press in attendance. There could be a wide-ranging discussion of needs into the 1990s and to the year 2000. The problems currently emerging, which are pressing not only on secondary school teachers but also even on upper primary school teachers, have to be addressed at some stage. We have to address these real educational problems and not the peripheral piddling things that we in this chamber spend most of our time discussing.

The only point I wish to make in terms of any war of attrition-I make it as forcefully as I can-is that there is an enormous amount of intersection between the two systems in Australia. It is not possible for those systems to exist apart. They exist together and they have an effect one upon the other. I give a trite example, but it is an example from the work face, of what actually happens in order to show that this interaction is acknowledged in the classroom. Currently in Australia private schools, in whatever State they are, establish their own criteria for expulsion. There are a considerable number of expulsions from private schools, as there are from state schools, around Australia every year, for one reason or another. State schools in every State are obliged by law to accept any children who present themselves. Hence, if students are expelled from a local private school they can move down the road and go to the local state school. I happened to be the teacher in the example I have in mind, so the incident is very acute to me. Three children arrived from the local private school and came into my grade 10 industrial class that had at that time 37 kids, though I should not call them that because they were young adults. Most of them were much bigger than I was even though they were still under the age of 15 years. These new students were amongst the most disruptive people I had ever met and destroyed the education opportunity for the bulk of that class for a fair time.

Senator Aulich —What did you do?

Senator MACKLIN —Ultimately they were expelled from that state school as well. I imagine they are now in Boggo Road gaol at Her Majesty's pleasure. The point I am trying to make is that there is intersection. Whilst that example may seem trite, it happens to be the type of thing that teachers constantly have to confront in the classroom. The exclamations and whipping up of dissent do not help teachers in those circumstances; it does not help the education of the children; and it does not help the parents who are only looking for the best future that they can get for their children. For goodness sake, let us in 1985 agree to differ on whatever it was that we got upset about in the past and try to direct our ample talents in this place towards trying to map out a national education plan that will help every child in this country through to the year 2000.