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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1536


Senator MACKLIN(3.48) —The matter of public importance we are discussing today is 'The need for maximum educational choice for parents and students as a necessary part of raising educational standards and Labor's ill-advised moves to restrict choice.' The actual matter of public importance does not seek to specify schools or, indeed, to specify anything in particular. If one looks in some detail at the proposition, it is interesting that maximum educational choice here is seen as a necessary part of raising educational standards. We are all very much aware that many choices made by parents for their pupils do no such thing. In Australia today an increasing number of parents are expressing their concerns about educational choices that they have made for their sons or daughters in the past which have not, in fact, raised the educational standard of those children.

I think it must be said that we must be very careful about making categorical connections between the types of things we would like to happen as though they will always happen in the real world. That is not the case. In general, of course, the widening of educational choice to parents ought to result in better opportunities for children. If that is the proposition I do not think there would be any caveat in this place from any honourable senator.

The need for diversity in education has been recognised by parents, students, teachers and most people who come in contact with the education system at each level. I think over the years we have become more and more aware of the variety of cultures, lifestyles and educational aspirations that characterise Australia in 1985. To be able to fulfil those types of aspirations obviously requires an education system which is as diverse as the country is able to maintain. I suspect that the argument which is still being sustained at least in the political circles, if it is not sustained with terribly much joy in the educational circles, revolves around that aspect of how much choice is available in Australia in 1985 and the years to come and whether the country can sustain economically a wider range of choice. I do not think anybody is actually arguing that the amount of choice should be less.

However, I would like to make a couple of points on this notion of choice. All too often we assume that parental choice is the same as institutional choice. It is not, for two very good reasons. One is that the only schools in Australia today which are available for total choice of parents are the state schools. There is an old saying that the rich and poor alike are both free to sleep under the bridge. If one does not have the resources one cannot choose. If one does not live in a geographical region where those choices are available, one cannot choose. If a person in Australia comes from a race of people such as, for example, the Aboriginal people in many parts of the Northern Territory-I was there last week-he or she does not have access. Such people do not have the opportunity to choose. Choice depends on a whole range of matters.

As I have said, for the overwhelming number of people in Australia today the only schooling system which is available and which has that maximum availability of choice is the state school system. There are other schooling systems. One would need to divide the private school system into probably the systemic Catholic school system and the schooling systems established by other churches and groups in our society. The Catholic systemic system by and large is very much open to people in almost every income group in Australia. The reason for that is that the Catholic systemic system by and large is supported from Consolidated Revenue. It varies from State to State. I understand that New South Wales is the lowest. I am not sure which is the highest. Overall, the type of support which is provided directly from Consolidated Revenue is in many schools in the order of 80 to 85 per cent of their recurrent costs.

In those circumstances it is possible for the Catholic systemic schools to provide educational facilities to children from low income groups simply because they do not charge large fees. However, if one goes to every capital city in Australia today one can find schools which, in a way, might be said to be open to any parents but they are certainly open only to a very small group of people. They would probably be open to the children of honourable senators in this chamber because of our incomes, but they are not open to the vast bulk of the Australian population which does not have the type of income we enjoy. So I think under that heading one must be very careful when one is talking about the freedom of choice. Is it precisely the freedom for the parent and student to choose or is it the choice of the institution to choose who shall go into that institution?

But a second, and I think equally important, idea is contained within the notion of freedom of choice, particularly when it comes to educational choice. That is that all too often in this country we have tended to talk about educational choice as though it is a choice between a state school education or a religious education. I think that the real choices in Australia today, and hopefully it will be the case into the future, are about the types of educational philosophies those schools embody rather than whether it is a secular or religious education. As I have said on innumerable occasions, because we seem to have this sort of debate fairly regularly, one could sit in the back of the classes of most of the private schools in Australia and if it were not for the statues or holy pictures on the wall one would not know whether one was in a state school or a private school. The schools look very much the same in Australia today. If one looks at the types of aspirations of the vast majority of the population in Australia today one sees that they are not very different one from another. People are all looking for what is best for their children. They are all looking hopefully for their children to get sufficient educational standing to be able to get jobs in the ever-shrinking labour market. This applies to only a very small group of schools. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) in her speech actually referred to a group of schools-possibly the accelerated Christian schools. If one went into those one would certainly notice a difference. There are groups of schools that do provide an essentially different type of education, but by and large the vast bulk of education in Australia today fits into what we understand is mainstream education.

However, from this year on I think educational choice will start moving very rapidly, not in institutional terms, but in educational terms. By that I mean that if one has a look at the figures for the last nine months with regard to the growth in the home computer market one has to start understanding that essentially the people who have finances in Australia today and who have children at school are buying some type of computer-based education system for their children. Someone has suggested that the computers might be the new encyclopedias and that if people do not actually have one for their children they might start to feel awfully guilty. Whatever the reason people are buying into computers, they are buying in.

It may be that these will sit on desks because people cannot work out how to use them, or they may be used effectively. Quite frankly, my feeling is that the tertiary educated parents in Australia today are making an attempt to use these computers to benefit their children in a way which will put them a jump ahead of other children in their class at school. In Australia I see a distinct movement appearing towards that type of supplementary education, which used to be provided by coaching colleges or other types of enrichment education such as music classes to which children are able to go out of schooling time, being provided more and more in terms of the available education dollar through types of new technologies and new communication mechanisms.

The power of those new mechanisms to mould our choices about education I think is not yet apparent. I think they will become apparent, but if one thinks along those lines and then turns to the Schools Commission's recommendations for this year, one sees the gulf that might be opening up in Australia. The areas covered are Aboriginal education, English as a second language, particularly for new arrivals, the disadvantaged schools program, and the special education program. Those areas are in desperate need. They have been singled out by the Schools Commission, and I think they have to be singled out as areas of desperate need in Australia today. On the one hand we are attempting to fulfil the requirements of government in those areas of special and desperate need, and on the other hand large groups of the Australian population are looking at totally different forms of education to enrich and advance their children. When we talk about the need for maximum educational choice we should talk about 1985 and beyond, and not put the rather barren debate of the 1970s and the 1960s regurgitated for another runaround.

If one wants to talk about the narrowing of choices, one can certainly talk about that in terms of the cutbacks that have occurred and the inability of this Government to fulfil the desires of people who want to go into technical and further education, the enormous wind down in professional development, and the lack of support for capital works programs. Quite frankly, however, those types of complaints that I make of this Government I made of the previous Government. Unfortunately, the run down in Australia in educational terms is endemic in the way we have funded our educational processes. I made those complaints when Senator Peter Baume was Minister for Education in the Fraser Government, as I make them again today with the current Minister for Education, who is present for this debate. They are there and represent a particular view of where we should put resources in Australia. I have argued, seemingly totally ineffectively, that we should be putting them into choices about the development of the human capacities of Australian citizens. However, we still want to talk about the costs of those resources; we do not want to talk about them as investments. That seems to be the settled debate, and I suppose that is where it will stay.

One point I wish to make about this whole operation is that, if we fail continually to redefine our resources in human terms, the ability of Australia to provide work and opportunities and to raise educational standards will not be realised. It will not be realised simply by arguing about whether this school or that is established. Eventually the real crunch item in education will not be about how we cut the cake, it will be about the size of the cake with regard to other allocations in the Budget. The education allocation has not risen under this Government. It remains at the same pitiably low level provided by the previous Government.