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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1541


Senator COLSTON(4.18) —Before turning to the Opposition's claims, which are based on supposedly 'ill-advised moves' of the Government 'to restrict choice', I will outline a short history of government funding for schools in Australia. It is important that we get in context what is actually provided to schools today compared with the past. At one stage no funding was made available to schools in the States by the Federal government, as the total responsibility for education was accepted as one for the States themselves. Faced with gaps in the education sector, however, the Commonwealth began funding schools in 1964 with grants for science laboratories and related equipment. Since then the Commonwealth government's commitment to the schools sector has increased dramatically, so that today about $1.6 billion is being spent by the Commonwealth government on government and non-government schools.

It is significant that the real boost towards the level of funding which now prevails came during the time of the Whitlam Government. In 1972 the Labor Government established the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission, known as the Karmel Committee. That Committee was to examine the needs of schools and to work towards establishing acceptable standards in schools, as well as to advise on school funding. The Karmel Committee recommended a multifaceted seven-program approach. This was accepted by the Government of the day and program grants were authorised during the 1974-75 biennium.

In 1973 the Schools Commission was established to inquire into and furnish information and advice to the Minister for Education on matters ranging from the attainment and maintenance of school standards to matters in connection with Commonwealth financial assistance to schools. The Commission's first set of recommendations were contained in its report for the triennium 1976-78. In 1975 the Government informed the Commission that the recommendations for the 1977-79 triennium would be framed within guidelines on expenditure developed by the Government. Subsequent administrations have continued this procedure and since 1976 the Commission's annual recommendations on grants have been made in response to funding guidelines issued by the Minister for Education. The Commonwealth Schools Commission has maintained the Karmel Committee's multi-program approach to funding which enables grants to be directed to broad areas while providing for State and non-government school authorities to make specific decisions on expenditure within those areas.

The current States Grants (Schools) Acts divide Commonwealth payments into three program categories. The first is the government schools program, the second is the non-government schools program and the third relates to joint programs. In referring to school funding it should be remembered that about 75 to 76 per cent of all enrolments are in government schools. Under the Fraser Administration the proportion of total Commonwealth Schools Commission funds which went to government schools declined from 64 per cent to 47 per cent. Clearly, the 75 per cent of government school students were not receiving an equitable share of the available funding. Some moves have been made by the Hawke Government to provide more balance to the system. In education funding it must be remembered that equity for the total school system must be one of our concerns, not the favouring of one sector over another. It is important to recognise that even though we talk in this place of funding schools we often forget that there are children in those schools and it is their education which is of the utmost importance. It is for this reason that the Commonwealth provides significant funds for the non-government sector even though it may be argued that the Commonwealth Government's principal concern should be about government schools. I sometimes wonder whether the Opposition takes a global view of education in Australia or whether it deliberately wishes to favour one sector over another.

New guidelines have recently been introduced for the funding of new non-government schools. All governments are faced with the problem of limited resources and thus those resources have to be used as efficiently as possible. In this regard the Commonwealth Schools Commission's Panel on Planning and Funding Policies for New Non-government Schools reported in March 1975. Referring to the economic uses of resources, the Panel stated:

The need to balance the rights of all children to adequate resources for schooling exists within schools and systems as well as between the sectors. For example, careful management is needed within and between systems and sectors to avoid diseconomies and disruptions resulting from enrolment decline and shift. The provision of significantly more school places than those required on a population basis can have serious educational and financial implications and is likely to have negative direct and cumulative effects on the operation of all schools. This is so whether the over-provision occurs in the government sector or the non-government sector or both, as an unintended outcome of demographic change or of government policies.

One aspect of this comment should not be forgotten, namely, the need for equal opportunity within the systems. Where some zoning system applies, as mentioned earlier, this is of even more importance. In days past students in Queensland sat for a public examination called the Scholarship at the end of what is now the equivalent of the Year 8 level. I well remember a fellow student who left school to attend another school about eight kilometres away so that he would have a better chance of passing his scholarship examination. I have doubts about whether his prospects altered, but obviously his parents perceived that one school was better than another. Some of the Federal Government's programs are aimed at giving all students equal opportunity and, hopefully, allow the public perception to acknowledge that children will not be disadvantaged by attending a particular school.

At this stage I will comment on the statement I have just quoted from the report of the Panel of the Commonwealth Schools Commission about careful management being needed to avoid diseconomies and disruptions resulting from enrolment decline and shift. In this regard the Commonwealth Government's approach to new non-government school funding is to be applauded. However, before I discuss that I will quote from a Press release which was issued last year by the National Catholic Education Commission. In part, the Commission stated:

The National Catholic Education Commission has noted the concerns expressed by the Schools Commission and the government about the need to ensure a balance between the proper use of resources already available and the provision of new places in government and non-government schools. It notes the decision to impose minimum enrolment requirements and two years notice on the establishment of new non-government schools. It requests the government to ensure that these new requirements will not be implemented in a way which will cause undue hardship to those wanting to establish new schools.

That is a laudable request. I quote some of the elements of the new policy in relation to new non-government schools:

The Government therefore decided that:

. . . from 1985, new schools, as a condition for Commonwealth recurrent funding, will be required to meet the enrolment guidelines accepted by the Australian Education Council and set out in the Council's report on Registration of Non-government Schools . . .

I ask: What is wrong with that? Should public funds be used where enrolments are extremely low? We must question whether funds which have been provided by the taxpayer should be used for a school which has low enrolments. The second point the Government decided was:

Commonwealth establishment grants to new non-government schools from 1985 will be made available only to new schools, systemic and non-systemic, serving developing areas; these grants are to be maintained at existing real levels for the funding period 1985-88 . . .

Again I ask: What is wrong with that? It would be difficult to justify the provision of new schools in stable areas where educational requirements are fully met. It would be even more difficult, if not impossible, to justify the use of scarce resources in establishing new schools in areas of declining enrolment. The Government also decided that:

. . . in principle, authorities seeking capital and/or recurrent grants for new non-government schools (or major structural changes such as the addition of secondary levels to primary schools or the relocation of a school) in 1987 and beyond will need to give notice to the Schools Commission of their intention to commence 24 months in advance; 12 months for 1986 commencements . . .

This is also a sound move. Proposals for new schools are more likely to be soundly based if a significant lead time is required.

I listened carefully to Senator Baume's comments when he opened the debate on the alleged matter of public importance this afternoon because I was puzzled by his reference to choice. In my mind, what Senator Baume was referring to were symptoms, if his comments about a clamour for choice are correct. I would ask: Why does he not tackle the real problem and suggest a cure for whatever may be causing the alleged symptoms? Towards the end of his speech Senator Baume dropped his call for choice and claimed that all schools should be able to provide quality education. Indeed, this should be the aim and should be the case. The Government's policies are directed towards that aim. Once that is achieved Senator Baume's alleged clamour for choice will no longer be heard.

I reject the claims made by Senator Baume in the alleged matter of public importance which he submitted to the Senate for discussion. It would be refreshing, for a change, to hear a former Minister make a well-reasoned and constructive speech about the educational requirements that we need in Australia at present. What is of public importance is the progress made by the Hawke Labor Government in the field of education. Labor has a long tradition of fostering the ideal of quality education throughout the nation. For their commitment to students in Australia, the Government and the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) deserve commendation.