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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5161

Senator WEBBER (4:30 PM) —I also rise to make my contribution on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002. As most honourable senators would be aware, this bill provides capital funding for government and non-government schools for the years 2005-07. This bill follows on in the long history of Commonwealth funding for capital works in schools since the 1970s. It is important to note the purpose of these capital funding type bills. The intent of the bill is to allow advance approval for capital grants for projects to enable authorities to plan for school building projects. This process provides a key support to the capital improvements of our secondary and primary schools. This support over last 30 or so years has totalled some $10 billion in current terms to support capital works. This process enables a significant improvement in the quality of education for many Australians. Indeed, the current bill provides an amount of some $220 million in capital grants for government schools for the period 2005-07. The bill also provides some $77 million annually in capital grants for non-government schools. It is interesting to note that the Commonwealth is virtually the sole source of public moneys for capital grants in non-government schools.

One of the key issues that have emerged over time is the mix of funding for the government sector and the non-government sector. A rough analysis suggests that under this bill the government sector will receive approximately three times the amount that the non-government sector will receive. By most measures, this approach will seem reasonable to most Australians, I am sure. In fact, the Commonwealth's guidelines for this program include objectives to provide and improve school capital infrastructure, particularly for the most educationally disadvantaged students. They also set out objectives for the refurbishment and upgrading of capital infrastructure for existing students while making provision for changes in demography and enrolment trends.

As many of us are aware, one of the key times in the establishment of any successful school is the start-up. Given that the establishment of government schools is normally funded by state and territory administrations, it would appear that the non-government sector, at a cursory glance, is somewhat disadvantaged during this crucial time. We can, of course, point to the low-interest loans that are offered by many state and territory governments to the non-government schools during establishment. Of course, in the interests of fairness and equity, the Commonwealth cannot be seen to be providing an inequitable share of the funding available under this bill. Such a bill would be attacked in this place by most, if not all, of the non-government senators.

So how does the government provide that little extra boost to the non-government sector? If you take a closer look, it is through another program, of course. Each non-government school can receive establishment grants. This equals a per capita entitlement for each full-time equivalent student of $500 for the first year and $250 for the second year. During the period 2001-04, that came to a total of $11.9 million. We have a very interesting picture developing. The government has gone to no end of trouble to make sure that the public view of this bill is that it is equitable and that the non-government sector is seen to be receiving only its fair share relative to the government schools. However, it will then slip them an extra, say, $12 million a year and call it an establishment grant. Do government schools receive an establishment grant? Of course they do not. Only non-government schools are entitled to this piece of largesse. However, superficially this legislation can appear to be all equitable and fair. Everyone receives their fair share of capital funding, because the extra provided to the non-government schools is not capital funding; it is an establishment grant.

This reflects several things in education funding. One of these is the government's ideological commitment to private education. Private education is, I am sure, the government's view of the ultimate expression of user-pays. All those worthy Australian mums and dads who pay for their children's education are lauded by this government. We should all become more responsible and, of course, individualism teaches us that we should pay for this ourselves. We will overlook the fact that not only are people paying the school fees but also the Commonwealth chips in along the way. In fact, from 1996 to 2000, the government school sector share of estimated Commonwealth spending as a proportion of GDP remained static at 0.26 per cent. The non-government sector share grew by 21.6 per cent, from 0.37 per cent to 0.45 per cent. In fact, we have seen that the proportion spent on non-government schools as a percentage of total expenditure has risen, as was mentioned earlier by Senator Carr, from 57.8 per cent in 1995-96 to an estimated 67.6 per cent in 2005-06. But along the way we are told that the Commonwealth is just supporting the growth in enrolments in the non-government school sector. I for one do not accept that this increase in enrolments justifies a proportionate increase in such a short space of time. This ideological commitment overlooks the fact that the majority of Australians, past and present, are products of the government school system. This reflects the aspirations of everyday Australians to improve their situation or, in this case, that of their children.

Australians are told that non-government schools provide better education, more discipline, better values et cetera. Of course, these lines are readily accepted by those Australians who see their children's private education as a step up and a step forward to a better future. What that overlooks is that under the current government the freeze on expenditure in government schools directly affects the quality of the education provided. This ideological commitment to private education overlooks the fact that for many Australians there is no way they can afford the fees required for an education at a non-government school.

So, not unlike its commitment to cutting funding for higher education, this government is now engaged in reducing funding for government schools. There is no doubt that the public purse is now being used to supplement the activities of the non-government school sector to a greater extent than at any time in the past. There is also absolutely no doubt that this government is fulfilling its ideological urges but doing so at the expense of ordinary Australians. It is one thing to provide reasonable funding to the non-government school system but quite another to increase it at the expense, in real terms, of the government system.

Of course, the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 will be supported, because education generally requires the moneys involved. But this does not mean, and must never mean, that we should allow this government's approach to looking after the non-government sector to go unchallenged. There is no doubt that the quality of the educational infrastructure in schools is directly linked to the quality of the educational outcomes. When you have excellent facilities—and, as outlined earlier by Senator Carr, some of them are exceptional facilities—you are more likely to attract and retain quality teaching staff, and all of this means that our children will end up with a better education. But one should stop and think: the reverse is also true. Where the quality of the facilities is poor and when they are allowed to degrade even further, then the outcomes are likely to be poor.

The Commonwealth should be ensuring that all schools have excellent infrastructure, especially in those areas most directly related to the knowledge economy. Australia will never benefit from all the possibilities of the new economy, which is much lauded and talked about by this government, whilst our schools are equipped for the old economy. There must be a greater emphasis on the provision of information technology at all levels of our school system. Attention should be paid especially to those areas of Australia with low per capita ownership of computers. It is one thing for a child not to have access to a computer at home—and that is usually for financial reasons—but it is quite another for a child not to have access to computers at school.

There is much talk about Australian education, especially in the key areas of science, mathematics and technology. We all talk about that being the key to the future for not only our children's education but the development of our economy. In fact the enrolment benchmark adjustment liability funds are now used by the states as grants to foster development in those key areas. It seems to me that if one of the futures that we want to build in this country—and I hope it is a future that we want to build in this country—is for a highly skilled, high wage economy then we have to invest in education at all levels and in all ways.

That highlights the big disappointment with this bill. This bill contains no increase in real terms since this government came to office in 1996. In fact, I understand that there has been a reduction of almost $10 million in funding. On the one hand, we know that high educational outcomes are directly related to the quality of education; on the other hand, we have a government that wants to reduce, in real terms, the expenditure that is directly related to achieving those outcomes. Mark my words: there will be a reckoning from this. That reckoning will not be in the short term, although we will start to see it soon; the real reckoning will be much further down the track, when the capital infrastructure of our schools continues to decline and so too the quality of our outcomes.

In finishing my brief contribution to this debate I would like to pretend to be learned and quote from Shakespeare. Even in my situation—and I am a product entirely of a government school education—I can remember learning some Shakespeare. I quote:

Ignorance is the curse of God,

Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.