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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 83

Senator CROSSIN (6:04 PM) —The purpose of the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 is to amend the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000, and it confirms school funding as occurring from the start of the calendar year, 1 January 2005. So it is imperative that we deal with this bill in this four days of sittings. It is unfortunate that the government has left the introduction of this bill to such a late stage in the school year. Schools are already nearly finished for this year and well past the time when they have to start planning for next year.

Senator Kemp —There was an election!

Senator CROSSIN —Yes, but, Senator Kemp, you also handed down this money in the May budget and we have not seen this legislation prior to this. As yet schools do not know what funding programs or amounts they might have, nor do they know the terms and conditions attached to these funds by a government that, while trying to push responsibility onto the states, is showing ever increasing intervention in schools. We have seen over the course of this year additional funding for values education, for physical education activities to be done to reduce childhood obesity—a concept which Labor not only support but also announced first—and for schools having to have `active flagpoles', whatever that actually means. I look forward to the answers to all the questions I have put on notice on the number of `active flagpoles' there are in this country and how many schools will need flagpoles, or flags for that matter, in order to put that policy into place.

It has, however, been a bit like many advertisements on TV: read the small print if you can and find what conditions apply to access these additional funds. Schools are going to have to provide much more detailed reports to parents. States are going to have to provide much more detailed reporting to the Commonwealth. Kids are having to undertake regular testing. Additional funds are available for extra reading tuition for kids who fail certain tests, rather than being there to provide access and assistance to those children before they get the chance to fail a reading test. With all these bits and pieces of funding and all these requirements to be met to get them, school principals must be wondering what is coming next. They must be asking themselves, `How can we plan and run a school when we have a government putting out programs and funds on the run? Where will we find the time to plan and do all this extra administration and reporting but, at the same time, remain focused on our core objective, which is to educate these children?'

However, Labor are not opposed to schools having adequate funding to provide our children with as good an education as possible. We strongly believe education should be well funded as an investment in our future. The problem we always have is the way in which this government allocates those funds. This government allocates funds in an iniquitous way. As was pointed out in the other place, the top 50 high-fee independent schools have received funding increases of 150 per cent since 2000. The Catholic systemic schools got an increase of just 25 per cent while government schools got only 20 per cent. It does not take Einstein to work out that this is not equitable. Let us just have a look at those figures again: the top 50 high-fee independent schools in this country have received funding increases of 150 per cent under this government. Even the poor Catholic systemic schools—and I had the privilege of teaching in one for three years in Melbourne—got an increase of only 25 per cent under this government. Government schools got an increase of only 20 per cent. So there is no equitable funding for the resourcing of schools under this government. In the Australian on 3 May this year Jenny Macklin said:

Too many schools are getting by on less than they should because of the Howard Government's funding system. This system treats schools very differently, depending on whether they are government or non-government, and fails to address need.

And, of course, that is the real issue: need. She went on in the same article to give the now oft-quoted example of The King's School in Sydney. That school already has top-line resources like vast playing fields, a rifle range and a pool but still got an increase in funding of 165 per cent between 2001 and 2004. By contrast, the Trinity Catholic College in Auburn, not far from King's, got just 25 per cent—although it was the latter that had by far the greater need for funds. So where is the fairness and the equity in this policy of the government? I do not think I need to say any more to clearly illustrate the way in which the Howard government deals with school funding. By all means we should make certain that schools get the funding needed to provide our children with a great education, but we should do it fairly and based on genuine need.

I will digress for a minute and talk about the trip that Jenny Macklin, Warren Snowdon and I took to places such as Elcho Island a number of months ago. The school there is doing a terrific job in addressing attendance rates and providing secondary education courses in the early stages. With the help of fantastic programs such as AFL Kickstart, the number of kids who are attending school has increased—in fact doubled—in that time. We took a trip on a small light aircraft out to some of the outstations. They are really struggling to provide education for anywhere between 15 and 40 children in probably no less than a donga or a makeshift classroom. They usually have second-hand materials and inadequate paper, pencils and crayons—let alone readers or maths resources, and far be it from them to think about any IT equipment such as computers or overhead projectors. Let us look at the statistics. When it comes to funding public education in this country, the amount of money that has been provided to places like The King's School—a 165 per cent increase in funding over three years—is nothing short of a national disgrace.

I am saddened by the fact that the Minister for Education, Science and Training is now into his second term. I cannot think of any outstation that this minister has personally attended to look at the sorrowful state of Aboriginal education, particularly in outstations. He trumpets the benefits of this policy which is inequitable and unfair. That is embarrassing given the state of Aboriginal education in this country at this time. The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000 brought in policies that provided the greatest funding increases to some of the wealthiest independent schools in Australia while funding for government schools was maintained essentially in line with indexation for the cost of schooling only. This policy is continued in the funding proposals put forward by the Howard government for the future. The existing unfair distribution formula remains over the next quadrennium. Independent schools will receive an increase of 47 per cent in general recurrent funding, Catholic schools 39 per cent and government schools only 27 per cent. Indigenous education workers and teachers in the Northern Territory, who overwhelmingly supported the Labor Party and its policies, will struggle for the next four years with an increase of only 20 per cent in their funding while some of the wealthiest and most independent schools in this country get a boost of 47 per cent.

I do not think anyone would deny that we should have choice in education just as in other aspects of life. We should have choice between government and non-government schools, but the Howard government loads the funding in favour of the wealthy schools to such an extent that it becomes totally biased towards the haves rather than the have-nots. That is absolutely typical of the philosophy of this government. Labor believe that policies should be based on genuine need—policies under which schools will know well in advance what their funding levels will be for 2006 and beyond. We remain committed to needs based funding. Our caucus committee just last week re-endorsed the principle of needs based funding and a general schools resource index. I am quite proud of that policy. I have travelled around the Territory and have taught in an Aboriginal school where we struggled to get new resources year in and year out. To even contemplate having some of the resources that some of these schools have was beyond us. We just wanted some decent topsoil on the footy grounds out in these communities—not just for the school but for the whole community. This education policy of the government is an absolute disgrace.

As was stated by the shadow minister in her speech in the second reading debate, we believe in an increase in funding to government schools, to redistribute the funds away from high-fee independent schools to more needy Catholic or low-fee independent schools and to better resource public education in this country. Having said all that, and having condemned the government for its unfair distribution of funds and for holding back for so long on this funding bill, Labor will not be opposing this bill—and we cannot, because all schools around this country rely on this money flowing through from 1 January. We will allow the bill to pass for one reason only: to give schools, parents and children some degree of certainty for the next year, however unfair and biased that certainty might be.

Labor's education philosophy is very different and would include establishing a national schools resource standard against which to measure school needs. This would enable all schools to have the resources to deliver a high standard of education. At the risk of being repetitive I want to put on record in this chamber the following facts, which were stated by the shadow education minister in the other place. This states grants bill 2004 provides for $7.6 billion to the 12 per cent of students in non-systemic independent schools and only $7.2 billion to the 69 per cent in government schools. For the first time ever, a government of this country is giving more funds to private schools than to government schools.

That is a national disgrace. This government is totally ignoring the needs of the majority of school students in this country—and the choice, mind you, of the majority of parents in this country, who choose to send their children to a public school. It has devised a formula that conveniently ignores the fact that the independent schools can operate from a very high level of fee income which gives them a high resource level without government help. But, again, it is what we have come to expect from the Howard government: look after the rich and kick the poor and keep them even further down.

But there is more, and it gets worse. Of the $31.3 billion in total funding for schools over the four-year period, only $405 million is new money—the detail is in the fine print with this lot—and, of that, only five per cent is for government schools. What a disgrace. On top of indexation, government schools over the next quadrennium will only get five per cent of the new money. Even to get this they have to subject themselves to new funding and accountability conditions—active flagpoles, for heaven's sake; more testing of kids; more reporting to parents; and more time spent on administration. The government does not want more time spent trying to reduce class sizes, or catering to the needs of kids who are dyslexic or autistic or who cannot read. It does not want more resources put into the system so that those children who are speakers of English as a second language get the support they need to achieve, or extra resources for school counsellors or school careers officers. It wants more reporting and more testing of children—which is fundamentally flawed. If you have an education such as I have you can drill a thousand holes in that philosophy—and active flagpoles, for heaven's sake!

Earlier this year I had the pleasure, as I said, of accompanying Jenny Macklin on a trip to a few bush schools in the Northern Territory. We found schools with ancient classrooms that were badly in need of repair—or, preferably, replacement—and with minimal equipment. They usually had no playing field at all, certainly no gymnasium or rifle range, and little sports equipment beyond a few basketballs or footballs—a far cry from the elite schools this government defends that even have rifle ranges. Yet the minister in his wisdom thinks such elite schools need even more funding. We can only wonder what world he is living in. Perhaps he really does think the King's School is the norm. I wait for the day he steps off a light aircraft in the Northern Territory and actually takes the time to visit an out-station and meet the teachers there. It is totally unacceptable that Indigenous students in the Northern Territory can be put into old, poorly maintained classrooms while at the same time this government is pouring millions into schools which already have new classrooms, well-equipped labs, extensive sports facilities and so on. It is no wonder that this minister wants to hide the real issues and facts, a job which he does very well with his myriad press releases to cloud the issues and muddy the waters. Take away the smooth words and the smoke and mirrors act and what we have is a national disgrace in education funding which is destroying the `fair go' Australian philosophy.

This debate today also includes the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004. The facts and figures already quoted show what this government really means by choice: plenty for the elite with money but very little, indeed none, for most of my constituents in remote parts of the Northern Territory. To that extent one could certainly claim that this bill is wrongly named. Pat Byrne, the President of the Australian Education Union, summed it up recently in an article in the Australian Educator:

... it's the same choice that we have seen the Howard Government provide on the establishment of more schools regardless of existing provisions, and additional funding to schools that need it least. Coalition policy threatens to make public education the residual system for those who cannot afford private education. It is a two tiered policy based upon income and exclusion, not choice at all ...

The learning together bill implements several budget decisions: the integration of Catholic schools into the SES funding model, a funding guarantee to independent non-government schools that might otherwise be disadvantaged, additional funding for the capital grants program for some isolated Catholic schools in the Northern Territory and the establishment of the new Literacy, Numeracy and Special Learning Needs program aimed at the more disadvantaged students. This bill also sets out the new reporting requirements against performance measures, gives principals and councils more authority over staffing and makes schools commit to physical education programs—as if they are not already doing it. All of this has Labor support. It is just a pity that the minister and this government cannot see that the actual resources available to schools are more important than the state of their flagpoles or their flags. All the minister can do when confronted with schools saying they lack resources is to blame the states and then give more to already resource-rich independent schools.

This country cannot afford to wait another three years to have education funding changed to a national, cooperative, real needs based system. From Labor's point of view, the introduction of a fair needs based funding formula is essential and urgent before the damage being done to our school system becomes irreparable. But for now, however, we condemn the government for delaying the introduction of these important school funding bills until such a late time of the year. The government also stand condemned for the ongoing—and indeed worsening—funding formula that they use. We support the passage of the bills with amendment. The second reading amendment that has been proposed by the Labor Party seeks to add that the Senate:

(a) condemns the Government for its unfair funding policies for schools;

(b) believes that there is a need to restore integrity and sustainability to Commonwealth funding of schools through the adoption of comprehensive principles that include:

(i) supporting high quality public schooling as a national priority;—

in other words, supporting and guaranteeing that support for government education—

(ii) recognising the entitlement of all children and young people to national standards of educational results and resources;

(iii) giving priority in funding for all Commonwealth programs for schools to meeting the educational and financial needs of schools;

(iv) recognition of the right of parents to choose the type of schooling for their children and to public funding for that schooling based on need; and

(v) Commonwealth funding for schools should be provided as part of a national partnership with State and Territory governments so that all governments work together to deliver high quality schooling for all”.