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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4097


Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (12:35): I indicate that I share the concerns of Senator Mason and Senator Back in relation to the lack of appropriate process in the way that these bills have been rushed through and the lack of adequate debate. This is not the way to run a parliament. Respectfully, this is not the way to deal with such an important package of legislation.

There is a wonderful quote from WB Yeats that sums up how I feel about education. He said:

Education is not the filling a pail but the lighting of a fire.

My fear with this bill is that the government is too narrowly focused on filling a pail full of money rather than igniting the debate we must have about better outcomes for students. Sometimes one can lead to the other, but, without a clear policy framework and the right objectives, we will continue to fail our students and ultimately the nation.

A lot has been said about the decline in Australia's literacy and numeracy levels. There are many different arguments about how we should fix this: more tests, fewer tests, more money for students, more money for teachers—the list goes on and on. Something that is often forgotten is how we value learning and education as a nation. Governments value it because—forgive me for sounding cynical—there are votes to be won when you promise to fix a problem. Academics and commentators value it because they know its importance to our nation. And teachers and educators value it because they know what it is like to see a child or an adult gain understanding—the light that goes on when something suddenly becomes clear and it all makes sense. But do we as a nation value it? Do we value our teachers, our schools and our capacity for higher education? In my view, we do not—not enough.

In December last year the Australian Council for Educational Research released a report on the most recent international studies of student achievement. The council stated:

The study revealed that many Australian Year 4 students have substantial literacy problems, with around one-quarter of students not meeting the Intermediate benchmark - the standard generally considered in international achievement studies to be the minimally acceptable standard of proficiency.

The report went on to find that Australian students achieved a mean score of 505 in year 8 mathematics. South Korea, which was a top-performing country, achieved a mean score of 613. Further, 37 per cent of Australian students did not meet the Intermediate benchmark, 26 per cent achieved the Low international benchmark and 11 per cent were below this level.

How do we make up this lost ground? Ben Jensen, the director of the Grattan Institute's School Education Program, wrote an excellent opinion piece for the Weekend Australian earlier this year, in February, in which he called for better support and skills development for teachers, rather than more funding for schools. Jensen has approached the problem in a way that I find non-ideological and nonpartisan. I think we need to listen to voices such as his in this debate. Jensen said:

For decades, politicians and educators have argued over funding, and whether more money should go to public or private schools. As they did, children's learning was neglected. Our primary school students have the lowest literacy levels of any country in the English-speaking developed world. The performance of our secondary students is falling. The average 15-year-old maths student in Australia performs at a level two years below their counterpart in Shanghai.

Jensen goes on:

It is an appalling situation. The schools debate in Australia has always focused on money: how much and who gets what. How children learn and how to help them learn better, has been pushed aside.

It is time for a new story in Australian school education. Not whether public or private is better or deserves more funds, not whether teacher and principal performance pay, school autonomy or computers will lift the quality of our schools. Not wasting money on reducing class sizes.

None of these policies has been found to do much at all for student learning. Instead, the world's best school systems—in Finland, Ontario, Singapore and Shanghai—focus relentlessly on how to improve what happens in the classroom.

To me, that makes perfect sense. Of course schools need funding to meet their needs. But, in my view, there is no point in having an iPad for every child if their teacher does not have the skills or support to teach them to read. What is more, teachers are no longer just educators; they are adjudicators, psychologists, enforcers, philosophers, even nutritionists, sports coaches and career counsellors.

Our expectations of what teachers should do have gone far beyond 'the three Rs'. Instead, they are expected to coach and support children in all facets of life during their time at school. But, too often, what they spend their time doing is everything but teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills. The ever-growing gap between the haves and have-nots in Australia means that many children are simply slipping through the cracks. Teachers have far too little support when it comes to dealing with the complex problems children often bring with them to school, and that lack of support means other children sometimes just do not get a look in.

Of course I support a better and fairer funding model for our schools. But if it is not linked to meaningful outcomes, and it does not teach more kids to read and add up, then this policy, in itself, will not work. It is not a simple equation. Money in does not equal education out. That is why the focus, after this bill is passed, must be on making sure that Australian kids not only do not slip further behind internationally but also are given a chance to reach their full potential.

Finally, Madam Acting Deputy President, often a work of fiction has a ring of truth to it, and I know you are a fan of this particular program. I would like to finish off with a quote from Sam Seaborn of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. Justifying his position on education funding, he said:

…education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.

Seguing from The West Wing to what we are dealing with here, I am not convinced, sadly, that this bill has figured out how to do it either. But I hope this legislation can be used as a building block to achieve the reforms every Australian child deserves.