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Thursday, 11 October 1973
Page: 1996

Mr HUNT (Gwydir) - Firstly, I should like to make it clear to the Minister for Education (Mr Beazley) that in speaking to the Schools Commission Bill, the Australian Country Party in no way condemns him, or for that matter his Government, for the genuine attempts that he has made to try to improve the standards of education in Australia. We have some criticism of some of the ways in which the policy direction has been taken. We do not oppose the establishment of a schools commission. The Government certainly went to the people with that proposal in its platform and it was made clear that this proposal would be adopted. It can be truly said that the Government has a mandate to establish such a com mission. However, the Australian Country Party supports the amendments foreshadowed by the Opposition spokesman on education, the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser), principally because we are anxious to ensure that the Government carries out that spirit of the Minister's intention as stated in his second reading speech where he said that the States will retain responsibility for administering their own educational programs but will have available to them greatly increased funds for this purpose. That is perfectly true. The States will have greatly increased funds available for the purposes of education. But in our judgment it is very important to ensure that the States continue to maintain the direct responsibility for the administration of education. I feel that the amendments give greater substance to the Minister's expressed intention.

There has been little adverse reaction in the community to the proposal to establish a schools commission. There have been serious objections raised as to the extent to which the Australian Government should determine how funds granted to the States should be spent. I know that there are arguments for and against this principle. But after all, we are living in a federation of States. We have a Federal system of Government and there are great difficulties once we try to impose upon the States a machinery that could in some way take away from them any degree of flexibility in their own administration.

Mr Beazley - But you earmarked the grants for science laboratories and libraries and the States said that they wanted to spend the money on something else. You still earmarked them for those purposes.

Mr HUNT - If this was against the wishes of the States, I do not think it was right. Frankly, 2 wrongs do not make a right. Often in our zeal to try to do the best job possible we can overlook the desires and the aspirations of the States and those who have a primary responsibility at the grass roots level for putting into practice the function of education. No one will deny that the States have needed the additional funds that are provided for them under the terms of the recommendations of the Karmel report. No one will argue that the Minister has failed in his task of pumping the urgently needed additional Commonwealth resources into education. No one would want to rubbish the work of the Karmel Committee. Whether one disagrees with aspects of its recommendations or not, it is a very creditable effort which was done in the shortest possible time available. I think great credit goes to the Committee for what it did in surveying the needs of education in Australia right through the breadth of education, including the needs of disadvantaged and handicapped people in the community.

The honourable member for Casey (Mr Mathews) was critical of the former Minister for Education and Science for what little the previous Government had done to try to improve migrant education and the education of handicapped children. I remember the former Minister for Education and Science and the former Minister for Immigration, Dr Forbes, setting about the establishment of a task force to inquire into the needs of migrant education. Also, a considerable amount of work was done by the former Minister for Education and Science to improve the general standards of education applying to handicapped children. He was looking at the need to provide special facilities for teachers to teach handicapped children. Thus it is rather an unfair criticism to have made of the former Minister for Education and Science, who was making great strides in the field of advancing the needs of education generally.

It would be wrong and not in the best interests of education generally if the Commonwealth Government, or the Australian Government as the Government wishes to have itself known, should assume any form of centralised control or direction. Indeed, it is probably more important in the field of education than in any other field to have greater decentralisation and local autonomy. Although attempts have been made recently in the States to decentralise or to regionalise administration of education I am not so sure that sufficient has been done to achieve the local autonomy that is necessary in the field of education. For instance, I believe there is too much rigidity in the curriculum among schools within the various State boundaries. There is insufficient vocational training in secondary schools and insufficient opportunity for students to undertake study in subjects which equip school leavers to go into worth while jobs in their local environment.

In my own electorate of Gwydir we have a great number of Aboriginal children, many of whom are now starting to flow into the high schools. But unfortunately the subjects that are available to them do not always help them to adjust themselves to the local community in which they wish to live once they leave school. There is not enough pretechnical training in the education system to equip those people who do not necessarily have the inclination or the ability to go to university. I believe there has been too much emphasis on the need for students to attain university level qualifications. So I believe that as the system now rests there is an even greater need to have more flexibility in the curricula available within schools from region to region. la my own home town of Moree, for instance, from time to time we have a great shortage of plumbers, electrical engineers and motor mechanics. The building industry has to import a great number of its tradesmen. Yet at the same time we are seeing a drift of young people after they leave school away from the town of Moree to the cities and elsewhere to find employment or to pursue further educational levels.

I think it is absolutely essential for schools within the States to have a more diverse and more flexible approach to the educational needs of our children. I believe that if this were so we would not have so many dropouts, drug takers, hippies and others who have not been able to make the grade in their school because of the tailor made type of curriculum available. Far too many parents are putting pressure on their children, wanting little Johnny and Mary to be university students. If he or she does not become a university student Johnny or Mary feels a failure. Yet Johnny could have a great future as an electrical engineer, a plumber, a painter or a builder. I wonder what our schools are in fact doing to try to get the 'best out of our children. I do not think that we are doing enough in the field of vocational training. I throw this into the debate here this afternoon for the reason that I believe that as education is structured in our society at the present time there is not enough decentralisation. I would hate to see the establishment of any system that would tend to centralise and perhaps make the function of education even more rigid. This leads rae to support with great conviction that part of the amendment which seeks to insert in the Bill the following words:

The functions of the Commission are to inquire into, in co-operation with the State Departments of Education and .the independent school authorities, and furnish information and advice to the Minister and to the State 'Ministers with respect to, the following matters:

The whole purpose of the amendment really is to ensure that the Minister's stated objective is in fact put into print so that the real objective that he outlined in his second reading speech is actually tied into the Bill itself. Another worthwhile amendment is the amendment to clause 4, which seeks to substitute the following sub-clause (2):

The Commission shall consist of a Chairman, who shall be the only full-time member, and two other members to be appointed directly by the Minister, seven members to be selected from a panel of ten to be nominated by the Australian Education Council-

I am sure that this would be a way of assisting the Minister to get the names of the best people who are available throughout the length and breadth of Australia. What a good way, in a good team spirit, to try to get the right people on to the Commission. The amendment goes on: four members to be selected from a panel of seven to be nominated by the independent school authorities--

The independent school authorities would not put up anybody who would not be worth while. Undoubtedly they would seek to nominate to the Minister the best people who they thought could serve their own interests and the interests of education generally. The amendment goes on: and one member from a panel of three to be nominated by the Australian Committee on Research and Development in Education.

If the Minister accepts that as the criterion under which appointments shall be made to the Schools Commission I am sure that he will never regret having chosen this method. To some extent it takes the blame away from him if he should choose in his own way the wrong man for the job. It puts the onus on the community through its various representative organisations and through the Australian Education Council, which consists of State Ministers for Education. The onus rests upon them to play their part in nominating the personnel who are to play an important role in the direction of the commission itself. I do not doubt the Minister's sincerity, but if the Government is sincere in its objective to get the co-operation of the States and is sincere in its objective to get the co-operation of the States and is sincere in the objective that was stated in the Minister's- second reading speech that the States will retain responsibility for administering their own education programs, the Minister will see the wisdom of accepting the amendments moved by the honourable member for Wannon. It would take away the doubt that I think lies in clause 13 (1), which states:

The functions of the Commission are to inquire into, and to furnish information and advice to the Minister with respect to, the following matters:-

(a)   The establishment of acceptable standards for buildings, equipment, teaching and other staff and other facilities at government and nongovernment primary and secondary schools in Australia--

Standards acceptable to whom?

Mr Mathews - To any civilised person - otherwise than they are now.

Mr HUNT - Would the honourable member like to answer the question or would the Minister?

Mr Mathews - I think both answers would be valid.

Mr HUNT - The honourable member for Casey is trying to take the words out of the Minister's mouth.

Mr Beazley - I would just like to draw to the attention of the honourable member that the same sort of objections were raised before the Karmel Committee got into operation. What Professor Karmel defined as a minimum standard for which to aim was 40 per cent in resources above the existing average of State schools, which will cost $2,000m to reach, so it is a pretty strenuous target.

Mr HUNT - When the Minister says acceptable standards' does he have any concern for whether they are acceptable to the State Departments of Education as well? Is that consideration an important one?

Mr Beazley - I just ask the honourable member to look at our proceedings so far. We asked the States to nominate their disadvantaged schools, and the grants of money are given to lift up those standards. We asked them to nominate what they wanted for handicapped children, and grants for that purpose have been lifted up. Over and above that there have been grants for ordinary buildings and ordinary recurring expenses. Similarly Catholic schools nominated their disadvantaged schools. They have been guiding us by their evidence.

Mr HUNT - I thank the Minister for making that point clear. I am sure that the Minister, though, would have no real objection to the amendment. No doubt, if he does, he will have his chance to explain why he would be opposed to the provision in the amendment which underlined the need for complete cooperation with the State Departments of Education, which reads:

The functions of the Commission are to inquire into, in co-operation with the State Departments of Education and the independent school authorities, and furnish information and advice to the Minister and the State Ministers with respect to, the following matters:

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to that principle. Whether that wording is to his satisfaction perhaps does not really matter but the importance of that principle needs to be embodied more strongly in the Bill than it is at the present time. The Bill gives the impression that only token consideration is being given to the requirements of the various State Departments of Education. It lends weight to the body of criticism that has plagued the concept of the schools commission for the last 2 years, and that was that once it was set up we would see all power with respect to education centralised in Canberra. I believe thatthe Minister in his own heart and in his own mind does not intend this to happen, but who is to know how long the Minister will be in charge of this portfolio. I believe it is absolutely essential for him and the Government to give serious consideration to the amendments that have been moved by the honourable member for Wannon, which are designed firstly to ensure that the Minister is helped in the choice of membership of the Commission and, secondly, to ensure the necessary degree of co-operation between the Australian Government and the States in the operation of the Australian Schools Commission.

Debate (on motion by Dr Jenkins) adjourned.

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