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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29395

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (3:22 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Would the minister inform the House of a new initiative which will help year 3 students who are having difficulty in reading? Is the minister aware of other statements in this vital area?

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) —I thank the member for Mackellar for her question and very strong commitment to standards in all things, particularly education. When this government was elected in 1996, it set as its No. 1 priority in the area of school education focusing on fundamental standards—in particular, in reading, writing and numeracy. The member for Goldstein, against opposition from the states, unions and, indeed, the federal Labor Party, developed the National Literacy and Numeracy Plan. This government invested $736 million in that plan, and in 1998 a national system for testing school students in years 3 and 5 for literacy and numeracy against national benchmarks was developed. Whilst a lot of tests are conducted in Australian schools, unfortunately only in four jurisdictions—Victoria, Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory—are the results of national benchmark tests reported to parents.

Our challenge as we face the future is not just to educate our children to be proud Victorians or New South Welshmen and women, it is also to prepare them to be Australian and global citizens. Last year in Australia, 24,000 students in year 3 could not pass a basic national benchmark reading test. That means that there are 24,000 students in year 4 today who did not pass the national year 3 benchmark reading test, and of those students 15,500 of their parents do not know that that was the case. In other words, if you want to set a child up for failure in secondary school and in life, do not teach them how to read or write, do not test them against national benchmarks and do not report that to parents.

I announced last week on behalf of the government a quite significant change in approach to helping to deal with the problem of illiteracy amongst young children. For the first time, the government will deliver a $700 learning tuition coupon to the parent of every child that failed the national year 3 benchmark test last year in those states and territories that do report those results to parents. Unfortunately, the Queensland Premier, Mr Peter Beattie, speaking on Queensland radio last week was doing one of two things—he was either lying to the Queensland community or showing his ignorance in relation to what is reported to parents. In fact, the Queensland Premier said this to Ross Miller:

They are provided—

that is, the results—

There is material provided to the Commonwealth. These reports go to the parents, as you would expect. This is a minor technical issue.

The fact is that the parents of the 5,500 children in Queensland who did not pass the national year 3 reading benchmark last year would not have seen this sheet. This is how the results are reported against the national benchmarks for reading.

This government is determined to put power into the hands of parents. A $700 learning tuition coupon will go to the parents when those parents have received the results of the 2003 national benchmark test. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: if the Leader of the Opposition has any influence in the Labor Party, could he please implore Mr Beattie to implore Paul Lennon in Tasmania, Mr Rann in South Australia and, in particular, Bob Carr in New South Wales to get the results of the national reading benchmark test for 2003 out of the vault and to parents in the next month, and then this government will deliver to those parents a learning tuition coupon, worth $700, which can be redeemed at the school so that the children can get some one-to-one tuition with teachers or a private tutor to bring them up to speed with their reading. In other words, the government is about driving national standards and putting power into the hands of parents. There is no stronger evidence of the need for this than the words of parents themselves.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Brisbane! I draw his attention to his obligations.

Dr NELSON —The Labor Party may not think that reading and understanding how to read are important in life, but this side of the parliament most certainly does. In 2002, one parent in the review commissioned by state education ministers in relation to benchmark reporting said:

There is nothing wrong with being told that you are not achieving, because there's nothing better than a feeling that you have achieved after working to overcome it. Not telling us isn't fair to the child, and it doesn't fit the reality of living in the bigger world. It also isn't fair to the parents, because they were denied the opportunity to make life better for their child.

This government's learning tuition program, in addition to the $400 million a year it provides to support children with learning needs, is about making sure that children are equipped in school with the absolute fundamentals—and that is the ability to read. Some teachers in Australia should spend more time teaching our children how to read, write, count and communicate than producing political material and distributing materials in relation to school funding that present falsehoods and half-truths. The responsibility we and teachers have is to support parents in teaching our children how to read, write, count and communicate. That is the priority of this government, and it has been for 8½ years—and learning tuition coupons will drive it a lot further.

Mr Howard —Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.