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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20496

Ms MACKLIN (1:40 PM) —The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2003 is another jarring reminder of this government's failings when it comes to schools policy. The purpose of the bill is to provide funding for capital projects in non-government schools and for targeted programs for schools in both the government and the non-government sectors. This apparently straightforward bill, however, discloses further evidence of this government's inequitable policies for schools in Australia. The bill provides funding of $41.84 million for capital grants to approved non-government schools over four years from 2004 to 2007. That will make it a total of $87.4 million. This is the same per annum amount that is set out in schedule 5 of the current act for each year from 2001 to 2004. So the funding in this bill will effectively restore the currently legislated amounts for 2004 to 2007 to the current per annum amount. This funding is indexed each year to protect the real value of the grants.

The opposition appreciate that school authorities do need time to plan for capital projects in the knowledge of their entitlements to funding, and we support the advance approval processes that the bill enables. In so doing, however, the bill pre-empts, in part, the allocation of funding for the next quadrennium. The government has reported, through answers by senior officers to Senate estimates questions, that the overall legislation for the 2005-08 quadrennium will be brought to the parliament by mid-2004. I might say that the government does not actually have a good record when it comes to the timing of important education legislation. We saw the minister for education finally bring the higher education bills into the parliament yesterday, four months after the government's announcement. So goodness knows when we will finally see the full detail of the schools bills but, on the information we have so far, we should get it in the middle of next year.

This bill says absolutely nothing about capital needs in public schools. Many of us have been entertained by the minister counting numbers and giving us detailed renditions of his capacity to remember streams and streams of numbers—not something I prefer to resort to, I must say. But it was very noticeable that, in his second reading speech, he only mentioned government schools a grand total of twice—just two mentions in the whole of his second reading speech. If the minister were in the mood to let fly with his usual beautiful sets of numbers, he would no doubt try to say that this represented 0.3 per cent of the points being made in his speech. But even that 0.3 per cent probably overstates this government's priorities when it comes to public schools in this country.

We have seen that this federal minister has refused to join state and territory ministers for education in supporting public schools across Australia as a national priority. It is pretty extraordinary that we have a federal minister who has refused to support public schools right across the country as one of our national priorities. All the other parties to the ministerial council on education have signed up to a framework of principles for schools resourcing—all except for one: the federal minister refuses to sign this framework and refuses to make the commitment that I think is necessary from any federal minister for education from whatever side of politics, because from whichever side you come we do need a strong and vital public school system as well as support for non-government schools on a needs basis.

This minister has been alone in abstaining from supporting the principles for schools' resourcing agreed to by every other education minister in this country. Even the two mentions the minister made of government schools in his second reading speech were disingenuous. He tried to imply that government schools are receiving too much funding by pointing out that they will receive more than their enrolment share of capital funds, without saying anything about relative need for capital facilities. The minister might want to ignore it, but it is the case that government schools right across Australia have serious capital needs.

When we were debating a similar bill last year, I quoted from a 1973 report of the then Australian Schools Commission. The report said that the physical condition of many schools, especially schools attended by the children of the poor, were:

... a national disgrace and a sign of indifference towards the children who attend them.

That indifference is continuing under this government. Our public school system is hurting when it comes to capital facilities. Many of these schools have been serving the community for over 50 years, some for more than a century. In fact, I went to one of my local primary schools just last Saturday; it was having its 150th celebration. These schools need basic maintenance just to bring them back to their original functions. They also need refurbishment to cope with new demands—for example, digital media and information and communications technologies—and with new directions in curriculum, including vocational education and training and science. There are needs for new public schools in some areas in response to demographic change.

The minister may not have read the data on capital funding that was included in the National report on schooling in Australia. This report was endorsed by all ministers before publication. It revealed that expenditure on capital works in government schools in 2000 was around $350 per student. The same report indicated that expenditure on capital projects in independent schools in the same year was just over $1,500 per student from all sources—that is, students in independent schools enjoy capital facilities that are, on average, four times greater than in government schools. Capital expenditure per student in Catholic schools in 2000 was around $800—still more than twice the level in government schools. The figure for all non-government schools was just over $1,000 per student—nearly three times the level in government schools. These figures, of course, are averages. Some non-government schools have facilities that are much lower than the average and some much higher.

This is one of the key points that I want to make today. We do not know how the Commonwealth capital grants program is tackling these inequalities. We do know that, having received their recurrent grants from governments—Commonwealth and state—non-government schools can devote to facilities three to four times what is spent on the schools that are open to all. On both absolute and relative criteria, the needs of government schools for capital facilities are clear. This minister has a record, of course, of trying to shift the responsibility for government schools to the states and territories. I do not think anyone in the country thinks that that is the way to run our school system.

The federal government does give funding to government schools. It is around 12 per cent overall for recurrent and capital programs in total, but for capital expenditure alone the federal government provides around one-third of the total. The government needs to get very serious about its responsibilities to public schools in Australia, including the rejuvenation of capital facilities. We certainly do look forward to a change of heart in the legislation when it finally comes forward for the next quadrennium. I said earlier that the minister's second reading speech was indifferent to the role and value of government schools. Unfortunately, it also had nothing to say about the effects of its capital investment in schools or about educational substance.

This bill, as I said earlier, restores the total level of capital funding for non-government schools to over $87 million, so it is a lot of money that does have an educational effect, and we would expect the government to actually talk about it. Federal funding for capital works in non-government schools has been substantial now for three decades. Since 1974, successive federal governments have invested more than $2 billion in capital assets in non-government schools. Unfortunately, we do not know what has happened to this investment, nor where to go to find out.

A particularly worrying issue is whether the facilities supported by public funding for specified purposes are still being used for educational reasons. There is no readily available public information on how many of these properties have been sold, leased or transferred for non-educational purposes. We do not know if some school authorities have made capital gains on those facilities that have in fact been funded from the public purse. This is a very serious state of affairs, and I certainly look to the minister for a response on these issues and advice on how the public interest in relation to the value of properties supported by the capital program can be protected.

We also should have information—and we do not—on the kinds of projects being supported by federal funds. We certainly cannot tell from the official reporting on the legislation that is provided to the parliament under section 116 of the principal act. The latest report on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act—that is this document here—provides just a half-page description of the total funding available and the way that it is distributed to non-government schools through block grant authorities. It then just provides a one-line report on the total funding for non-government schools in each state and territory. There is no information about the range of projects supported by the capital grants program, and there is nothing on the educational priorities being promoted by federal funding or on the educational benefits that they have produced. Without this much more detailed information, neither the government nor the public can make judgments about how to reposition this capital grants program for the future.

We also need to protect the integrity of the operation of the capital grants program. This would require much more explicit provision of information on how the projects supported by the program actually meet criteria relating to educational and financial need. There is some descriptive information in the formal accountability document for Commonwealth programs for schools, the National report on schooling in Australia. The report for the year 2000, for example, devotes some paragraphs to describing capital funding in the government, Catholic and independent school sectors, but that description, to say the least, is extremely general. For example, the entry for independent schools states that capital projects completed in 2000 included:

... classrooms for primary and secondary schools; home economics, science, music, drama, art, computer and language facilities; libraries; administration areas; and staff facilities.

A similar description is provided for Catholic schools, but with a greater emphasis on new schools and specialist facilities. There is a small clue to possible emphases in the description for government schools. The report says:

... the most common types of ... facilities ... were the upgrading and/or provision of general-purpose classrooms ...

These general descriptions suggest that priorities for capital funding were for extensions and curriculum based refurbishments in independent schools, new schools and specialist facilities in Catholic schools, and general upgrades in government schools. That said, it is really only guesswork on my part, because the detail is simply not made available. The real point here is that people do have the right to know—the public has the right to know—what is happening to their money. Under the present system, they have no way of finding out. This is the stuff of indifference, I am sorry to say. This government should really be making sure that this information is made available.

In previous years the public reports of the Schools Commission and the Schools Council attempted to provide some strategic advice on these issues. A more recent evaluation by the Department of Education, Science and Training in its 2002 report on a survey of non-government schools infrastructure seems to be languishing on the department's web site and maybe even in its files. Earlier reports to the parliament at least itemised the funding provided to individual non-government schools. The 1990 report provided 213 pages of information, including payments made to each non-government school in each of the states and territories. The report provided similar information about government schools—certainly not full information, but if you compare the 10-page report that we now get with the very significant report that was available in 1990 you will see a very substantial difference. In these reports we are, of course, talking about public accountability for $7 billion of public funding for schools.

I notice in a media statement the minister put out on 10 September that he seems to have had a last-minute epiphany on this issue. He has said that the government does intend to include in the reports to parliament details of expenditure for capital projects for individual schools and locations. I am very pleased that the minister has said that, but in our view that does not go far enough. The public interest in capital funding goes beyond naming the schools that have been supported. Public accountability should also be assured through legislation, not simply by ministerial discretion.

I have received a letter from the Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Mr Bill Daniels, expressing some concerns about Labor's proposed amendments to this bill. One thing I am very pleased about in this letter is that the Independent Schools Council supports timely and transparent reporting of funding decisions made by the Commonwealth. I want to say to the parliament and to the Independent Schools Council that that is exactly what our amendments are about. Our amendments will not impinge on the role of block grant authorities in advising the minister of their recommendations for capital expenditure. The provision of more explicit criteria for educational and financial need could in fact help to expedite the approval process. Mr Daniels is right in pointing out that these principles should also apply to capital funding for government schools. This bill only relates to capital funding for schools in the non-government sector, but we would certainly be pleased to discuss accountability arrangements for Commonwealth funding of capital works in government schools.

I think the concerns that the independent schools have raised in their letter have been addressed. I hope they will agree that there is a need for more explicit provision in the bill for enhanced accountability for capital funding that is both timely and necessary. We do need much more information on the record about public investment in our schools. People have the right to know and need to be able to find out how public money is being spent. Labor's amendments, which I will move later on, will certainly be consistent with these principles. I would be very happy to discuss them with the minister.

The bill also provides further funding for programs that target students who need special assistance. These amendments effectively restore funding to this year and next year, with some minor variations. The grants will be supported by the opposition. I will have more to say about the educational needs supported by these programs at a future date. I want to comment very briefly on the national literacy and numeracy program. This program provides national research and development in literacy and numeracy support, and of course that is very important. We would like to see schools benefit directly from this program, but we do understand the need for strategic development as well to make sure that schools improve their practice in the interests of their students. The guidelines for this program, however, are very general, and I suggest that they be tightened up.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member for Jagajaga will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.