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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1543

Senator HAMER(4.31) —The Senate is considering a matter of public importance in the following terms:

The need for maximum educational choice for parents and students as a necessary part of raising educational standards and Labor's ill-advised moves to restrict choice.

Why do people want to send their children to non-government schools, always at considerable cost to themselves? One frequently sees situations where parents of similar financial standing choose, at their own expense, to sacrifice a lot in order to send their children to independent schools when a government school is freely available to them. Why do they do it? I suppose part of the reason is the old school tie attitude-'I went to that school, therefore my children should'. Some of it is the entirely proper motives on the part of parents to have their children educated in a religious environment. Surely that is a motive which we should all accept, provided, of course, the school has appropriate academic standards. If parents wish to have their children properly educated in a religious background surely we should accept that as being a right and proper thing for parents to want. I think that the main reason-not these; although they are substantial-is that they think that at the private schools they will get disciplined school children and dedicated and disciplined staff and they are far from confident that they will achieve this at many of the government schools. It is, I suppose, sometimes a matter of affluence and pride, but basically what people are looking for is that their children will get the best chance in life through going to an independent school because they will get discipline and dedication both from the students and from the staff. The fact that so many people feel this and are voting with their feet and at their own expense in this respect is a matter which should be looked at very carefully. We should look very carefully at what is going wrong with the government system that makes people feel this so strongly and makes them act so strongly in support of their views?

Why is the quality of education better in the non-government schools? I have tackled some of the reasons and I will repeat them. One is the continuity of staff. If one goes to a non-government school one will find people who have been there for many years; they are closely involved in the school and are committed to the school's ideals, whereas, in the government schools-I can speak for my State of Victoria; it may not be the same in other States, but I think it is-the Public Service system operates whereby when a teacher is appointed he immediately looks around for the next appointment. As soon as he gets appointed to one school he applies for a higher level appointment in another school. The turnover of staff in the government system is such that a great deal of staff continuity is lost, which is a vital ingredient of efficient education in a school.

I talk to about 50 schools a year, the great majority of which are government schools. I talk to about politics and the role of parties the higher school certificate students who are studying politics as a subject. I must say that I find some admirable and dedicated teachers in the state system. I would also say that because of historical accident a proportion of teachers in the state system-I do not know what proportion; I guess it is about 25 per cent-are not suitable for teaching children. Their motivation is wrong. They got into the profession because it provided a free university education, or a subsidised university education, and a job when they finished; they cannot find other employment. They are not really motivated to be teachers. Yet they are there and their direction is not academic; it is not in the interests of the children. The effect on the state education system in recent years has been catastrophic. They would not last for a week in a private school, yet they are in the state system and they are there to stay. Their effect on the general community impression of the standards of the state system, and their effects on those standards, are very damaging. That is largely the reason why so many people, at their own expense and at considerable sacrifice, are pulling their children out of the state education system.

The next factor that makes for the superiority of the independent system over the government system is the quality and authority of the principals. In an independent school the quality and authority of the principal is paramount. The principals are chosen very carefully. They have authority to hire and fire staff. They have disciplinary authority over the staff. That has all been wiped away in the state system. I believe that if we wish to get a state system that will respond to the needs of the community and the wishes of parents, two things must be done. The first is to remove the geographical restriction which applies in many States so that we can only send our children to a particular state school no matter what our dislike of some of the things that go on there. We should be allowed to send our child to any state school that can accommodate that child so that parents who have an unsatisfactory state school in their area can vote with their feet. The second thing we must do is give principals the right to hire and fire staff. Until we give them that they have no appropriate authority to run an efficient, responsive and academic school. Until those things are achieved we will continue to see the exodus of children out of the state system into the private system, at considerable cost to the parents of those children, which represents, I think, a substantial loss to the community.

What is alarming is the very low retention rate of teenagers in our schools. We are seventeenth in the list of the 24 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in the retention of school children between 15 and 19 years of age. In Australia, only 44 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds are in full time education. By the way, people in apprenticeships are counted in that figure. Only 44 per cent of our young people aged 15 to 19 years are in full time education. That compares with a figure of 80 per cent in America and 71 per cent in Japan. If we look at the standards of our schools in terms of retention, we see that the retention rate to Year 12 in the independent non-Catholic schools is 92.9 per cent. This might be compared with a figure of 51.3 per cent in Catholic schools and 33.7 per cent in government schools. I suppose we might say that the ones who go to independent non-Catholic schools have wealthy parents and they can afford to keep their children at school. Maybe that is so. Let us ignore them. Let us look at the two categories-the Catholic independent schools and the government schools-and their retention rates. There is no evidence of any description to show that the wealth or socio-economic status of those who attend Catholic schools is higher than those who attend government schools. In fact, such evidence as there is would suggest the opposite. Yet, 51.3 per cent of those who go to Catholic schools complete year 12 and 33.7 per cent-many fewer-complete year 12 in government schools. Why is this? Why are government schools so failing our community, our children and our parents? I am sure that honourable senators can see that the reason people send their children to Catholic schools or independent schools basically is that they think their children will get more out of their education. Their children agree with them.

Senator Coates —They think they will.

Senator HAMER —Maybe they think they will but it is a very strong feeling. I think that any government which does not recognise that this is the community reaction based on experience, and that parents believe they are not getting what they are entitled to get out of government schools is ignoring reality.

Senator Coates —Because people like you keep repeating this sort of stuff.

Senator HAMER —That is not so. People are sacrificing a great deal of their resources in order to send their children to private schools. They do not send their children to private schools because I say so. They do it because their experience in these schools is such that they believe they are getting a more responsive, a more disciplined and a more directive education than if they send their children to government schools. This is a great worry. Government schools are educating 75 per cent of our children. Therefore, these schools have an enormously important role to play in our community. The secondary schools in particular should be the means by which we integrate people from diverse backgrounds into our community. Our community standards are set by the products of our government schools. Surely what we must do is devote all our efforts to seeing why these results are not being achieved by government schools. That is not done by chopping down the tall poppies. This is the eternal failure of the Labor approach. If somebody is doing better than another person, Labor does not try to improve to the standard; Labor tries to destroy the person doing better. That is the Labor approach.

There are many things the Government should do about government schools but nothing will be achieved by tipping money over the schools. The best funded government schools in this country are those in the Australian Capital Territory yet the Australian Capital Territory has the highest proportion of people in the community who have opted out of the government system. There are many more fundamental problems in the government system and they are compounded by the approach of this Minister. The Minister is seeking-perhaps not openly, although in one case she did do it openly-to level out the system to mediocrity and destroy the people who do better. Senator Ryan has openly stated that she does not believe in the pursuit of excellence in education.

Senator Coates —Say that again!

Senator HAMER —The Minister, Senator Ryan, has publicly said--

Senator Coates —Where?

Senator HAMER —She said at a conference of independent school headmasters that she does not believe in the pursuit of excellence in education. All her actions show that to be true. Presumably, if she does not believe in the pursuit of excellence she believes in the pursuit of mediocrity. Of course, this is a disaster for the whole community. Not only that she is also seeking-I do not know whether deliberately or accidentally-to divide the independent school communities. All of the 56 schools on her so-called hit list are non-Catholic. Why is this so? It is a matter of great concern to the Catholic educationalists. It is divisive. We thought we had put the division of independent schools based on religion behind us. The Minister has revived that argument which bedevilled our schools funding for many years. It is a most unfortunate feature of what has happened. The number of schools on the hit list increased from 41 to 56 despite the increase in the number of categories from three to 12.

The Minister has sanctioned a new report which stops non-government schools registered by the States automatically receiving recurrent funds. This strikes at the confidence of the independent schools system. The report which the Government has blessed is only one of a number of recent moves which make for more control by the Government over non-government schools generally. Basically, the Government fears competition. We must raise the standards of discipline and performance in the independent schools as well as in the government schools. We must all raise our standards together. We must not try to chop off the good schools; we must try to emulate them. Ultimately, the standards of education in the community, its excellence, diversity and flexibility, will be vital to the future of our country. All Australians must have the chance to develop their full educational potential. The divisive, reactionary and anti-academic policies of the present Minister are harming all of us. We need an urgent change of direction.