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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1545

Senator COATES(4.46) —Senator Hamer, who has just resumed his seat, asked why people send their children to private schools. He is part of the reason why people want to do that because he keeps spreading the perception of the higher dedication of staff and higher standards in private schools than in government schools. That is an insult to the dedicated teachers in the government school system in all States and Territories of this country. Government schools are not failing the community as he suggests. I get sick and tired of the Opposition talking down the government school system. We wanted to stop the division in the community on this matter and this Government's policies do that. However, we keep getting this referral to divisiveness by the Opposition. To suggest that the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) is not in favour of higher education standards is a total insult to her and to every senator on this side of the chamber.

I refer to the specific phrasing of the Opposition's matter of public importance. It talks about maximum educational choice and accuses the Government of restricting choice. I make it clear that despite Senator Peter Baume's flowery rhetoric on this subject the educational policies of this Government are not designed to and do not restrict the democratic right of parents to choose to send their children to government or non-government schools. Our policy is based on the principle that in making that choice parents and students have the right to expect the highest possible quality education in both sectors. Funding should reflect the priority of ensuring that there are high standards in those sectors. Private schools able to have access to substantial private wealth ought not to be publicly supported to the same extent, given the limited funds that are available. After all, the Opposition keeps on insisting on more and more cuts in public outlays. Therefore, we have an inconsistency when it talks about State aid for private schools.

This Labor Government is about re-invigorating the education system. It recognises that our prime responsibility ought to be to the public school system which provides education for all children wherever they live or whatever their physical or intellectual circumstances. The logical extension of the Opposition's proposal of maximum educational choice is that there be 100 per cent funding of all private schools. That of course, would be ridiculous. Even though at time some of those private schools may appear to ask for full funding one can be sure that they would be opposed to the higher responsibility which would be imposed on them in exchange for that funding. Of course, there would have to be open access for all with no restriction on the basis of academic ability, religion or anything else. There would have to be much greater accountability. Of course, once that happened those schools would call it government interference.

Because there is not 100 per cent private funding there is, of course, a less than free choice. People can choose not to use the services provided by the public sector and can choose to send their children to private schools. But they will need to pay for it, and so they should. They are, after all, private institutions and it is a private choice. Government schooling is available for all. It is not as completely free as it should be, but it is available. The Government gives support to private schools on a needs basis. That is totally supportable in all logic.

To the extent that there is funding, it leads to the cost of that private choice being less than it otherwise would be. Therefore, any such assistance increases the choice. Of course, the more assistance there is, the more that that choice is skewed. I will quote from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 9 May 1984 by an economic commentator, Ross Gittins, dealing with a study by Ross A. Williams entitled 'The economic determinants of Private Schooling in Australia'. In the article Mr Gittins stated:

We all know that over the past decade there has been a big increase in government-particular Federal Government-grants to private schools. Over two-thirds of the running costs of private schools is now financed by government.

And we all know that in recent years there has been a drift of students from public schools to private schools, particularly at the point of changeover from primary to secondary school.

* * * There has been a vigorous debate about why parents have been 'voting with their feet'. The most popular explanation seems to be that parents have been responding to a decline in the standard of public school education.

A growing number of parents have been prepared to pay for private school education because they believe that it offers better discipline, more emphasis on acquiring basic skills and more emphasis on success in examinations.

That is the sort of rubbish that we heard from Senator Hamer. Ross Gittins continued:

That is what I thought, too, until I ran across a fascinating little paper on 'the economic determinants of private schooling', written by Professor Ross Williams of Melbourne University while he was on leave at the Australian National University. Now I am not so sure.

Professor Williams argues that the swing to private schools can be explained simply in terms of the effect of increased State aid, without any reference to a change in parental attitudes towards private schooling.

Being an economist, he believes it all gets back to money, and more particularly to the level of private school fees.

Later in the article he stated:

The real price of private school fees rose in the post-war period to reach a peak in 1968-69. Since then the price has fallen rapidly as the level of government grants has risen. By 1981-82 two-thirds of the running costs of private schools was financed by government grants and the real level of school fees had fallen to 30 per cent of what it was in 1968-69.

I repeat: 'The real level of school fees had fallen to 30 per cent of what it was in 1968-69'. The article continues:

Being a well-furnished economist--

Mr Gittins says-

Professor Williams has constructed a little mathematical model of the private-school market which seeks to identify the factors which may explain the drift to private schools.

He finds that the fall in the real level of private school fees is the main explanation for the rise in the proportion of students going to private schools.

He concluded his article by stating:

The more governments increase the real level of per capita grants to private schools the more students those schools attract, and the more students they attract the more governments have to spend on per capita grants.

On top of this increased financial attractiveness of private schools there is, as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, the well-orchestrated anti-government schools campaign by the Opposition, the private schools lobby, sections of the media and certain conservative academics. Too many parents have been conned by this campaign into thinking that 'public' is equivalent to second class and that just because one pays for private schooling, that somehow makes it better. I reject that idea categorically. I do so similarly in respect of health services. Too many people have been pressured and conned into taking out private health insurance and private services in private hospitals. Again, that includes many people who cannot afford to pay so much money.

Many of those same people who cannot afford it struggle financially to send their children to private schools. Yet, in regard to health, if there is an emergency or people are really sick and need top quality treatment, they are inevitably treated in a public hospital. People should not believe that they need to pay for a private service which is in no way objectively superior. Of course, most Australians have no choice about whether they can send their children to private schools. Even if they struggled to the limit of their finances, they could not choose to do other than send their children to the local government school. Generally, as with public hospitals, they get the excellence that they deserve. Senator Baume's rhetoric about the pursuit of excellence had the unstated assumption that that is fine as long as it is not in government schools.

This, of course, is not to say that everything is perfect in the state school system. Of course, not all teachers are wonderful. Of course, there are not enough resources and of course there are inadequacies. But overwhelmingly we have a good system of public education which is worthy of the support of parents and students. That is especially so in Tasmania, where many years of State Labor Government ensured the development of an excellent system of government schools. We all acknowledge that the shortcomings need to be redressed. That is happening under this Government and under its commitment to having as its prime responsibility the government school sector. The improvements that are necessary will not occur if there is the sort of transfer of resources from the government to the non-government sector which the Opposition would like and which, of course, actually occurred under the Fraser Government, with its miserable treatment and public denigration of government schools.

In regard to the question of choice, I turn to the issue of the development of new non-government schools which apparently also upsets the Opposition. It objects to the new conditions for new non-government schools which the Panel of Commonwealth Schools Commissioners has recommended should be modified to require from the proposed new schools the following:

(a) advance notification to the Commonwealth twenty-four months prior to commencement;

(b) indication of conditional acceptance by the relevant State registration authority;

(c) demonstration of reasonable prospects--

I repeat, reasonable prospects-

of financial viability;

(d) meeting of minimum enrolment guidelines; and

(e) evidence of notification of government and non-government educational authorities in the States.

These conditions are necessary because we cannot have a continuation of uncontrolled proliferation of new small non-government schools which are possibly not economically viable and possibly not educationally viable. There is, of course, a right to open them and for them to apply for State registration, but there is not an absolute right to Commonwealth funding without the Commonwealth having some say in the matter. There is no bottomless pit-Senator Baume wants to suggest there is-of public funding of those private resources. Such new commitments should not be automatic. Proper planning makes it essential for the sorts of considerations in the Schools Commission's Panel's recommendations to be adopted.

Some small non-government schools set up under the open-go policy of the Fraser years have since closed or collapsed. We cannot support that sort of waste and inefficiency. There should be the highest possible educational standards. There should not be undertaken the risk of a small range of educational experiences and inadequate facilities which, especially in relation to secondary level, can arise in regard to the very small schools. There is not quite the same argument about school sizes at the primary level. Let nobody suggest that I am suggesting that only huge schools are good, but there is a happy educational medium. There must be a balance between parents' freedom of choice and the protection of educational standards and public funds.

I will quote from paragraph 20 of the report of the Panel on planning and funding policies for new non-government schools because it states quite succinctly some of the principles involved in public funding of the school system. The Panel states:

Government schools have a unique legal obligation to provide high quality educational services for all children of school age in Australia, now including the full range of secondary schooling. A continuing significant decline in the government school sector's share of overall enrolment is likely to change substantially the social composition of the student population in government schools, with potentially significant negative consequences for the general comprehensiveness of public school systems. The cumulative effect of these financial, educational and social consequences could, in the long term, threaten the role and standing of the public school as a central institution in Australian society. Such a development would be unwelcome to most citizens and is inconsistent with the stated policies of governments, as well as the major school interest groups, government and non-government. A clear public policy on the planned development of government and non-government schooling within a dual system is needed to avoid such a situation.

I wholeheartedly support those sorts of principles. Senator Baume and the Opposition, of course, do not want such planning. What they want is what that paragraph suggests would occur in the absence of such planning. I could not disagree more strongly with Senator Baume and the Opposition.

In the very short time available to me I wish to touch on the question of educational standards because that is also mentioned in the Opposition's matter of public importance, which refers to maximum educational choice being a necessary part of raising educational standards. In many ways I envy my children and their peers the school experiences they are having at the moment. There has been a lot of progress in the education system since I went to school. That is not to denigrate my teachers, of course, and it is not to say that everything is as perfect as we wish it to be, but I reject the sorts of criticisms that have been made about standards in the school system. There has been a great deal of improvement. Nothing has changed in some areas. The same sorts of complaints were made 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago about the standards of literacy and numeracy, but things are improving. The curriculum has changed in schools to ensure that there is an improvement in the way young people growing up involve themselves in our society. I think all of those things mean that the public school system should be supported increasingly to ensure that that vast majority of Australians who attend public schools are able to enter the work force and their adult life properly prepared.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The discussion is concluded.