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Friday, 10 November 2000
Page: 19686

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) (10:57 AM) —Senator Carr has referred to the question of teachers and the professionalism of teachers and the assistance that is needed to keep that quality of teaching in Australia that we have become accustomed to at a level which everyone would want. I did mention in the second reading speech that the government has allocated $78 million to a quality teacher program. That shows the commitment of this government to existing teachers to maintain their professional standards. The government has placed on record that it believes that the teaching profession in Australia has a very important role. It is a most important part of our education system. It goes without saying that for us to have a good educational system we must have quality teaching and we must provide assistance to Australian teachers in that regard.

But referring more to the issue at hand—that is, the Democrat amendments—Senator Carr asked why we could not support Democrat amendment No. 4. Can I firstly say that we oppose all three amendments. We do so on the basis that we believe that the accountability framework contained in this bill is appropriate and that really the Democrat amendments miss the point. We are aiming to strengthen the link between funding provided under the Commonwealth schools programs and for improved outcomes for all Australians students. In essence, education authorities receiving Commonwealth grants will be required to commit to achieving performance targets against the national goals for schooling and to report publicly on their achievement. This focuses on the outcomes that we want in relation to education. The Commonwealth minister may require authorities which fail to meet a performance target to take certain remedial action, and that makes sense.

With adoption by all education ministers in 1999 of the national goals for schooling in the 21st century, Australia has its first set of outcomes focused schooling goals. Ministers have also committed themselves to nationally comparable reporting of education outcomes in key areas of the goals such as literacy and numeracy, and also vocational education and training in schools. This again focuses on outcomes and not inputs, which is the theme of the Democrat amendments. The Commonwealth has been closely involved in establishing national goals, benchmarks and measures and now wishes to see this approach to improving student outcomes reflected in its own programs for schools. The strength of this approach is that it provides assessment and reporting of student achieve-ment against nationally agreed standards but it does not mandate how schools should achieve those improved outcomes, and that retains flexibility for the particular school involved. What the Democrats are proposing is an inputs focused regime rather than one looking at the big picture, which is the mon-itoring of educational outcomes for Aust-ralian students. The Democrats seek to enshrine in legislation a range of bureaucratic measures which will administratively burden schools and education authorities alike. These measures will divert resources from the main game, that is, improving educational outcomes for Australian students. Instead, our schools will be too busy filling in administrative reports rather than providing quality teaching.

Perhaps I can refer in turn to these amendments. Firstly, amendment No. 4 by the Democrats talks of teacher registration criteria. Of course, we have differing circumstances in the states around Australia: some states have teacher registration and other states do not. Whilst we have states which do not have teacher registration, this amendment is inappropriate and we believe unworkable. In relation to amendment No. 5, we have the question of 95 per cent of teachers having to be of a certain quality. It stipulates a requirement that 95 per cent of teachers employed by the relevant authority be qualified teachers. If you have got 10 teachers, that means 9½, and we think that is too prescriptive. Again, we believe that the accountability arrangements that we have in this bill are appropriate. We are looking at the outcomes, the targets that are achieved in relation to the national goals for schooling.

Democrat amendment No. 8 talks about the sort of minutiae that would have to be involved: student numbers, reasons for exclusion of any student, staff recruitment policy, non-qualified teachers being employed and statistics by gender of the number of students who complete schooling. What we have in that educational accountability clause 23 is that any section 18 agreement must require the relevant authority to do a number of things which are outlined; that is, to participate in preparing a national report on the outcomes of schooling and to do a number of other things which will go towards measuring outcomes. Rather than saying, `You've got to fill in forms as to how many teachers fit into this category or not,' and having those rather burdensome administrative requirements relating to inputs, we are looking at measuring outcomes to see whether targets that are being strived for are achieved. How do they compare to national benchmarks? We have national goals for schools for the first time, looking at schooling in the 21st century for Australians. It is important that you have all schools in Australia being able to measure themselves against those goals and against the benchmarks and standards that are set. But at the same time you leave autonomy for that school to work out how it can best achieve those goals in light of its particular circumstances. As we know, Australia is a very big country, small in population but big in area, and there are so many differing factors which affect local communities.

Senator Allison did touch on a particular school in New South Wales, I think it was. Can I say that the registration of schools is the responsibility of the state authorities. If a school is not registered by a state authority then it does not receive Commonwealth funding. We do not believe that constitutionally the Commonwealth government can venture into that aspect of registration, since that is a responsibility for the state government concerned. We believe that our accountability arrangements in this bill are very good. They are outcomes focused. For the reasons I have mentioned, we cannot agree to the Democrat amendments.