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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5163

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (4:43 PM) —I am not sure whether I am supposed to talk about mercy and being strained at this point, but I think I will move straight on to represent my colleague Senator Lyn Allison, who is, of course, the school spokesperson for the Democrats. She is overseas and so is the higher education spokesperson for the Democrats. I will address the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 on behalf of the Democrats.

This bill, as honourable senators should know, amends schedules 3 and 5 of the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000 to provide capital grants funding for government and non-government schools for the calendar years 2005 to 2007. The bill provides a total of $897,783 million over the program years 2005 to 2007. Government schools will be allocated $666,963 million—that is $222,321 million per annum. Non-government schools will be allocated $230,820 million—that is $76,940 million per annum. Funding levels will be maintained for the government school sector at the same rate as in 2001, but for the non-government sector funding levels will fall from $87,401 million in 2003 to $76,940 million in 2004.

Certainly this is a lot of money in dollar terms, but, as the previous speaker and other contributors have noted, these are still worrying trends and worrying amounts of money, given the role that education at all levels plays in our community. One of the objectives of the government's capital grants program is:

... to provide and improve school capital infrastructure, particularly for the most educationally disadvantaged students ...

The Australian Democrats strongly support using capital grant funding to improve the education of disadvantaged students and, of course, we want to see it used to reduce the level of disadvantage in the school system. The problem, however, is that there is no way for us to assess whether this objective has been met. Our deep suspicion is that it has not been met and that it possibly will not be met.

There is no apparent strategic planning to guide the provision of funds. The criteria for distributing funds for education and block grant authorities in the public and private sectors do not address this issue. We are also very concerned about the reporting requirements being quite weak. In fact, this echoes a debate we have had in the last couple of weeks. I do not seek to reflect on a vote of the Senate, but the most recent higher education debate that we had in this place, about amendments to the Higher Education Funding Act, also seemed to reek of concerns about a lack of accountability, reporting arrangements and, indeed, the issue of transparency. So, when we are dealing with the states grants changes before us, this lack of accountability is also a serious problem. It is a particularly serious problem when you have a government that is unable to tell us with any confidence whether or not its program's objectives have been realised.

The Democrats say this is a basic requirement of good governance. In our opinion, the objectives of the capital grants program should be changed. Instead of just aiming to improve school capital infrastructure—from what we know, in most cases it is of quite a low standard—we should be aiming to guarantee that all students are schooled in an environment which enhances the learning experience and in which they feel safe and valued. We should specify what this exactly means. We should specifically target disadvantaged schools in disadvantaged areas and schools which are in most need of capital works.

To achieve this, the government, in conjunction with the states and territories, needs to assess what it would take to bring our schools up to scratch. We need to have a better overall understanding of the current state of the school infrastructure and, of course, we need to quantify the level of unmet need. We need to set targets. We need to have standards and benchmarks worked out with the Commonwealth and the states. We should have a target of, say, replacing all portables that have been in schools for over 10 years with permanent buildings. This is something that Senator Allison and indeed many Democrat spokespeople before her have talked about previously.

That kind of target may seem unrealistic now, but at what point did we determine that it would be acceptable for so-called portables to become permanent structures? When did we decide that it was okay for Australian children to be educated in substandard conditions? A benchmark could be that a school should have an indoor assembly hall or gymnasium for a given number of students. There are still schools without this basic facility. When we have set such targets, we should then look at what the budgetary implications are and try to allocate the funding accordingly. Unfortunately, this is not what the government is doing and there is no joy to be found in this particular bill. Indeed, this bill is full of more of the same, and we know it is not nearly enough.

Some of the issues that I have raised today, such as the need for a national assessment of school infrastructure, have actually been raised before not only by my colleague Senator Allison but in a 1999 report entitled Capital matters: an evaluation of the Commonwealth's capital grants programme for schools. I would be very interested if the minister could advise the Senate what has happened as a result of this review and what recommendations have been adopted. Perhaps that is something to be taken on notice now for the committee stage of this bill: what has happened to the recommendations in that 1999 report, Capital matters?

It is a regular occurrence for Democrat senators to visit schools in all states and territories; mind you, in some states and territories, we need to get very specific and exact permission to actually attend schools, which is always very interesting. We have visited schools of all types in order to assess everything from staff morale to teaching conditions and, obviously, to answer the questions of students and teachers who have an interest in our political system. But we are conscious of the fact that many of the schools that we have visited require money for serious capital work. Only schools with shrinking enrolments do not rely on demountables or portables, and in most schools we have noticed that they are a permanent fixture. In many schools there is no money to properly maintain the grounds or the buildings, which in many cases are in various states of need of repair. I contrast this with some of the wealthier private schools, which have received massive funding increases from this government, with their excellent facilities and sometimes quite impressive grounds.

The following extract, which I would like to place on record in the Senate, comes from a staff member from one country primary school in New South Wales. It was submitted as part of a New South Wales public education inquiry. That staff member wrote:

Our school was established in the 1870s. It has an enrolment of approximately 600 students who are housed in 22 classrooms, 10 of which are metal demountables and the remaining 12 are wooden. It is difficult to promote principles of social justice when teachers and students are forced to spend day after day in substandard buildings. At least 11 classrooms leak and have done so for some time. In two classrooms at least, water runs down inside the back wall possibly behind the electrical conduit and power point. In another room, leaks in the ceiling resulted in water collecting in the fluorescent light. Leaking rooms have also resulted in many resource books being ruined and children's books being damaged. At least eight classrooms have inadequate carpet. The carpet either smells due to the leaks or is old, dusty and stained. In one room the carpet is fraying across the room where one rust coloured piece is joined to another maroon coloured piece. At least six classrooms have basic structural problems, such as piers with no footings, piers that are cracked, buckled noticeboards on the back walls, gaps in walls that you can see daylight through. At least eight classrooms have problems with excessive temperatures (37-40 degrees) during the warmer months. There are two toilets for 30 staff.

To check the veracity of those claims, those conducting the inquiry went to this school and they found that they were generally correct. I think anyone in this chamber or more generally would be foolish to think that these examples are isolated incidents. An Australian Primary Principals Association report released last year found that 26 per cent of principals think that `their school facilities are badly in need of an upgrade'. It is clear to me that more funding is needed for capital works so as to improve the entire educational experience of our children. No-one can underestimate the importance of a good physical learning environment. That issue was well summed up in the report of the New South Wales inquiry, which stated:

The ways in which buildings impact upon human life range from their purely functional consequences, to their affect on the aesthetic sensibilities and aspirations of individuals and groups. These qualities are as important, if not more so, to a satisfying and productive life within schools as they are in other human institutions. First ... the primary tasks of public education—teaching and learning—can be enhanced or retarded by the presence or absence of appropriate physical conditions (like a comfortable classroom temperature, a physically safe and clean environment, areas suitable for study and play, room designs that support productive pedagogy, basic educational facilities like `wet areas,' and so forth). Then again, the school community's spirits can be uplifted or depressed by the presence or absence of well designed buildings that are maintained and presented with a view to satisfying the aesthetic needs of those who work and study within them. While it is difficult to isolate the effects of the many interacting factors that contribute to a school's academic outcomes, there is research evidence that good building quality and maintenance are associated with improved academic results. On the available evidence, when allowance has been made for other relevant factors, the physical state of a school is one effective predictor of student achievement. Research suggests that the quality of physical space affects self-esteem, peer and student teacher interactions, parental involvement, discipline, attention, motivation and interpersonal relations.

While I and the Democrats realise that there are deserving private schools—and I think that has been acknowledged in this debate— it is the government schools that appear to be in a far greater state of need overall. The government's funding policies, however, are reducing the amount that should be made available to needy schools in both the public and the private sectors, since the funding is spread across all schools, even the already wealthy. Imagine what could be done if the massive funding increases to the former `wealthy' category 1, 2 and 3 schools from the states grants bill in 2000 went instead to the very needy public schools to improve the conditions there. Imagine if, instead of providing money to all those new schools the government now funds in order to provide so-called educational choice to a limited section of Australian families, the government funded only those new private schools that are needed in a particular area.

The crux of the matter is that this government's funding decisions will lead to an increasing amount being spent on the maintenance of the non-government school sector. We very strongly think, and have passionately advocated, that that money would be better spent on the public system. It is for that reason that we—my colleague Senator Lyn Allison and the Australian Democrats— will be moving an amendment to this legislation in the committee stage of this bill to request an increase in the capital grant funding program for government schools by a total of $50 million over the program years 2003-07. We do not believe that this is a particularly onerous amount, given the level of need, but it will nonetheless be of assistance. We urge both the government and the Australian Labor Party to support it.

I think the importance of education to a democratic and enlightened society can never be underestimated. I do not think we can afford to ignore the important links among all education sectors, whether we are talking vocational education, primary and secondary education, education in those even earlier years, or higher education. While I might speak in a somewhat different capacity today as a higher education spokesperson and a former schools spokesperson for the Democrats, nonetheless I think it is evident to all honourable senators that there is an incredible link among those sectors, and one that we should respect. Hopefully one day we will recognise that money for education in our community is an investment and not a cost. Unfortunately, this bill seems to reflect the outdated ideology that somehow it is a cost and not a benefit in every sense to the community at all levels. We look forward to support for that amendment, and I indicate, to speed debate, that the Democrats will be supporting the second reading amendments that have been proposed. I am aware of one from Senator Nettle on behalf of the Greens and I believe Senator Carr may have foreshadowed that he was moving a second reading amendment.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —He has moved it. I have seen it and I believe it was the same one that was moved in the lower house, in which case we will be supporting it.