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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 109

Senator NETTLE (8:51 PM) —I take this opportunity to put on record the Greens' contribution on this issue of reporting or league tables. These clauses seek to impose reporting requirements that already exist to some extent in the states. More importantly, there is the requirement for schools to make public the content of the reports. This seems to give effect to the government's desire to impose performance or league tables for schools. The Greens oppose this concept. We support the provision of information about students' performance in schools but we see the simplification of these stories and their publication as damaging to the reputation of schools, their staff and their students. These kinds of performance or league table are not accurate guides to how a child might perform at one school as opposed to at another. The necessary simplification of the data implies a false baseline by which all schools are judged. They show outcomes not improvements, so schools whose students suffer more than average disadvantage are often shown as poor performers when in fact the staff are working miracles in difficult circumstances.

The real concern that the Greens have is that this simplistic competition data that this clause will provide for will be used by policy makers to indulge in populist meddling in school funding, with schools who rate lower on the table getting punished when in fact they deserve congratulations and support for the hard work that they do with the disadvantaged students that are in their school. The history of this measure when it has been applied has shown this to be the outcome in the United Kingdom, and schools have been closed in the United States as a result of these league tables or performance tables being published in the public arena. Rather than kids who needed help and their teachers being supported, they were stigmatised as a result. It is micromanaging of the reporting systems that already occur in schools whereby schools are already seeking to standardise them and to make them simpler for parents. It is micromanaging and a real stick approach to the way in which schools receive their funding. This is an approach that certainly I have seen before in the higher education legislation that has come before the parliament in which the government has sought to say, `If you do not impose our particular views as to industrial relations'—or whatever it may be—`we won't provide you with the funding.' This piece of legislation is riddled with those things.

The clauses that we are dealing with at the moment relate to a government view that, if the information is not provided and put forward in the public arena in the way in which the government would like it to be, these schools will not get their funding. It is not the federal government's job to make those decisions. The schools are regulated at a state level. They are working towards doing things in a consensual manner with other states, and that would be an approach that the federal government could take. But instead they have gone for the barging through approach in this legislation: `You don't get your money if you don't do what we want.' That is not a way to run schools policy. The Greens are not supportive of this kind of approach in general, as equally we are not supportive of the proposal for league tables that is being put up.

I remember when a Murdoch newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, ran a series of stories on the front page about the HSC results of a particular school in New South Wales, a school in south-western Sydney. The claims that they made had a really significant impact on the students and on the staff, who were doing a fantastic job with kids who were in a really disadvantaged area to try to ensure that they got a high-quality public education. As for the impact of the publication of that ill-informed information about the HSC results that the school had received, which were interpreted by people who were not educational specialists—they were journalists writing for the front page of the Daily Telegraph and the results were interpreted in a way in which that information was not designed to be interpreted in the public arena—the consequences for the school and the whole local community were absolutely catastrophic. I remember it. My mother was working at the time as a counsellor in the local area. All the local counsellors were called in to deal with this and to provide counselling to the students about the implications of the publication of this information, which was not designed to be published in that way and had a significant and detrimental effect on students.

In fact, years later students from that school wrote about the consequences of that experience. Subsequently, action was pursued against the Daily Telegraph through the courts or the Australian Press Council—I do not recall which it was—and they admitted that was wrong: `We shouldn't have done that.' But it was too late for those students who had had their picture, their school and their HSC results plastered all over the front page of this widely read newspaper and whose self-esteem had been absolutely gutted as a result of the insensitive actions of people who took accurate information and interpreted it in the wrong way.

The publication of league tables is the same proposal. It is taking people's results out of context, putting them in the public arena and asking people—people who have not had any training in or who do not have any understanding of how to analyse these results—to acknowledge that this school in south-western Sydney has a large proportion of children who come from a low socioeconomic background. They have got responsibilities in dealing with the needs of these young people. The minister is over there looking bored and making insolent little gestures like a young child in a playground whilst I explain the feelings that these students had, which impacted on their lives years later, as a result of the publication of their educational results. The minister is proposing in this bit of legislation, in these clauses we are dealing with right now, to do the same thing to Australian public and private school students across the country. Publishing their results in a way which is not appropriate, in a way in which they can be interpreted and misconstrued by a whole raft of members of the community, is not right and is not fair to those students.

I know, through hearing about the experiences of those students, what the consequences were for their mental health, and I do not want to see those consequences recur. That is why the Greens do not support these league tables. When such league tables were introduced in the United Kingdom, it saw schools like the one I am talking about close down. Those schools had their funding stopped. This legislation is about saying, `You don't get your funding if you don't pursue a course of action.' It has been tried in Australia and it did not work. The consequences were huge. The counsellors for the department of education in that area were run off their feet dealing with the consequences of this, not just for the time immediately afterwards but for years later. I do not want to see that again, so we will not be supporting these clauses.

Question agreed to.