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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 47

Senator BARNETT (12:16 PM) —I stand to speak to the Quality of school education report of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education. In the first instance I commend the committee’s chairperson, Senator Judith Troeth, and the members of the committee for the time and effort put into preparing this report. I also thank the secretariat for their efforts over the many months of deliberations and hearings and for their responses to the submissions that were made. I thank the people who put in submissions and the witnesses who appeared at the various hearings.

The report is a good one. It is very comprehensive, and Senator Troeth has referred to it in some detail. Senator Marshall made a number of allegations against Senator Troeth and the government senators on that committee. I reject them entirely. I think Senator Marshall is doing his very best to defend what I would consider to be the dilatory performance of the state Labor governments around Australia in delivering high-quality education to Australian students.

Senator Marshall has picked up on a few finer points, and those are matters between him and Senator Troeth, but all in all I think the report is very comprehensive. It is thoughtful, and it criticises in very many respects the performance of the state Labor governments. It is sad and disappointing for Tasmanian students and their parents that key performance indicators show that Tasmanian schools have very low outcomes compared with interstate students.

The Essential Learning program was a failed experiment in Tasmania that was instituted by former Minister for Education, Paula Wriedt. The state government should apologise to the Australian families, particularly the children, for this failed experiment. So much time, effort and money was put into the program but we can at least thank to some degree the current Minister for Education for throwing it out and heading back to the basics in terms of the curriculum and teaching standards in Tasmania. The report notes that there is a need for further training and support and increased resources to lift teaching standards. In respect of mathematics, recommendation 3 says:

The committee recommends that schools and school systems take particular measures to improve teacher professional development in mathematics.

Recommendation 2 says:

The committee recommends that the Government consider ways of restructuring teacher training courses so as to encourage and require aspiring secondary teachers to commence their studies in arts, science and other relevant disciplines before undertaking specific studies in education by degree or diploma.

Senator Marshall indicated that he did not agree with Senator Troeth in many respects about what this government is doing to support schools around Australia. I commend Julie Bishop, the federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, who has done so much to support schoolchildren all around Australia through the Investing in Our Schools Program, the capital grants program and the Country Areas Program. These programs are so successful. I go to schools all around Tasmania, particularly in the Lyons electorate, and these programs are very much appreciated and well received. The government is trying to fill the gaps left by the state governments, which are letting down the students and their families.

The report is critical of the various state governments. Recommendation 1 is a very key recommendation. It says:

The committee recommends that efforts be made to give the national benchmark tests more credibility and usefulness as teaching instruments.

On page 13 there is a specific reference to the curriculum debate:

At the time the committee commenced this inquiry, it was under the impression that quality standards in school education hinged on curriculum settings.

There is discussion on outcomes based education, a national curriculum, how far we should go and so on. I want to touch on the conclusion of that section before it leads to recommendation 1. It says:

The committee might be reassured by the results of the PISA and TIMSS tests—

and that was noted by Senator Marshall—

which put Australia toward the top of all but the highest category of performance, but it believes that there is a warning in the existence of a long tail of underperformance.

This is a key concern to the committee and to government senators. The report goes on to say:

It notes also that Canada, a country with many points of commonality with Australia, has the same performance but without the tail. In the next two chapters of the report, education quality issues will be discussed in such a way as to explain why this tail exists, and what can be done to shorten it.

The report also notes:

The use of performance indicators should give parents an honest view of how their children are performing against the standards.

Why would you send home to the parents of these children a report that they simply cannot understand, that they simply cannot read? It has to be practical and useful. I commend Brendan Nelson, who started to get things rolling to make the reports more useful, practical and sensible so that children can understand what they are all about. We have had this problem in Tasmania, and I think they are starting to improve those particular outcomes.

I would now like to turn to curriculum and note the government senators’ conclusion at page 84 of the report, which says:

The Commonwealth’s requirement that all states and territories must have some standards based syllabuses ready for the start of the school year in 2009 has resulted in a flurry of activity in several states, particularly those which persisted with outcomes-based documents. The committee believes that this has been among the most worthwhile Commonwealth initiatives in school education.

That is well noted. That is a federal government level initiative which has really got some of the states moving to respond to the needs of students and their families so that they get better outcomes.

Finally, yes, the report does note the involvement of Mr Rudd in the lack of action in Queensland when he was Director-General in the Department of Premier and Cabinet—and it should be noted that he was involved in that. Queensland has a sad record in that regard, particularly during that period when Mr Rudd had that special involvement. This was noted by a number of witnesses, particularly at the Brisbane hearings. We heard Senator Marshall complain about that—but, goodness me, the facts are on the table. Mr Rudd was in that job. He had a most senior position in the Department of Premier and Cabinet and did not deliver for students in Queensland at that time—and that should be well and truly noted. I commend the report to the Senate.