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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4090

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (12:06): I rise to speak about the Australian Education Bill 2013. The education bill is to be commended for identifying five key areas needing reform. There is no doubt that education reform is necessary. Teaching standards need to be improved. Some students are missing out on a quality education. More opportunities must be provided for students with disabilities. The objectives are praiseworthy. But there is no consensus that the Australian Education Bill provides a solution.

This bill has caused enormous dissension in the community. It has created a division between primary and secondary schooling and tertiary education by stealing from Peter to pay Paul. The increased funding to schools is at the expense of the university sector. This has alienated both the vice-chancellors and the Tertiary Education Union.

There are still many unanswered questions in relation to primary and secondary education. I have had overwhelming representation from constituents concerned that their questions relating to the bills have not been answered by the minister, despite representation from parents, schools and organisations as significant as the Catholic Education Office. The Catholic education sector is responsible for educating 23 per cent of Australian students. It does so on 90 per cent of what is spent per capita on students in government schools. This 90 per cent comprises government funding and parental fee contribution. These schools still have questions in relation to funding under these bills. A considerable number of its schools are disadvantaged and in low-socioeconomic areas. There is clearly a need to provide additional funding to close this gap between Catholic schools and government schools. Further, there is no guarantee that government funding to Catholic schools will keep pace with the cost of educating children in government schools.

While the bills propose higher levels of funding for students with disabilities, this must be guaranteed for all students, regardless of the school that they attend. It is not clear to parents or to schools as to how these bills will assist students in Australian schools. It is not clear as to how this will occur through increasing the level of government bureaucracy. What is needed is a real improvement in teacher education so that the needs of all students can be met. Educational theory outlines many modes of learning and assessment. Despite this, focus on teaching and assessment is becoming narrower, as evidenced by NAPLAN testing, which ignores the needs of visual, manual and practical learning. Most schools have responded by narrowing their teaching to drilling students in order to maximise NAPLAN results.

Interestingly, those schools that have improved their NAPLAN performance are those that have broadened their curriculums along the lines of inquiry based learning. One of these schools is a Catholic school in a low-socioeconomic area in Ballarat. All teachers need training to identify even common learning issues such as dyslexia, which affects 10 per cent of students in schools. Teachers need to be trained in appropriate strategies to assist these students. Until this happens, many students will continue to disengage from the education system because it does not meet their needs.

The answer to improving education is more diversity and broader choices in education. One of the aims of these bills is to empower school leadership. Again, it is hard to imagine how this will occur when schools are burdened with additional bureaucracy and greater compliance measures. These bills, combined with the introduction of a national curriculum, can potentially narrow schooling and education choices. What is needed is imagination and innovation.

One way of encouraging diversity is to give families more choice in the type of education provided to their children rather than simply a system that concentrates power in the hands of the federal government. A voucher system or tax credits to parents to enable them to choose their child's school would both empower parents and promote excellence in education. The schools providing appropriate and targeted education would receive greater patronage.

The UK has moved in the direction of community involvement and community responsibility for education by the mutualisation of schools. The schools are run by stakeholders—parents, teachers and even students—who have a direct interest in the outcomes. It is early days but such innovations are showing great promise. We do not need more of the same. We do not need more bureaucracy. We do not need greater federal control of education. I will not be supporting these bills.