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Thursday, 23 March 1972
Page: 879

Senator DAVIDSON (South Australia) - This afternoon the Senate is considering 2 Bills - and I suppose 2 amendments to the motion for the second reading of those Bills. The main Bill is an amending Bill which relates to the States Grants (Independent Schools) Act of 1969. The principal purpose of this Bill is to implement 'he Government's undertaking to independent schools. I think honourable senators will be well aware that the Bill provides for an increase in the per capita payments made in respect of each pupil enrolled in independent schools. In the sphere of primary schools the payments are to rise from the present rate of $35 per annum to the proposed rate of $50 per annum. For secondary schools it is proposed to increase it from $50 per annum to $68 per annum.

An amendment has been moved by the spokesman for the Opposition. The amendment is in terms identical with those of amendments put forward and debated not only in another place but also as a matter of public interest. As has been indicated, the wording of the amendment comes from the Labor Party platform and policy on education. Basically the amendment revolves around the proposal to establish an Australian schools commission which will examine and determine the needs of students in government and nongovernment schools. Then the amendment sets out a great range of detail indicating how such a proposal might be implemented.

This Bill follows a statement by the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) in, I think, early December 1971 when he announced proposed increases in the rate of Commonwealth assistance to independent schools. Also before us today is this second Bill which provides for a further grant totalling $20m to be paid to the States up to 30th June next year for financing capital expenditure on government primary and secondary schools. Honourable senators will recall that the Government decided to make this particular grant to the States for capital expenditure on government schools in recognition of the needs expressed by the States to the Commonwealth for additional expenditure in this area.

I think it is important to emphasise for the record in a discussion of this kind that the grants are additional to the other capital grants which the Gommonwealth is now making annually to the States in connection with works, housing and other undertakings of the States. The Prime Minister also made it clear when speaking in December that the Government expected the States to continue at least with their planned levels of capital expenditure in primary and secondary schools. These grants therefore will result in additions to the levels of expenditure on education.

I want to lay some emphasis on this particular point: The Commonwealth has expressed the view that the grants should be used for purposes other than science laboratories and libraries, 2 areas for which the Commonwealth already is providing. It has provided direct assistance for these purposes. It is important to note that the grants we are discussing today are not only for specific purposes, not only for extending and intensifying the area of education, but are part of the Commonwealth's total and comprehensive education programme.

I suppose it is pertinent to mention that in recent years the Commonwealth has played an increasing and significant role in the field of education. Honourable senators will be well aware that the Constitution does not mention education as an area in which the Commonwealth has particular powers or responsibilities. Those powers and responsibilities reside specifically with the States. But within, for example, section 51 of the Constitution there is provision for, among other things, the Parliament to make laws in respect to benefits to students. Honourable senators also will be well aware that in section 96 of the Constitution there is provision for the making of grants to the States for use for any purpose, including education, at the discretion of the States. The Commonwealth has made increasing use of those powers, as the Constitution has allowed it to do, and has provided a growing measure of assistance to the States for the purposes of education.

It is also equally important to affirm again that the programme of education grants to the States over the period of years since the Commonwealth first became actively involved in this field has been marked by a consistent policy of consultation, conversation and communication with the State education authorities. So, all grants have been considered on the basis of the highest priority needs. I think it could be said that the Commonwealth's objectives have been to direct its grants to the areas of greatest need where they will be put to the greatest use. Its grants also have been allocated to ensure that the Commonwealth's aid was additional to that which was carried out by the States and not a replacement for it. It is particularly important to emphasise that the Commonwealth's aid has not been meant to be a replacement for the normal support from the States. Another very strong objective of the Commonwealth in entering into the field of education in a very big way has been its desire to encourage the development of standards and to develop the total education quality and quantity throughout the country.

Expenditure does not always indicate the total picture of progress, development or even growth. But I think it is not without significance to observe that the projected expenditure on education by the Commonwealth this financial year is running to the measure of some $350m. I give weight to that statement by pointing out, as honourable senators will know, that that represents an increase of some 14 per cent on the expenditure in the previous year. Perhaps some indication of the growth in the involvement by the Commonwealth in the field of education can be gauged from the fact that the expenditure this year will represent a doubling of the Commonwealth's contribution in the last 5 years. In other words the Commonwealth's expenditure has been increased by some 100 per cent in those 5 years. That gives an indication of the emphasis and importance which the Commonwealth has placed on education. That emphasis and importance has found expression in practical support and, indeed, the widening of interest over the total range of the field of education, which is undoubtedly producing a higher quality of education and, more importantly, making better education available to a greater number of people.

When quoting figures of expenditure, when referring to the co-operation and consultation that exist between the Commonwealth and the States and when inferring that that is contributing to the total quality of Australian education it is also very important to point out that the States themselves are spending increasing and substantial amounts on education. I think that their total expenditure runs into something like $ 1,200m a year. The increased amounts that the Commonwealth is making available each year for education are in confirmation of its recognition of the importance of education and of the development of educational services at all points. As all honourable senators know, there has been a programme of assistance in providing scholarships, science blocks, libraries, colleges of advanced education, research programmes and a wide range of other procedures. Education has assumed a considerable proportion of Commonwealth Government interest and contribution. It is against that background that these Bills, which continue the policy of the Commonwealth's involvement in the field of education, have been introduced. On the one hand we have a Bill which refers to a grant to the States for government schools and on the other hand we have a Bill which provides for a grant to independent schools and which is, of course, attracting the greatest amount of interest and debate. That Bill is proof of the fact that the Government's total support includes aid for independent schools.

Other speakers have said here and elsewhere, but it needs to be said again, that the Administration is supporting what we will call the dual system of education, which allows parents the choice of sending their children to government or independent schools. When one has a choice one also has to take risks. But there .is a high quality of government schools in our community and a high standard of scholarship which is available to the students per medium of their teachers. While, of course, no system can be complete and excellent in every sphere in every place at any given time the new schools and the new developments that are taking place in education at a government school level provide plenty of opportunities for students. Indeed, the increasing attendance by students from all walks of life, from all backgrounds and from all social strata of society indicates that there is a widespread recognition of the value of government schools. But there is also in the independent school system the element of choice, elements of experimentation, elements of innovation and backgrounds of tradition, religious teaching and other connections which provide for some sections of the community the opportunity for a variation in expression and a variation of association as well as a greater range of subjects of learning and extra curricular activities.

As other speakers have said and as we all know from experience there are many parents in this country who are making sacrifices not only to keep the independent school system going but also to provide for their own sons and daughters to attend such a school. The State governments allocate about 25 per cent of their revenue funds to government schools. My information is that the government schools in this country educate some 78 per cent of the school pupils. One per cent of the revenue of the State governments is spent in various ways on the independent schools which educate the remaining 22 per cent of the school pupils, lt is impossible to assess accurately the costs per pupil of all the forms of state aid that non-government schools are eligible to receive, but it is unlikely that the state as an instrumentality bears even half the total cost of educating a child. The State school systems would have very great difficulty in absorbing the children who attend non-government schools. The pupil-teacher ratio could be worsened if there was any extensive closing of the independent schools. The standard of teacher education comes into its own relationship here. The pressures of increased enrolments and the higher retention rates would cause a growing strain on the government system if there were any withdrawal or retardation of the nongovernment or independent school system.

I would argue that the independent school system represents a parallel stream of education. It does not act in any way as a divisive influence. In this respect I draw the attention of honourable senators to the amendment which has been proposed by the Opposition. If it was carried it would undoubtedly make for contention and divisiveness within the community, particularly within the schools. After all, the system that exists at present has to respond and be responsible to the community at large and it has to measure up to the same kinds of State requirements and the same kinds of public examinations. Independent schools assist in the total development and evolution of the education programme by attracting to them people and students who, unable to exercise their enterprise, growth and diversity within the State system, are able to do it within the independent school system.

So, I look at the Bills and I look at the amendment and I am interested to note the suggestion of a needs or a means test. I question whether this would achieve in the end the kind of levelling which obviously the amendment seeks to do. However much a Labor government may wish to reduce students in all education systems to a common level, there is a desire on the part of a considerable section of the community that there should be within our education system this opportunity for the expression of an independent line of education and an independent administration of education.

The amendment in my view would completely destroy the value of the education system which we have in Australia, lt would have the tendency to centralise administration, lt would build an enormous bureaucracy. It would nationalise the system so that there would be a tendency to destroy initiative and opportunity and to take away from people that which they value most, that is. the freedom to arrange their own expression and to develop the characteristics of their children.

I have looked at some of the items within this amendment and the results which would flow from its acceptance. I wish to underline the value of the per capita grant which is referred to in the Bill and in the second reading speech of the Minister for Health (Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson). This avoids the test, be it called a means test or some 0 her type of test. No effective criterion has been put forward as to how this means test would be worked out. Some people have suggested that a test could be worked out in terms of examination of fees. It does not take much thinking for anyone to realise that, if this were done, there would be pressure by certain people who are attached to the independent schools system for the maintaining of a level which would attract support, and therefore, we would get an independent schools system that would not be. working towards progress and advancement but endeavouring to adjust and even to lower its standards in order that it might describe itself according to any Act which may be passed as deserving of or attracting support. There is a danger in the suggestion that academic standards may be used as a means to establish needs. After all, who fixes the standard or who determines what the standard may be? The first thing that would happen would be that there would be a great number of people who would be denied opportunities to go forward and to receive the advantage of a beneficial education system. It is important to observe that the method of assistance which is proposed in the Bill receives the considered and publicly stated support of the National Council of Independent Schools, the Federal Catholic Schools Committee and the Australian Parents' Council. As the Minister said in his speech, it is also the policy of most S'ate governments. So the measure which is before us is one which needs to have the complete support of the Senate. I am sure that it has the support of the Senate because I have not yet seen or discerned a great deal of enthusiasm for the Labor Party's amendment. Indeed, I draw attention to the interest (hat is being displayed in the Bills and I draw attention to the lack of interest that is being displayed in the amendment which the Opposition has put forward.

I refer also to the fact that great play has been made of this amendment introduced into another place by the Opposition. I have said that the amendment is lifted out of Labor Party policy. Its acceptance would mean, according to the Opposition, that there would be this emphasis on needs and means tests. Emphasis has been given this afternoon to this matter by referring to the situation in South Australia. I think that I can do no better than to bring to the Senate an extract from the speech delivered by the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Malcolm Fraser, in summing up the debate in the other place yesterday. At page 1003 of Hansard for the House of Representatives, the Minister stated:

I think it needs to be noted with some importance that only one State and the Opposition in the Commonwealth have chosen to go outside the generally preferred method of payment to independent school bodies. South Australia and the Federal Opposition have their own particular axis in that area. It is worth noting also that less per capita grants are made available to independent schools in South Australia than to independent schools in any other State. The statement by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam), whian is on record in. Hansard, that the neediest schools in South Australia get more per capita funds from the South Australian Government than do the schools of the other States, just is not correct. The neediest schools in South Australia attract a total of $34 per pupil in the primary sector and this is less than what is paid to children in schools in at least 3 other States. There are only 22 of these schools in the most needy category in South Australia. So this provides some measure of the paucity of the funds that are provided for the independent sector under the needs basis in South Australia.

I remind the Senate, as other speakers have done, that if this part of Labor Party policy eventually should become law an indication is given of how the system will work and how the Labor Party, in my view, is misleading the public in relation to the independent school system within the Australian education system.

I close on one other point. I refer to what I believe to be one of the most important areas in relation to independent schools and their relationship to the total education system in this country. This is the area of community interest. 1 pay tribute to those auxiliary bodies attached to government schools, including the parents and friends organisations, which work for government schools and for the facilities which they help to provide for those schools. But I also pay most high tribute to those organisations attached to independent schools. We must bear in mind that they are taxpayers also and that they therefore contribute to the Government school system. But, in addition to this, they undertake responsibility to maintain and perform yet another stream of education which not only turns out educated young people but also contributes materially to raising the standard of educational thinking throughout the Commonwealth.

Only a few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of opening a complex of buildings at an independent school in Adelaide. That complex cost $250,000. Among the buildings was a library which was supplied by the Commonwealth. The remainder of the. buildings, which included a number of facilities, had been provided by the parent body and auxiliary body over a period of a few years. It was the best evidence that I have seen in recent times of community interest, co-operation and personal sacrifice not only to the members of their own families but also to the education community at large. It is assistance in diversity; it is assistance in enterprise, in growth, in educational development and in research. These things will be encouraged by the Bill that the Senate is debating this afternoon. A greater number of opportunities to diversify are provided. We will not be tied to a central authority or to a particular standard according to the authority or the government of the day. If this amendment is passed, this freedom of choice will be destroyed, as will this freedom of expression. We will destroy all that is latent and good in young people who wish to develop to the full their minds and thought processes.

I have been a member of a Senate committee which has been carrying out a study of teacher education. As you know, Sir, it was my privilege to put down the report relating to the Commonwealth's role in teacher education in the Senate earlier this sessional period. According to the notice paper I am still in continuation in the, debate. 1 hope that as opportunity presents itself in due course I will be able to say something more about the details of that report. But now I give my support to the Bill.

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