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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2734

Dr WATSON(6.14) —There are three Bills in this package of schools assistance measures, but I wish to concentrate on the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Amendment Bill. I begin by referring to the remarks of the honourable member for Moncrieff (Mrs Sullivan) about Austudy, to which the honourable member for Lilley (Mrs Darling) also referred. Queensland is systematically disadvantaged in the Austudy program because we have a vast number of students in grade 11 who are 15 years of age and under. In fact, if I recall the figures, something like 43 per cent of students in Queensland are 15 years of age at the beginning of grade 11, whereas in other States, such as the one from which the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Brumby) comes, the figure is less than 10 per cent. I make that point because the honourable member for Lilley seems to forget that she comes from Queensland and she is part of the Government which is systematically disadvantaging Queensland students.

I turn to the aspects of these Bills in which I am more interested. The Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins), in his second reading speech on the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Amendment Bill, said:

The Bill . . . reflects the Government's decision to streamline the distribution of capital grants for non-government schools from 1988 through allocation as a block grant for distribution by approved block grant authorities.

I want to concentrate on that aspect. Unfortunately the Minister's second reading speech did not give any background information on this block grant program, but on 27 April we were fortunate enough to have a public meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Accounts at which we were able to go into this matter. This is on the public record and has already been reported in the Canberra Times. The Public Accounts Committee is responding to an efficiency audit report of the Auditor-General. Although the block grants program is not a response to the Auditor-General's report, it is constructive to read a couple of comments in that report about the deficiencies of the current capital grants program. I will refer to these later.

The audit found a number of deficiencies, one of which was the lack of clear and comprehensive guidelines for the program and its administration. Another was that particular operations of the planning and finance committees of the Commonwealth Schools Commission could have been more efficient and effective and subject to improved monitoring. A third was that the guidelines for schools applying for grants were not issued on time and did not contain sufficient relevant information. A fourth was that the process of assessing educational and financial need was inadequate. Another was that the program's information base was inadequate. There were a number of others as well and I will refer to them later in my speech.

The capital grants program has been changed, presumably to increase its effectiveness and to increase the effectiveness of educational outcomes in the long run. It has been introduced to ensure that the decision making in respect of the allocation of capital grants between schools comes closer to the coal face, the working reality. I wish to review the process by which the capital grants will be allocated. My understanding of the way in which this will occur is that Federal funds will first of all be allocated to the States on a per capita basis, reflecting the numbers of students in non-government schools in each State. Then, within the States, funds will be allocated to blocks. The Government expects that there will be three major blocks-first, the catholic systemic schools, secondly the non-catholic systemic schools or association of schools and, thirdly, the remaining non-block schools. About 75 per cent of non-government school students will be in systemic schools and the remainder, presumably, will be potentially in non-block schools. A minimum of 15 per cent of non-government schools will be needed to form a block. This naturally brings to mind two questions: First, how will decisions be made in allocating funds between the blocks or, if you like, between the block and the non-block schools? The second question that comes to mind is: How will the money be allocated within the blocks, once it has been allocated to each block?

At the meeting held on 27 April we found out that there will be perhaps three criteria. The first is the number of children studying English as a second language; the second is the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; and the third, I believe, concerns the educational resource index-ERI-rating category of the individual non-government school, the rating which puts schools into classes of one to 12. I understand that all three criteria will be used in the allocation of funds within the blocks. In other words, a block system has to allocate funds reflecting the ERI categories within the block-the schools within the block, the number of children studying English as a second language and the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, for example. Somehow the allocations have to reflect those, if you like, input measures. In relation to the allocations to be made between blocks, we are told, however, that the only criterion that will be used will be the educational resource index.

So, we have a three-tier process. It starts with grants coming from the Commonwealth to the States on a per capita basis. Within the States the grants are allocated to schools on an educational resource index basis. Finally, grants are made within blocks. We are not really told, but presumably grants for non-block schools will be based on the three relevant criteria. It is quite obvious that these approaches are not necessarily consistent. A schedule has to go to the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) for final approval of allocation of funds, and the Minister is supposed to ensure that the funds are allocated by the blocks in a manner consistent with the three criteria that I have outlined. It is at least a theoretical, and I would suggest a very practical, problem that inconsistency will occur in the application of the criteria. I do not want to defend or attack the relevant criteria, but I think it is instructive to note the comment made by the Auditor-General that there was a lack of clear and comprehensive guidelines for the existing program and its administration and that the process for assessing educational and financial need was inadequate.

It would seem, from the limited information that we have, that even before we get started with the Government's new program of block funding it is going to run into the same kinds of problems that the Auditor-General raised in relation to the existing program. It will be interesting to see the format used in the allocation of funds by the Department of Education and the Minister when they finally get down to allocating funds. I refer again to what I said previously-that the Minister should have some responsibility in ensuring that grants are allocated according to the relevant criteria. Clause 8 of the Bill gives the Minister some fairly wide residual powers. The Bill does not make clear how the Minister is going to arrive at a decision, pertaining, for example to the provision contained in clause 8, namely:

The Minister may, in writing, approve a body corporate as a block grant authority in relation to the schools specified in the approval.

It is not clear what kind of condition the Minister might specify. It is obvious that one of the conditions involved, perhaps amongst other criteria, is that the Government wishes the blocks to decide on the allocation of the grants between the schools within their blocks. However, there is nothing to say how the Minister will decide whether the decisions on the allocations made by the block authorities are consistent with the stipulated guidelines.

I also raise this matter because there is some presumption in the Bill that the Minister will have access to some information that will enable her to make a decision that certain conditions or criteria are reasonable in relation to one block or another. I draw the attention of the House once again to a comment made by the Auditor-General about the current capital grants program-that the program's information basis was inadequate. There is nothing in the Minister's second reading speech, the explanatory memorandum to the Bill or in any other information presented to this Parliament to indicate that that deficiency, identified by the Auditor-General, will be rectified, or that there will even be sufficient information available to the Minister to allow her to make some kind of intelligent decision. So, while one might applaud the concept of decentralised decision-making-in other words, having decisions on the allocation of grants made at the grass roots level, presumably where more information is available than would ever be available in a centralised department or schools commission-the potential inconsistencies and lack of information available to the Minister in enabling the Minister to evaluate the outcome of such decentralised decision-making must lead one to seriously question whether the process will achieve any of its desired ends. I am aware of the time constraints being imposed on honourable members so I will leave that aspect there.

I shall conclude this speech by referring to another aspect of the education received by students in non-government schools. I shall relate that partly to the participation and equity program but more particularly to the disadvantaged schools program. The `Commonwealth Program of School Administrative Guidelines for 1986' refers to the disadvantaged schools program as follows:

Only declared disadvantaged schools are eligible to participate in the program. A school is declared on the basis of the social and financial circumstances of the community from which it draws its students, not in terms of the standard of facilities and resources provided by the schools.

It is my understanding that the Schools Commission-and perhaps the Department of Education-proposes adopting a new or revised index of disadvantage. From communicating with the Director of the Catholic Education Office (Queensland), Mr O'Rourke, I understand that there are some substantial problems with the new development. I will elucidate these and bring them to the attention of the Minister, the Department and the Schools Commission.

Firstly, I understand that the revised index has interpreted educational deprivation in purely socio-economic terms, which is perhaps consistent with what is stated there but they are quite restricted. In particular, no attempt has been made to arrive at a definition of disadvantage per se. In other words, the concept of disadvantage was not elaborated in any particular way. Rather, the Commission has adopted a set of elements and has then put weightings on those elements, with no evidence that the elements were valid or reliable predictors of educational deprivation.

Another problem, I understand, is that in arriving at its index it has used 1981 census data and has ignored any changes that have occurred from 1981 to 1986. Of course, one can sometimes get measures of this. In addition, the census was taken in June and apparently in calculating the index no adjustment has been made for, for example, seasonal variations. In a State such as Queensland there are some significant seasonal variations, such as the sugar cane industry downturn at that time of the year, which affects where students may come from to attend schools outside the metropolitan area of Brisbane.

The third problem, as I understand it, is that the database is based on census districts. When one understands the census collection process it is fairly obvious that census districts are quite small. While government schools might draw from a limited number of census districts, in general non-government schools draw from a much wider group of census districts. No account has been taken of the wide geographical dispersion of students going to non-government schools. Therefore the index can potentially disadvantage schools in particular census districts. For example, the school might be in one census district which is above the mean for the area but draw many of its students from other areas well beyond that census district. That is just one possible problem. I bring that to the attention of the Minister and the Department. Queensland, as I understand it, and Western Australia are particularly disadvantaged by the new index. Incorrect indices always lead to misallocation of resources. Presumably in this whole process we are trying to get in the education area a proper allocation of resources so that we maximise educational opportunities.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Keogh) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.