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Tuesday, 19 June 2001
Page: 28009

Ms ROXON (10:00 PM) —In speaking on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2001-2002 tonight I would like to take the opportunity to look at the negligent priorities of this federal government in the area of education. Their negligence in this area is palpable. The Treasurer hardly even mentioned the word `education' at all in his budget speech and certainly did not talk about primary and secondary education, the area that I would like to focus on.

In my electorate of Gellibrand I have 42 primary schools: 23 of them are government, 16 are Catholic and three are independent; there are 10 secondary schools, seven that are government and three that are Catholic; and there are three government special schools. There are 55 schools in total and, without exception, the public schools as well as the Catholic and independent schools are modest and certainly not elite schools or elite private schools in any way.

In the past six months, I have visited over 30 of these schools to meet with students, to talk to the principals, to discuss the Centenary of Federation, politics and education generally and, of course, to present awards at graduation ceremonies. During these events I have had the opportunity to see the great work that these schools do for the children and the students in my electorate. I have been very heartened, and often inspired, by the commitment of teachers and principals to give the students the best education and best support they can and to send them off into the world with as many opportunities open to them as possible. I have seen what commitment and enthusiasm of staff can deliver and would like to mention just a few highlights that I have seen in visiting these schools.

Some of them are small examples but they are significant. For example, Footscray City College has only last year and this year introduced a politics class. Caroline Chisholm Catholic College in Braybrook is a leader in electronics. In the year 2000, the school achieved exceptional results in the VCE subject, systems and technology (electronics), whereby six students achieved a score in excess of 80 per cent. No other school in the state had more than six students achieve this result, despite some schools having much higher enrolments in VCE.

Sunshine Secondary College has been getting recognition for its science and environmental focus, in particular its ozone-monitoring program led by teacher Rob Sanders, who has just received a chemistry teacher of the year award. Marian College has been particularly interested in empowerment for girls, especially through its community focused social justice and democracy program. The drama and music performances from Bayside Secondary College have impressed, and the selection of two students from Bayside to attend the United Nations Youth Association conference in Sydney has been a cause for celebration. Gilmore Girls College has had a great success with its year 10 debating team. The bands, both boy and girl bands, being set up by Braybrook College are also getting some recognition.

Williamstown High School has a trades orientation program run in conjunction with Victoria University and provides pre-apprenticeship opportunities for year 10 students, both boys and girls, who continue their studies in English and maths but through the resources of Victoria University have exposure to a wide range of trades. The course has about 40 students from a number of schools in my electorate.

I mention these types of projects not because they list the best academic results of each school or are necessarily major educational breakthroughs, but they are important small examples that help make the point that these schools are doing very good work in addition to meeting the standard requirements, especially in these types of extracurricular and non-standard course work areas. They do this, to their credit, despite fairly meagre funding and at the same time coping with very high levels of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, in some cases very recent arrivals as families from overseas. They do this although a number of schools, particularly the primary schools, have raised very real concerns with me about students coming to school not having had breakfast and not bringing lunch. I had many examples of schools with difficulties getting students to pay for buses to take them to school sports days and others who had attendance problems where students could not afford a coloured skivvy or pants as part of the uniform so they were too embarrassed to attend.

These issues matter. They matter incredibly for each student because every such hindrance affects the child's ongoing interest in and view of school and of education. The interest of these students at school and their success at it fundamentally shapes their futures and it is these small examples—these seemingly insignificant examples—that can be the cause of barriers that then hold children back for the rest of their lives. It is this that makes me as a Labor member of parliament so angry with this government and its budget.

How can they really justify spending such a large amount of money, $60 million a year by the year 2004, on just 58 schools—58 of the wealthiest schools in this country—when so many families and students struggle to pay for lunch or $10 for a skivvy so they don't get teased at school by the other kids? Isn't it bordering on criminal to give any extra money to a school that has its own rifle range, let alone ovals, swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, when some students in my local schools do not play sport because they cannot pay the few dollars for the bus fare to get them to the local council ground where their school plays?

At the end of the day, these are the issues that do matter to Labor and are nowhere to be seen on this government's radar screen. It is what Labor's Knowledge Nation stands for. Knowledge Nation is not just concerned with the high end of tertiary education but also concerned with getting the basic educational tools right. We want to make sure that students get their basic education and a decent chance at life, which might include an opportunity to go on to university. We can fix universities all we like—and I know that many of us believe they need some fixing—but we need to give kids the skills to get there first!

I wrote recently to all the schools in my electorate asking them to tell me what they see as education priorities for their school and the region as a whole. I guess I did this as a bit of a direct democracy experiment, offering them the opportunity to have their say in their words, although through me, in this parliament. A common issue raised was staffing, particularly by the primary schools. Denis O'Dowd from the Altona East Primary School said:

Staffing ratios need to be addressed with the principal not being included in the count.

Sister Doris Testa from St Paul's Primary School said:

Class sizes—averages are useless indicators, the real story is in the school based allocations.

Joe Vella from Albion Primary School reports `a serious teacher shortage' and Tilly Barger from Williamstown Primary raised the issue of `needing more curriculum days to provide professional development for teachers.' Persuasively, Michael Kerin of Bayside Secondary College states:

We love our college—vibrant, multicultural, college that it is. We don't turn anybody away. Wonderful, hardworking, talented group of staff not only teaching in specific Key Learning Areas, but also dealing with a myriad of societal problems. We need more teachers to decrease student numbers in the classroom and improve the teacher workload.

These are the issues that Labor have heard repeated across the country. It is the reason that we would choose to redirect money from wealthy category 1 schools towards initiatives like providing 1,000 teacher scholarships in specific disciplines of need. Such scholarships will give the best students upon graduation relief from their HECS debts for each year they remain in teaching—not only a way to get good students into teaching but a great incentive to keep them there. It is for this reason that we would use some of this money for the creation over three years of 10,000 professional development courses to improve the skills of teachers, especially where they are currently forced to teach outside their key areas.

Another area raised by many of the responses to my request was the issue of maintenance and capital works. Labor has committed to invest an extra $100 million in capital works in public schools with half coming from contributions from the states to improve classrooms, libraries and science laboratories. Quotes from my survey responses reinforce the urgent need for such funding in schools in Gellibrand even for the most basic of facilities.

Denis O'Dowd from the Altona East Primary School said that the school `is in a desperate need of repairs to numerous windows in various buildings'. Michael Quinn from the Caroline Chisholm Catholic College said that the priorities for his school are `better computer funding, capital grants funding and improved security'. Michael Kerin from Bayside Secondary College said:

We need a mass infusion of dollars into facilities—maintenance and converting rooms into a modern teaching room. Our rooms were built in the 1950s and are too small!

These are hardly extravagant demands. Can we not expect schools to have windows and rooms that fit students? These principals do not even dare to dream of funding for extra facilities that are regarded as ordinary by the wealthier private schools. We must acknowledge these basic needs and the rights of students to expect that they will be met by government.

Similarly, I think anyone who read the Sunday Age on 3 June would have shared my horror at the number of school children thought to be going to school hungry every day. As I have mentioned, such examples have been raised with me locally as well. Part of this article included the results of a survey of low income families which found that 65 per cent spent up to 10 per cent of their household income on education expenses. More than half of the respondents with school age children found that education expenses had risen by 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the last year, and half had not had a holiday with their children, or alone, in the last 10 years.

These pressures are added to, according to Graham Noonan from Sunshine Primary, by the `GST on everything' despite government assurances during their federal election campaign that education would be GST free. Given that I have received so many comments from principals in my electorate I will seek to continue these comments at some later stage.