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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 29473


Mr SECKER (5:24 PM) —I find it very interesting that today of all days I received an email from Denis Fitzgerald, the Federal President of the Australian Education Union. He complained that:

The extra funding in the Education and Innovation Bill is to go exclusively to non-government schools to assist with further establishment grants. No money whatsoever is to be allocated to public schooling.

The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001 is about providing funding for non-government schools; it has nothing to do with providing funding for public school education. The state governments are in fact responsible for public school education, not the federal government. Despite this, the Howard government has increased spending on government schools by 26 per cent since it came into government. That is an average of five per cent every year since we were elected compared to less than two per cent increases by the state government.

I am also indebted to the member for Eden-Monaro who has provided some very good information about the actual funding for schools. He produced a pamphlet to provide information for his constituents, and the heading of one article from that pamphlet was `The facts on school funding'. It says, quite rightly:

The 70% of students in government schools get 78% of the public funding for schooling.

So 70 per cent get 78 per cent of the money. It continued:

Government schools in Australia—

when you take into account the fact that we have a combination of state and federal government funding—

receive around $13.4 billion each year from taxpayers for the 2 million students they enrol.

And the one million students in non-government schools get around $3.7 billion—so $13.4 billion for government schools and $3.7 billion for non-government schools. To put it into greater context using the per capita funding comparison, students at government schools received $8,172 per head, students at the neediest non-government schools received $5,721 per student, and students at the wealthiest non-government schools—that group that the opposition likes to have a bit of fun with—received a mere $1,120 per head. So it is $8,100 per head for the government schools, $5,700 for the neediest non-government schools and only $1,120 for non-government schools.

The member for Eden-Monaro produced a very good graph. He is a very good member. He showed that Commonwealth schools expenditure by this federal government has risen from 0.65 per cent of GDP to 0.75 per cent of GDP since we have been in government. He demonstrated the fact that, since the Howard government was elected—and, of course, this relates to the New South Wales government—funding for New South Wales government schools has increased by $175.2 million, and for the year 2001 it stands at a record $703.6 million. That just goes to show that the campaign by the Australian Education Union and those opposite is completely false. Our funding for schools, whether they be government or non-government, has increased.

The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001 is part of the Howard government's ongoing commitment to improving the education standards of young Australians. In 1996 the government declared its intention to improve the literacy skills of young people was a central education policy—and what a good one that has been. Since our election in 1996, we have displayed nothing but absolute commitment to improving literacy and numeracy for all students so that they may not be disadvantaged in later life. Our children—yours, mine and that person's on the street—are the future of our nation, and it is vital that the education they receive in their formative years is of a good standard. Should those opposite choose to put that petty party politics ahead of the youth of Australia and not support this bill, they will be denying schools, students, parents and the country as a whole an effective and adequate schooling system. I am sure that, when it comes down to it, no-one wants to disadvantage a child. The Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp, said to the House in his second reading speech that:

Literacy and numeracy for all is the key social justice issue in education today.

I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. But the question arises: what exactly does that mean? My interpretation of what that means is the following. It means that each and every student has every right to expect that the education they receive will stand them in good stead for the future so that they can reach the standard that they choose, not the standard that chooses them. It means that they will have the basic skills at an appropriate level to achieve the goals they set for themselves. It means that they have every right to expect that, where there are learning difficulties, these will be recognised and acknowledged by caring and considerate staff who will make every attempt to identify the exact level of the problem. It also means that they have every right to expect that committed people will be on hand to provide them with assistance to help them overcome these difficulties and improve their numeracy and literacy standard. That is exactly why this amendment bill has been drafted. It has been drafted to make sure that the necessary changes are made to ensure that each and every student has every opportunity to receive an adequate education, with check mechanisms in place and assistance provided when required. Why does the Education Union oppose these goals we have set and achieved as a government? It makes you wonder.

The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001 will amend the current act, the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000. It will provide additional funding, as set out in the 2001-02 budget for literacy and numeracy programs for the years 2001-02 and 2002-03. The bill will do this to keep in line with the acknowledgment by Commonwealth, state and territory education ministers that, in spite of considerable debate over alleged levels of literacy, literacy standards needed to be improved. This realisation came during 1997, when the ministers endorsed the literacy and numeracy plan in March 1997. I well remember the argy-bargy that went on in South Australia when we tried to bring these literacy and numeracy skills to our children: we were opposed every inch of the way by the Labor Party, every inch of the way by the Democrats and every inch of the way by the Australian Education Union.

At the same time it was also found, and has been accompanied by continuing evidence, that there are strong links between literacy skills, socioeconomic disadvantage and future life outcomes—and notable were the links between literacy levels and employment outcomes: how they got a job and what sort of job they ended up with. We, the government, want our children and our children's children to feel confident with their numeracy and literacy skills so that, in their future, they can decide where and how to use them. The children we are trying to help now, whose education we are trying to improve now, are the very same children who in years to come will be sitting in this chamber—long after you and I are gone, Mr Deputy Speaker—and debating issues to decide the future of this country. They are our future leaders; they deserve every right to the best education we can provide them with. That is why the Commonwealth government is committed, through the targeted assistance programs for schools under the current act, to the delivering of its literacy program and improving the literacy standards of our country.

The minister also quoted in his speech figures showing that, in the 1997 national school English survey, some 27 per cent of year 3 students had failed to meet a minimum acceptable standard of literacy. Compare that with the fact that, in March 2000, nationally comparable data was released on year 3 students' reading abilities, which showed that in 1999 the percentage of year 3 students not achieving the minimum standard had fallen to around 14 per cent. The rate had fallen from 27 per cent to 14 per cent, which is an amazing outcome in anyone's language, and it is something that we are very proud of. This is not only great news but also a definite indication that the government's commitment has made a difference, and it is a huge difference—halving the rate of those not achieving the minimum standard. Even as we speak, the commitment to this program continues. Today in thousands of schools years 3 and 5 students sat their basic skills test, the result of which will help to identify numeracy and literacy problems.

Grants for literacy and numeracy programs are provided through the Strategic Assistance for Improving Student Outcomes program and the Grants for National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and Projects Program. The grants are designed to assist educators with a continual improvement of our education system. This bill will provide a further $33.3 million to be allocated over the period 2001-02 and 2002-03 to continue strategic assistance in schools and to support literacy and numeracy research. Commencing in January 2002, the bulk of the funding—that is, about $23.9 million—will be provided as grants to education authorities, through the Strategic Assistance for Improving Student Outcomes program.

Unfortunately, in my short time in this chamber I have noticed that those opposite talk about airy-fairy ideas without really thinking about the outcomes—and the outcomes are the most important thing, whether it is education, taxation or any of the areas that we deal with. This program is designed to provide assistance to school education authorities to improve the literacy and numeracy outcomes of educationally disadvantaged. The remaining funding, totalling $9.4 million, will be provided under the Grants for National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and Projects Program to support strategic national research and development initiatives. That is a further $9.4 million to assist with a program that is designed so that all students are assessed by their teachers as early as possible in their first years of schooling, allowing for early intervention for those students identified as having difficulties. Even more importantly, this program also provides for professional development for teachers.

Item 1 of the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001 substitutes an increased funding level of $290,788 for strategic assistance for improving student outcomes for 2002, with item 2 substituting the same increased amount for 2003. Items 3 and 4 also substitute increased funding for national literacy and numeracy strategies and projects for the same period. I cannot see how anyone—absolutely anyone—could not support a bill that implements those things. Increases in funding for numeracy and literacy plans can mean only one thing: better numeracy and literacy testing and, in turn, increased numeracy and literacy accuracy.

This bill continues the significant contribution that the Commonwealth has made towards implementation of the national literacy and numeracy plan. We, the government, honestly believe that all students should be numerate, able to read, write, spell and communicate at an appropriate level, just as agreed by Commonwealth, state and territory ministers in 1997. The government has also provided an additional $99.5 million in the forward estimates to cover 2003-04 and 2004-05 as a sign of its ongoing commitment to continue its efforts to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes.

In real terms, the financial impact of this bill is huge. In terms of strategic assistance for government schools and non-government schools, this bill represents an increase of $1.3 million for 2002 and an increase of $22.943 million for 2003. In terms of grants for national projects to foster literacy or numeracy, the bill represents an increase of $3.254 million for 2002 and an increase of $3.121 million for 2003. It does not matter which way you look at it, that is a lot of money that we are dedicating to improving our young Australian students' numeracy and literacy skills. We care about the future of our younger generations, we care about the future of our country and we care about the future of our country's education system. This bill is proof of that. I do not believe that any person who sits in this chamber could possibly want it otherwise. I urge all members opposite to put the welfare of the youth of our country first and vote for these amendments that will serve only to improve our education system.

I am very pleased to be associated with this bill. Education in all areas, whether in the government system or the non-government system, deserves our utmost care and consideration. I commend this bill to the House and look forward to the day when we can provide the funds to those who desperately need them.