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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 29489

Ms ROXON (6:55 PM) —It has been interesting to listen to the previous speakers in this debate on literacy and numeracy and the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001. I think some of the general public might be forgiven for thinking that each side of the House was talking about entirely different issues. It seems to me that we are all in furious agreement that literacy and numeracy are incredibly important to everyone in the community, not just our current students. Many working adults and others have difficulties with literacy and numeracy and we provide very little support, even though it can cause great problems for people in their working lives. It is often very difficult for people who recognise that they need some support and further training to find that through the myriad government schemes that are offered to encourage people to improve themselves in their working lives. In fact, if they are between jobs, this is a common problem. It is very difficult for many people.

What has surprised me when listening to some of the speakers on the other side of the House is the adamant nature of their argument that Commonwealth funding needs to play an important role in both public and private education. Again, it sounds as though the speakers on that side of the House do not listen to what we are saying on this side of the House. No-one here is arguing that we should not provide funding to the private system where there is some need. I notice that the previous speaker, the member for Curtin, said that this government must be commended for providing more funding to all schools and that that should be a great thing and we should all be pleased about that. Although that sounds like an easy thing to say, I actually would have liked the member to explain to me whether absolutely every school in this country needs extra funding. I would have thought there are some that do not. I do not think that means all private schools do not. There are in fact a lot of needy non-government schools, and I believe that they are entitled to support in a way that is commensurate with their need.

It does surprise me that the member opposite thinks every single school is entitled to more funding. It does not seem to matter if they are schools where enormous amounts of money are raised through the fees that can be charged, through fundraising or through assets that are already held. Frankly, I would be happier if we could stand up and say that the government could be commended for identifying which schools need the money and which ones do not and for making sure that those that do not need the extra money do not get it and those that do need it get what they need. We really do not seem to be able to progress beyond that, and it concerns me greatly. The misrepresentation also concerns me greatly.

I have a number—although not a large number—of non-government schools in my electorate, including small, Catholic parish primary schools, a local Christian primary school, two Catholic high schools and one independent high school. My electorate is not one with very high socioeconomic indicators. They are not sandstone schools, they have not been there for 150 years and they do not have enormous grounds and great wealth. One of the independent schools is certainly establishing itself in a way that perhaps is moving into a different market. But it concerns me that the previous speaker said that all private schools cater to people in all socioeconomic groups. It is just not true. It beggars belief that a person from every type of socioeconomic group can potentially afford to go to a school that costs $10,000 a year for one student.

I think the member for Curtin needs to acknowledge that some schools cater to different socioeconomic groups—and that is well and good—but it does not mean that they should get the same attention as the schools that need to cater for a great range of need within the community with people from enormously different backgrounds. I think some of the great challenges many of the public schools—and actually also the independent schools—in my electorate face in the literacy areas in particular are because they do deal with such an enormous range of people from an enormous range of backgrounds: socioeconomic, racial, non-English speaking, mixed religions. It presents a whole lot of different challenges, which means that the support that those schools need to make sure that their students can meet national benchmarks is greater; they do need more support than some other schools. I do not think it is right to come in here and be proud that a government might say, `All schools are equal, and it's great if we give more money to everyone,' if it actually means that we are misallocating funds by not targeting the most needy areas.

In speaking on this bill, again people seem to be in agreement that it is valuable for us to be able to measure standards of literacy. I know that in the past there have been arguments over how we do that accurately and how we ensure that there is proper support for teaching staff, et cetera, to do this—and that is where I am most concerned. The measuring is not something that greatly worries me; what worries me is what you do once you have actually measured. How do you then take action which makes sure that, where you have identified difficulties, it will not happen again in the future and that you will be able to provide the necessary support?

I have some terrible examples in my electorate, after recently holding a forum for all the principals of local schools, primary, secondary, public and non-government. About 45 principals attended, which was an enormous number of people. They attended because they are very concerned about the Commonwealth role in education in Victoria. These principals are all sufficiently across the funding arrangements to be able to separate out what is state funded, what is federally funded, what things we can have an impact on and what things the state government can have an impact on. Obviously there is quite a mix. But they were very concerned and were prepared to come and spend a morning of their time— and they are very busy people, with those in primary schools having teaching as well as administrative loads. They gave me examples of their concerns. One was that, when they complied with these measuring standards for literacy and numeracy and identified that a particular school had difficulties, they then were not given any necessary support to enable them to ensure that those students could complete the rest of their schooling having had some intensive assistance. There were all sorts of examples in that, if the children were identified in the lower levels, intensive assistance was provided; but, if they were identified as having literacy difficulties in the senior levels, there was actually no support. So basically, once they had fallen through that early threshold, there was no way that these students were able to be given any different or extra assistance, unless the school could provide its own programs in some other way. Many of the schools were trying to do that by trying to pinch funding from other areas, saying, `We won't have a PE teacher; we actually need another literacy teacher, but they're going to have to do PE as well.'

It is really not acceptable in that context that schools are suffering at this very basic level from not being able to provide sufficient teaching staff or resources, sometimes for young adults and older children whose future is going to be forever affected by not having received the extra support that they may have needed at the time they were at primary and secondary school. It seems to me that the amount of money that is being spent by this government on all sorts of other things just shows that the priorities are all wrong. Individual lives are going to be affected forever. It will not matter what government is in power in the future if those students or children or young adults never really have an opportunity to pick up what they might have missed at some early stage of their education—and that worries me greatly.

I think it is clear—there seems to have been plenty of research done on this issue—that low literacy results are linked to future employment problems. Plenty of things link socioeconomic disadvantage with literacy problems and with employment problems. This is of great concern to me and my electorate because we still have very high unemployment rates generally across the community, but particularly in the youth area, and at the same time we are still struggling with some of our results in VCE certificates being lower than those in other areas. We have achieved fantastic results in some subjects, particularly maths and science. We have students who come from some of our biggest public schools who are at the top of the state in those subjects—and they are the ones who are coming to tell us that they still have problems in these literacy areas. So there is something that we are not doing right in this area.

It seems to me that the $33 million the government is putting into this—with most of that going into research—is really just a drop in the ocean and that it is not going to deal with the sorts of problems that have been identified time and time again. Those problems are not going to be solved by us saying, `Oh, we should give all schools more money.' These programs really do need to be targeted, and they do need to use the results that have come from testing. If we are going to measure and find out where literacy problems are high or which particular students have these difficulties, then let us put the resources into those areas. There is nothing in this bill that seems to properly provide for that.

I have stood up in the House before and said that it really is quite heartbreaking to go to some schools and listen to the stories of individual students and families and teachers. One teacher told me that he could not believe the results that followed—I am not sure that I will get these years exactly right—a year 7 literacy test. The results of the literacy test of the year 7 students in that class ranged from some students having a literacy capacity at the level of year 12— which I guess is not so surprising—to some having a literacy capacity at the level of year 2. The teacher who raised this with me said, `We actually get no extra support in our class for my dealing with this range of people. There is no way for me to be able to separate out those particular students who need extra assistance. We do not get funding through any other indicator to allow us to do that.' Another school gave me an example when talking to me about its global budget. It is a non-selective public girls school with a very high incidence of students of non-English-speaking background. A lot of girls from refugee families with many different racial and religious needs attend that school. It is not surprising in that context that you would have a range of different educational levels.

Five per cent of that school's global budget—that is, state and federal provision—is allocated to the particular needs that come from the make-up of that school. There is an awareness that a number of families receive educational maintenance allowance. There is a recognition that it is an area of low socioeconomic indicators and that a lot of families are struggling even to get their kids to have a school uniform and take lunch, let alone anything else; but only five per cent of the school's budget has any recognition of that. Nine per cent is allocated because there are a lot of students of non-English-speaking background, but the nine per cent is what they receive once you get over the hurdle of a particular percentage coming from a non-English-speaking background. It does not go up if you have 95 per cent of students of non-English-speaking background; it might be the same if you had 20 per cent and 95 per cent. They are in a ridiculous situation.

There are other examples. Schools say, `It's great; we have an allocation to have bilingual support teachers, and we have some fantastic bilingual teachers, but we do not have a system in which they can move quickly enough for the changing demographic. We have a fantastic Cantonese-speaking teacher, but we need people who can speak Amharic, because our new community is Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somalian, and a Cantonese speaker is not a great lot of help.' If we are to have national literacy benchmarks and standards, those are the sorts of issues that must in some way be factored in. It would not be a problem for a number of these schools if it were recognised that some of their students cannot meet these literacy levels; they would be comfortable enough with that, even though there is some sort of stigma attached to the results, if they knew that it would mean that they would get support to fix the problem. Instead, it is measured and used to say that the schools, students or families are inadequate in certain ways, which I find offensive when relatively small amounts of money can make an enormous difference in schools like that. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent on government advertising of programs, the benefits of which people will receive regardless of whether the government advertise them, $20 million a month is spent on advertising, and large amounts of money go into convincing people how they should vote. We are all politicians and we are interested in how people vote, but I am much more interested in that money having a long-term impact for some students in my electorate in terms of the sorts of lives that they will be able to lead in future.

We have a large number of students and young women who live independently, sometimes with young children—sometimes they are the eldest sibling—who are expected to be the breadwinner for the family and to try to get through their secondary education. We do nothing to try to provide the extra support that might be necessary. I would love to see this government put some money into those sorts of things. I hope and believe that our education priority zone concept, if Labor is elected at the next federal election, can really deal with some of those issues. It is not just about teaching staff and it is not just about how we identify where areas of need are; it is about being creative. I would like to see things as simple as homework groups so that people who live independently, who look after their siblings, who have nowhere quiet, clean and warm to study, can stay after school and use the school's facilities. They cannot do that if we do not provide the school with enough resources to properly supervise it.

Those issues would really make a difference to the literacy outcomes in my electorate. I believe that it is a very seriously missed opportunity for the government to put in such a small amount of money—and then they add insult to injury when they parade it around as though they are doing something great to deal with the problem when in reality they are doing very little. Their priorities are wrong if they are going to spend millions of dollars on advertising the abolition of FID, which they have already announced that they will abolish. That might be something that people are pleased to hear, but, whether or not the advertising achieves anything, it is millions of dollars which, if spent elsewhere, could affect young people's lives and improve their literacy and employment outcomes in future, and we have missed that opportunity.

I believe very strongly that Labor's policies will try to put back some fairness in the system. They will not unnecessarily penalise non-government schools, but they will look at where the areas of need are. If these measures can be used to identify need, that is great. We then need to take the action on those indicators that will help to improve on the results where we have identified problems and will give people a chance in life to make the best they can for their future.