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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10335

Ms JACKSON (7:27 PM) —I am pleased to rise to support the passage of this legislation before the parliament. The Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 gives effect to another Rudd Labor government election commitment and provides for the implementation of another plank in Labor’s education revolution. One of the Labor Party’s enduring values is that a person’s opportunities in life and their standard of living are related to their educational opportunities. It is well accepted that the long-term social and economic outcomes of a nation’s people are greatly influenced by that nation’s investment in education. This government was elected because of, among other things, its stated desire to bring significant reforms to Australia’s education system based upon principles such as that all children have the right to high-quality education so that they can live fulfilling and rewarding lives. It is the responsibility of government to protect that right.

Government must increase investment in raising standards at all levels of education and improving our participation and retention rates. Government must ensure that there is fairness in the allocation of education resources and also monitor educational outcomes. Government has the responsibility to ensure that all students have access to quality teaching. And, of course, education systems need government support so that they can meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The Rudd government has been unequivocal and clear that it will support the strategic development of information and communication technologies for the benefit of all to avoid our education system contributing to the widening gap between the information rich and the information poor.

The criticisms expressed by those opposite in this debate have unfortunately at times been trite and petty, failing to comprehend the breadth and scope of the reforms underway in our education system: the funding of Australian schools, which is the subject of legislation currently before the parliament; the new national partnerships with state and territory governments on quality teaching, a national curriculum and school transparency and accountability, which are the subject of current Council of Australian Governments negotiations for the new education funding framework; the investment in trade training centres in our schools; the billion-dollar investment in the rollout of computers in our schools; the substantial investment in the early years of a child’s education; and, of course, the universal education for four-year-olds—just some items in what is a huge agenda of reform underway in Australian schools.

On this particular piece of legislation, as the Treasurer said in his second reading speech, a key part of the education revolution is helping parents meet the everyday costs of their children’s education. This year’s budget included $4.4 billion over the next four years to create the new education tax refund. It is estimated that about 1.3 million families, with 2.7 million students between them, will be eligible for the refund. The education tax refund is a refundable tax offset of 50 per cent of eligible educational expenses for children undertaking primary and secondary school studies. Under the plan, eligible families will be able to claim 50 per cent of eligible education expenses up to $750 for each child undertaking primary school to provide a maximum tax offset of $375 per child per year. For children undertaking secondary school studies, families will be able to claim 50 per cent of their eligible expenses up to $1,500 per child to give a maximum tax offset of $750 per child per year. The eligible expenses for the purposes of the education tax refund include laptops, home computers, printers, paper, educational software, school textbooks and associated materials and trade tools. In addition, the expenses of establishing and maintaining a home internet connection are also included.

The refund will apply to eligible expenses incurred from 1 July this year. I and many other members of this House, especially on the government side, have been urging families in our electorates to start keeping receipts to allow them to claim the tax offset in their 2008-09 income tax return from 1 July 2009. Those who are not required to lodge an income tax return will be able to access their entitlement to the offset through the Australian Taxation Office by lodging a separate form at the end of the 2008-09 financial year.

I have been meeting with parents, schools, training providers and teachers in my electorate to discuss Labor’s education revolution in public and private schools, high schools, primary schools and special education facilities. I have to say there is a thoughtful discussion occurring across the community about Labor’s education revolution as well as many of the other issues that are alive in our education systems. There is one area that attracts strong support from all quarters, and that is the importance of digital education for the future. There is a recognition that computers, smart boards and digital learning are the way of the future for the 21st century. Indeed, I participated in a meeting with some of the training providers in my electorate of Hasluck and was shown a demonstration of what is now commonly in vogue in many areas around the world: virtual skills training—a computer based operation that shows the person how to weld. They put on goggles, it sounds as if they are welding, it looks to them as if they are welding and yet it is being done in a classroom setting in a computer laboratory. It is likewise with spray painting. Whilst I accept that, ultimately, for a full and rounded education these people will need to demonstrate these skills in a practical workplace setting, nevertheless the opportunity to be exposed to detailed skills training via computers is quite something. It does not stop there. The learning opportunities and capabilities were extraordinary.

It was really brought home to me at one of my local primary schools—a lovely school in my electorate of Hasluck called Orange Grove Primary School. It is a tiny public school in my electorate, nestled in the foothills. It has approximately 120 children and fewer than 10 teachers. I was incredibly impressed when I visited the school earlier this year, especially when the principal, Pat Nottle, told me that from the commencement of 2008 the school had achieved a student-laptop ratio of one to one for years 4 to 7. I told them that they were ahead of the game, because we are still trying to get a ratio of one to two or one to one in most of our high schools, and that I was incredibly impressed to see this already implemented at a primary school. She explained to me that this innovation had not just come out of nowhere—that the school had been engaged in a ‘conversation’, as she described it, with teachers and parents, as well as students, about how best to prepare their children for the 21st century future. The discussion about resources and requirements for their school went for six to 12 months. As she explained to me, their vision was ‘good old-fashioned teaching, combined with the best that new technology has to offer’. It truly is extraordinary to see these children arriving each day at school with their laptop computers and, equally, taking them home again. It is an interesting transition between the work they do at school and the work they are able to do at home.

These children are incredibly advanced in their digital education, and I encourage those of you who surf the net to visit the Orange Grove Primary School’s website and to have a look at some of the work being produced by the children on their Podkids Australia site, which is a series of podcasts of lessons prepared by these particular students. Not only have the children been involved in innovative work at their own school but many of them have been involved in collaborative projects internationally and nationally through the resource of the internet. It truly is an extraordinary achievement for the school, and I know that it is in great part the responsibility of some wonderful teachers who have driven the process at the school.

When I was visiting there I was concerned about how parents in the local area had been able to cope with the potential costs associated with resourcing one computer per student throughout the primary school. I understand that some 20 per cent of parents were identified as requiring some financial assistance. As well as financial assistance for those parents there was an opportunity for people to lease their computers, to pay them off on a periodic basis or to purchase them outright. I will never forget speaking to a group of mothers from the P&C who were—surprise, surprise!—working in the school canteen on the day. They talked to me about how important they saw the future of communication and information technology being in the school. One mother described it to me. She said that in her day her parents had scrimped and saved for the monthly copy of the World Book Encyclopedia and that she saw the lease payment she was making on her child’s laptop as today’s equivalent of that. I have to say that it was an analogy that really rang true to me as I also recall my family scrimping and saving but still having the money for the World Book Encyclopedia and, of course, the regular update that you had to buy each year to keep your encyclopedia reasonably current. I absolutely agree with her that today’s equivalent of having access to encyclopedias is allowing your children to have access to computers and to the internet.

So, unlike the member for Canning, who said in his speech that he saw Labor’s emphasis—and indeed their funding—as a kind of narrowing along a digital highway for schools, I think the future lies down the pathway of digital education. It is a considerably important part of the education revolution. That was a view confirmed to me by the discussions that I have been having with teachers and parents in public and private schools throughout my electorate. And, yes, we know that such an expansion into digital education requires great support and resources. That is why I am proud to be part of Labor’s team that has seen a significant rollout of computers in schools—a program that I know will continue. And that is why I am proud of this particular initiative that will allow parents to claim some of the costs of investing in their own children’s education. These are things of which we can be incredibly proud. I commend the legislation to the House.