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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11444

Mr PERRETT (9:30 AM) —Could I just correct the record on something the member for Fisher said earlier: while the Sunshine Coast is a wonderful place to visit, obviously the electorate of Moreton is the best place in Australia to live. But I do thank him for his contribution. I also mention the earlier contribution by the member for Forde, especially the spotlight he put on to TAFE and higher education. My background is in teaching in high schools, so it was great to hear his comments about TAFE and higher education. My background is in teaching English, geography, history, religion and even science.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill 2008 does signal a new era in Australia’s education system. For those listening who have a thesaurus in front of them, another word for a new era is a revolution. The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘revolution’ as ‘a complete or marked change in something’ and that is certainly what we are seeing here today. The education revolution by the Rudd government is about raising the quality of teaching in our schools, it is about ensuring that all students, especially those in disadvantaged areas, benefit from schooling and it is about improving transparency in, and the accountability of, all our schools.

There is agreement on all sides of the House that quality education is a basic right for all children. Only a fool would argue otherwise. Thankfully, the class wars and arguments about funding for religious schools and the like are long over. All children deserve access to the same education opportunities regardless of their parents’ bank balance, where they live or their faith. Education provides young people with the tools and know-how to enter adulthood, succeed in life and then contribute to society.

Next Sunday, 30 November, will be exactly 11 years since I taught in public and private schools, where I taught for 11 years. I also worked as an organiser with the Queensland Independent Education Union for five years and since being elected I have visited many schools in my electorate. I do know a lot about schools and spend a lot of time in schools. I spend a lot of my time teaching civic lessons, and as a former teacher it is great to go into schools now, teach a lesson and not have to mark anything. It is a great way to maintain my love of teaching. I also participate in tuckshop duties throughout my electorate.

When it comes to curriculum I am not as experienced as many others, but I have found in my dealings with our education system that on the whole it is very effective and our schools are places of great learning and great opportunity. Certainly, if we look around this side of the House, there are many people that only got their break in life not because of their parents’ bank balances but because of the education provided to them by the state or private systems. The overwhelming majority of students are performing at a high level in our schools, and our teachers and the rest of the staff in schools, parents and other volunteers work very hard to make that happen. Nevertheless, the reality is that there are still children who are left behind, who struggle to rise above their circumstances and complete their education on par with their peers. This tells us that more can be done to ensure a quality education for all and to ensure that no child is left behind. This bill will ensure, for the first time in the 107 years that the federated states of Australia have existed, that we have a national curriculum. It follows the historic COAG agreement last month to establish the new national education authority. The horse-and-buggy approach that applied at the time of Federation is over.

It reminds me of the poem by Judith Wright, Bullocky. Judith Wright was a much-loved poet in Australia. I think she was born in Sydney but, being a Queenslander, I note that she spent much of her formative years in Brisbane and I think her first book of poetry was actually published while she worked at my alma mater, the University of Queensland. Much of her poetry was written when she lived at Mount Tamborine in Queensland, and I think she was even a founding member and President of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. I note that shortly before she died Judith Wright marched for reconciliation here in Canberra as an 85-year-old—she must have lived in this vicinity. She was certainly a passionate character, as well as a great poet. I will read a part of Bullocky that indicates how much things have changed—this was from someone who was born in 1915:

Grass is across the wagon-tracks,

and plough strikes bone across the grass,

and vineyards cover all the slopes

where the dead teams were used to pass.

O vine, grow close upon that bone

and hold it with your rooted hand.

The prophet Moses feeds the grape,

and fruitful is the Promised Land.

The days of Bullocky are long over and the days of the horse and buggy are long gone. We are now in the digital age and teaching has changed significantly. Back when bullockies were around teachers had a completely different role. They were called the sage on the stage. They had all the knowledge and they tested people’s ability to retain that knowledge. It was almost like they flipped their students heads back and poured knowledge into the students. Now teaching has changed significantly. Even in the 11 years since I taught, instead of being the sage on the stage teachers are much more like a guide on the side helping people learn through the internet and the like.

I am sure that all Australians are pleased to see their state and federal governments working together and getting on with the job to improve the quality of education around the country. The people who would especially appreciate it are the 80,000 students or more who move interstate each and every year. Imagine that—80,000 people. It would be like moving every single person in Toowoomba every year. Those people will benefit from us having a national curriculum. It has been too long coming.

State and territory governments will also benefit from reduced duplication and improved efficiency in education governance. The taxpayer dollar will obviously travel further and there will be many other efficiencies that come with having a national body. As its name suggests, the authority will develop and implement the national curriculum and establish a framework for assessing and reporting student and school performance. The authority will drive common national priorities in education from kindergarten through to year 12. Its first order of business will be to revamp the important subjects of English, mathematics, science and history.

Whilst I taught science for one year, my passion has always been English. I gained a bit of notoriety recently for one of the books that I have written, but there is one benefit that comes from having my name known for writing. That is, people that I did not know will now come and talk about literature with me. At touch football in the morning, where there are all sorts of people from different political parties, it is almost like there is now a secret handshake. They will come up and talk about literature even though it is not something that they would normally do publicly. It is great to have added this silver lining to my writing endeavours.

It is not for governments to impress their own agenda and ideology on a national curriculum. That is why the authority will be established as an independent statutory authority under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997. We saw during the Howard-Costello reign how governments can try to tinker with our schools. This is a very dangerous precedent. I think it is best that we leave education and the curriculum to the educators, not to governments and their political agendas. The independent statutory authority will ensure that there is fierce independence from the Commonwealth and appropriate performance and financial accountability to the state and territory education ministers. The national curriculum will be available from January 2011 and all schools will be required to sign up to it by 2012.

A national curriculum will drive substantial improvements in our children’s education. It will put an end to the confusion experienced by students who move interstate and have to deal with changing subject matter. They would mainly be New South Wales people and Victorians coming to beautiful Queensland, but that is our contribution to the rest of the Commonwealth! The national curriculum will also ensure that all students, no matter where they are, are learning similar material—as I said, there are over 80,000 students a year who move between school systems. It will also help teachers by giving them a clear idea about what is to be covered, but with the flexibility to adapt the curriculum to local context.

To paraphrase former shadow minister Bourke on the national curriculum, we will have a national dish but it will still have local flavours. There will be a national curriculum but around the country we will be able to have distinct local flavours. As a prac student when I was studying teaching, everyone in geography studied the wheat and sheep belt on the Darling Downs. I do not want to upset the agriculture minister and I am not taking anything away from agricultural endeavours like this, but the people on the Darling Downs obviously might not want to study the wheat and sheep belt on the Darling Downs. They might want to learn about something else, such as Victorian agricultural endeavours or the like. It is important that we maintain the national dish but have the local flavours so that schools can adapt to their environment when deciding what people need to learn.

The national curriculum will also give parents a better idea about what their children should be learning at each stage of their education and about the skills that they should be acquiring. It will do this by developing a national assessments program and managing data relating to schools and comparative school performance. For the first time, this will give parents and school communities throughout Australia a clearer picture about how their local school is performing. I stress that much of this data is already available, especially in my local state schools. Anyone moving around Australia can go on the web and look and see much of this data, especially in state schools, although not necessarily for private schools. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, if she has the data, why can’t we trust parents to also access this data? There should be no presumption that parents, the people who are most responsible for and care about these children, should not have access to the data about how their school is performing.

The national assessment and reporting framework will also enable governments to identify where resources are needed to improve school performance. For the first time, we will be able to make informed decisions about comparable school achievements and target resources to schools that need it most. As well as leading to improved performance across the board, these new reporting measures will ensure greater transparency and lift public confidence in education spending.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill is not about naming and shaming underperforming schools. I know this is a concern raised by many teachers—certainly in my electorate—and by many of the teacher unions, but it is not about naming and shaming underperforming schools, and neither is it about league tables or grading schools. However, it is about ensuring that no student is left behind. It is about supporting our teachers, our teacher aides and all the other support staff, school volunteers and parents who slog their guts out to ensure that our kids get a quality education. It is about ensuring that schools can overcome disadvantage to give their students the best possible education. The authority will also provide resources and assistance to teachers and schools to help them improve school performance.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent five years as a union organiser—a union thug, I guess I would be called—in the private schools, those radical workplaces like the Catholic schools, grammar schools, Christian schools et cetera. In that role I had a lot to do with teachers who also happened to be union members, from both the state school system and the private school system. My union, the Independent Education Union, looked after all schools that were not state schools. What many people do not realise when they hear the word ‘union’ is how much these unions devote their resources to lifting the professional standards of teaching. So many people are passionate about their union because they look after professional standards, and that is what many people opposite would not realise.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority is a key part of the Rudd government’s education revolution. Firstly, this revolution will see a half-billion dollar investment in early childhood preliteracy and prenumeracy. Whereas the damage was done by the time they got to me in high school, now we will be investing the money where the dollar will go furthest. Secondly, we will have HECS halved for those who are studying maths and science at university and then halved again if they choose to pursue a career teaching or working in maths and science. As a former English teacher I commend this initiative, and certainly maths and science subjects are good for commerce and the economy, but I would stress that English teachers provide another role, which is that we nourish the soul, and that makes for a much healthier community. Thirdly, we will have a new National Action Plan on Literacy and Numeracy. Fourthly, there will be a $2.4 billion education tax refund. That fantastic policy puts the focus back on parents looking after their kids. It puts education in the spotlight, and it has certainly been very well received by the parents of primary and secondary school students in my electorate of Moreton. Fifthly, the Rudd government will bring in a $1.2 billion digital education revolution to give every year 9 to 12 student in Australia access to a computer. Sixthly, there will be a $30 million boost to education for remote Indigenous children, including a trial linking family and welfare payments to school attendance. These are great initiatives. These six initiatives are not just ideas that the Rudd government has run up the flagpole; they are actual policies that will help kids in classrooms, some of them right now, where those computers are already on desks in many schools around Australia. We have moved from talk to chalk, or nowadays, I suppose, to be a bit more modern, we have moved from speak to squeak—that is, with whiteboards.

This side of the House has a real commitment to education, whereas the other side of the House, the Liberal Party and the National Party, seems to have a fundamentally different approach to education. I guess I would say as a former teacher that, if we approached those opposite as teachers, they would only teach to the top of the class. That is very rewarding and fantastic, especially for the people in the top of the class, but unfortunately there is also a great middle and occasionally a tail, and good teachers try to bring the whole class forward. If I look back over the last 11½ years and look for the great educational ideas that came out of those opposite, what ideas did they run up the flagpole? I would commend one: the chaplains initiative, which is certainly one that has led to the great chaplains whom I have met in my electorate. I do commend those opposite for that initiative. No. 2 is some aspects of the Investing in Our Schools Program. If they had maintained funding for the states properly then it would not have been necessary, but there are some aspects of that. The third one is flagpoles. That was a great initiative. Fantastic! In terms of that education revolution, you have flagpoles. That is fantastic! But, thankfully, this side of the House does have a much deeper commitment to education. So in closing I want to congratulate the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and all the state and territory governments for making student outcomes the top priority, rather than just flagpoles. I commend the bill to the House and look forward to seeing the national curriculum rolled out in schools from 2011.