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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11448

Dr STONE (9:50 AM) —I rise to support this Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill 2008. It further evolves the work which the coalition did and has done over a great many years, and it further evolves the whole educational structure and form in Australia over the last 100 or so years since Federation. Of course, I am the member for Murray, and as the name suggests we are on the border of two states, Victoria and New South Wales, with the Murray River running along—not running so hard at the moment, but certainly separating us from our fellows interstate. So for us the issue of a national curriculum is of critical concern. We have what we call twin communities right along the Murray, like Echuca-Moama, Yarrawonga-Mulwala and Kerang and other communities across the river, where students and families readily move. There are some 80,000 school-age students moving interstate each year right across Australia, and it has long been a problem with different rules about ages of students, commencing school, leaving school and curriculum content. The ways that school students can move and slot easily into similar class levels have been so problematic that some children have really been handicapped because they have had to be moved interstate. That is quite clearly a nonsense in a country like ours, where mobility has always been the way for families generation after generation.

In regard to my own background, I have spent a lot of years of my professional life developing curriculum for schools, particularly in secondary schools, and in particular relation to Australia’s social history and race relations. I spent a lot of time training teachers, too, particularly in early childhood education. We still have a very long way to go in Australia. This bill, as I say, is a further step in the right direction; it is an evolution. It is not a revolution and it leaves a lot of work still undone. For example, there is no point having a national history curriculum if that curriculum is a dud or if it is so contentious that teachers refuse, in different parts of the system, to teach it, because the unions have had their way, saying you cannot talk about, for example, early pastoral history or our early evolution of labour law in this country.

We have had a nonsense in Australia where ideologues have dominated curriculum development, dumbing down what is taught in schools to the point where, I have to say, I have employers absolutely amazed to find year 12 graduates—this is the final school year in Victoria—coming to them to take up an apprenticeship and they cannot read and write. They have been passed right through the system and have apparently attended school often enough but they do not have basic literacy or numeracy, they certainly have no knowledge whatsoever of Australia’s history and their science background is simply nonexistent. This is a great shame because these young men and women wanting to set out in their careers are stymied and handicapped because the school system has failed them.

I think there is a real need to address excellence in education in a way which is not intimidating to teaching staff who themselves have often been poorly educated in teacher training. I will never forget being amazed to find a faculty of teacher training had to teach remedial English to their first-year intake of teacher trainees. It is not the teachers’ fault necessarily that the curric-ul-um has been dumbed down but it is the teachers’ fault when they simply give up too often and retreat from being energetic, enthusiastic, innovative teachers who do their very best for their students even though they themselves might have been deprived of a proper framework in which to shape their own lessons or even deprived, initially, of decent teacher education back in their universities.

In terms of where we go in the future with Australia’s education, I am particularly concerned about early childhood education. Each state, as we know, still clings tenaciously to ownership of early childhood education. It varies from being compulsory to being absolutely not compulsory in a state like Victoria, with fees charged to parents and with volunteering of parents to help the preschool teacher almost the only means for that the preschool to raise money for toys and educational aids, to prepare milk and to cut up fruit for the children’s morning teas. You have a nonsense in Victoria where early childhood only goes for a small slot in the morning—from, say, nine to 11 o’clock—so a working parent or couple has no chance of being able to drop off and collect their child in a two-hour slot.

In an electorate like mine in Murray, which is in its seventh year of severe drought, where there is enormous poverty and financial distress across the electorate and where, of course, the piping of the water to Melbourne is going to be the last straw, permanently droughting that area, families have two options: they can find over $100 per term to send their child to preschool or they can keep their child in fully subsidised family day care where their three- or four-year-old does not receive early childhood education and then misses out on that first year of education and, very significantly, in that early socialisation to a classroom milieu. They do not get the early preparation with their reading or with their colours and numbers work. But that is what is happening across my electorate of Murray in response to bad state government early childhood policy and poverty.

Quite self-evidently, we need to have a national system of early childhood education as well which slots seamlessly into the earliest years of primary education and which is compulsory and free and which it is not, at the end of the day, accessible only to the better off or those with a parent at home. That should not be the determinant of whether or not a child has early childhood education access.

I am also concerned that a bill like this—which is, as I say, an important evolution—still will not be addressing issues like poor teacher training and of course the poor motivation for some of our brightest and best to enter the teaching profession itself. That, too, needs a lot of serious thinking and a revolution, not just more evolution.

We also have to address issues like single-sex classes for teenagers in our schools across Australia. We know that students do best in their teenage years when they can learn in girls classes and boys classes. They may be in the same school for other social interaction, sport and so on but certainly single-sex classes for the essential subjects of English, maths, science and history should be seriously contemplated and provisions made for them.

We also have to make sure that there is lifelong learning and that there is adult education built into our sense of new purpose in relation to national curriculum, assessment and reporting frameworks. A lot of younger people, especially from rural and regional backgrounds, missed out on their education and were forced to leave school early. This particularly applies if they were Indigenous children. I am also concerned about how our new-look schools system is going to make it more possible for what may be classified as a mature age person re-entering the system, not necessarily at the TAFE level but even back in the secondary school system because often TAFE is not accessible in rural and regional areas either.

As shadow minister for immigration I am concerned about our refugees. We have numbers of refugees who have no literacy and numeracy background in their home languages and whose own education has been completely interrupted by war. I refer particularly to those from African countries, people like our Sierra Leoneans, our Sudanese, our Congolese. They come to Australia with a desperate need to be given urgent education so that they can take advantage of the opportunities for employment, social integration, and better enjoy the peace and tolerance offered in a nation as great as ours. Unfortunately, too often when our refugees arrive they are already older than the school system is ready to recognise for schooling. And too often we put these students into classes for English language learning which are not good enough, with no real assistance being offered, although it is recognised that they need to start from a very basic level and might need culturally appropriate learning in the first instance.

I am also saddened about one of the changes that is being made to the citizenship test which the coalition introduced some time ago. This test will still be offered in English, which is the only sensible way to go, given that English language speaking is essential to take full advantage of and participate in our economy and our society. So I am very pleased that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Minister Evans, understood that it was essential to retain the citizenship test in English. What I am concerned about is the removal of the history component of the test questions that the coalition introduced. Any relationship or reference to history is to be dropped from the test, and I think that is a real shame. On the one hand we are saying that history is an important and essential part of the new national curriculum, but when it comes to our new citizens we are not expecting them to have any idea of how our democracy was formed, of how our governance arrangements work, of how we come to be at peace now—the history of how our fighting men and women participated in the world wars and are now participating in peacekeeping. None of that is to be tested in the new citizenship test. I wonder why not and I think it is a great shame. I would like to think that perhaps our new citizens will volunteer themselves to learn about Australian history and in that way will come to better understand the culture of our country. If new arrivals are of Asian background, for example, they may come to know how Australia has already had in its history, some 150 years ago, an enormous Asian population on the goldfields and so they are not entirely the newcomers in this country facing for the first time Australian cultural experiences.

I am very concerned that this government is still not addressing the problem of rural and regional students who are increasingly less able to take up any offers of tertiary education. In my electorate—which I have already explained is in the worst drought on record; we are up to our seventh year—families have had to face the fact that they can hardly afford to put food on the table. I want to thank Heinz and their food factory in Echuca for donating, just two days ago, a huge volume of their food products and baby food to give to my farming families who are having trouble putting food on the table. I restate that the despair that is coming with the drought is exacerbated by the north-south pipeline which is to be built to take our remaining water to Melbourne, which has other options, and which will put them in drought permanently. One of the outcomes of this extreme economic distress in northern Victoria, once one of the most affluent agricultural regions in Australia, is that the number of school leavers taking up university offers or attending university has dropped by 50 per cent. This is extraordinarily serious. It means that the drought is not only causing the loss of third- and fourth-generation investment in farm properties, it is destroying their futures and their chances of taking up agribusiness. If students cannot afford to take up university places, which typically require them to live away from home, in Melbourne, Bendigo or Wodonga, a lifelong deficit will result, caused by this government not understanding that we need more than just access to rent assistance or Austudy for rural school leavers. I have to tell you that the rural Liberal members in this House have been very seriously looking at a policy for a fund, which may not necessarily be based on means testing because the family farm asset often knocks out the opportunity for these families to be specially supported. It will address how far rural, regional and remote students have to go to get their tertiary education and the costs that are needed for their accommodation, travel and communication to back home. Our policy would deliver them sufficient to live on so that they can take up offers of tertiary education.

It is one of the tragedies of the economic decline in rural and regional Australia that there is a contraction in the number of rural students able to take up tertiary education. And I have to say the situation is not much better when it comes to apprenticeships or traineeships. This is an issue that is not addressed at all in this Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill, but I beg the government to turn their attention urgently to this problem. It is about investing in human capital. It is about being able to have our own skilled workforce developed here at home. Not only do we have this human tragedy of individuals not being able to develop their own personal full potential; the nation is missing out on the full potential of our human capital.

We also have to look at what people do and not just what they say. Parents in their droves are walking away from state school systems at the moment and paying fees to have their children attend private schools. That has to be a loud warning siren for this government. Of course, independent schools or private schools—they are named differently in different states—will not come under their new reporting regime. These schools will be quite independent of the various moves that are being made to make sure that parents have information about the ranking of their schools and so on. I think it is very important for this government to watch whether or not there will be an even further clamour for private school education when families look at data about their local state schools, which might show that they are having a bit of a struggle, and make their final decision to exit the system altogether.

I want to commend the government for taking education seriously, as we did. Quite clearly we have a huge disparity in the performance of students and schools across the nation. We have a public disgrace in the form of the quality of schooling offered to many of our Indigenous communities, particularly in remoter areas. The school retention rates in those places and the fact that students cannot even speak, read or write in English, condemns them to unemployment and marginalises them for life. A lot has to be sheeted home to the Northern Territory government in particular, which has chronically neglected infrastructure investment in those remote Indigenous schools. The Northern Territory has also allowed the Commonwealth to pay their teaching staff through CDEP by allowing teachers’ aides—Indigenous women, largely—to do the teaching in those schools even though those women often do not have any English language facility.

So I am afraid that, while this bill is a further evolution—and I commend it—there is a lot of work to be done. We have to have in Australia, world best education. We have to have education that looks our history in the face and teaches it accurately and fearlessly so that our multicultural, rural and urban populations can understand where we have come from and, therefore, the potential for where we can go. Our English, maths and science teaching, as we know, has to be so much better. We are in despair about our paucity of maths and science achievements across the board. We have some stars in schools but across the board our maths and science teaching leaves an enormous amount to be desired.

As I began by saying, too many employers are shocked at the poor English language understanding and the ability to communicate effectively or even to use effective grammar, in students who have just completed 13 years of formal education. So I support this bill but there is a lot more work to be done. I request this government to address those issues that I outlined as outstanding and very serious when it comes to equality of opportunity for education in this country.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Before I call the member for Lyons, I notice that we have, in the gallery, a school visiting Parliament House. I am sure they would have listened with great interest to the debate. I rather feel that it may even be a school from my electorate, the South Burnett College. I can see that it is the South Burnett College; I could not join them for hospitality.