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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11452

Mr ADAMS (10:10 AM) —It is a shame that the previous speaker is leaving the chamber. I was going to say that that side of the House never understands education very well. Blaming teachers, teachers unions and state governments is not the solution to finding the answers. Of course the employers that the previous speaker spoke about now demand a higher standard of literacy and numeracy. There are higher standards because the world needs higher skills, and our workforce needs to meet those same standards.

So, with regard to people who have literacy and numeracy issues, there are not the holes that there used to be for people in this community and in our country. So we do need to work harder—I agree with the member for Murray, and she did get the issue about refugees spot on. We need to make sure that we have a learning capacity for those people who come to our country. Adult education and lifelong learning need to be high on our agenda.

The purpose of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill 2008 is to establish the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, ACARA. ACARA will be an independent statutory authority. It will manage the creation and implementation of the national curriculum, national student assessment and reporting of school education outcomes. Specific functions, as provided in section 6 of the bill, will include developing and administering a national school curriculum, including content of the curriculum and achievement standards for school subjects as specified in its charter; developing and administering national assessments; collecting, managing and analysing student assessment data and other data relating to schools and comparative school performance; facilitating information-sharing arrangements between Australian and state and territory government bodies in relation to the collection, management and analysis of school data; publishing information relating to school education, including comparative school performance; providing school curriculum resource services, educational research services and other related services; and providing information, resources, support and guidance for the teaching profession.

ACARA goes back a long way. It is the accumulation of a long period of policy debate which dates back to the eighties. Yesterday John Dawkins, a previous Treasurer and member for Fremantle, was in the gallery here and was acknowledged by the House and the Speaker. When he was the Minister for Employment, Education and Training he called for a common curriculum framework that would set out the major areas of knowledge and the most appropriate mix of skills and experiences for students in all their years of schooling. So it has been a long time to get this bill into the House.

Education is so important to the development of a nation. It cannot be left to the individual states and departments to set the syllabus for each state, as they may all be different. With the population being so mobile in today’s world, children from one state can often end up in another state, either in front or behind in their education pathway.

There has been much discussion about the way subjects are taught and about how there must be flexibility in schools, catering for different groups of students to achieve these standards in different ways. I think it is perfectly possible to maintain flexibility while keeping to standards of education that reflect the needs of the nation.

Other concerns include the system of reporting to parents, in which schools are required to provide parents with their children’s national literacy and numeracy test results against national benchmarks, showing how they are rated relative to their peer group in their school. I do not believe this is for purposes other than for parents to see how their child is progressing and as an early warning system to alert the school when a child is falling behind and needs some special attention. For too long, children managed to get all the way through the education system without meeting any benchmarks, because they were not identified. If they manage to get through primary and secondary school, they then have difficulty in picking up enough skills for work purposes. As the current Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister said:

… to lift performance and direct new resources to where they will make most difference, we need unprecedented rigour and openness in the collection and publication of schools data.

 We also need to ensure that we have a basis for fair, consistent and accurate analysis of how different schools are doing. This allows resources to flow to those schools that need the most assistance. Rupert Murdoch, in the recent Boyer lectures, put his finger fairly and squarely—sadly, I believe—on our problem. We need to set high standards for our students, teachers and schools. We pride ourselves on our passion for equity. But, as Murdoch says:

… it is getting harder and harder to square Australian pride in equality with the realities of the Australian system of public education.

While there has been some criticism of the outlaying of computers to schools, it allows students to access the tools of the 21st century to undertake their work now. But this should not be seen as the only thing they learn. Basic literacy and numeracy are vital to making the tool work properly for the student. Murdoch says:

… the best path to success is through an education that will allow us to fulfill our potential. That begins by setting high expectations, adhering to real standards, and ensuring that when you do leave school, you leave with the tools that will help you get ahead in life.

My interest, too, has been in the early learning years which, in my mind, are the most critical in the learning processes. They can set the foundations for the rest of life learning. I have been following the work of Professor Fraser Mustard, who has recently been working in South Australia. He said in his report Investing in the early years: closing the gap between what we know and what we do:

To achieve reasonable equity in the competence, capabilities, coping skills, health and wellbeing of populations will require societies to apply the new understanding of how experience in the early years of life affects the development of the brain and related biological pathways that set trajectories that affect health (physical and mental), learning, and behaviour throughout the life cycle and can contribute to social and economic inequities and violence in societies.

At a seminar some years ago, held here in Parliament House, Professor Mustard spoke of education delivery being like a river. The kids who manage the scheme well swim strongly up the middle of the river. The kids who are finding school difficult for various reasons are clinging to the bank and progressing very slowly while some of them are slipping off the bank and some of them are treading water. Some of them get swept backwards, never to catch up to where the cycle should be. Professor Mustard was attempting to show us that children learn at different levels and at different rates and that our scheme is geared very much for the ones that cope the best, the strong swimmers. Although it is relatively easy to measure these groups, it becomes more complex when one is trying to measure the other groups, as so many different factors come into play for all of them. These factors include social and economic background, health and wellbeing, an ability to mix and all sorts of other factors.

So, whatever scheme we put in place for assessment of students around the country, there needs to be some ability to check in a positive way how to keep children encouraged to continue learning, even if they are not at the front of the line. It may require programs that reflect the natural abilities of individual students, including hands-on type abilities as well as academic varieties. Both are equally valid in the workplace. Often it is more a question of approach, of how to deal with an individual’s capacity to take in information. Sometimes this requires innovative ways to stimulate the student. Going back to Murdoch’s Boyer lecture on education, he points this out in a different sort of way by explaining:

Talent and skills and judgment are part of what economists call human capital. Human capital is a broad term. It includes formal skills—for example, a degree in computer science or the ability to speak a foreign language. But human capital is much more than this. It also includes such things as good work habits, the judgment that comes from experience, a sense of creativity, a curiosity about the world, and the ability to think for oneself. Free societies succeed because the people who have these skills are free to use them to advance themselves, their enterprises, and society.

These are not easily taught, but still part of the learning process and need to be included in any program of learning. I know that many teachers have concerns about the changes that are taking place in education. In my own area, some are very concerned with the constant reporting changes. In Tasmania there have been some unfortunate circumstances in that area and they are rebelling in various ways. It is hard to incorporate change while you are busily trying to achieve the best you can in the present system with the tools that you have in your school. But life is changing very fast and so what we know now is not what we might need to know in the future. All we can really do is to open the pathways to change to make it as easy as possible. We need to provide schools with the tools, with the spaces and with the best teachers possible to ensure that our children can keep up with the pace of change.

This bill provides the broad framework within which the development of the national curriculum, the collection and analysis of student assessment data and the reporting of school performance will occur. As is noted in accompanying papers to this bill, there is considerable work to be done not only in developing and implementing the national curriculum and determining the methodology for collecting, reporting and comparing student and school performance but also in achieving stakeholder consensus about these matters. Still remaining and underpinning the success of the goals towards which the bill’s main measures are directed—that of raising the educational performance of all students regardless of where they are located and their socioeconomic background—are the critical issues of teacher supply and teacher quality. It is well accepted, and supported by research, that teacher quality is the paramount factor influencing student outcomes. Typical of this research is that conducted by Michael Barber, former adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His research into why the world’s best-performing school systems outdo other school systems concluded that the three most important factors were getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors and ensuring that they deliver consistently for every child. Ultimately, ‘the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’. This is a big ask in any job description, but the future of our children depends on the effectiveness of their teachers and we have to value them as we have valued them in the past.

There are going to be opportunities to contribute further to this debate as it proceeds, but from my point of view in Lyons we have suffered from the state’s way in the past of moving teachers around and saying that teachers are rewarded when they have done their time in the country by going back to city schools. This has to become a thing of the past now. Teachers must become part of their communities, live in their communities and be the role model for their charges. Pay, conditions and promotions of teachers should reflect the greater importance of our rural and regional educational facilities and they should be on a par with their city counterparts. I want to see teachers clamouring to go into the country and be part of the development of regional areas, because the rewards both financially and emotionally are so much greater.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but with this electronic age it is possible to participate in all those educational upgrading processes while living in more isolated areas. Other professions are doing it. Why not the teachers? Tertiary education should not mean a big upheaval for families at often difficult times. It should be part of post-school learning and we should use the underutilised school infrastructure to provide it. It might mean some time changes, but we are in a new world and we should face those changes.

I also believe that we should find ways of bringing the work of many academics, education thinkers and writers do together and have a way to make that easily accessible for classroom teachers. There seems to have been very good work done over many years which never really gets down to where it can influence and help teachers improve their own teaching opportunities. There is also the issue of young teachers starting their early teaching life. They need time to reflect and time to observe other teachers in the process. They need to have mentors work with them to assist the learning process. Not having this is not only unfair on those younger teachers whom we put into the schools but unfair on some students as well.

There are many things to do, but the Minister for Education and the Labor government have gone on and succeeded. I have spent some 15 or 16 years now in this House, and I have heard conservative ministers for education blame teachers, state governments and everybody else and never really achieve anything in tackling some of the real problems. This bill does go towards finding some of the answers. It sets national goals and performance standards. As the Acting Prime Minister said about bringing in rigour, it is rigour that will drive a better education system. That has to be done fairly and decently, and I am sure that we can do that.

I have used some lengthy quotes in my speech. I thank the Parliamentary Library for their assistance. This is a very complex subject and requires a lot of consideration. It is probably one of the most important parts of our society. Education gives people great opportunities. I commend the bill to the House.