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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11460

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (10:50 AM) —I just remind the member for Riverina of two things. She is leaving the chamber. That is bad manners. I listened to her as much as I could. Firstly, the Investing in Our Schools Program, as she well knows, was terminated in public by the former Prime Minister in 2007 and was not part of the coalition’s education or financial policy. Secondly, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill 2008 is not a financial bill. This bill is for the creation of a new education authority. If she had actually read the bill and then discussed it for the public record and for her electors in Riverina, we might have been a bit more enlightened.

In my humble way, I will try to enlighten the House on this very important piece of legislation. This legislation, like most legislation in this House, is a direct result of an election commitment given by the Labor government. For the record, on 2 October 2008 the Council of Australian Governments, COAG, made a very important decision. That was to establish a national education authority. The bill that we are discussing, which the member for Riverina totally ignored, gives effect to this historic recommendation. The new National Education Authority will bring together for the first time the important functions of curriculum development, assessment and reporting at the national level. It is a common-sense policy for the 21st century to bring some form of continuity, consistency and conformity to our nation’s various education systems.

The bill establishes the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, ACARA, as an independent statutory authority under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997. It is important to remember that this governance model is consistent with agreements reached by the Ministerial Council on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, MCEETYA, on 12 September 2008. It is in effect the result of cooperative federalism—and over many years people in this place have sought to have our federal and state governments genuinely cooperate to achieve important national outcomes. This is one such attempt to do that. So, contrary to the member for Riverina’s comments, this is part of a revolution. A revolution starts small and will build and gather momentum. This is about producing good educational outcomes for all students throughout Australia. It is an attempt to provide a means to promote, measure and support that.

The bill establishes some very important functions for the authority which will operate under the following principles. The authority will be responsible for the coordination of curriculum, assessment and reporting, including the management and analysis of school data at a national level. The authority will have its policy direction set by education ministers through MCEETYA, not through the federal government. Some of the functions include developing and administering a national school curriculum, including content of the curriculum and achievement standards for school subjects specified in the charter, and I would like to return to that later; developing and administering national assessments; collecting, managing and analysing student assessment data and other data relating to schools and comparative school performance; and a number of other functions, particularly in relation to the sharing and storage of this information amongst relevant parties.

The authority is accountable to the Commonwealth and the states and territories through MCEETYA. MCEETYA will be responsible for setting the authority’s work program, in line with the functions that I just outlined, through a charter. The authority must perform its functions and exercise its powers in accordance with the charter, not the whims of whoever may be the current government. The charter will set out the authority’s annual work program in relation to discharging the core functions set out in the bill. The bill sets out the core functions for the authority. The charter will give MCEETYA the ability to confer additional functions so long as they are in relation to the core functions of the authority set out in the bill.

The bill also outlines provisions covering the composition of the authority, which will be made up of 13 persons as a board of directors. The authority will have a chief executive officer and staff. The board of directors will consist of a chair, a deputy chair, one member nominated by the Commonwealth minister, one member nominated by the National Catholic Education Commission, one member nominated by the Independent Schools Council of Australia and eight other members, with each state and territory education minister nominating one each. The CEO will be responsible for the day-to-day management of the authority.

I notice that some members opposite have made the point that they hope that there will be teacher representation on the board of directors. I, too, would expect that. I could not see that, where the charter asks for persons who are adequately and properly trained to give advice to the authority, they would not have an educational background. I would find that very unusual. I would join with those opposite if they were genuinely interested in that side of the argument.

The board members will be appointed by the Commonwealth Minister for Education. Board members will be appointed to their positions on a part-time basis for a maximum period of six years. MCEETYA, I would add, must agree to all board appointments and be satisfied that there is a balance of professional expertise in the membership of the board across a whole range of issues, including matters relating to school curriculum, school assessment and data management, analysing and reporting in relation to school performance, financial and commercial matters, the management of educational organisations and corporate governance matters. Finally, the bill provides that the authority will report on its functions to all Australian education ministers through MCEETYA. It must report in particular on its activities during that year to the extent that they relate to the charter and it must provide any other information relating to the discharge of its functions that MCEETYA directs.

The Australian government has committed $37.2 million over the next four years to support the work of the quality schools authority. This will also be complemented by state contributors. We made a commitment during the last election campaign, which is given effect in this legislation, to bring about and develop a world-class national curriculum from kindergarten to year 12, starting with the key learning areas of English, mathematics, the sciences and history. In April this year, the government set up the independent National Curriculum Board to take on the challenge of developing Australia’s first national curriculum in the areas that I have just mentioned, headed by the ‘two macs’: Barry McGaw and Tony Mackay. The view is for the new national curriculum to be implemented by 2011.

The new national curriculum is being developed collaboratively between the government and non-government education authorities, teachers, students, academics, professional organisations and business groups. Framing papers on the new English, maths, science and history curricula were released earlier this year. The consultation period for these framing papers opened just recently and will continue through until February 2009. In establishing each framing paper, the National Curriculum Board recruited a writer, who worked with a small advisory group to draft an advice paper that provides a rationale for students studying the curriculum and a broad-scope sequence of material to cover the years from kindergarten to year 12. Discussions on these framing papers were held last month at a series of national forums and about 200 people attended each of these forums. It is anticipated that the National Curriculum Board will post its final recommendations on its website in early 2009.

The national education agreement will also be established through COAG before the end of this year—hopefully this weekend. This agreement will establish for the first time the shared national targets, outcomes and policy directions that we need to achieve a world-class school system serving the needs of every Australian student. Following the current consultation period, the National Curriculum Board will determine its final recommendations and post them on its website in term 1 of 2009. By March 2009, the board will develop detailed writing briefs for the writers it will recruit to develop the detailed curriculum documents. The board will organise extensive consultation during the development phase—particularly with practising teachers—and will recruit a panel of schools across the country in which to trial material being developed. By the end of 2010, the board is to develop a national K-12 curriculum in English, maths, the sciences and history.

To bring about curriculum development and change in our country is a very comprehensive process—and I find it absolutely fascinating and exciting. However, what I find disappointing is that many on the other side have actually attacked some of the people, and one in particular, chosen to develop the curriculum. I note the member for Sturt in his contribution to this debate attacked Professor Stuart Macintyre and his competence. I find it extraordinary that one would single out an individual who has been invited in a group to put together a curriculum for this country. I note that the Australian, as it always does in its development, nurturing and continuation of the culture wars in this country, was happy to run the headlines of those opposite attacking the character of some of the individuals involved because it did not suit their agenda. Professor Macintyre has never suited their agenda. I found it very disappointing.

They have chosen Dr John Hirst as one of their champions in the history and culture wars and in the right of history teaching. I am happy to read Dr Hirst. I have got his many articles on Australian history by my bedside at the moment. I thought it was terrific that he, who is part of the development group associated with the history curriculum, came out in response to the comment of the Australian in its continuation of the cultural wars and said:

The appointment of Stuart Macintyre to draw up the history section of the national curriculum should not re-ignite the history wars … I have seen his first draft and can assure you that the fears expressed in your pages about his appointment are misplaced.

This slur should belong in history, but it is resurrected and then trotted out in template papers given out to members opposite for something to say on this bill. It was indeed alluded to by the member for Riverina. Let me assure members that the history curriculum that is being developed will be rigorous, inclusive, demanding and representative of our origins, of where we are in the 21st century and of all those forces that have been at work to bring this great country about. I have no hesitation in arguing that it will be a fair and balanced process. It is not the work of one man but the work of many. As a former history teacher, I am really pleased to see that history will take its proud place in the curriculum again as a subject, as a discipline and as a very important component in education.

A second area associated with this bill, and certainly one which has raised a good deal of controversy and ire, is the whole question of transparency in reporting. The whole basis of this is to achieve better educational outcomes for our kids no matter where they are or what school they go to. The basis of this is that the data collected should be used to improve educational outcomes. We need the data at a national level—that is, data collected in a consistent and comprehensive manner from all schools, whether they be public or private. The principle behind that is not only will it have good educational outcomes—certainly that is the intention—but also that any school receiving public money should be accountable for what goes on in it. There is nothing to fear in that at all, but we have to be open about it and say it as it is.

No teacher in our schools should feel threatened by this measure, and nor should any principal or school community. The intention behind it is to gather the data necessary to determine what factors can improve a school and what factors may be at work holding that school back. That is the intention of it. I can assure you that many educators that I know, many former colleagues, want to know this information. I can tell you that the great majority of parents in Australia want to know this material. They are not scared of it. We need to use this material carefully and selectively and to compare like with like.

I draw the attention of those who might like to follow this further to a Treasury paper authored by Andrew Leigh and Hector Thompson, which I believe was released this year. They were looking at the factors at work in Western Australia, particularly trying to determine whether socioeconomic factors were the main factor in determining student outcomes in schools or whether there were other factors at play. I found it really interesting and will share it with the House, because I think it goes to the heart of what we are trying to do here. Their conclusion says:

… 20 per cent of Western Australia government schools outperform those of a similar socioeconomic status by more than 5 percentage points.

That is quite considerable. It goes on:

Assuming that these schools would otherwise have been at the state average, this means that in these schools, at least one-third of students who would otherwise not have made the benchmark, do meet the benchmark. This highlights that for students who are at risk of not meeting the benchmark, being in a better performing school can make a difference.

We want the information to identify better performing and underperforming schools so that we can direct our resources to those schools that are underperforming. We need to know.