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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11472

Ms McKEW (Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) (11:47 AM) —I would like to thank all of those who spoke on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Bill 2008. Certainly, the level of debate shows the very strong interest that we all have in ensuring that all young Australians have the best education and the best start in life. I think it is healthy that the foundations of the education of all young Australians are being vigorously and openly debated not only here within the parliament but also in the media, in schools and in local communities. The Rudd Labor government came to office knowing that world-class education is the foundation of a competitive economy. We are committed to delivering an education revolution. The government is making new investments in schooling and building a modern high-quality education system which will ensure that all young Australians achieve their potential and have the skills to participate actively in society. We are investing up to $1½ million per high school to create trade training centres in all of Australia’s 2,650 secondary schools and $1.2 billion in the digital education revolution and computers for secondary schools, supported by digital content resources, professional development and broadband connections.

On the matter of investment, I want to correct some of the misleading statements made by the opposition regarding the Investing in Our Schools Program—the IOSP. That was an initiative of the previous government. On 19 February 2007, the former Prime Minister issued a press release noting a fourth and final round of funding. The former government decided that there would be no further funding for the IOSP and even returned $26 million of funding for government schools to the surplus, as they claimed there was insufficient demand. Then, on 28 August 2007, Julie Bishop announced that the Howard government would continue support for the IOSP and that details of the continued support would be announced in due course. Despite this promise, the coalition stayed silent on that continued support during the election campaign, and no additional funding was ever allocated to that program. But, as I have outlined, this government is investing $2½ billion over 10 years for trade training centres, $1 billion over four years in the digital education revolution and $62 million over four years under Local Schools Working Together. But simply spending more, of course, will never be enough. Our investments will be underpinned by stronger emphasis on equity, on excellence, on transparency and on cooperation. Together with state and territory governments, we have embraced a new national vision for Australia to become the most educated country and the best skilled economy, with the best trade workforce.

This bill establishes the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. It presents a significant and systematic advance to our education system that replaces the ad hoc and part-time approach over the last 12 years of the Howard government. It ensures that all governments—state, territory and Commonwealth—will work together to improve education throughout the country. It is a real example of collaborative federalism working at its best. As the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have said, we want nothing short of transformational change in our schools. We must continue to work together to improve the quality of teaching, to ensure every child benefits and to mandate transparency and accountability. The new authority will play a crucial role in delivering on all of these goals. It will be responsible for delivering the national curriculum and the transparency and performance-reporting agenda at the national level. It will build on the significant work that has already been achieved by the Interim National Curriculum Board.

When we came into office, the Australian government committed to the development of a rigorous world-class national curriculum from kindergarten to year 12, starting with the key learning areas of English, mathematics, the sciences and history. For 30 years Australia has needed a single, high-quality national curriculum. The national curriculum will benefit teachers by giving them a very clear understanding of what needs to be covered in each subject and in each phase of schooling. It will also bring benefits to parents by giving them a clear and explicit agreement about what it is that young people should know and be able to do. And it will also allow teachers the flexibility to shape their classes around the curriculum in a way that is meaningful and engaging for students.

On the matter of teachers, I was very interested to hear members of the opposition come out and support the interests of teachers. Of course it is a bit too little too late after over a decade of neglect of the teaching profession. Unlike the opposition in government, this government has the greatest respect for the many talented and hardworking teachers in our schools and we are backing up that respect with greater support for them and their profession. That is why on Monday the Acting Prime Minister announced that the Rudd government is prepared to invest half a billion dollars in a national partnership between the government and the states and territories. This investment will ensure that teachers are supported to ensure that all young Australians get the very best education.

But teaching, a critical part of the story, is only part of the story. We need a rigorous curriculum with the right level of flexibility. And we need to ensure that the curriculum leads to depth of understanding. There has been debate in this House about the dangers of the national curriculum being influenced by certain ideological positions. I want to be clear on this matter: the task to develop the curriculum is a matter for the experts. It is not for politicians. The Interim National Curriculum Board has gone about its work to develop the national curriculum in an open and transparent manner and has drawn on expertise as it sees fit. And they are to be commended for their efforts to date. There will always be debate regarding this area and what is in and what is not. This government welcomes and encourages that debate. Through the processes the Interim National Curriculum Board has been using, all Australians can contribute their ideas online about the national curriculum.

There has been significant debate on the dangers of the national curriculum stifling creativity and flexibility and restricting choice. The national curriculum, once agreed and completed, will be compulsory. But let me be clear on this point: this does not mean that every school will be required to teach the same subjects, line by line, in the same way. It means that there will be determined content and achievement standards in the learning areas of English, mathematics, the sciences and history. By content, I mean what it is that students are able to know and to do—the knowledge, the understandings and the skills. By achievement standards, I mean how well achievement is measured and reported.

The national curriculum will not mandate the practices that schools or teachers use to deliver that content and the achievement standards. Schools and teachers will continue to use their own professional judgement about what to cover and in what sequence and how best to reflect local and regional circumstances, different philosophies and different learning environments.

As the Acting Prime Minister stated a bit earlier, she recognises that some schools use a specialised curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate, and that some, such as Steiner and Montessori schools, have particular educational philosophies—quite prized educational philosophies—which involve different approaches and different ways to deliver the curriculum. Clearly, there are a number of approaches that are internationally and educationally recognised and used by schools that can show their approach to curriculum is well structured and of high quality.

One of the key tasks of this new authority will be to advise on the most effective method for confirming the recognition of well-established alternative curriculum frameworks in line with the existing curriculum accreditation arrangements that operate within the states and territories. It will do this by working in collaboration with the states and territories, which have constitutional responsibility for curriculum offerings in their jurisdictions. It will make sure that, for the first time, there is a national recognition process that delivers transparency about the curriculum that is being delivered across Australia and one that is not overly burdensome.

The new authority will also play a key role in implementing improved transparency and public accountability of school outcomes through the introduction of a nationally agreed reporting framework to identify school needs and achievements. That includes moving to a new level of transparency in the reporting of student and school performance. Lack of transparency can hide failure. It feeds a culture where all the adults involved—the teachers, the principals, the community leaders and the members of parliament—avoid accountability. And lack of transparency prevents us from identifying where greater effort and investment are needed.

Importantly, transparency and accountability are overwhelmingly supported by parents. Last month, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, with input from the Australian Council of State School Organisations, conducted a major survey of parents’ attitudes about the information they want from schools. The results are striking, with 83.2 per cent of parents in all school systems agreeing that important information relating to school activities and performance should be made public. Parents are hungry for information about how they can help their own children to learn better, both at home and at school. And they understand the importance of information for producing systematic school improvement. And it would certainly appear from the debate in the House on this bill that most members on both sides understand the importance of the right kind of information.

Real progress has already been made in working with state and territory governments to develop a framework for publishing consistent, accurate and appropriate information. But there is much more that can be done through this new authority. We will be insisting on comprehensive information, which will be put in its proper context. Specifically, we will be comparing how the performance of a school compares to that of other like schools serving similar student groups. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority will be at the forefront of the government’s commitment to provide all young Australians with better opportunities and the best start in life. It will be the engine room of reform and a key driver of our education revolution. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.