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Tuesday, 3 December 1985
Page: 2804


Senator MACKLIN(5.03) —Usually about this time each year we look at the States grants Bills. It is a useful opportunity to review the position of education in Australia and where the education system might be going, particularly from a point of view of funding at the Commonwealth level. Of course, the Commonwealth being a major funder of education either directly or through the States grants is a major determinant of what is likely to happen to education and how it is likely to happen in the ensuing years. To put it into some perspective, in 1976-77 Budget expenditure on education constituted 9.2 per cent of total Budget outlays. In 1982-83 this dropped to 7.9 per cent. In this year's Budget it dropped to 7.1 per cent.

Fairly obviously the operation we are seeing in Australia is directed at a decreasing priority for education vis-a-vis other priorities which both this Government and the previous Government have had. From 1974-75 through to 1982-83 the total Commonwealth expenditure on private schools increased by 107 per cent in real terms and expenditure on public schools increased by 18 per cent in real terms. I think those figures, which are contained in the Quality of Education Review Committee report, are interesting. When one looks at the total expenditure one sees the same type of expenditure pattern in both Commonwealth and State education expenditures. Of course, State governments are the major funders of public schools. Thus we see the same relative increase in private school and public school expenditure.

An economist, Ross Williams, has estimated that the private dollar spent on private schooling has fallen. For example, the 1981-82 expenditure level was less than one third of the 1968-69 level. In other words, over the years the amount of money which has been able to be placed in the private school sector by those people attending private schools has dropped. It is Ross Williams's estimate that the rise in the number of people attending private schools can be explained very well by this change in expenditure of the private dollar.

The reason I raise this issue is that it is a component of the major education debate which took place in Australia this year concerning educational standards. A large component of that debate revolved around the differences between private and public schools. In general that debate was not of course of a terribly high calibre. One of the major contributions to that debate was made by Greg Sheridan writing in the Bulletin magazine. Amongst a variety of statements he said:

All around the country teachers are giving our children a diet of intellectual poison.

That debate was fuelled by Professor Chipman when he said:

An Australian Education Council of Education Research survey done a few years ago reported that one sixth of the 14 year olds sampled were unable to read a single sentence.

No doubt he was referring to the 1975 Australian Council for Educational Research survey of numeracy and literacy. If one refers to that survey one finds the statement:

From the evidence available we have estimated the proportion of students in normal schooling at the ten year old and 14 year old levels who were unable to read simple sentences to be 3% and .8% respectively.

Of course there is a considerable difference, as most people would realise, between 0.8 per cent and one sixth-which is of course 16.7 per cent. That type of cavalier attitude to available research, saying whatever one wants to say about schooling, flows very much from the attitudes to schooling within our society. All people in society assume themselves to be experts on schools and how they ought to be run. Unlike most other professional areas, schooling is something most people have had a very heavy dose of; many are intimately involved because their own children are at schools. During their formative years they have imbibed a model of how that professional activity should be run. Hence while people would be loath to go into a long discourse on how dentists should run their practices or how doctors should perform medical operations, they feel happy to divest themselves of opinions as to how teachers should teach. That is probably invigorating within our type of community, but those who comment on education and educational matters should pay some attention to what actually happens in the classroom and to the problems faced in schools in our society in 1985.

Let us examine some of those types of problems. The major difficulty in terms of the standards debate to which I have referred previously is that people seem to believe that, no matter when they did their education, nothing has changed in the general social structure. Every time I have raised this matter in debates, discussions and public arenas I have tried to point to some fairly radical changes that have taken place in Australian society in the last few years. Perhaps I can refer to some hard data. When I grew up, presumably when the majority of senators who are now in the chamber grew up-most of them are looking older than I am but it may be just the effects of the end of the year-there was no television. Let us look at what happens to a child today. Some 98 per cent of Australian homes have television sets. The average student in a school career views 15,000 hours of television while consuming 11,500 hours of education. I repeat that students view 15,000 hours of television while they are getting 11,500 hours of contact in the school. That is totally different from what happened to me and to any honourable senator here, and indeed to most parents in Australia today. Let us take that single item and try to work through the types of ramifications that must have for the classroom environment. Let us have a little understanding of the changes that have taken place and the impact of those changes outside the classroom, outside the school, on what happens in the classroom and what happens to teachers.

While students are viewing those 15,000 hours of television, they are watching 500,000 advertisements. It may be a bit too harsh to say that all those advertisements undermine the logic that schools attempt to teach, but what we do know about them is that many advertisements are pitched at certain types of value structures in our society. That is another constituent part of this whole debate about standards, about dropping values, about the problems when teachers are no longer imposing discipline on pupils-as though discipline were applied by only teachers in our society. The constituent parts of our society, such as the home, church, the school but also the media, surely must bear part of the blame at least for any of those types of changing social values. If parents are content to allow their children to watch 15,000 hours of television, should not the home perhaps accept the effect of some of the changes that might take place as a result of that viewing? Let us have a slightly more sensible debate in 1986 about education and what is going on than simply to say: `It is the schools and the teachers that are responsible for what is happening'. If our society wants an advertising industry and supports such an industry, we have to accept the problems of the advertising industry and what it does to young people. So do our families, the churches and every other organ in our society, and so does the media.


Senator Teague —No one is denying all this.


Senator MACKLIN —If one reads those advertisements and the types of articles that appear in the media, one would think that the media had absolutely no influence on the type of values in our society. The mass media have reduced every authority that exists outside themselves in terms of what has gone on, yet they wish to criticise every other function in society except themselves. I believe it is about time that we tried to get some balance of those various competing sections of the society that we have and what they do to the general value structures in our society and what those value structures do to the education system. We cannot have a weakening of the family, the churches, or of all other groups within society without there being concomitant results in the classroom. One cannot have exploitation of sex to sell consumer products in this society without there being some type of backlash in the classroom and without pressure in the classroom to try to go into various courses on human relationships. It is all very well then for people to ask, as did Greg Sheridan in the article he wrote in the Bulletin, `What about these mushy courses on human relationships?' without at the same time condemning the exploitation of sex that takes place in the Bulletin. It is that exploitation that leads directly to demands within our society to have those human education courses.

Schools are responding to the demands placed upon them. Those demands arise out of the changes in our social structures. Let us have a little fairness in these matters, when those types of things are talked about, to try to pinpoint the origin of the types of value structures and changes that take place rather than the simplistic mush that is churned out as though it were some type of education debate. I hope that in 1986 we may see some strengthening of the genuine types of debates. I have already pointed to the exploitation of sex. There are other aspects, such as the programs of daily news and current affairs which are churned out to our young people, which was not the case in earlier days. This gives rise to a whole range of discussions-for example, in regard to acquired immune deficiency syndrome. What is a teacher to do in the classroom when children present controversial problems of this type? Is the teacher to sweep such matters under the carpet? Of course not. Yet when I grew up, matters of that type were outside our understanding. We just did not come across them unless we were avid readers of the newspaper. I grew up in a small country town and I am sure that our newspaper would not have carried such material. What one got was what one heard on the radio, and that was it. That was not so long ago and these changes have taken place since then.

Let us try to understand the changes that have taken place and understand how they have affected our family structure in our society. Let us understand how schools are struggling to cope with those changes. It is the schools that first feel the impact of any changes of that type. Let us not all be hypocrites by saying that we support advertising when we fail to see the types of problems that advertising has created in our community. The facade of value neutrality in the classroom has undoubtedly broken down. It is no longer possible for a teacher to hold to that type of facade; namely, that a teacher has neutral values. What is a teacher to do when confronted with somebody who says: `My father says that black people are inferior'? Is the teacher to say one thing on the one hand and something different on the other? Teachers no longer are in a position to be able to skirt round those real, hard, controversial issues. They feel these issues and feel them more than anyone else. It might be useful in 1986 for society to give more support to teachers in all schools than it has given them in the past.

Through that debate on standards ran a thread which I would like to pick up, that is, the rather odd view of comparing and contrasting private and state schools. I have taught in both types of schools, as has my wife. I have spent a fair amount of my professional life visiting both types of schools and looking at people teach in them. Those people who have had that opportunity can say fairly comfortably that the pedagogy in those schools is remarkably similar. I think that is an acceptable statement; I do not think anybody would contest it. However, the choices that people seem to be making are based on some fallacious arguments which pick up the values of credentials as they float around, and undoubtedly credentials from some of the top private schools are more valuable than those from most of the public schools. The reasons for that have nothing to do with education but a lot to do with our social structure. I do not intend to pursue that, but it seems to me to be very odd that people can then generalise from some private schools to all private schools on the one hand, and from some state schools to all state schools on the other hand. I think it would be better if some more discriminating judgments were made between various schools. We have good and bad private schools; we have good and bad public schools.

In many ways, those schools respond to their environments, they respond to the teachers who are in them; and they respond to the problems of the children and their families. In areas where those problems are overwhelmingly ones of economic deprivation, fairly obviously the problems the teachers face are far more difficult than those faced in our more affluent suburbs. When one is confronted at secondary school level with the problem of teaching people to read and write one knows that such difficulties have been compounded over a number of years, not through any fault of the education system but because of the inability of the education system to meet the ever-increasing demands that are placed upon it. I hope that in the credentialling debate-which I think is the real debate with regard to public and private schools-we can be a little more discerning in making those types of distinctions.

I am worried that many of the items pointed to in the Quality of Education Review Committee's report seem to have been missed in the debate this year. For example, in an interesting reference on page 29 of the report-this is something which most people in the education community have known about for a long time-the Committee points to the fact that it is very difficult to come up with hard evidence from employers about students being inadequately prepared for work. The QERC report says that it is mainly anecdotal evidence. We all have a drawer full of anecdotes but the hard evidence is very difficult to get. In respect of the general debate about declining standards, where do we find the hard evidence? When we look at the articles that have been published in the serious journals which attempts to review all the educational research in this area, we see statements such as this one by Graeme Little in Standards of Education in Australia:

The fact remains that the hard data we have refutes the decline theory . . . This is not to say that we do not know whether there has been a decline. We do know that there has not been a decline.

It does not matter how many times we refer to these studies, this hoary myth seems to hang around. That is a pity because there are many other areas of the education debate that need urgent attention. We can do without the constant reiteration of that type of material.

We have already debated the problem of exiting from our secondary schools. For example, we find that 45 per cent of Australians in the 15 to 19 year-old bracket are engaged in full time post-compulsory education compared with 75 per cent in the equivalent age group in the United States of America. Why should this be the case? Is it that our students are not as academically bright, not as capable of undertaking post-secondary education? Of course it is not. It is a legacy of the attitude the community in general and successive governments have taken to the funding of education in this country. I think that has to be made top priority next year.

Senator Peter Baume in his speech during the second reading debate referred to our odd priorities-looking at racehorses and a number of other matters rather than at the education of our own citizens and their future. Undoubtedly the Government can say that if it leaves the educational structure as it is, if it maintains the funding in roughly the same configuration as it is at the moment, there probably will not be any electoral backlash arising out of this. I hope that we might go beyond that rather thin political debate and point to the fact that the problems we faced in Australia in the last few years have stemmed directly from the neglect of education in the post-war years. Our States having constantly underfunded their schooling systems and the fact that we have constantly underfunded schools in the public sector and, probably more heinously, in the private sector, including our research efforts, have led to the present parlous state of the economy. We know that money invested in education provides the best return on money invested anywhere-and that includes hole in the ground mining, agriculture, and every other possible industry. We know this and we have known it for a long time, yet we constantly neglect it.

The tertiary sector has suffered a series of blows this year. The various top priorities enunciated by the Government are being shunted into the background. A decision was made in May to cut the capital works funding in technical and further education by $12m and a campaign is running at this time which suggests that youth is a top priority. I am not sure how all those things go together. I do not think they do. A rigorous pursuit of the needs in this area is necessary to maintain the level of funding, to increase the level of funding, and hopefully to take it back to where it was even in the late 1970s. That seems to me to be a priority in education that must loom large in 1986.

I would not like to finish on the topic of money because I consider that, whilst money is absolutely necessary, it is not the only element. As I have already pointed out in the first part of my speech, I believe that social attitudes to education are probably far more important. If I might link the two together at this point, it is social attitudes to education which provide the political wherewithal to get a reasonable education budget out of whatever government happens to be in power. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), who is at the table, presumably knows that all to well. In the arguments that go on between the various departments on the various priorities that present themselves to government, education can assume a top priority only if it is a top priority within the community at large. If the community at large does not view the education of its youth as important, then doubtless the Government will not fund it as important.

I think that in the end it is important to get away from the rather odd notion that seems to have crept into the debate in recent years in that we see the result of education as being the credentials that apply to our children who leave primary and secondary school and to our young people who leave tertiary institutions. In other words, we attach the value of education to the degree or diploma or whatever else the person receives. Essentially I believe that value of education must be attached to the value of learning itself, what that gives the individual and what the individual is then able to give to the community because of his learning. Let us not fall back into that way of thinking which has sometimes crept into statements made by Prime Ministers over the past few years and which seems to suggest fairly clearly that the value of education is in those types of credentials. The value of education is a community value. A person's individual education undoubtedly will provide that person with a better chance in life and will also provide the community with a better future.

It is interesting to note the standing of teachers as revealed in a recent gallup poll. It rated them highly for honesty and professional ethics at 54 per cent. There were some categories higher than the teachers, but I am interested in those that were lower. Among them were Federal politicians, who were rated at 13 per cent, and journalists, who were rated at 11 per cent. It seems to me that it might be about time that those politicians and journalists who in 1985 have engaged in an unceasing denigration of teachers might better look at themselves because presumably they might be the people who need a lot more work done with them than the teachers.