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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 84

Senator MARK BISHOP (8:31 PM) —Let there be no doubt in your mind, Mr President, that I do have the capacity to abridge my remarks, and I will give consideration to your suggestion. This evening I wish to speak on a matter of some consequence, a matter of public importance, and that is the issue of Commonwealth funding of our education system. The current debate concerning the Schools Assistance Bill, I believe, in some respects misses some of the more critical points. Education funding, I say at the outset, is no longer a debate about public versus private. It is no longer a debate about how much funding should be given by the Commonwealth or a particular state. It is not a way of finding ways to name or shame schools or, for that matter, teachers. The debate is really about student performance. It is about standards and outcomes and how they are measured. In short, the debate is about our educational institutions and what we expect from those educational institutions.

So how did we get to a point where some suggest that educators fear scrutiny? The answer is simple: for 12 years those opposite let down our schools, our TAFEs and our universities. The Howard government’s agenda was limited to cultural wars and naming and shaming schools. It was, of course, part of a political plan to play the blame game with a whole series of state Labor governments. The fact is that they did not commit new resources to making a difference to disadvantaged schools or to teacher quality. Clearly their agenda was about one thing and one thing only: the politics of the moment. By creating a division between public and private, they effectively put at risk our future prosperity, and their failure has left our education system out of sync with the rest of the world.

If we look at the OECD Education at a glance 2008 report, we see that Australia performs well overall, that 80 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have attained at least year 11 equivalent—that is, well above the OECD average—and that a high proportion of Australians graduate from tertiary institutions. But performance in other areas has been less than positive. In 2005 just 0.1 per cent of GDP was spent on preprimary education; that compares to an OECD average of 0.4 per cent. Australia’s ranking in that area is now 24th out of 26 countries. In the tertiary education sector, expenditure was at 1.1 per cent of GDP—again, well less than the OECD average—and we have started to slip behind in international rankings. The report clearly shows that there are some longstanding areas of underperformance and underinvestment, and that is the legacy of the Howard government in the area of education after 12 years. The countries we compete with are spending more and more on education. Indeed, our expenditure levels rank us 19th in a list of 28 nations. It is a problem we inherited and it is a problem we intend to fix.

In Australia there have always been disadvantaged kids who do not get a fair go in the system, and we know that more than one in four young people from low socioeconomic status families are not going on to vocational training or higher education. Today, too many young Australians leave school early and do not make a worthwhile transition to work. They end up unemployed or in casual jobs. Business as usual for these children is not good enough. Until we have a policy of transparency and assessment in schools, children will continue to be left behind.

So what do we need to do to improve the quality of what goes on inside a classroom? Firstly, I suggest, we need to get back to basics. In order for our children to reach their full potential they need some essential tools, and the tools are literacy and numeracy skills. Over the last 20 to 30 years there has been an intense debate about education means, and as a parent I have followed that debate with some interest. I have come to the view that the teaching method known as phonics is fundamental to early literacy. This method allows children to be taught in a structured and comprehensive way. I also believe in a strong emphasis on the importance of grammar, punctuation and spelling. There is a difference between reading what is written and understanding what is written, but you cannot put the cart before the horse. The same rigour should be applied to the teaching of mathematics.

Secondly, we need a national curriculum that sets national standards for each child. To this end the government, I am pleased to say, has established the National Curriculum Board. Its purpose is to develop a national curriculum from kindergarten right through to year 12, a curriculum that will be taught in every school in Australia. It appears to be focused on practical outcomes, and that per se is pretty reasonable. I would enter one word of caution: national curricula should be about national standards. They should also be about minimum standards. Some children, some schools, some parents and some communities want to focus on effort, achievement and high outcomes. In short, they aim by constant work to improve over time and achieve that mythical thing called excellence. It is a worthy aim, a fine purpose and it should be encouraged. It should be encouraged clearly in the standards set by the National Curriculum Board.

As Lincoln once said, we should be pushing up, dragging up and forcing up—in terms of educational outcomes—the bottom and the middle so that they can achieve the same results as some of the fine independent, Catholic and state schools in this country. It is important that our best and brightest are not forgotten. And we must continue to challenge exceptional students so they can achieve to their full potential.

That brings me to centres of excellence and their importance in our education system. In my home state, Perth Modern is a fully selective public school, which means that entry is by academic test. The school has a proud history and can boast having educated 15 Rhodes Scholars. Alumni include a governor-general, successive governors, a prime minister and members of the International Court of Justice. Just like Olympic swimmers and AFL footballers, a lot more children in Australia are capable of admission to the Harvards and Yales of this world. Part of the purpose of national standards, national curricula and the National Curriculum Board must be to aim for excellence in academic achievement.

Thirdly, we need rigorous testing that measures a student’s performance against the performance of their peers and then measures the performance of their school and compares that performance to other schools in the area. Finally, performance should be measured against students and schools around the state and nationally. Parents as well as government want and need this information. Teacher assessment, while valuable as a guide, is no substitute for peer comparison. Information on school performance should be a national priority, because it tells parents and governments which schools need help.

We all recognise that education is a partnership, one that involves parents, schools, communities and governments. For the partnership to work effectively we need to know where we are doing well and, more importantly, where we can do better. If we identify schools needing help, additional resources can be directed to them. It is not about ranking schools or creating league tables; it is about providing information to parents on how their child is performing within their peer group, on their child’s strengths and on whether there is room for improvement. Parents also want to know if their school is meeting national standards and, if not, that the government is willing to provide the necessary additional resources.

This government understands that investing in education is crucial not only to providing our young people with opportunity but also to driving productivity growth and to building a modern and prosperous economy for the future. We are taking the first steps by raising the quality of teaching in our schools; ensuring all students benefit from schooling, especially in disadvantaged communities; and improving transparency and accountability of schools and school systems at all levels.

We want a school system that supports learning for every child whether they attend private, public or remote schools. To achieve these priorities, we need a framework that is consistent for all schools. The 2009-12 funding agreement for private schools will require them to participate in national assessment of students, participate in national reporting of student performance, provide school performance reports to the minister, make performance information public, provide plain language student reports and implement the national curriculum. These six conditions are a significant reduction in the range of conditions and strings attached to previous agreements. Our focus is on accountability for educational outcomes, not flagpoles and not cultural wars.

Another measure to be introduced is the requirement for schools to report funding sources. This type of information in the past has been treated as commercial-in-confidence. But the idea of a ‘private’ school is an oxymoron. In many instances these schools receive significant public funding. For example, the Commonwealth government contributes up to 50 per cent, with state and territory governments contributing around 15 to 25 per cent. In the case of remote schools with large Indigenous student numbers, public funding can be much higher. It is right and proper that the government stipulates a framework for transparency and accountability for such a large investment by taxpayers.

We are committed to improving transparency in schools through national testing, easy-to-understand reports for parents and public reporting on the performance of schools. This information will encourage excellence in each and every school right around Australia. We have left the time of divisive politics and policy apathy way behind us—permanently we hope. I am sure it is understood that the old divisions between systems and between national and state jurisdictions have lost their relevance.

Australia needs to keep pace with the demand for skills and labour in a rapidly changing global and national environment. Improving educational standards for all students will give them the best start in life. There is much to be done. As well as being at the heart of equity, education is at the heart of the economy. Australia’s long-term prosperity is built on the education, skills and training of our workforce. History has shown us that knowledge-intensive industries determine the economic prosperity of a nation. The 21st century will be no different. But we have inherited from the previous government a most shameful legacy. We have fallen behind acceptable standards as tested in the rest of the world. Too many disadvantaged kids are being left behind. This government has a plan that places education at the forefront of the national agenda—where it properly belongs. Debates about public schools versus private schools are debates of the past. The debates of the future will be about how we make sure that every child in every school gets a proper education. In total, $28 billion will go to the non-government school sector over the next four years. Along with the National Education Agreement, the government is investing $42 billion in our education systems. This government is putting forward a new proposition: if we want a fairer and stronger Australia, we need to invest in both excellence and equity.