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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Page: 12

Senator KROGER (1:46 PM) —I thank the Senate for the opportunity to speak on the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. I support the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 without reservations. The bill is to amend the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 to provide additional funding for non-government schools teaching a significant number of Indigenous students. Minister for Education Julia Gillard has estimated that $5.4 million additional funding will be granted for this purpose, with special emphasis on non-government schools in remote and very remote areas. Whilst I support this bill, I have strong concerns about four sections of the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 as proposed by the Rudd Labor government.

The Schools Assistance Bill 2008 is the primary funding instrument for non-government education in Australia. Between 2009 and 2012, primary and secondary schools will receive $28 billion to provide non-government education. I am delighted that the Rudd Labor government has not reduced this figure and has followed the spirit of the last funding agreement the former coalition government made available. However, the bill introduces a number of changes which will make these payments conditional on the schools agreeing to new rules—for example, following the national curriculum and disclosing all private funding sources. These proposed changes are of great concern to non-government schools in Australia.

It is disappointing that we have so little time to discuss these issues. If we do not pass the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 in the Senate this week, the threat of no funding in early 2009 will hang over the very heads of private schools. These schools are worried, and should be, that they may not be able to open their doors for the new school year. The bill provides for great controversy, as the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has highlighted. I support the coalition’s amendments to this bill. It is of great importance that we do not link all the conditions that the Rudd Labor government intends to introduce in this appropriation bill to non-government school funding.

In clause 24 of the bill, the Rudd Labor government imposes on non-government schools the need to provide reports to the minister in relation to programs of financial assistance and the financial operations of the school, including its financial viability and funding sources. Funding sources is a new concept in this context. At the moment, the minister collects relevant but not all information about school incomes as part of government surveys of schools. This information is kept confidential and is not published; it is treated as commercial-in-confidence. But with clause 24 of the bill, this is all about to change.

Firstly, the clause gives the minister substantial new powers to demand information about the internal financial affairs of a school, as it demands the disclosure of all funding sources for the school or anybody associated with the school. In other words, the minister will learn all about scholarship funds, donations and all other sources of funding, such as profit-generating activities or community fundraising achieved by parents and friend associations.

Before commencing my career in this place, I worked as a fundraiser for a leading non-government school in Melbourne. From this experience, I question the Rudd Labor government’s intention with this clause. What business is it of the government to know whether a group of committed parents organise a raffle to pay for new sporting equipment or shadecloth for the playground? By pursuing personal fundraising activities, parents can directly have a say in what is important to them and what value they can add to the education of their kids. Parents and alumni often donate for particular activities and scholarship programs on the basis of anonymity. I have experience of many instances where they have value-added to the education on offer on the very basis that this generosity is not disclosed so that it does not directly affect the children in the school.

Clause 24 clearly manifests a breach of commercial-in-confidence. It could lead to a situation which scares off potential benefactors, and certainly from my direct experience it would achieve that. Education minister Gillard has tried to explain why Labor insists on the clause. In her second reading speech on the bill she said:

Only by understanding the total amount of funds at the disposal of individual schools is it possible to understand the relationship between resourcing and educational outcomes.

This argument is not convincing. Independent schools already provide the minister with enough information through their annual financial questionnaires.

Secondly, what worries me even more is the general phrasing of clause 24, which would allow for the publication of that information. This is a critical change. Independent schools fear this plan and they fear it for all the right reasons. In his submission to the inquiry into the Schools Assistance Bill 2008, Ballarat and Clarendon College Principal David Shepherd wrote:

We already provide exhaustive reports to receive appropriate funding and are concerned more detailed information may be counterproductive if misinterpreted by publicity or at worst used for purely political purposes.

This is not a minority view. This unease is shared by many other professionals, including the Deputy Chair of the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria, Heather Schnagl. She also provided evidence to the education committee and I quote her:

Independent schools have no problem with our financial accountability to the federal government … and we are very happy to publicly account for all public money. We are concerned about the potential, in publishing of all sources of moneys, for it to be distorted in the public press. I can just see the headlines on the front page of the media if they publish that: ‘So-and-so School has this amount of money to spend on each individual student.

What Ms Schnagl clearly fears is a new move by Labor to reinstate the notorious hit list that my colleague Senator Fifield has already mentioned. We all remember this attempt to target the wealthier schools. Labor’s statements are on record regarding not only the hit list but also the SES model, which does not require publication of this commercial-in-confidence information. We know that Labor still follows an ideologically driven desire to punish schools—yes, punish—which are creative, proactive and successful in raising additional funds. We know there is still a hidden agenda.

Publishing funding sources to understand the relationship between resourcing and educational outcomes is just not necessary. In 2005-06 the cost of educating a child in a government school was on average $11,243. The cost to government of educating a child in a non-government school in the same period was only $6,268. As a result, we already know where we stand today. We know that private education is costing the taxpayer less money whilst achieving outcomes equal to, and in some cases better than, public schools.

Interestingly, the government’s own survey highlighted what parents considered to be a priority. The government’s own survey showed that the disclosure of private funding sources ranked only ninth out of 13 criteria. What parents considered far more pressing and of concern and ranked up the top was literacy and numeracy—hardly a surprise. The survey also highlighted that parents were worried about the direction of the proposed national curriculum. Three out of four parents stated they would be very alarmed if they sent their children to a Steiner or Montessori school or a school offering the International Baccalaureate or the University of Cambridge International Examinations program. This was as well as the individual student programs offered by special needs schools.

Clause 22 of the Schools Assistance Bill determines that non-government schools will only receive funding under the condition that they commit themselves today to follow a national curriculum which is still in the making. At this stage we have little idea of what the national curriculum for the four proposed subjects—maths, science, history and English—will look like. Although discussion papers have been published by the Interim National Curriculum Board, there is still much room left for speculation on how the national curriculum will be defined. All we know today is that the national curriculum is to be introduced in 2011. The final documents will not be released until some time in 2009, yet the Schools Assistance Bill ties school funding to the acceptance of that curriculum. As senators heard repeatedly in the inquiry into the Schools Assistance Bill, this proposition is highly unfair. Several of those affected, such as members of the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria, have stated they should not be forced to agree to a curriculum they have never seen.

The development of a national curriculum began under the Howard government, and may I say it is a courageous and crucial venture. Australia does offer a confusing array of curriculum frameworks. At a state and territory level the authorities provide their own set of rules when it comes to determining what is taught, how it is taught and how it is assessed. As a consequence, students who move interstate struggle to keep up with their new curriculum framework and risk losing valuable study time while catching up with the different learning programs. The current system of competing curriculum frameworks also exacerbates a significant problem in the education system: that graduating students fail to reach a required standard of achievement measuring their competence when they leave school. Whilst I do support the establishment of a national curriculum, I have deep concerns about the direction the Rudd Labor government is taking to address the challenges in our education system.

There is a serious risk that this national curriculum could become substandard and flawed, yet Labor insists that non-government schools commit themselves to a curriculum that they have not only not seen but not had the opportunity to debate. Today when we discuss this bill we have no idea what direction this national curriculum will take. Will it be mandatory to follow, or will there be room for flexible teaching methodologies? The government needs to recognise the specific curriculum provided by schools such as the Christian, Montessori and Steiner schools along with the successful International Baccalaureate program. In her second reading speech on the Schools Assistance Bill, Minister Gillard stated, ‘The national curriculum once agreed and completed will be compulsory.’ Only two sentences later she said:

The national curriculum will not be a straitjacket for schools. It will provide for flexibility and scope to allow schools and teachers to implement its content and achievement standards in appropriate ways at the local and school level.

But this still leaves room for speculation on how prescriptive the national curriculum and its imposition will be.

Debate interrupted.