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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Page: 74

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) (9:07 PM) —We are discussing a fundamental principle here—and remember it is $28 billion worth of public money. This measure will commence, we hope—that is, if the opposition does not seek to block this legislation and deny over 1.1 million Australian children access to their funding—

Senator Mason —Don’t scare everyone, Kim!

Senator CARR —I think you should be aware of the consequences, Senator. Quite glibly you make these claims, but the consequences of your actions have to be understood. We are talking here about a bill that affects, across the Commonwealth of Australia, 2,728 schools, over 1.1 million students and, as I said, involves expenditure of $28 billion. The principles that have been outlined in this bill highlight the government’s commitment to ushering in a new era of transparency and accountability for both—and I want to emphasise this, Senator Mason—government and non-government schools. We are not asking anything of the non-government sector that is not being asked of the government sector.

This is about parents’ rights. It is about parents’ rights to know what is going on. It is also about children’s rights to a decent education, no matter where they live in Australia. It is an expectation that I think the parliament has a right to assert when we are spending $28 billion of public money. The amendment is being proposed by Family First and the Liberal Party—

Senator Mason —The coalition.

Senator CARR —Not in this instance.

Senator Williams —Yes!

Senator CARR —Oh, so it is the National Party as well. Do not let me forget the National Party when it comes to backward thinking. Senator Mason, you are quite correct. If there is a retrograde party in this parliament then of course it is the National Party. But we are talking about Family First. I am sorry. Family First have now proposed to do the dirty work for the Liberal Party. That is what they are doing—the dirty work for the Liberal Party on this issue. Clause 22 of the Schools Assistance Bill requires, as a condition of funding, the implementation of a national curriculum in all non-government schools by 31 January 2012. The same provisions apply to the arrangements that have been made for the national education agreement. The implementation of the national curriculum, once it is known and agreed, will be mandatory for all schools in Australia. It will not be an optional extra.

Senator Mason —When it is known. We don’t know what it is.

Senator CARR —Senator Mason, you seem to think that quality is an optional extra for those with the ability to pay. That seems to be the model that you are proposing. The process of developing the national curriculum is one in which representatives of the non-government sector have been directly involved. The national curriculum will detail the content and the achievement standards that all young Australians should have access to, regardless of their socioeconomic background. So the quality of the education you get should be based not on your postcode but on your access to the very best resources this country can provide and the very best teaching. It should be based on the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity for every child in this country.

This is a fundamental principle of equity that the Liberal Party has historically walked away from. We are seeing it here again tonight. Very much at the centre of debate here is the failure of the Liberal Party to face up to its responsibilities to ensure that every child in Australia gets access to a quality education, no matter where they live, no matter who their parents are and no matter how much money they have in the bank. That is the principle that I think this parliament has to focus on.

There are requirements in terms of both content and achievement standards. They will, however, continue to provide for flexibility in terms of innovation and creativity for the development and delivery of the curriculum at the local level by individual schools. The national curriculum will not mandate the practices that schools or teachers use to deliver the content that they teach. What it will provide, though, is the capacity to ensure that we can get proper standards right across the country. We can ensure that schools and teachers will continue to use their professional talents, their professional judgement about the ways in which to cover the material and in what sequence and how best to reflect local and regional circumstances and philosophies in the learning environment.

I was a schoolteacher for 10 years. I will say this to you, Senator Mason: I know something about the difficulties of teaching in a working-class district in the north of Melbourne. I can say this to you on the basis of my experience: the fact is that in this country the levels of inequality are unacceptable.

Senator Mason —This is about curriculum, Kim.

Senator CARR —It is very much about curriculum. It is about the standards of education. It is about the quality of education. It is about the capacity of this country to provide $58 billion across the full range of programs and the right of parents to know that there is a decent education system operating in every school in this country.

Senator Mason —It is $28 billion.

Senator CARR —It is $28 billion for this bill. The principles apply right across the board. That is the point I am making: $58 billion.

Senator Mason —Government and non-government.

Senator CARR —Yes. That is a 29 per cent increase in the level of support for schooling in this country. The government say that we have a right as a parliament to say to the schools of this country, ‘You must participate in a quality educational program’. We are in the business of ensuring that schools participate in the development of that program, that the professional judgement of teachers is used fully and that they reflect the local communities in which they live. The Australian government recognise that some specialist schools have specialised curricula. For example, Steiner and Montessori schools have educational philosophies that involve a particular approach and delivery of the curriculum. We recognise that existing curriculum frameworks, such as the International Baccalaureate and the University of Cambridge International Examinations, are appropriate. Clearly, these approaches and these frameworks are internationally recognised, educationally recognised, and used by schools.

We have also said that, with regard to the development of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, there has to be provision for the most effective method of confirming the recognition of well-established curriculum frameworks in line with existing curriculum accreditation arrangements that operate within the states and territories. The recognition of this is outlined in the regulations to this bill and the way in which the national curriculum will be developed. We are also saying, though, that we have to ensure that the non-government sector is represented through that authority.

This bill recognises the proper processes, including the draft administrative guidelines—which have already been carried through and have been sent to the Independent Schools Council of Victoria, the National Catholic Education Commission and other non-government stakeholders for their comments. The previous government imposed 16 different sets of conditions on its schools through its schools bills. There are six in this bill. There is a fundamental difference in the approach. The level of quality, the level of transparency and the level of accountability is much greater but it applies equally to public and private systems. Therefore, we will be opposing this amendment strenuously.