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Wednesday, 2 November 1983
Page: 2241

Ms FATIN(6.46) —Yesterday when this matter was debated the honourable member for Wentworth (Mr Coleman) said that this Government has a terrible record in regard to education. This is not so. I should like to remind the House that total direct outlays on education are estimated to increase by 10.7 per cent in 1983-84 to $4,210.5m. The Labor Government's commitment to education in Australia is known, acknowledged and applauded by Australians generally. Through a variety of budgetary and other measures the Government has vigorously set about restoring purpose and progress to Australian education.

I rise today specifically to comment on the tabled report titled 'Living away from home facilities for isolated children-Study'. This report looks into the current provision of living away from home facilities for isolated children. It provides advice to government about the four categories of such facilities, that is, government hostels, government boarding schools, non-government hostels, and non-government boarding schools. Of the four categories mentioned, the non- government boarding schools are the most numerous. They get capital funding for accommodation facilities from the Commonwealth and some minor assistance from the States and are far better off financially than those in the other three categories. Government boarding schools, the second category, are found only in two States, New South Wales and Western Australia, and are fully supported by State and Commonwealth grants. Government hostels, the third category, are in Tasmania and Western Australia only. These are very good facilities without the apparent needs of the fourth category, that is, the non-government hostels. This latter category has limited State government support and no Federal support.

The study to which I am referring was undertaken by the Commonwealth Schools Commission in response to a request from the Government to undertake a further study of a recommendation in the Commission's report for the triennium 1982-84 that student hostels be made eligible for non-government schools capital grants program. The Commission set up a working party which considered the written and verbal submissions from interested groups. It visited a representative sample of 54 boarding schools and hostels and distributed a comprehensive questionnaire to boarding schools and hostels. Fifteen major submissions were received from all States and Territories in Australia. These were supplemented by letters from individuals, from parents and others associated with the welfare and education of children from isolated areas. The submissions contained a wide cross-section of views of community groups, education authorities, parent associations and church organisations.

All the submissions were concerned with the personal difficulties confronting rural parents who wished to provide a sound education for their families. It was pointed out that State governments are committed to providing free secular and compulsory education for children but that this goal cannot currently be achieved for those living in isolated areas. When one looks at this report one can see that the response to this inquiry was very great indeed. As one who has lived in isolated areas at times during the last 20 years, I can attest to the fact that the parents of such children have difficulties; and it is very good to see these sorts of difficulties beginning to be put together in this form.

Following the Schools Commission's establishment in 1973 and its obvious concern about rural education, the parents of children in isolated areas set up the Isolated Children's Parents Association. This Assosciation was very active in its submission to this study. The main findings of the study are that the majority of students who live away from home to complete their schooling attend boarding schools or schools with boarding elements and that 89 per cent of those children attend non-government boarding schools and 4.9 per cent attend government boarding schools. The continuing need of isolated students in all States to have access to educational opportunities, particularly at the secondary level of schooling, has been met essentially through the non- government boarding sector. Most non-government boarding schools are run at a loss and a significant number have closed over recent years, causing a shortage of places for isolated children, particularly girls, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. There is a need for a more integrated relationship between tuition and hostel accommodation facilities for children who have to live away from home for their schooling. These are the sorts of findings that the study group actually made.

It also found that hostels in some States are not the most appropriate living environments for young people who must live away from home to complete their schooling; that poor living environments can prevent students in country areas from completing their schooling to year 12, contributing to a low retention rate in many country areas; and that many isolated families select non-government boarding schools, despite their high fees, for their children's education because poor pastoral care and quality of environment are not conducive to learning and personal development.

The study also identified important issues which need to be addressed if children in isolated areas are to have reasonable access to an appropriate range of educational opportunities. Some of these issues are: The continuing long term needs of isolated children for proper access to educational services, and that such services should be available through home-based educational services and through school-based services in local rural centres and larger, often urban, centres; the provision of appropriate standards of accommodation, pastoral care and supervision and living away from home facilities for isolated children; the continuation by education authorities of present policies to improve and enrich educational services for rural and isolated communities; the implications for parents in isolated areas of educating their children away from home in terms of both financial hardship and limitations on the types of educational services selected; the regular review of the assistance to isolated children grants scheme to ensure the maintenance of funding levels appropriate to the cost of educating an isolated child and the regular review of criteria for access to additional grants; the demand from overseas students for places in the context of the already limited number in boarding schools; the co-ordination of educational provision for children of itinerant families, and the increased provision of services and resources to meet the needs of particular groups of students in isolated areas such as handicapped children. This report, which I consider very valuable indeed, contains a number of recommendations concerning the funding of future studies of educational services in rural areas. It has just been tabled in the Senate and in this House. The recommendations have yet to be considered by the Government. I consider them very important and I know that the Government will consider them to be such.