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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 77

Senator ALLISON (5:38 PM) —I also rise to speak on the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004 and the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill 2004. The government has chosen to ignore completely all of the criticisms that were made of its SES funding model. This bill simply enshrines those inequities and ignores the problems that have been raised. It does significantly increase grants to the Catholic school system, and no doubt much of this money will go to schools that have fewer resources than wealthy schools, but that is because the Catholic sector will distribute those funds according to its own criteria of need.

This bill also places numerous and not very sensible or useful conditions on the funding of both government and non-government schools. The Democrats initiated the pre-election inquiry by the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee into Commonwealth funding for schools. That inquiry said that the federal government's funding arrangements were not needs based because they failed to take into account the actual income of parents and the many other resources available to the wealthiest non-government schools, providing the largest increases in funding to non-government schools that were already operating well above the resources that were available to government schools.

Louise Watson's report, presented to the inquiry, showed that 27 per cent of private students—in a survey of 1,000 private schools—attend schools where the income from tuition fees alone exceeded the average resources per student in government schools. Ten years ago the federal government allocated around 62 per cent of its school education budget to non-government schools. Now that figure is 71 per cent. Between 1996 and 2001-02, Commonwealth expenditure on non-government schools grew almost twice as fast, at 48 per cent, as expenditure on government schools, at 28 per cent. The result is that independent non-government schools have far higher resources than government or systemic Catholic schools.

The federal government now provides more funding to non-government schools than it does to our public universities. The SES model is also so problematic that over 50 per cent of non-government schools are funded outside its formula. Just imagine a tax system in which half of the population were exceptions to the rule. If the SES system were applied to all schools, apparently it would be unfair, but we are expected to believe that it is a fairer system than the one it replaced. Of course, it is unfair whichever way you look at it—it is not needs based, unless you think that schools that can afford to spend twice or even three times as much as other schools on every student should be publicly subsidised.

The Prime Minister made a big fuss over the Catholic systemic schools coming under the SES system from 2005, but in 2005 almost 60 per cent of Catholic schools will not be funded according to the SES model. When it introduced the new SES funding formula for non-government schools, which the Democrats voted against, the federal government said it was based on need. Four years of operation of the SES funding model has generated a large body of evidence describing the problems inherent within that model and pointing to the fact that need as measured in the model related to only one measure—the notional, geographically averaged capacity of parents to pay fees.

So what does it matter that the government has made such generous contributions to the running of schools that already have high incomes and often high levels of achievement—if you count university entry as a measure, as I think most parents would? Australia's levels of learning are quite good when compared with other countries, and some might say that the system must be working. But the problem, as we all know, is that the gap between high and low achievers is big and growing under this approach. Dr Barry McGaw told the schools funding inquiry that the Australian schools system as a whole is one of the most inequitable in the developed world in terms of the distance between the schooling outcomes for students from the highest socioeconomic background on the one hand and those from the lowest on the other. We are now in the unfortunate situation where kids who are bright and who have supportive, well-educated and well-resourced parents are doing much better than the bright kids who happen to be born in poor or isolated families.

What is wrong with the government's approach is that it does not encourage a level playing field for children. Sure, a lot of parents not on high incomes make very big sacrifices to send their children to private schools, but the question I think we should be asking here is: why do they feel they must do this and doesn't it suggest that they think the government school system is not well enough resourced? This approach also ignores the most crucial question: what are the educational needs of the child? How does the child with a learning disability or a language problem or those who are Indigenous fit into this needs based model? The most difficult to teach children will not be found in wealthy schools. Yet it is the difficult to teach who need our attention most.

Research from the St Vincent de Paul Society says that, if you are a child in one of the 21 per cent of Australian households that has an income of under $400 a week, your chances of getting out of deprivation are closely linked with your access to good education. And, as we know, how well we do in school is a significant determinant of how well we do socially and economically in adulthood. Eighty-five per cent of our prison population did not finish year 10. Despite all this evidence, the coalition goes on claiming that it has a needs based funding system, when it is anything but. It is false, it is misleading and it ought to be chucked in the bin.

In our view, we should start again—working with schools, school principals, parent and teacher bodies and state and territory governments—and devise a system that is based on educational need and that has a specific aim of giving all students the same educational opportunities. This bill is more than an ideological argument between supporters of private and public schools. The choices this parliament makes with regard to this bill will determine whether we start improving the future for our most disadvantaged children by reforming an inequitable system of funding or we continue increasing their disadvantage and make it even harder for them to contribute economically and socially to the future of our country.

The Democrats have received—no doubt all of us in this place have—over 300 letters from government schools outlining the inequities between federal funding for government schools and non-government schools. We take these communications seriously and we believe a system that funded both government and non-government schools by a formula giving the greatest weight to educational need would address their concerns. Even if we define `need' as the need of parents to pay fees, the system should factor in whole-of-school income and assets, which the SES model does not. Non-government schools and school based systems have the flexibility to set their own fee levels regardless of how much funding they receive. Of course, government schools also charge fees but these are voluntary and make up less than five per cent of total government school funding.

Donations are also a major source of funds, particularly for non-government schools. The more `old school tie' a school is, the more benefactors it has and the greater the generosity of those benefactors. These tax deductible donations can increase substantially the funds available to schools and are, by all accounts, spent on facilities and services rather than reducing fees. This revenue forgone by tax deductibility is yet another subsidy that largely goes to the wealthiest in society.

The Democrats would like to see funding models take into account cost-saving mechanisms as well as income. Schools save money by excluding the hard to teach—nudging out those who are not going to bump up their university entry scores. Eighty per cent of the school population will not make it to university, but some independent schools are not much interested in these students. It costs schools more to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, entrenched unemployment, dysfunctional families, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, disability and non-English-speaking background—to name just a few—which are the reality of many children. A government that was seriously interested in the rights of children, or even clever enough to know that the next generation of workers will have to be well educated to support the ageing population, which we so often hear the Treasurer talk about, would reform its funding system with this in mind.

The government sells its policy of funding non-government schools under the guise of choice. It ultimately suits government to get parents to send their children to non-government schools and to fork out at least some of the cost, which is why the two major parties have been only too happy to see the size of the non-government sector grow for the last three decades or so. The question is: will this bill encourage that growth? I think it probably will. Should all schools in this country instead be resourced to, say, the average for independent schools? I think that would be reasonable. At least before the last budget it might have been doable. Seventy per cent of Australians called for increased education and health spending as a priority over tax cuts. The coalition, supported by the ALP, said that they would rather spend $14.7 billion over four years on tax cuts to high income earners. At the time, the Democrats called for an extra mere $2 billion in public funding for primary and secondary education, with $1 billion of that going to government schools and the other $1billion directed to educational need. This position was vindicated by the recent draft report from the MCEETYA schools resourcing task force, which said that government schools need an extra $2 billion a year to meet literacy and numeracy goals.

Capital works and maintenance funding should also be based on need. Currently, grants for capital works discriminate against the schools that cannot raise their own funds and take little account of the needs of the student population. One of the more ludicrous parts of the bill is the section that gives effect to the coalition's election promise to provide small capital grants directly to government school parent bodies, bypassing the states and presumably any sensible or equitable prioritising of funding. Again, that is a funding policy that takes no account of need. It will no doubt benefit those schools that have active, committed parent organisations that can write good grant applications for that shade over the sandpit or other small item that schools may be able to put forward. It is very interesting that a government so fond of getting rid of public servants, particularly when it first came to office, is now so willing to set up another bureaucracy to administer these grants. It might also be argued that the few dollars this dispenses to schools is hardly worth the effort; but, in any case, the Democrats would prefer to see the funding for government schools directed to the state education departments and sent with a very clear message that it is to be spent, firstly, on finding out where the capital works are most needed.

We desperately need an audit of capital works in this country. It makes much more sense for this money to be used at least in the first instance on an audit of school facilities. We ought to know how many kids are still in portable classrooms, many of which are old enough to be heritage listed, in my experience, and how many do not have the most basic indoor multipurpose spaces, for instance. An indoor space where children can learn gymnastics, put on plays and hold assemblies should be basic even for primary schools, but it is not. Portable classrooms that do not move anywhere for 25 years are uncomfortable and inappropriate learning environments, and they send a very clear message to students that their education does not matter. This government has a preoccupation with national benchmarking and testing for literacy and numeracy but there is no benchmark or national basic standard for basic school amenities. A national audit of all school buildings and facilities is urgently needed and should be followed by a development plan to fund schools to meet basic infrastructure standards. Overall the Commonwealth expenditure on capital works has dropped since 1993 by around 30 per cent. This bill will go some small way to redressing that situation but, as I said, it is not particularly helpful.

The cognate bill in this debate, the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill 2004, gives vouchers of $700 to parents of grade 3 students who fail the reading tests, so that they can access private tutors. This funding, and the $200 million for early childhood intervention announced in the 2004 budget, would achieve better results if used in preschools to keep class sizes down to no more than 15, or to remove preschool fees altogether. The government continues to insist on testing and reporting in schools when a key way to improve success in schools would be for all children to have the universal right to go to preschool for at least one year before entering school. Instead, 40,000 children miss out on preschool every year; there are no national standards for preschools; and there is a patchwork of state government, local government and community-run centres with no coordination between governments. There is federal government disinterest, little access for three-year-olds, a great reliance on parents for organisation, and prohibitively high fees.

According to the Australian Primary Principals Association, children are also missing out on primary school because our primary schools lack the resources to meet national goals of schooling. The Democrats, the Australian Primary Principals Association and the AEU argue that the $20 million being spent on tutorial credit initiatives should be used to support existing programs in schools. Schools already have the structures and the expertise; all they need are the resources to work one-on-one or in small groups with struggling children. These vouchers are not only a massive vote of no confidence in our schools—a vote of no confidence which is neither justified nor useful—but also a very inefficient use of government money. As I said, those funds should be directed to schools where quality assurance and appropriate infrastructure are already in place.

There are many questions about the programs, such as the availability of suitable tutors, the capacity of some parents to seek help for their children, and how this tutorial assistance would tie in with what students are learning at school. There is also concern about the fact that there is no indication that the pilot will be applied beyond term 2 of 2005, nor any details about its proposed evaluation. The inquiry the government launched this week into the teaching of reading will not address the real issues that affect literacy rates—that is, targeted resources that can be used for students who have literacy and numeracy problems in our schools. Minister Nelson needs to understand that difficulty in reading is often a learning disability that continues throughout school and on to later life. To imagine that learning problems can be fixed with a few after-school tutorials in grade 3 is truly fanciful.

So despite its rhetoric on the importance of values, the coalition has in this bill offered only $4½ million, or $1.50 per student, to implement the National Safe Schools Framework. The coalition has encouraged user pays and private education thinly disguised as choice, while failing to address big gaps in student achievement, falling retention rates, large class sizes, alarming teacher shortages and poor facilities, particularly in many government schools. If this legislation is a demonstration of the federal government's support for public education rather than some attempt to stop its further marginalisation then I think the government needs to do much better. The Democrats will be moving amendments to this legislation—we can see that the legislation is going to pass and it is a great pity that it has been pushed to this late stage in the year for us to deal with it—and we hope the Senate will support them.