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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 81

Senator FIFIELD (5:56 PM) —I also rise to speak in the second reading debate 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. These bills will implement the government's clear commitments to schools funding presented to the last parliament, together with the commitments made during the recent election. With these bills the Australian government is providing supplementary funding for state schools of $10.8 billion over four years. This represents an increase of $2.9 billion over the current funding levels, which is good news.

The government is also improving the funding arrangements for non-government schools, over four years bringing funding for Catholic schools to $12.8 billion and funding for independent schools to $7.8 billion. Every Catholic and independent school will now receive funding based on the same funding formula—the socioeconomic status funding model. A funding guarantee mechanism will ensure that no school will lose funding when the SES scores are updated.

The Australian government continue to support state, Catholic and independent schools. We do so in part because state Labor governments have failed to adequately resource their school sectors, to inform parents, to provide parents with the information needed to monitor the progress of their children's education and to enable a comparison of schools. The coalition believe that parents should be able to choose which schools their children attend and to do that they need appropriate information in order to make that choice. Parents have a right to expect that their taxes will support their children's education regardless of whether they choose a state school or an independent school. In addition to recurrent funding, the Australian government, in these bills, is also providing $2.5 billion for school capital works over the next four years. This includes $1 billion announced during the election campaign and $700 million of this additional funding will go direct to state school communities. It will not go to state bureaucracies or to teacher unions. It will go straight to school projects like libraries, computer facilities, and playing fields.

Senator Carr —It's largesse. Be honest, you are rolling out the pork.

Senator FIFIELD —On this side we think it is great. We know school communities welcome this initiative, and it is clear why they welcome it—they desperately need this funding. It is a pity that state governments do not put the same priority on their schools that the Commonwealth puts on them. Labor oppose this measure because they believe that school bureaucracies and state governments know far better than local school communities how to spend that money. Governments always know best; the bureaucracy always knows best! We want to put the money in the hands of the school communities because they know what the issues are in their schools.

The government has consistently pursued an agenda of improving choice and fostering excellence in education. Parents have the right not only to choice but also to knowledge about the progress of their children. The government, with these bills, will also require as a condition of funding to the states and territories that student report cards are in plain English. This information will be available to parents.

Senator Carr —Are you going to read them?

Senator FIFIELD —Members opposite would have difficulty reading even the plain English reports. This information will be available to parents. Comparisons of performances between schools will be available to parents. We will make sure that parents will have information that is meaningful and that will help them make a choice about what is best for their children. Other aspects of the funding include providing greater autonomy to school principals. We think that local school communities and local principals have the best idea of how to run their schools for the benefit of students. We are also going to see the implementation of the National Safe Schools Framework.

These bills also provide funding for the Tutorial Credit Initiative in states which report to parents about their children's performance against the national benchmarks. Over the course of this year, more states started reporting to parents against the national benchmarks. The Australian government is now in the happy situation of needing this bill in order to expand the number of states to be included in the trial. Under this trial, up to $700 will go to parents for individual tutorial assistance for children who have not met the year 3 national reading benchmark.

The need for this was evidenced today by Dr Ken Rowe, chairman of the national inquiry into literacy teaching. Dr Rowe has stated that hospital psychology units are straining to cope with children seeking medical attention for problems caused by their failure to learn at school. He is quoted in today's Age saying:

Hospitals are complaining that their clinics are being filled with kids who are being referred for things like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) ... But once the pediatricians sort out the children's literacy problems, the behaviour problems disappear. What is essentially an education issue has become a health issue.

This is the real effect of state Labor neglect. The fact that more states are reporting against the national benchmarks demonstrates how the Australian government's actions are assisting the states to lift their game. It is a shame it is necessary, given that the education of our children is meant to be a core state government responsibility. We as a national government are not going to stand by and watch the states neglect the education of our children. Where we see a need, we will act.

Education was one of the key issues on which the ALP chose to fight their battles—education was front and centre for senators opposite—and it is a key issue on which they lost. Incredibly, last week Labor decided to keep their divisive schools policy. The caucus chose to keep the hit list. I am sorely tempted to read out the full list of 32 schools in Victoria which are on the hit list because I think it is important for my constituents in Victoria to know that Labor are keeping that hit list. The parents of children in these 32 schools should know that Labor do not value the sacrifices parents make to send their kids to the school of their choice. Labor think these families are wealthy. Often there are two parents working hard to put their kids through the school of their choice, and we want to support that choice. But caucus have chosen to keep building a policy on class warfare. They have chosen envy over opportunity yet again.

There is a test in these bills for Labor. The test is to see if the opposition have learnt the lessons of the last election. The Australian Labor Party claim to have got the message. Before the election Labor opposed the earlier version of many measures contained in these bills. During the campaign itself education was where the philosophical difference between Labor and the coalition was the most stark. It sounds from what Senator Carr has said as though Labor might support these bills. But they do so with no sense of conviction; they do so with a heavy heart because they embrace the politics of envy rather than the politics of choice. Let those opposite demonstrate through a real change of policy that they can read the plain English report card that they have received from Australia's parents. Join with the government, support parents, support choice, support excellence, eschew the politics of class and envy, and give parents what they want.