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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 93

Senator SANTORO (7:45 PM) —Listening to Senator Nettle in this place tonight, it is very easy to see and understand why the Greens failed to realise the expectations that they promoted in the community prior to the last election and failed to realise votes that they thought somewhere along the line were going to give them the balance of power in this place. As someone who is a product of the private Catholic school system—two very small Catholic schools in Brisbane—I can very well understand why the parents of children at a school such as one of the ones I attended, and the relatives and the brothers and sisters of voting age that have relatives attending such schools, rejected the Greens' philosophy on education as comprehensively as they did. In fact they rejected the Greens' policies on so many other issues that the Greens promoted. From my experience in the electorate of Queensland that I represent I fail to understand how the Greens can come up with the views that have just been expressed here this evening—and to a lesser extent also by members of the Labor Party in this place. I sometimes wonder whether we represent the same electorate—though I stopped wondering on election night because the results clearly demonstrated who was really in touch with the Australian electorate.

In the context of the debate on the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achieve-ment Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004 and the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 before the chamber, I want to focus my remarks on the measure to fund improving literacy outcomes in state schools. Lifting the literacy skills of young Australians is a very important thing to do. Without basic literacy and numeracy, educational outcomes, employment prospects and life choices are severely limited. So it makes very good sense to assist parents to meet the cost of extra tuition for children who are not performing in terms of the test applied in year 3, the year 3 benchmark. The government is doing this through the trial Tutorial Credit Initiative, under which eligible parents will have access to a $700 tutorial credit for use on outside school hours additional tuition.

In line with the government's philosophy of facilitating parent choice—so recently endorsed at the ballot box along with many other freedoms that the prescriptive legislation preferred by others would outlaw—this scheme gives parents choice and advice. Parents will select tutors and this process will be administered by brokers who will be responsible for the engagement of tutors at public expense who are appropriately qualified, screened and vetted.

It is probably worth repeating at this point that there remains some resistance to the concept of reporting schools' academic performance publicly and that this is a short-sighted—and, in relation to teacher unions, self-serving—response to demonstrated need. On that front it is also worth recording the words back in May of the Queensland education minister, Anna Bligh, a luminary of the Left, about this tutorial scheme. Ms Bligh, who formerly failed to render satisfactory service as the Queensland children's minister, is apparently determined to match this performance in education. In a media statement about this scheme issued on May 19 she said:

This is a cheap political stunt by the Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson ... It is important for the mums and dads of the more than 3000 children who are struggling with reading in Queensland to know that their child is a political football to the Howard Government.

That was last May. In October, just five months later and after the people of Australia had delivered their very different verdict on who was playing political football, Ms Bligh and Premier Peter Beattie had this to say in a media statement on public disclosure of performance:

It's important that parents and the wider community have confidence in the quality of education being delivered in Queensland schools ... we expect that making school data available will help drive performance.

Granted that the issues on the one hand of supporting parents in getting remedial tutorial assistance for their children with literacy difficulties and on the other providing information on school performance are separate, the principle is drawn from the same base. The state education systems are not places where, increasingly at Commonwealth expense, political footballs should be kicked around. Ms Bligh and the Queensland Labor government, please note: it is a fact that research shows—and Ms Bligh and Premier Beattie attempt to make a virtue out of their discovery of this long-known fact in their media statement of October 21—that schools in states in America which are required to publish literacy and numeracy results at certain levels achieve higher rates of improvement than schools in states which do not require such information to be made public. The issue in Queensland is that in relation to reporting literacy outcomes the state system now conforms to Commonwealth requirements, as is proper and which is most certainly to be welcomed.

The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill gives effect to funding and facilitating choice of remedial action on literacy. Literacy and numeracy testing and benchmarking at years 3, 5 and 7 are a critical part of the schooling system and a key indicator of academic performance. The fact that more states than the original four taking part in the trial have come on board is great news. It is a significant step towards effective national standards and outcomes and obviously must be supported by anyone interested in the future of our children and our country. As the second reading introduction speech incorporated into the Hansard last week noted:

The 24,000 children across Australia who have not attained the minimum reading skills deserve the opportunity to receive additional tutorial assistance offered by the Tutorial Credit Initiative, and their parents are entitled to comprehensive information about their child's progress.

That the Howard-Costello government is facilitating this process is to the credit of the government.