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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 1

Senator ALLISON (12:31 PM) —The Australian Democrats know that the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2004 is required for the funding of Indigenous schools and communities by January next year, so we do not want to stand in the way of funds reaching those schools and other institutions. That money is desperately needed by Indigenous students. However, we do want to put on the record our strong opposition to the way in which this government has gutted the Indigenous Education Direct Assistance Program. I also want to emphasise how severely lacking this supplementary funding is. The bill provides funding for the next four years for education and training of Indigenous students through two programs: the Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program and the Indigenous Education Direct Assistance Program. It continues the away from home base element of Abstudy at 2004 levels and it introduces accountability arrangements involving extensive and detailed reporting on Indigenous education programs.

Our main concern with these changes is the very clear and real lack of improvement in funding for Indigenous education. This bill contains a mere five per cent increase in real terms on funding between 2002 and 2003. There are also concerns about the redistribution of funds to remote communities. Secondly, the extensive reporting requirements, which we effectively dealt with yesterday in the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill, make it clear that the government is approaching Indigenous education funding with the same mainstreaming approach. The problem with Indigenous communities, particularly those in the more remote areas of Australia, is that they will not have the resources to fulfil the requirements of reporting. Thirdly, we think the election commitment to fund boarding places for students from remote communities and the additional city based apprenticeships and other tertiary training places represents yet another example of the government's policy-on-the-run approach to Indigenous affairs. These programs do not address a whole range of very complex issues regarding remote Indigenous communities and we are yet to see the details of either program.

I think we need to remember that the education we are talking about here is for Indigenous Australians, who have the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the country by a long way, and I might say lower than so many other countries as well. The Indigenous population is growing at close to twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. Contributions to Indigenous education should be increasing, in our view. We have the chance to exponentially improve the education statistics and, more importantly, the life opportunities of Indigenous Australians through education, given the burgeoning young population. I think we are yet to embrace this opportunity in a productive way.

Unfortunately, this legislation does not move in that direction at all. Although the hard work and commitment of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators must be acknowledged, the statistics remain shocking. Only half of young Indigenous people aged between 15 and 19 attend secondary school. Only 10 per cent complete their year 12 qualifications—less than a third of non-Indigenous completion rates. Although the number of Indigenous people at universities has increased, the percentage of Indigenous university students has actually decreased over the Howard government's years. Considering that the percentage of Indigenous young people is increasing at a faster rate than that of non-Indigenous people, we would expect the university trend to be going in the opposite direction. Universities are making up for the drastic inequalities in education standards of Indigenous people through special entry programs—70 per cent of Indigenous university students gained entry through special entry programs, compared with just 20 per cent of non-Indigenous students. We should clearly be addressing the inequalities at preschool, primary school and secondary school so that these programs become less necessary. I would also make the point that the specific funding provided through this legislation, although supplementary, is often the most relevant and targeted funding for Indigenous students. Until mainstream educational institutions and curricula reflect and include the experiences of Indigenous Australia, mainstream funding will not deliver equal benefits to Indigenous students.

It is the most disadvantaged Australians that the government is again short-changing with these amendments to the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act. This government has a history of saving money on Indigenous education. In January 2000, changes to Indigenous education funding for Abstudy were estimated to produce savings to the government of approximately $75.2 million for the year 2000 alone. In the last funding quadrennium, from 2001 to 2004, these changes have clearly saved the government a substantial sum. The Indigenous Education Direct Assistance Program review of this year revealed that funding for the program in its previous form had not received any major increases in funding since its establishment in 1991-92. According to the Australian Education Union, even the indexation of the Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program, or IESIP, is applied at a much lower rate than all other schools funding.

Given this history, I think we need to be clear about the money the government claims to be spending generously on Indigenous education. This eight per cent increase over the next four years is the only significant increase in the program's 16 years. Given the distinct lack of growth in previous years, this is hardly substantial. The increase in supplementary recurrent assistance, or SRA, is due to increased enrolments, as the funding is on a per capita basis. Indigenous enrolments in the schooling sector alone increased by 5.4 per cent from 2001 to 2002. This so-called new money—$86.3 million—does not constitute extra expenditure on a per capita basis. SRA funding for education providers who are being reclassified from remote to non-remote areas and funding for students in cities will be frozen at 2004 levels. This is despite the fact that enrolments are increasing in regional and urban areas too. That means there will be a real loss to non-remote Indigenous students.

Given the government's response to the idea of cutting funding to elite private schools, one might expect them to apply their `no losers' policy to Indigenous students as well but, sadly, this is not the case. Since we are constantly being reminded of the fact that we are living in a time of record national prosperity, these cost-cutting exercises in one of Australia's areas of greatest need are truly offensive. Essentially, the government are trying to spread existing funding further. What this means is that, where some improvements have been made so that those particular Indigenous students do not appear to be the most disadvantaged Indigenous students, the government are directing the funding to Indigenous students that are even more disadvantaged—a new measurement of disadvantage that does not consider the rest of the population.

The risk of this approach is that any progress already made will be ruined, but the government seems prepared to take that risk. Instead of investing more money overall, the funding will just be rejigged and stretched further. I think it is necessary to outline a few of the ways in which the government's changes risk sacrificing gains to stretch further and further. Firstly, the government is purporting to address disadvantage in remote communities by redirecting supplementary recurrent assistance funds from regional and urban Indigenous students to newly classified remote students. There is no doubt that remote communities require increased funding. However, the assumption on which this redistribution is based is that urban Indigenous people benefit significantly from mainstream education—a premise which is not supported by the statistics or the anecdotal evidence. There will be losers in this plan. Indigenous students in urban areas will receive less per student than in previous years.

Secondly, the Aboriginal Students Support and Parent Awareness—ASSPA—scheme will no longer be funded on a per capita basis but on the basis of applications. The per capita formula left decision making in the hands of parents and resulted in some very positive parent-school partnerships. The government's media releases state that the DEST review of the Indigenous Education Direct Assistance Program found that formula based funding was `no longer an appropriate approach'. I will not be the first person to point out that a reading of this document reveals no such finding. However, it does include a statement that the `ASSPA program in itself is no longer an appropriate intervention' to achieve the involvement of Indigenous parents in educational decision making. This is a dubious statement for the government to use, given that it comes with no supporting evidence.

Since the numbers of Indigenous students are growing, per capita formula based funding would also mean an increase in the total funding. So, instead, the government will now distribute funds on the basis of applications. This will mean that some ASSPAs will find it difficult to get any funding: some will not have applications approved and some will find it too difficult to apply at all—for example, those parents who do not write English. A competitive system such as this is likely to result in the most powerful ASSPAs receiving significantly more funding than others and will disempower the least educated of the communities. That was borne out by the inquiry into Indigenous education. When we went to some of the more remote communities, it was quite clear that there were some that just did not get their act together to write grant applications—and these will be the schools that miss out.

Thirdly, the funding for the Vocational and Educational Guidance for Aboriginals Scheme, or VEGAS—a scheme which supports projects in relation to future study or careers for school students, parents and Indigenous people in custody—is being rolled into the whole of school intervention strategy, along with other ASSPA schemes. The submission based funding, with a narrower set of guidelines, means many of the projects will simply no longer be funded. Fourthly, the funding for the successful Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme will also be spread further. Instead of tutoring for all Indigenous students to prevent them falling behind on benchmark testing, the new structure will only offer tutoring to students in years 4, 6 and 8 when they fail to meet certain standards. Perhaps the government has not done its research, but the Productivity Commission's 2003 statistics indicate that children who are behind in year 3 are less likely to remain at school beyond the compulsory age. Only 72 per cent of Indigenous students nationally, compared with a 90 per cent student average, achieve the year 3 reading benchmarks. This is clearly saying that we must catch Indigenous children before they fail the year 3 tests. It is also at odds with the tutorial scheme we dealt with yesterday which applies to mainstream schools and goes to every student who has failed that year 3 benchmark test.

The second main area of concern for the Democrats is the accountability provisions. We are obviously not opposed to accountability. Indeed, we understand that the states would be made to account for their expenditure on Indigenous education, and we welcome that. We agree that funding should make it to the people for whom it is intended. A finding of our Indigenous education inquiry was that some states and, in particular, territories were squirreling away this money and not using it on Indigenous people, so this is a welcome amendment. However, the government knows no bounds when it comes to accountability requirements on money for Indigenous people.

Given that the amendments of which I am speaking are purportedly about making Indigenous education providers more accountable, I want to emphasise the double standards in this government's approach to accountability. On the one hand, much of what the government is doing to Indigenous education is by guidelines, not legislation for the parliament to consider, and yet we are being asked to pass legislation which demands an excessive amount of reporting by schools, Indigenous organisations and community groups under the veil of accountability, with no extra resources allocated for that purpose.

Through these amendments, the government is effectively reserving the right to require an education provider to collect data on performance indicators and targets—again with no additional resources. It also provides that funding recipients are required to report not only on the planned expenditure and the actual expenditure of Commonwealth funds but also on the way in which the recipient has advanced and intends to advance the objectives of the act from other non-Commonwealth funds—again with no additional resources. The Democrats recognise the need for better data collection in Indigenous education, but it seems that the time, energy and resources required to fulfil these reporting demands will come out of the funding for the educational initiatives themselves.

The $39 million over four years for the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program is another example of this government's ill-conceived and hastily implemented policy on Indigenous education. Aside from being an absolute pittance, these programs do nothing about the state of proper schooling in remote communities or about the problems associated with low retention rates of Indigenous students in city boarding schools. One of the reasons identified by Noel Pearson for the very low retention rates of Indigenous students at boarding school was that they enter at an educational level far below that of their peers due to the poor education in their communities. That in itself should indicate to the government that the narrow approach to funding places in the city is unlikely to produce any different results.

In conclusion, the Democrats will of course support the passage of this bill, but only because the people who would suffer from a delay are the Indigenous students and communities relying on that funding. The funding is again provided at a minimum, as it has been for 16 years. We urge the government to consider the points made in our second reading amendment and to engage communities in the decision-making process regarding the education of their children. I would also point out that this bill has been referred to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee, which will give the Aboriginal community a chance to have their say on these measures, even if it is after the bill goes through. We hope that the findings and recommendations of that committee will be properly considered. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

“but the Senate:

(a) notes that:

(i) funding for the Indigenous Education Direct Assistance program has had no substantial increase since its inception 16 years ago and that in a time of record national prosperity, Indigenous education should be a matter of priority;

(ii) the changes to the Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness (ASSPA) scheme and the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ITAS) are being imposed without any genuine consultation with Indigenous communities and with a disregard for the successful elements of these programs; and

(iii) the Government's focus on remote communities actually involves a redirection of funding from urban and regional Indigenous students to very remote Indigenous students, rather than increasing the pool of funds for Indigenous education in recognition of the level of disadvantage of Indigenous students relative to non-Indigenous students; and

(b) calls on the Government to:

(i) provide a substantial increase in funding under the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000,

(ii) guarantee that targeted assistance funding is indexed at a rate comparable to other schools funding, and

(iii) consult with parents and teachers before going ahead with the restructuring of the ASSPA scheme and the ITAS”.