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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 104

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:10 PM) —I rise to speak about the interim report on Indigenous education funding. The committee made the unusual decision to table an interim report rather than continue with our inquiry, which is due to hold hearings in Western Australia and Northern Queensland. The reason we decided to prepare an interim report was that we were persuaded about the urgency of the matter. We are convinced that the government could not possibly have intended the sort of chaos which has ensued as a result of implementing, or not implementing, these changes. It was with the best will in the world that the committee decided that it should inform the minister as soon as possible of the impact of these changes and what they were doing, particularly to the more remote schools, so it is disappointing that the government members’ contribution to this interim report is so negative. I understand the chair, Senator Crossin, also wrote to the minister last week to outline to him some of the problems associated with the changes made by the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill, which we dealt with in this place in December.

When we travelled around to schools we found that the problem was that this was a hugely bureaucratic answer to problems that might have been tweaked somewhat in schools, that might have been changed had the government listened to school communities about how they use that money. The schools told us that the federal funding, through various programs, was the only discretionary funding which was available in the Northern Territory—and I am sure this is also the case in Western Australia and elsewhere—and that it was critically important to those schools which were desperately trying to make a difference to student outcomes for Indigenous people. The Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness program, which was under way and had committees in these Indigenous schools, exists on very little funding—I forget the exact figure, but it is not much more than $100 per Aboriginal student in those schools. It is not true to say that it is a huge success in every school. We certainly found examples where it was quite difficult to engage parents in this process, but there were other outstanding schools where this worked absolutely brilliantly.

One of those schools was Shepherdson College on Elcho Island. We had a very moving hearing, sitting with parents, grandparents and people from the Indigenous community who came together to tell us of their bewilderment about what the government was doing and to talk about the importance of those programs. For instance, at that school they spent some of that money on providing breakfast programs. I asked the principal why this was necessary in this school, and he explained that in most of the households on the island 30 people lived in one place, and these are not houses where you have a normal mum, dad and three kids and where breakfast is made in the morning. These are not places where fresh food is readily or cheaply available. So the breakfast program and the fruit program at midmorning were done for educational reasons. In other words, children who are hungry are not going to be able to focus their attention on their schooling.

I was absolutely astounded that these children were so healthy, and it was because the parent committee had made decisions based on their own circumstances and their understanding of the reasons for the barriers to education that exist for their children. For instance, a high priority was to provide a toothbrush and some toothpaste to every child in the school; now the sorts of dental problems that had caused other health problems have been pretty much obliterated. These programs in a whole range of ways directly met the needs of those students, and this school could prove they worked, because over the previous couple of years student attendance at school had increased by a massive 130—and I take my hat off to the principal there, who drove most of this.

We also heard how ludicrous it was to shift from the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme, which is available to schools to spend as they see fit. In other words, they can spend that money for tutoring of students in preschool, grade 1 or year 11; wherever they see there would be usefulness in providing tutoring, they can do it. But, because of this government’s ridiculous obsession with benchmarking and testing, that tutorial assistance now can only be provided to students who fail the benchmark tests. Those tests occur in years 3, 5 and 7. Some of these kids will not even be in the school when the test is on; they may be in other schools or even out of school. As we know, with Indigenous education there is a very large problem with attendance. What happens to a student who probably needs the tutorial assistance when they do not sit the test? What happens if a student does sit the test and then moves to another school or is absent? Do they take their entitlement with them? Presumably. These are the sorts of things that have not been understood and worked through as to how they fit with remote and Aboriginal communities.

We put this interim report together in good faith and on the understanding that something should be done quickly. It was not reasonable for us to continue this inquiry, knowing what we knew and needing to alert the government to the problems associated with it. I hope the minister’s response is not typical of what we have here from the government members of that committee. I sincerely hope that the minister will listen. Not only have all these very silly mistakes been made in how to deliver programs to schools but also six weeks into the term, when we were there, these schools had no money at all for these programs. They were still halfway through concept plans or the concept plans had gone in and lines had been put through all sorts of things. They had been told that money for literacy programs was not available because that was a state government responsibility or, in this case, a territory government responsibility. So there was enormous confusion about what should be in the concept plan and what the follow-up proposal would be when they got it back. There were ridiculous time frames, such as three days in which to turn an agreed concept plan into a proposal. Many of these communities had no idea how to do that. When it came to approaching these funding proposals, we found that schools were in a terrible mess.

Already teachers, tutors and people who over the years had been upskilled and were performing very good work in these schools have been laid off. They were let go as there was no money to pay them. Presumably, they have wandered off to do something else if they can. It is unreasonable for the Commonwealth to leave such a bureaucratic mess behind and to see these communities and schools without funding for such a long time. And presumably this is still not resolved. I would not imagine that overnight, after our visit, it has all been sorted out.

It is an indictment of the government if it chooses not to act and do what the committee suggests—that is, call this a transition year and continue the funding and those programs. The programs that the schools are used to and can accommodate would not take much, I would have thought, by way of effort on the part of the government. We ask the government to continue these programs for 12 months, to consult properly with people in remote communities in particular so that there is a better understanding of what these programs mean to them and then, in the next year, introduce whatever changes it wants to make. I would be of the view that there is no need to make these changes at all, but at least let us have some further debate about them. Let us talk with schools and territory and state governments and try and get it right.

At the end of the day, the students who are the most disadvantaged in this country are those who come to school with English as a second language. They are the ones who, as a result of that disadvantage, are less likely to pick up skills within their school and are more likely to leave school early. They are the ones that this is affecting. We are talking here about an amount of money that would not matter one way or the other to a wealthy school in the middle of Brisbane, Melbourne or even Darwin, where it would not make the slightest difference; we are talking here about schools for which this small amount of money makes an enormous difference.