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Thursday, 11 October 1973
Page: 2005

Mr CROSS (Brisbane) - It is a great privilege to take part in a debate on the second reading of the Schools Commission Bill because the proposed Schools Commission is the hope of Australian education in the years ahead. The Budget provided for an increase of over 90 per cent in Commonwealth funding for education, and of course that 90 per cent increase takes into account only 6 months of operation of the proposed Australian Schools Commission and similar programs. In other words, there is a vastly increased Australian commitment to education now and in the future. I do not know whether Sir Robert Menzies is listening to this debate but I think it should be pointed out to honourable members opposite that the Schools Commission will set up for schools the same type of authority that their own Government set up to serve the needs of universities and, later, colleges of advanced education. In both of those cases the commissions set up by the former Government have served Australian education well.

Mr Staley - What about the difference in numbers?

Mr CROSS - An interjection has been made about the difference in numbers. This is, of course, one of the matters of great concern to the Government because the previous Government was always concerned with the minority groups and never concerned with the great numbers. I thank the honourable member for his interjection.

The 1972 policy speech of the Labor Party on the subject of education stated:

We will establish an Australian Schools Commission to examine and determine the needs of students in government and non-government primary, secondary and technical schools.

It goes on to say that it follows the pattern set by Sir Robert Menzies when he wrote in December 1956 to Sir Keith Murray and outlined that an Australian Labor Party Government would give a great priority - the utmost priority - to this proposal. On 12 December 1972, before the Cabinet had been elected, the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), who then had the responsibility, appointed an Interim Committee for an Australian Schools Commission. I think that we would all agree that that Interim Committee did a remarkably good job in the time allotted to it. I think it must be a matter of great satisfaction to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education (Mr Beazely), who is sitting at the table, to see an education policy for which they worked extremely hard not only in public in more recent times but also, in earlier days, inside the Labor Party itself. It is good to see that policy now being developed in the way that it is being developed.

The Bill proposes an Australian Schools Commission to consist of not fewer than 5 and not more than 12 members, including the chairman, The 4 full time members are to be appointed for 7 years and the part time members for 3 years. The functions of the Commission are set out in clause 13 which is a lengthy portion of the Bill. Some of the questions raised by honourable members opposite would, of course, be answered if they paid more attention to clause 13 which sets out the guidelines for the Australian Schools Commission. I would like to quote from the Minister's second reading speech. He said:

Our approach is to establish commissions of expert advisers rather than a vast centralised administrative machine.

He went on to say:

We therefore seek in this legislation to set up an efficient impartial body to examine, identify and determine needs of students in government and nongovernment schools at the primary and secondary levels in Australia.

Further on he said:

The States will retain responsibility for administering their own educational programs but will have available to them greatly increased funds for the purpose.

Again the Minister's second reading speech answers many of the arguments advanced on the other side of the House. I do not think that any of us would pretend that given the time factor the proposals or the categorisations of the Karmel Committee were perfect. I think we all would agree that the Committee performed a remarkable task in bringing down the recommendations given the fact that the Labor Government wished to include a massive increased commitment to education in the 1973 Budget. The Minister has pointed out that there were misunderstandings. Some schools did not submit their real position because they misunderstood the documents or because of other reasons. It has been clearly made known to them that they have the right of appeal and many schools have exercised such a right of appeal and many of the appeals have been upheld.

Even the proposed Schools Commission has a restricted time in which to bring down a submission. The time specified is early in 1975 so that its recommendations can be considered for inclusion in the Budget of that year. Of course, there is a need to set up a structure at State level which I understand will not be an administrative structure but rather will recommend priorities and also set up the building priorities sub-committee for independ ent schools and the other machinery envisaged. It is proposed that these programs will begin in January 1974. So even now there is a great urgency for the Parliament to pass this legislation so that these programs might be under way as soon as possible.

I very much support the fact that provision for a rigid structure for a board, or whatever other arrangement might be set up at State level, is not written into this legislation. I am keen to leave the utmost flexibility in the hands of the Minister. While I am happy about the placing on the board at State level of the State Director of Education and the Director of Catholic Education I feel, from information available to me and to my colleagues, that there is need for a much broader representation than that. The point was made by the honourable member for Scullin (Dr Jenkins), who spoke earlier in this debate, that representatives of organisations in themselves may not be a good thing. I support that idea. If rigid structures are laid down in this legislation they may be counter-productive.

Many of the amendments proposed by the Opposition seek to develop a piece of legislation which would be much more rigid than the legislation proposed by the Government. Much of the hope in what is to be achieved, of course, is vested in the discretion of the Australian Minister for Education. The report of the Karmel Committee proposes that the Minister should appoint certain people at State level in consultation with the State Minister. I am delighted with the effect that the report of the Karmel Committee has had on the State Education Department in Queensland. As Chairman of the Migrant Task Force in Queensland I have in recent times had an opportunity to take evidence from officials of the State Department of Education. I have been tremendously impressed with the quality of the people now administering education in Queensland. I know that the proposal for the Australian Schools Commission to give increased support for State education has given great impetus to the Queensland Department of Education to rethink its priorities in the knowledge that money will be available for areas which previously were starved of support. One thinks immediately of the rebuilding of old schools and the provision of facilities for children with special needs. When one looks at clause 13 of the Bill one realises that the Schools Commission is directed to pay particular attention to the needs of disadvantaged children, children with special needs, migrant children, Aboriginal children and other areas of education such as physical education.

As I mentioned, I was associated recently with the Migrant Task Force in Queensland and I have been tremendously impressed with the way in which teachers, both in the State system and in the Catholic system of education, have been teaching migrant children, very often in what are very difficult circumstances. I think we all have to admire teachers who teach migrant children whose knowledge of English is very modest, who teach in overcrowded class rooms with inadequate teaching material and very often in temporary class rooms built under schools. I am pleased to see that all these matters are taken into account in this Bill to establish the Commission. The ball is now back in the court of the States to take up the challenge and to work out priorities within their own systems of education to ensure that every child within state schools receives the maximum benefit.

I now refer to the position in Queensland. I do not wish to incorporate a great amount of detail in Hansard, but the total grants for Queensland schools this year amount to $26,340,000 against $10,616,000 in 1972-73. That is an increase of the order of $16m - well over 100 per cent. This amount of money which is set out in the Budget documents does not include the increased assistance for universities and colleges of advanced education, for pre-schools and the like. The Schools Commission makes a massive increased commitment to the needs of independent schools.

It has been argued that the Karmel report has a sectarian flow-on. I am very disappointed to hear this suggestion because the same criteria were used to assess the needs of all independent schools, irrespective of the denomination to which they were attached or whether they were attached to any denomination at all. So I think I would deal with the needs of independent schools when I deal with Catholic non-systemic schools. But those people who argue that the report has in some way discriminated against Anglican schools, for example, fail to take into account that the Catholic education system has sought to provide education for every Catholic child in a way which no other major denomination in this country has sought. I think the Catholic system should be given credit for doing what it has done under great difficulties in the past. The Karmel Committee recognised the needs of these schools.

There are distinctive needs in systematic schools and non-systemic schools. I make the point to the Minister that when this legislation has been passed and the Schools Commission is established it will be very important that officers of his Department or of the Commission go to the States, sit down and talk to the people involved in administering the Catholic systemic schools and, in particular, to explain some of the proposed administrative arrangements. We are approaching the end of one school year and the beginning of another and some of our proposals and what our requirements will be are not so well understood as they might be. I do not think anyone should expect dramatic improvements in Catholic systemic schools in the year immediately ahead. There is a substantial increase of expenditure for these schools, but much of the funds will be eaten up by salary increases. In Queensland in January of this year teachers in Catholic primary schools were paid 90 per cent of the State award rate and, naturally, they are keen to improve their position. But while one can expect no dramatic improvement in 1974 - and I imagine the same thing may apply to State schools - certainly there are not-

Mr Reynolds - The teachers will not go back.

Mr CROSS - They will not go back. They will be in a position where they can advance their position and a large increase in the amount of money to be made available in 1975 should ensure real improvements indeed. I have had put to me a question as to whether the recurrent grants are going to be used to provide remedial teachers in the Catholic systemic system in perhaps 6 to 7 centres in Queensland because the State Department of Education which previously accepted the responsibility in this field is no longer able to accept the responsibility. There are many questions of this kind yet to be negotiated. II am sure they will be negotiated when the legislation has passed through the Parliament.

There are, of course, distinctive differences in the needs of non-systemic schools. I accept the fact - I think we all do - that if we divide schools into categories, it might ensure that all schools whose needs are greater than others will receive increased assistance commensurate with their needs, but there are problems of marrying Government funding with personal initiative and the problems are highly complex. I have been concerned that in cases which have been brought to my attention categorisation can operate to lower the standards of schools. I have one particular school in mind. I know that after it was classified the number of teachers at that school was reduced and the school then sought reclassification with a view to bringing about a higher level of assistance. As I have been talking about the Catholic nonsystemic schools may I make the point that the school to which I referred was not a Catholic school. Nevertheless, what I have said poses problems.

I think that critics of the Karmel Committee report may say that perhaps one would expect a much greater degree of sophistication in assessing the needs of schools when the Schools Committee has much more time than the Interim Commission had available to it to look at the question of needs. There are of course some problems concerning building programs. The independent schools at the present time are already building or proposing to build new additions onto present structures or to build new schools whichever are the highest priorities. I understand that although some of these schools may be able to receive assistance from what has been known as the Dougherty program, they will not be able to receive assistance under the Karmel scheme which will take effect only from the date of the proclamation of this Bill. I ask the Minister to look sympathetically into this matter to see what can be done because one of the problems of Government that evolve with new programs which are designed to meet new needs is that very often the government is confronted with the fact that a school is already undertaking what is its highest priority and, because of the legislative program, the Government may not be able to assist with that priority in the way that we would wish. I can only say that I take great heart from what the Minister has said. It shows that he recognises, probably more than any other person in this House, the need for flexibility. It is very easy for people to lay down desirable guidelines, but the needs of schools vary so much from place to place.

I represent an inner city electorate. Many of the schools in my area have comparatively small playgrounds or no playgrounds at all. In some cases schools which serve a need because of the strategic location of the school have been obliged to acquire adjacent land at very high cost. Some have been obliged to acquire land for playgrounds in the outer suburbs. This involves transport and the like. Yet very often these inner city schools cater for children who come from the low income suburbs. I do not think that people can generalise in many' of these areas. I trust that the Schools Commission will carry out the wishes of the Minister to develop a program not only to assist schools and pupils in accordance with their needs but also to do this with the greatest possible flexibility.

As was pointed out by a member of the Opposition by way of interjection, the number of schools is very great and the range of needs is very great. As always when new schemes are being put forward, there are some fears. I noted a statement of the Catholic bishops in which they expressed the view, amongst other things, that there should be some Government assistance given to the education of every child. I have some sympathy for that argument. I know, of course, that the program being put forward under the Schools Commission legislation is by no means the only program which this Government advances for the education of Australian children. This Government inherited certain educational structures but this year, under the guidance of the present Minister for Education, we have had measures aimed at assistance in the education of isolated children, and a very high proportion of those children, by the very nature of things, attend Catholic schools. We are to have legislation to come into effect next year which will assist disadvantaged children for the first time and we await legislation on pre-schools and teacher training.

The Commonwealth Government is making a contribution towards assisting every Australian child. It has been suggested that because some schools are losing their assistance under the proposals of the Karmel Committee this is part of a sinister scheme to phase out further assistance to independent schools in the future. Nothing could be further from the intention of the Labor Party. The Labor Government is determined to make a permanent commitment to the education of every Australian child and every Australian young man and young woman. This legislation is a step in that direction. I congratulate the Minister on the legislation he has brought down and I congratulate him on his choice of a Schools Commission. I am sure that in the years ahead the Commission will make a major contribution to the education of all Australian children, whether they attend State schools or non-State schools.

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