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Tuesday, 27 November 1973
Page: 3894

Mr COOKE (Petrie) - The States Grants (Schools) Bill with which we are now dealing provides an enormous amount of money for education. As the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser) said, the Opposition does not begrudge the expenditure of money on education but as he pointed out also it is time that the quality of teaching in our schools in Australia ought to be subjected to some critical analysis. Education has become somewhat of a sacred cow in Australia these days. If one suggests any criticism of the education system as it exists or of those involved in that process one brings down the wrath of the banshee on one's head. If we are to proceed to a better quality of the end product, that is the children who are graduating from our schools, it is necessary that we attack some of these sacred cows in education. We should attack them in a critical and fair minded way and with a view to having open discussion about this subject.

This Bill contains many programs but I am disappointed to find that there are no provisions in it for the financing of remedial teacher education. The honourable member for Casey (Mr Mathews) mentioned the necessity for early diagnosis of children with specific learning difficulties and I agree with that proposition. I think that something like 15 per cent of the children in our schools are suffering from some learning difficulty but only about 5 per cent of those have hard core problems. It is essential that these children be diagnosed at a very early stage and I suggest that the first year of primary school education is the best time for them to be diagnosed and picked out of the class. They ought not be picked out of the class in the sense of being put into special classes but they do need to be diagnosed so that their difficulties can be attended to by remedial teachers. Because of the nature of what remedial teachers try to do for the children they must have very small groups. There is no such thing as a remedial class in the ordinary sense of the word. It is impossible, I suggest, for them to come under the provisions of this Bill which deal with handicapped children and special schools.

In the Bill special schools are defined in a way which, I suggest, excludes the setting up of remedial classes in the sense that I have referred to. To be effective the remedial teacher must diagnose the children early and then proceed with them in small groups and tackle the problem which each of them has. A start has been made in Queensland to remedy this defect. In my own electorate there are a number of remedial teachers seconded from the State Education Department who travel around from school to school. Of course there is not sufficient of them at this stage. Only recently has training in these techniques become at all widespread, so it is understandable that there would be some time lag before sufficient teachers are available in the remedial field. I mention the splendid work that the Schonell Centre at the University of Queensland has done in this regard. I think the staff of that centre were the pioneers in Australia of this type of work, and quite a number of teachers in Queensland and New South Wales schools have been trained at that centre. So it is with some concern that I view this Bill, as it makes no provision for education of teachers in this remedial area.

If the Government is serious about making educational opportunities available to all, surely the place to start is at the primary level to make sure that children with specific learning difficulties, such as with reading or doing sums, have their difficulties remedied quickly so that they can take advantage of later years of education without feeling left behind. Primary education is most important, because if one does not get the grounding in the primary school all else that one may be taught in the secondary school is meaningless. We are building on shifting sands unless the primary education has been sound.

I move to another subject - the question of local participation in the policy making of schools. I think there is a general recognition in Australia today that more community use needs to be made of the facilities provided at schools. Swimming pools, tennis courts, ovals and libraries are all facilities provided at schools at great expense, but they are used for only a very small part of the year, if one takes into account night time and weekends as well. If the governing bodies of schools were somewhat smaller than they are now and if there were more localised regional governing bodies, I believe it would be possible for the community to be much more directly involved in the schools, and the facilities provided at the schools could be made available for wider use. In the United Kingdom, for example, education is a responsibility of local government. The local school board is responsible for the staffing and the educational program applied in the schools. In Australia we have become accustomed to a monolithic State education department staffing and organising the curriculum of schools within a State. In Queensland there has been some breaking down of this large scale administration. Smaller regional administrative areas have been established, and I think this has worked towards the betterment of education in Queensland. It provides a greater opportunity for teachers themselves to be involved in curriculum planning and also gives them a greater flexibility in the way in which the school programs are to be arranged.

But if we were to go even further than what has been done now and involve the local community directly in the schools, several advantages would flow from it. First of all, I believe that there would be greater stability of staff in the schools, because if the educational area is smaller the schools generally will be staffed by persons who live in the region and who would have a vested interest in remaining at a school in that local area. This would be of great advantage to the pupils of the schools, because frequent turnover of staff is one of the big complaints that parents have about education today. It is impossible for children to receive a proper education when, as has happened in schools in my electorate on occasions, a teacher change is made 3 times in the course of one term. If the administrative area is much more localised, I believe that there will be greater opportunities for innovation by the staff and for teaching techniques to be used, because a lot of the red tape would be cut away. Instead of having to go through many channels to persuade the headquarters of the administrative body that something one wanted to do was good, one would go through fewer channels in order to persuade the local governing body that a particular project was worth trying.

I welcome the opportunity under the present Bill for pilot schemes to try out some of these methods. Special project grants could be provided for smaller administrative areas of this sort to be set up to try to innovate in terms of technique and curriculum. It is significant, I think, that some of the advanced techniques in education in the United Kingdom were tried and tested in the smaller educational authorities. Once they had been tested there they spread to the broader fields. I would believe and I would hope that pilot projects financed under this Bill would lead to much the same innovation and broadening in future years.

The provisions of the Bill dealing with in-service teacher training are, I think, to be welcomed. With rapid changes in the way in which educational material is presented to students it is important that teachers keep abreast of it. Modern aids and modern techniques used in schools today are far different from those which were used when most members of this House were going through the educational process. We cannot really understand the way in which some mathematics are taught in the schools these days or in fact the way in which reading is taught, but these techniques are necessary if we are to progress and improve the quality of education which is offered in Australian schools. It is necessary also, I believe, that these modern techniques should be constantly evaluated and tested to make sure that they are not just following a pattern that has been set abroad - a pattern which sometimes may have been found to be wanting many years before the ideas trickled into the educational system in Australia. So I think we have to be constantly upgrading our techniques and constantly evaluating the methods which are already being used.

If I may I will just mention the grants available for teacher education centres. These are something of an innovation. I welcome the innovation. I can see that good will come from them. I envisage that a teacher education centre, as indicated in this Bill, would be a place where teachers in a small localised area would be able to go and see the latest books which are available on their particular subject, where they could see the latest audio-visual aids which are available and where someone from the Department of Education would be available at all times to explain to the teachers the various techniques which are available at present. These centres would provide also a good opportunity for teachers to get together in their spare time, after school hours perhaps or at weekends, when they could exchange views, because very often teachers become somewhat inbred, depending on the school to which they are attached. I would hope that these teacher education centres would be open also for teachers at non-government schools.

Mr Reynolds - It says so in the Bill.

Mr COOKE - Thank you. I am indebted for that interjection. I had overlooked that. This will provide an opportunity for government and non-government teachers to get together in a somewhat less formal atmosphere where matters of mutual concern in education can be discussed, I am sure to the advantage of both.

I deal briefly now with the criticisms that I have of the Bill. The program mentioned in the Bill is limited to a 2-year period. While one can understand that the Government wants to fix the financial commitment to a 2-year period it does, I think, impose some problems in regard to building approvals and forward planning because the provisions of this Bill make it quite clear that a building has to be approved and built within this 2-year period. You cannot have a situation where a building may be approved but not gone on with in the 2-year period. I think this means that pressure will be put on the schools, both government and non-government, to bring forward their building programs in the 2-year period, although they will not know once the 2-year period has gone by what their future prospects will be.

The second criticism I would offer of the Bill deals with the recurrent expenditure grants. These are required by the Bill to be allocated between schools, both government and non-government, on the basis of need. The Bill has no definition of what constitutes relevant need for this purpose. In that respect I think the concept is vague. It leaves to the Minister an enormous discretion which I think ought not to be allowed in a Bill of this sort. The concept of need, to which the Karmel Committee addressed itself, when it is applied to recurrent expenditure can create difficulty. It is very easy to make an assessment of a school's needs in terms of permanent building projects. It is very easy to say that a school needs a library, a swimming pool or extra classrooms. They are questions in respect of which need can be quite clearly established. But when one talks of recurrent expenditure, in my submission it is unworkable to talk in terms of need.

The third criticism I would offer of this Bill is the limitation that it places on building grants, firstly, to government schools for the upgrading of old buildings. The money provided under this Bill has to be used exclusively for that purpose. It is not being provided for the building of new schools. I think that this unduly hampers the freedom of the State educational authorities. I think it would be fair to say that in Queensland the pressure for schools comes from the growing suburbs where the child population is very high. In areas in my own electorate where the infant population is very high, new schools have to be provided quickly and existing schools have to be expanded very quickly in order to keep up with the increase in the number of children. The limitation placed on the money which is to be made available under this Bill would be unduly restrictive, I think, on State government buildings.

As far as non-government schools are concerned, the Bill requires that 50 per cent of the money made available under this Bill should be used for upgrading old buildings. Only 50 per cent is to be made available for increasing enrolments. I think once again that this is restrictive. Under the previous legislation 70 per cent of the money granted could be used for increasing the enrolment of private schools, and 30 per cent was required to be used for upgrading purposes. I think that those, proportions are more reasonable in the circumstances. The reduction to 50 per cent under, this Bill could mean that some non-government schools will be restricted in their expansion programs.

The fourth criticism that I would offer of this Bill, in brief, relates to clause 15, which gives the Minister power to place nongovernment, non-systemic schools into categories. The Minister's discretion in this regard is absolute. No guidelines are laid down in the Bill against which any school could test whether the Minister had been fair in putting it in a particular category. Also, no opportunity is provided in the legislation for the Minister to review the categorisation of schools once his initial determination has been made. I will support the amendment on this point which has been foreshadowed by the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser). I think it only proper that the Minister should have some system of review so that schools which are dissatisfied with categories in which the Minister has put them can take some steps to have themselves reclassified. It would be wrong for the Minister to make one determination for a whole 2-year period because the Karmel Committee report itself seems to envisage that as schools upgrade their facilities they may fall in category. This thinking is not translated into clause 15 of this Bill.

The last point of criticism that I would make about the Bill relates to the gathering of statistical and other information. I do not know what other information the Minister could properly require. One would have thought that it is only statistical material which could properly be sought. We will have to wait for the regulations in order to decide whether the other material which is sought is proper and what our attitude should be at that time. But I simply issue this note of warning: This requirement could provide the Government with an avenue for drawing controls tighter and tighter over the schools system in Australia. In view of what I have said about community participation in schools, I would regard any tightening of control in Canberra as a retrograde step on the educational scene. In his second reading speech the Minister said:

The Schools Commission is empowered to obtain statistical and other information on which it can judge the improvement in quality resulting from these grants.

If that is the purpose of the information then I would regard it as a legitimate purpose because, as I said when I commenced this speech, we should be concerned with the quality of education provided in schools. We should be constantly evaluating to make sure that the money provided for education in this and other Bills is properly put to the purpose and that the quality of the product, the end result, is worth the money being spent.

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