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Wednesday, 13 September 1972
Page: 775

Senator BYRNE (Queensland) - I move:

That there bc referred to the Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, the following matters:

(1)   The means by which isolated school children, that is children who, for geographic reasons, have no reasonable daily access to an appropriate school -

(a)   can be afforded equal educational opportunity wilh other children not so situated; and

(b)   can be provided with an education suitable to the child, en's talents and interests, which will equip them for employment in the occupational field which they select.

(2)   The means by which these disabilities can be overcome whether by extension and deployment more widely of schools or institutes of tertiary education, the provision of financial aid to such children or otherwise.

I am indebted to the Senate for the opportunity which has now been given me to present this motion for consideration by this chamber. This is one of a series of motions which have come before the Senate and which indicate the interest of the Senate in matters relating to the education of children. In a number of cases these have taken the form of a reference to the newly created standing committees of the Senate so that the matters can be investigated in depth. Such a motion related to handicapped children - I think it was put by Senator Fitzgerald - and was the subject of a report by a select committee. There was a reference to teacher training which was considered by a standing committee and was the subject of a report. There is a reference already in my name to the Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts to which it is proposed to refer this matter in relation to the education of deprived children, that is, children who come from certain economic and geographic areas and who by virtue of some degree of intellectual starvation or lack of communication within the domestic environment, arrive at school somewhat disadvantaged when compared with their contemporaries. The Committee is already directing its attention to that reference.

This is a similar reference, lt relates to children in isolated areas. This is a matter of very great consequence, particularly to anybody who moves in the country such as honourable senators who represent the Australian Country Party and who know that in the remote areas of Australia this is of importance and great concern to the parents of children living in those areas who, for financial or other reasons, are not able to see that their children receive an adequate education which will equip them for the role they are to play in life according to their disposition and talents. Recently I participated in a seminar at Dirranbandi in the south-west of Queensland along with the Leader of the Opposition in the other place, Mr Whitlam, Mr Killen, M.P., and the Assistant Minister assisting the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr King. In spite of all the other problems which are of great concern to those people who are gravely distressed because of the economic recession in the rural industries, a matter which was occupying their minds with great intensity was the deprivation of educational opportunities which they felt, rightly, should accrue to their children in these areas. This is something which is manifest in these more remote parts of the continent.

As a consequence of this, there is a body called the Isolated Children's Parents Association - the ICPA. It has a federal executive and is constituted on a very wide basis. It is dispersed over the whole continent, particularly the eastern part, and is very active in its attempts to secure some measure of educational equity and justice for children in these parts of Australia. This Association is composed of very good people who are devoting their time and energy to see whether this great disability can be overcome. Only last week they travelled to Canberra and interviewed members of all political parties, including my own, and placed their propositions before us in a personal sense, propositions that they have placed many times by correspondence. The work and research which have been done by that Association indicate, firstly, the dedication of the people who are doing it; secondly, the depth of their concern, and thirdly, just how grave the problem is. 1 spoke to the general secretary, Mrs Edgley, who comes from Bourke in western New South Wales. I told her what was proposed in this regard. These people are most enthusiastic that this matter should be discussed by the Parliament, and even more enthusiastic that it should receive scrutiny from the appropriate committee of the Senate which, in this case, is the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts. They are concerned at the delay which has taken place in attention being directed to this problem.

Only this morning I received a letter from this good lady to whom I had indicated that I proposed to present the motion which I am now presenting to the Senate and of which I had then given notice. She indicated her concern by saying that at this stage she would prefer that I proceed by way of an urgency motion rather than by this motion. This is not an indication that she thought that the method which I am now pursuing in inappropriate but that it is so urgent that perhaps an urgency motion might be the way of bringing it immediately before the Parliament. However, the opportunity has arisen within a few hours to present this motion and this is still the more appropriate way in which this matter can most effectively receive parliamentary attention, examination and scrutiny. That is why 1 present the motion to the Senate as I do now.

The position of isolated children is desperate. When we speak of isolated children I do not want it to be thought that we speak of the sons and daughters of very wealthy sheep graziers or beef graziers of whom some cynic might say: 'They should have enough money themselves to provide education for their children'. The children to whom I refer are not necessarily by any means children of that type of person. They are the sons and daughters of people who live in these country areas. The parents may be occupied in quite humble avocations. They may be workers, artisans, small shopkeepers, those employed on properties as shearers or in occupations which do not bring tremendous financial returns, as well as the sons and daughters of the rural settlers in those areas. We know that, in view of the recession in the rural industries, many of this latter group are people who, whatever might be thought of their traditional economic position in the community, today no longer enjoy that position and are finding tremendous difficulty in financing their properties and many other things, including the education of their children.

Debate interrupted.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Wood) - Order! It being 9 o'clock, the time has expired for the consideration of motions.

Motion (by Senator Drake-Brockman) proposed:

That consideration of motions be further proceeded with until the arrival of the Ordinances and Legislations (Notification) Bill from the House of Representatives.

Senator Georges - When do you expect that?

Senator Drake-Brockman - The last word was that it was expected at 9.30 p.m., but dc; not tie me to that.

SenatorWillesee - I discussed this matter with Senator Drake-Brockman and we thought that this was the most expeditious way in. which to handle it. I do not know what other speakers will say, but because this is a reference to a committee and the committee will be doing the work, it may be possible to get the reference off our plate if we exercise a little discipline. I will be speaking on behalf of my Party, and I will speak for about four or five minutes.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Debate resumed.

Senator BYRNE - I am indebted to the Minister for Air (Senator DrakeBrockman) and to the Senate for giving me the opportunity to continue this debate. I am extremely sensitive of the remark that has been made by Senator Willesee and the motion which the Senate has now carried. We shall proceed with this matter until the arrival of a very urgent measure from another place. I think it would be a shame if, because of protracted speeches on this matter, this debate was not concluded before the arrival of the Bill and bad to be postponed. Therefore, I do not propose to speak at any great length.

Senator Wright - But it is always possible for us to use commonsense and, 5 minutes after the arrival of the measure from another place, conclude this debate definitely.

Senator BYRNE - I think Senator Wright for his suggestion. The point is that I might speak unduly long, the Bill would arrive and other speakers would then be precluded from participating in the debate and possibly we might not conclude the matter. As Senator Willesee has said, the object of this exercise is to have the whole matter examined in depth by a standing committee of the Senate. Therefore, it is not necessary for us to canvass the question here in detail because the object of the reference is to ascertain the facts. Any facts which I might put before the Senate - and I shall do it very briefly - are facts which have been gleaned by these good people from statistical evidence to justify the reference and the proposition I am putting. Of course, on examination more facts will be gleaned, more statistics will be accumulated, no doubt propositions will be examined, solutions will be discovered and, we hope, recommendations will be made. However, I will refer to some matters. If I may be permitted to read from documents which have been presented to me by the Isolated Children's Parents Association, I will indicate what are the matters that that Association considers might well come before the committee. First of all, there is the definition of an isolated child, and it falls into a few categories. Those categories are:

A.   Those children beyond daily reach (removed by distance) of any school facilities, i.e., those who must do correspondence lessons fulltime in the home . . .

It goes on in more detail. The next category is:

8.   Those children in thinly populated areas who could be conveyed to school daily, but their numbers per road are insufficient to warrant provision of school bus.

Again further details are given. The next category is:

C.   Those children attending small primary schools in villages where no secondary school is available and distance to nearest secondary, school is beyond school bus range. These children on reaching secondary level must board away or do secondary correspondence lessons fulltime under supervision of primary school master. . . .

Those children attending a small secondary school where one teacher supervises up to 35 pupils in 5 or 6 grades.

Further categories are:

D.   Those children attending central high school where there is no full high school within daily reach by bus. . . .

E.   Those children travelling excessive distances (by private car and then school bus) over unformed/unsealed roads, where such travelling imposes excessive hardship on parent or child.

Then there is further detail extrapolating that proposition. The last category is:

F.   The child from isolated areas who needs remedial education at special schools (available only in capital cities, and in some cases only interstate), . . .

Those are the types of children and the types of situations to which the Committee will be asked to direct its attention and upon which it will be asked to recommend. The submission from the Isolated Children's Parents Association goes on to speak of the provision of accommodation, the cost of accommodation and what may well be provided. That is the important thing. If children have to leave a local area and seek schooling in a more remote area, they must be accommodated. Therefore, there is a question of what type of accommodation should be provided - whether it should be provided by the erection ot hostels in regional areas or whether it should be provided by the subvention of the cost of accommodation provided in hostels or in private homes or institutions. That is another matter which is quite germane to this inquiry and which the Association considers should come under scrutiny.

No parent will willingly send a child to boarding school before it is essential. Most parents prefer their children to attend a local school up to the grade where it is possible, or even to do the work by correspondence. But, of course, that imposes tremendous strains on parents. In these days when very often there are depressed conditions in rural areas, mothers as well as fathers are working to run the property. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to try to conduct, on some basis, a correspondence course for a child. That again is another matter to which the Association suggests the Committee might give its attention.

It is suggested, and it is submitted, that perhaps a correspondence supervisor allowance could be made available to a parent, and the Association suggests a figure of $400 per annum. If a mother is required to teach a child for 6 or 7 hours a day she is virtually doing the work of the Education Department. I shall give a few figures to indicate how severe is the occurrence of this situation. On the figures supplied to me, as at 22nd April 1972 there were 1,795 correspondence pupils in New South Wales. In Queensland 194 mothers supervised, 30 families employed domestic help and 40 families employed governesses. There were 241 fulltime correspondence pupils, 7 of whom were doing a secondary correspondence course.

In Western Australia there were 477 correspondence pupils on a fulltime basis. In South Australia there were 206 fulltime correspondence pupils in homes; the number of mothers supervising those pupils apparently was not known: there were 26 families with governesses, and 4 families employed domestic help. As I say, this imposes severe physical and financial burdens on a group of people who today are not able to bear either burden, and unless some solution is found for this we will find more and more distress in the rural and remote areas, we will find more and more educational deprivation, and ultimately we will find a further erosion of people from the land and a loss of interest in the rural areas with all the consequences that flow from that. In this regard I might quote Oliver Goldsmith, who said:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

If that happens there is abandonment of the land. Whatever economic remedies we might try to apply to rural reconstruction or rural regeneration, unless we are able to assure the people that their children will have as good an opporunity in life as children in urban areas, one cannot expect those people to stay on the land. That is an inevitable outcome, and it must be our aim and purpose to try to retrieve the position and to assure these people of this equality of opportunity which will sustain the strength and vitality of the rural population, our rural cities and our regional cities and towns.

Senator Durack - It is very important in mining areas, too.

Senator BYRNE - Of course, Senator Durack. who comes from Western Aus tralia, would be very conscious of this matter, and I am indebted to him for his interjection. With the development and exploitation of our mining resources, and with mining towns springing up mostly in the more remote areas of the continent, this becomes a very dominating situation in those areas. Possibly it is a situation which will not disappear in time. It will intensify and extend as the years pass. In those circumstances we can see that the Committee will have a very important, very relevant and very opportune task to discharge in examining the whole situation at this stage.

I should like to read into Hansard the figures contained in a table, provided again by the Isolated Children's Parents Association, which sets out the numbers of what it calls white isolated children in the Commonwealth who were known to the Association as at 10th April 1972. I presume that this table does not include indigenous children - Aborigines; it refers purely to white children. It is suggested that in South Australia there are 348 children who might be described as isolated children. It is estimated that in New South Wales there are 2,000 isolated school children, approximately 1.200 of whom are in the Western Division. As at the end of 1971 the New South Wales Correspondence School had the following numbers of full time isolated pupils: 310 in the infants grades. 240 in the primary grades 3 and 4, 119 in the primary grades 5 and 6, 173 in the secondary forms at home, and 215 in the secondary forms at school - a total of 1,057. In Tasmania it is estimated that there is a maximum of 17 isolated children, but no exact figures have been obtained. There are only 3 Tasmanian full time correspondence pupils. Of course, Tasmania has a smaller area and it has an excellent system of area schools.

Senator Wright - That indicates an extremely narrow view of what an isolated child is.

Senator BYRNE - That may well be. That is not my assessment or evaluation. This evaluation has been presented to me by this Association. It may err on the conservative side. If that is so, the problem is even greater and the depth of the problem is even more than I have indicated and the figures show. In the Northern Territory the figures are not known to the Association, but perhaps they would be known to the Department of Education and Science. No doubt they will become known to the Committee. In Western Australia there are 750 isolated children in Zone A. The total number of claimants for living away allowances in Zones A to D in 1970 was 2,857. The Western Australian Correspondence School has 477 full time secondary pupils.

In Queensland as at 22nd April 1972 there were 29 branches of this Association. That extraordinarily large number indicates again the breadth of the problem. There are 29 centres in which people have been able to form a branch of this Association. They are mostly in the far flung towns and smaller regional cities of Queensland. It is not possible to gather a congregation to form an active branch of this Association unless it will meet a need, because these people do not meet for academic or social discussion; they meet to do a job. The fact that this Association is so extensive and its personnel figures are so high indicates that there is a real job to be done.

Senator Sim - May I ask about Zone B in Western Australia?

Senator BYRNE - This is the way the information on Western Australia reads: 750 in Zone A (total number claimants for living away allowances Zone A-D 1970 - 2,857).

Senator Simmay be able to interpret that more accurately than I can. There may be some local method of designation. In Queensland there are 809 families and 2,205 children made up of 469 at the preschool level, 1,038 at the primary level, 670 at the secondary level and 28 at the tertiary level. There are 46 split homes, 40 governesses, 194 mothers who teach correspondence in the home, 30 families that employ domestic help and 748 children who live away to attend school at distances between 100 and 1,000 miles. Twenty of those 748 children travel interstate, and 15 children have been removed from school for economic reasons. As at August 1971 the Queensland Correspondence School had 213 primary pupils and 214 secondary pupils, but the Queensland Education Department has not established whether all of these are from rural areas and are all full time pupils.

Senator Cavanagh - Have you a suggested solution to this problem?

Senator BYRNE - I thank the honourable senator for his interjection; but this document also states:

Provisionally, we estimate total numbers of isolated children in Commonwealth would not exceed 7,000. This figure could be expected to decrease over the years as -

(a)   Families forced off land.

(b)   Amalgamation smaller holdings.

(c)   Present decline rural white birthrate.

(a)   Provision of additional rural school bus services as sealing of roads progresses; also upgrading of schools in isolated areas.

Therefore, whatever financial provision is made to solve this problem, it may reasonably be expected that this will be a diminishing rather than increasing burden on the Budget. Unfortunately, that is not a happy solution because it means that we are solving the problem by taking people from the western areas. That is bad in itself. Obviously the ideal solution would be, with adequate concern, solicitude and financial assistance, to keep people on the land.

In answer to Senator Cavanagh's earlier interjection, I repeat that this is a motion to refer the matter to a standing committee. These good people have put forward certain suggestions which I have presented earlier in my address. I personally do not know the solutions. I imagine that the first step would be a financial solution. However, that is a matter for the standing committee to attempt to discover. The Commonwealth might provide the money and the States might see to its proper disbursement. This money could be expended on the provision of regional schools, the provision of accommodation near schools in remote areas and the provision of financial assistance to parents to send their children to school or, in the case of parents who are conducting school at home by correspondence or otherwise, financial assistance in that direction. Then there could be taxation concessions for parents who are required to spend money on transport - by road, air or whatever it may be - or on accommodation in areas remote from the home for the provision of schooling for isolated children.

Senator Cavanagh - When they have to leave their parents, is that a satisfactory solution?

Senator BYRNE - I presume that Senator Cavanagh has in mind the fact that this involves a separation of the child from the parents and perhaps involves the child living in a non-domestic atmosphere.

Senator Cavanagh - Is it the best education?

Senator BYRNE - Undoubtedly it is not the best education. But this is the old conflict between a child going to day school and living at home and a child going to boarding school. There are 2 schools of thought on this. Many parents think that there is no substitute for the continuous residence of the child in the home and the child's attendance at day school. But part of our education system which has been extremely successful in producing very great men and women in Australia is the boarding school. It entails the separation of the child from the parents, except during holidays. Nevertheless many parents elect for the boarding school, and it has been successful. I do not know that it has trespassed unduly upon the relationship between child and parent in the home. Certainly in a situation such as this we will not find the ideal solution-

Senator Cavanagh - I was wondering whether a school of the air such as that in the Northern Territory would be of value.

Senator BYRNE - I dealt with that. Senator Cavanagh may not have been in the chamber when I mentioned it. Correspondence schooling in Queensland may be through the school of the air or through home tuition supported by communication with a central correspondence school from which the lessons are transmitted by post. But education in the home requires a mother who is interested, who is skilled and who has the time and is not required to help her husband during the day in the conduct of the property or business.

Senator Cavanagh - I was thinking of the school of the air in which a tutor talks to the children over the air.

Senator BYRNE - That is canvassed in the submissions I have received from the association to which I have referred - the Isolated Children's Parents Association. That Association contemplates that idea, but it is asking for a financial subvention as a component of this joint system of tuition.

I do not feel that I should extrapolate on this matter any more. I think the problem is evident. The figures that have been presented are compelling and disturbing. I am sure it will gratify the Association and the parents who are interested and involved in it if they know that the Parliament is giving the matter its attention, and doing so in a most practical manner by calling evidence and examining the whole situation. I have indicated to these good people that when this matter comes before the Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, they undoubtedly will be invited to appear and probably will have a prior invitation to make their submissions, following the normal practice, in writing and then to support them in person by members of the Association making oral presentation to the Committee.

In addition, any parents who may wish to come before the Committee would be in a position to make their individual submissions. I say this because problems are very often unique to one family, they are not shared by every family. It may be that the Association will not deem it necessary to put a particular situation but one family might wish to present on its own behalf a submission on that aspect. Ample opportunity will be given by this method for examination of the whole problem. I am gratified as I feel that members of the Government and the Opposition are disposed to support this motion. I only hope that the Senate Standing Committee will be able to give its attention to this matter at a reasonably early date.

Senator Cavanagh - I would support it only because I do not know the alternative.

Senator BYRNE - There could be better reasons, Senator Cavanagh, but at least that is a good reason and probably a compelling reason. Perhaps we do not know any alternative because we do not know how deep the problem is. That is the idea behind this reference. It is to alert the nation to the need for action. It is to alert the Parliament and the Federal and State governments for the need for some steps to be taken in relation to this matter. No doubt the State governments will be invited to make their submissions.

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - We were all alerted before the presentation of the Budget. Nothing was included in the last Budget.

Senator BYRNE - That may be so. However, this is a practical step. 1 am sure that it will be greeted enthusiastically by those who are involved in the problem or, alternatively, are affected by the situation individually or in groups. I commend my motion to honourable senators. It should have and I am sure that it will have their enthusiastic support.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Wood) - Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.

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