Speech to Parliament: Australian Education Amendment Bill

In mid-August this year I was quite fortunate to visit the remote Northern Territory community of Ntaria, where I volunteered at the local school. I was in Ntaria as a volunteer and a guest of the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy — or NASCA— as part of their role models tour. It was my job to not only help promote and encourage healthy living, education and employment for the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students but to also experience firsthand the challenge of improving educational standards in remote Aboriginal communities. And what a challenge that is.

Over the course of the week that I spent in Ntaria I was fortunate to meet some very special people: the hard-working teachers and staff, whose dedication to Aboriginal education was nothing short of remarkable; the elders and community leaders, striving to give their kids more opportunity through education; and, of course, the wonderfully bright students whose smiles would enliven anyone's day.

As part of my responsibilities that week I was fortunate to sit in on the classes and assist the teachers who were stretched to the limit by some very spirited students.

I also helped out with the school sports and healthy lifestyle activities. It is wonderful to see these young kids communicating with each other in their native Western Arrernte language. They all speak it and they all understand it, and for many of them it is their first language. Many of the students who come to the Ntaria primary school come without ever having spoken or learnt a word of English so naturally, when they begin school, they struggle with English.

Many of the teachers expressed their frustrations to me and to other members of the party travelling with NASCA. Their frustration was at students making progress with reading or maths who then disappeared from school for weeks, to return once again behind the eight ball. That is the challenge of Indigenous education in remote communities. The challenge of how we best deliver education to remote Indigenous communities is not only momentous but also complex—exceedingly complex. How do we, as a nation, provide these kids with a decent education that offers them all the opportunities other Australian kids are afforded through their education? At the same time, how do we allow them to maintain that very important connection with their land, their heritage and their culture? How do they maintain their connection with their identity and who they are as people?

There is no easy answer to that question. There is no silver bullet resolution for that. But for me, having experienced this firsthand during my week of volunteering at this school, there is little doubt that a truly needs-based funding model would go a long way to improving the educational outcomes for these kids in remote communities and many more throughout Australia. All the problems with the current system, which have been perfectly highlighted by the Gonski panel, were acutely on display to me during the week that I spent in Ntaria. The teachers were stretched to the limit, often working in classes without trained teachers' aides, and they simply could not devote the necessary time to those kids who were falling behind. As a result, those kids are receiving a substandard education—a substandard education in Australia, one of the leading economies in the OECD.

When Labor came to government, the results that were coming from certain schools clearly demonstrated this. The literacy and numeracy results from some schools clearly demonstrated that in many areas—particularly low socioeconomic areas or areas where there is a high Indigenous population, a high population of kids from a non-English-speaking background or a high population of kids with disabilities in schools—they were falling behind and getting substandard educations. In a developed nation—a wealthy nation—like Australia it is simply not good enough for us to sit on our hands and do nothing about that. That was why the Rudd and Gillard governments instigated and implemented the Gonski process to inquire into the deficiencies in our education system and, more importantly, to recommend a national system for funding schools in this country. They undertook the most comprehensive and thorough investigation of, and consultation on, the issues associated with childhood education in this country. They consulted experts—the academics who work in the field. Most importantly, they consulted the people who work at the coalface: the principals; the teachers; indeed, the beneficiaries of education, the students; and those who all want better education results for their kids, the parents. It was the widest consultation on education that had ever been undertaken in this nation's history. It was one of the most comprehensive reports or detailed studies into the deficiencies in our education system and, importantly, a road map for reform—a blueprint for better results in our education system.

That is what the Gonski panel undertook and that is what the panel unanimously recommended in their report. That is what the Labor government sought to implement. Peter Garrett, as the education minister, undertook an extensive process of consultation with the states, explaining the benefits of the additional funding and signing those states up to the new model for education in this country—an unprecedented partnership between the Commonwealth and the states to improve student results and outcomes in schools in this country, based on a new funding model.

The Ntaria School's needs, and its teachers' needs, would have been catered for—and should be catered for—under this model which requires more funding from the states and territories and the Commonwealth. Having seen the deficiencies in the education system in Ntaria, the Abbott government's abandonment of the Gonski funding model and their harsh education cuts in the recent budget may condemn many Indigenous students throughout Australia to continued poor outcomes and a continuation of the tragedy that is Indigenous remote education.

Remote Indigenous education requires needs-based funding and it requires it now, if we are going to have any chance of reducing the gap when it comes to educational standards. Under the Abbott government, based on research my office has undertaken, in my electorate we are facing the prospect of cuts to the tune of $144 million over the next 10 years to schools in our local area. We face $144 million in cuts to programs such as trade training centres and to support for kids with disabilities, support for Asian languages within schools and support for the funding of years 5 and 6 of the Gonski reforms. It will have an effect on the opportunities that kids have to a good education, to better themselves and to become more productive members of our community. The cuts announced in the government's budget mean that there is no funding for the vital fifth and sixth years of the Gonski reform and restrict indexation to CPI from 2018. With the ABS education price index currently at 5.1 per cent, this is a significant and compounding cut in real terms.

The real tragedy of the Gonski reforms and the government's refusal to fund them in years 5 and 6 is the fact that over the last four to five years we have undertaken this journey as a nation. As I mentioned earlier, this is the most comprehensive study and detailed analysis of the issues associated with education in this country. It includes reasons for the deficiency and, importantly, how to rectify them. It is not a study that has been undertaken by mugs. It has been chaired by one of the most respected businesspeople in the country. The panel included the likes of Ken Boston AO, who has worked his whole life on education reform, and Kathryn Greiner AO, who is very passionate about education. The members of that panel were unanimous in their recommendations to the government. They put aside partisan political interests and, for once, worked collectively and collegiately on a roadmap for education.

The previous government undertook the pain of working with the states on reforming the Australian education system, getting the agreement of some of those states, explaining the benefits to the wider community, and having some of those states allocate that funding in their budget through their forward estimates and beyond: To their credit, the New South Wales Liberal government was one of those. When criticised by Tony Abbott in opposition, they were saying, 'No, Mr Abbott, you are wrong when it comes to this issue.' They stood up for kids education in the state of New South Wales. They did the right thing and they deserve credit for that. But despite all of that good work and the journey that has been undertaken as a nation, the Abbott government says, 'We're only going to fund it for four years and then we're going to go back to the old model.' It does not make any sense at all. It is one of the biggest wastes of resources and time in this country's history.

The great shame about it is that the victims of this are going to be the kids of the future. The victims of this mean-spirited, short-sighted and insular approach are going to be Australian students. That is what is unconscionable. It is like building an extension on your house and paying all that money for it, having the extension for four to five years and then knocking it down for no apparent reason. It is an ideological obsession with going back to the old model of having the states determine their own futures when it comes to education. That is the great shame of this government's approach to education. We are undermining the good work that is being done and, in so doing, we are undermining the futures of many kids in this country.

On one hand the government claim that money is not the answer, but at the same time they are trying to undo reforms, backed by experts, that will improve student results. One of the impacts of this bill is to delay the implementation of the school improvement plans by one year to January 2016 to facilitate further changes as a consequence of the government's review of command-and-control requirements of school-funding systems. This legislation is designed to make sure that money reaches those students who need it most and that the extra Gonski investment Labor made in our schools actually makes a difference in classrooms. School improvement plans are not about bureaucracy; they are about accountability. It is about ensuring that the money that is spent by the Commonwealth and the states is actually delivering results as intended. It is additional auditing to ensure that the schools are delivering results for students, being delayed by one year by the operation of this bill. The Independent Australian Council for Educational Research has developed a guide for school improvement plans and it has been signed off by the states, Liberal and Labor. We need appropriate levels of oversight to make sure that these reforms do what they are meant to do: help every child in every school improve their results.

Before the last election the Abbott government declared many things. They declared that they were on a unity ticket with Labor when it came to school education. That promise has been broken. They promised to implement the Gonski loading for students with disabilities in 2015 and provide the additional resources. Instead, they have cut support for students and are delaying the changes that have been universally endorsed for the betterment of Australia's education system. Today's amendments to funding for independent special schools would not be necessary if the government had kept their commitment to introduce the Gonski full disability loading in 2015. This bill is a wasted opportunity. If the government stuck to their election commitment we would not be in this situation.

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