Expanding Opportunity

I spoke in parliament this week about school funding.
Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011
3 March 2011

Education is the best anti-poverty vaccine we have yet invented. It provides the foundations from which Australians can build a life of their choosing. Education lights a spark which can see a child from Cape York not just go on to university and become a leader in her community but also become Young Australian of the Year, as Tania Major did a couple of years ago. A great education means that a child from Ilfracombe can become the first female member of the Queensland bar and our first female Governor-General. This great building, this national parliament, is a showcase of the opportunities which education provides to children from all corners of the nation. So many members of the House acknowledged in their first speeches that they would not be here today were it not for a great education. I remember hearing time after time those stories of where a particular teacher or a certain educational opportunity had made the difference in someone’s life.

Providing a great education is not just good social policy; it is good economic policy as well. Raising the human capital of our workforce is the most promising way of increasing Australia’s productivity, which has been sluggish over the last decade or so. By boosting the quantity of education we will help our labour force deal with future changes in the economic structure. A great education means that children will be more resilient when, as workers, they face changes in the kinds of jobs they are expected to do. Improving the quality of education ensures that Australian children learn more from each given year at school, at VET or at university. The importance of education means that we in this place have a responsibility to ensure that our schools get the resources that they need to do the job that we know it is important for them to do.

The Gillard government, having recognised this, has invested a record amount in school building infrastructure. The great school modernisation program, Building the Education Revolution, has given schools great buildings which allow them to do extraordinary things in the educational space. I have to confess that I was a sceptic about the BER program. When it was introduced, I was not in parliament and did not have children at school, so I had not visited any of these schools. But one of the great things you get to do as a local member is to go out to your local schools to talk with the parents, the teachers, the children and the principal about how these new school buildings have made a difference to the work they have done. I have seen with my own eyes so many examples of how the BER program has transformed the quality of education in Australia. Yesterday morning that I was out with the Prime Minister and the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Mr Garrett, at Turner School. It was my second visit to the school, because I had been there to open their new school library. Principal Ms Jan Day, the teachers, the children and the parents are as excited by their new school library now as they were last year when the library was opened.

Mr Tudge interjecting—

Mr Champion interjecting—

The SPEAKER —I would just indicate that the member is talking about school students being excited, not members of this House. Perhaps we could settle down with the interjections and let the member make his point.

Dr LEIGH —They are still as excited by this new school library as they were last year. I am sure the member for Aston would himself be very excited if he had the opportunity to visit it, an invitation which I formally extend to him today. The community got involved in that school library. There is a mural on the outside of the school library which was put together by Kirsty Verook, one of the local parents. She is a mosaic artist, and she worked with the schoolchildren. She asked them what designs they would like to have on the outside of their library, and she then put their ideas into a mosaic which I was pleased to show to the Prime Minister and Minister Garrett when we visited yesterday morning. Turner School’s is not a lone story. Across Fraser I have seen the impact the BER has had on our community.

At Black Mountain special school, a school for students with intellectual disability, the BER project was the building of a new school hall. I know that many in this chamber think that a hall is just a hall, but for students at Black Mountain the new hall means that for the first time students in a wheelchair can attend the same assemblies as able-bodied students; the school can now fit all of those students into the same hall. The school used to have a stage which was so steep that, when students in wheelchairs got an award, they had to receive it down on the floor in front of the stage. But now, with a well-designed stage, it is possible for the first time for a student in a wheelchair, when they receive an award, to go up and shake the hand of the principal and receive the award in the same place as every other child. This affords them the simple dignity that a great school experience provides.

I had the pleasure of opening new school facilities in Florey Primary School, which has seen renovations to its hall and also the introduction of science labs. That is particularly appropriate given that the school is named after Sir Howard Florey, the great Australian who invented penicillin—possibly one of the greatest Australians of all time. At Amaroo School, new classrooms with innovative learning spaces have been constructed. Students can learn in their traditional classroom or have lessons with their entire peer group. The dividing walls between the classrooms can be taken down and improve the quality of the teaching experience. Team teaching is now possible at Amaroo School thanks to the Building the Education Revolution program. When I was in school—as may have been the case when you were in school, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams—we just had blackboards. We then moved to the age of whiteboards. Now, in Canberra, whiteboards are being replaced by innovative SMART Boards. These are just some of the examples that Prime Minister and the Labor government have brought about through our commitment to high-quality education.

The Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011 builds upon the Gillard government’s commitment to ensuring certainty of investment in all Australian schools. The government’s review of funding for schooling is a once-in-a-generation chance to build a community consensus around the education needs of our nation. It will enable us to further the aspiration that every Australian child should have the opportunity to get a great education. By amending the Schools Assistance Act 2008, the Australian government will be able to continue to provide recurrent and capital funding to non-government schools while the review is conducted. That will provide certainty to Catholic and independent schools to enable them to continue to give their students a good education. This bill will also enable the government to continue to work with school communities, parents and families in the non-government school sector to build on the partnerships that are so critical to improving outcomes for Australian primary and secondary students. This is just one part of our broader education agenda.

We are also investing over $64 billion in school education over four years—almost double that of the previous government. We are making more information about our schools available than ever before, through the My School website. As my wife, Gweneth—who I am pleased to acknowledge is here in the chamber today—and I went about choosing a school for our four-year-old we found the information on the My School website absolutely invaluable. My School 2.0, which will be launched tomorrow, will for the first time provide parents and the community with information about the resources that schools have and the changes in student performance over time. I have to say that I am deeply disappointed that the Liberal Party is going to oppose this information being made available to Australian parents—that the Liberal Party supports keeping the blinds down on this critical information.

The Labor government is implementing an Australian curriculum for the first time, working in partnership with states and territories to make sure our students get a great education no matter where they live. I have to say to the member for Sturt that students in my electorate are learning from the national curriculum today. Classes are being taught in ACT schools based on the national curriculum. So, despite what the Liberal Party may say about the national curriculum—and despite what the member for Sturt said before the election when he said that, if you did not like it, the coalition would ‘scrap it and start again’—the national curriculum is a success and it is being taught in schools just a few kilometres from this building.

Labor is supporting students in low-socioeconomic school communities, and improving literacy and numeracy, through a $2½ billion investment in national partnerships. Those national partnerships are investing in over 2,000 schools across the country. They are not just government schools—though many of the low-socioeconomic status communities are served by government schools. Some of them are independent schools and some are Catholic schools. For us in the Labor Party these debates between the government and the non-government sector are very much a thing of the past. We are investing to ensure a quality education for all students, focusing on making sure that every school is a great school.

We have recognised that having high-quality teachers in every classroom is absolutely critical. That is why we are implementing national professional standards for teachers and principals. That is why we are investing in rewarding great teachers and attracting new people to the profession through Teach for Australia and Teach Next. We are empowering principals to manage their schools in a way that best suits their local needs and we are providing rewards for school improvement.

We are investing in infrastructure in schools through, as I have already noted, the Building the Education Revolution program, trades training centres and the digital education revolution—making sure that students have access to modern facilities and equipment to ensure they are prepared for work and life in the 21st century. The National Broadband Network will be another part of this—making sure that e-education provides all students in Australia with a great education.

But great education is not just about dollars. Sometimes when we talk about school buildings and the huge injection of funding—a historic injection of funding—into Australian schools, we can miss the fact that great education is really about a teacher making a connection with a student. It is nothing more complicated than that. Many of us in this chamber will remember a great teacher who made a difference to our lives. For me it was probably Judith Anderson, my high school English teacher, who showed a devotion to the great works, whether it was Browning, Shakespeare or Donne, and provided us with an opportunity to learn outside school hours. She was willing to be there for a group of us who wanted to practise plays. She showed through everything that she did at the front of the classroom her love of education.

But a teacher’s job is not a simple job. I would like to quote from one of my favourite books on education: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt—the great writer of Angela’s Ashes, who sadly passed away recently. He wrote in Teacher Man:

"In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counsellor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw."

In closing I would like to pay tribute to Australia’s teachers, who each and every day do extraordinary work in improving the lives of Australia’s children. I commend the bill to the House.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.