PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to speak on the Australian Education Amendment Bill, following the member for Hasluck. It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Hasluck, who is particularly learned and wise on education matters concerning Indigenous children. This bill does a number of things, and I would like to speak briefly on the subject matter of the bill, then speak more broadly on Indigenous education and some of the initiatives which the government is doing and some of the challenges we as a nation face.
The bill itself allows payment of additional funding in 2014 to schools with large numbers of Indigenous boarding students from remote areas in order to meet an identified resources shortfall. The Indigenous boarding initiative was announced through the 2014-15 budget, and will provide $6.8 million in additional funding to eligible schools. The regulations will determine the school’s eligibility and the amount of funding it will receive under the initiative. This bill will prevent funding cuts to students with disabilities and to other students in some independent special schools and special-assistance schools that would otherwise occur from 1 January 2015 by ensuring transitional funding arrangements for these schools are consistent with other schools under the act. The bill also addresses a number of errors and omissions that occurred during the original preparation of the act under the former government.
This is an important bill in and of itself in terms of providing additional support for Indigenous students to be able to attend boarding facilities, and that is something we strongly support on this side of the chamber. We strongly support Indigenous families having the choice for their children to be able to attend boarding schools, particularly in areas where there simply is not the alternative of having a good local school to year 12 where they reside, and therefore boarding schools realistically become the only option. To that end, I commend the work of Andrew Penfold and the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. It is something that we strongly support, a number of companies support and, indeed, the broader community supports very strongly.
I would like to sum up on this bill as I go, but before doing so I will make a couple of points more broadly about our Indigenous education initiatives. We often use the word ‘crisis’ in this House in referring to a whole raft of issues, but a real crisis is occurring today in relation to the poor outcomes that many Indigenous students are achieving. I have met people who have left school, supposedly having been there for 10 years, yet who could barely write their names or read a sentence. When you look at the statistics you see that in a place like Queensland by the time remote students are in year 9 they are about six years behind everybody else. Across the board they are doing more poorly than others—and this is the crisis, because we know that if these students are not learning then their prospects of getting a good job at the end are so much more diminished. We have to take action in this regard. Collectively as a nation we must take action, and we must prioritise this.
We are certainly prioritising under the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs as a No. 1 starting point that the kids are at school. Nobody can learn if they are not at school—it is a necessary pre-condition for learning. It sounds very straightforward, but when you look at the data, you find that in remote communities students are attending about 60 per cent of the time. This does not mean the students learn 60 per cent of the content; rather, you need to be attending about 80 per cent of the time to be learning anything at all. If you are attending less than 80 per cent of the time then the curriculum will advance too far in front of you and you will end up learning very little at all. So 80 per cent is the absolute bare-minimum benchmark for school attendance. It should be 100 per cent, but 80 per cent is the bare minimum. In the Northern Territory only one-quarter of children are attending school 80 per cent of the time, which means that only one-quarter of those children are attending often enough to learn effectively. That is a crisis, which we must address.
We have already started a number of initiatives, perhaps the most important being the Remote School Attendance Strategy, which is now operating in 73 schools—those schools which had the poorest attendance records.
This strategy pays for local people to be employed to literally be student attendance officers, to knock on people’s doors, to drive a minibus where required and to pick up the local kids and take them to the local school—a very simple, practical on-the-ground initiative involving local people. That, to date, has been working very well. On average, we have had a five percentage point improvement in student attendance, but in some places there has been a 15 percentage point improvement already, which is a remarkable achievement. So we are strongly supporting that and want to see it further evolve.
We also strongly support the Clontarf Foundation, which uses football as a mechanism for engaging, particularly, teenage boys at secondary school. I know the former Labor government also strongly supported Clontarf, but in the most recent budget we gave a further $13 million to allow these Clontarf academies to be rolled out further across Australia as a mechanism to engage the children, keep them at school and progress them into work. But we need to do more, because even in places such as Yirrkala, in East Arnhem Land—where the Prime Minister visited recently, and a number of ministers and I were there with him—the school has student attendance officers and a Clontarf Academy in place and yet the school attendance rate is still only 55 per cent. Despite all of that effort, the student attendance rate is still so poor, and more needs to be done.
Andrew Forrest, in his report, has advised us to make this an absolute national priority, where the pressure must be on every institution to lift student attendance overall. That means the pressure needs to be on the state governments, who run the schools. He recommends that the Commonwealth should be paying state governments on the basis of school attendance rather than student enrolment, which would be a fundamental difference and put the heat on the state and territory governments. He also recommends that there needs to be more pressure on the parents and, where they are receiving family tax benefits to help them look after their children, a basic precondition for those family tax benefits should be that the parent is sending their child to school. He also recommends that distractions be eliminated. A distraction could be a football carnival or a big show which goes on during the school day which consequently means that the kids might not go to school. We are seriously considering all of those big recommendations Mr Forrest has given to us, because we must get on top of the students’ attendance problem. If we do not, the kids will not learn, and if they are not learning then it is almost inevitable that they will end up on the welfare queue and, in many cases, in prison.
So this is our starting point. It is not the ending point, but it is the starting point. Kids must be at school. Once they are at school, we then have to ensure that there is good instruction and there are good teachers. There are a number of things that Andrew Forrest, again, has recommended to us which we are taking a very close look at, but just one initiative which I will emphasise is the Good to Great Schools initiative, where we are providing $22 million for the rollout of effective, explicit instruction in remote schools. That is being trialled in Cape York, where it has been rolled out in five schools and has had incredible results. In fact, the Cape York academy schools have been found by Professor John Hattie to be schools where students learn at 1.5 times the learning rate of similar students in reading and numeracy. In the NAPLAN results which we got just recently, there was a whole year class of students in a Cape York academy school where 100 per cent of students reached national minimum benchmarks in reading and numeracy and almost 100 per cent reached the spelling benchmark. As many people would know, that is a fantastic achievement. If we could replicate that across Australia in remote schools then we would have broken the back of the education crisis which is in many remote schools.
I have been asked to sum up this bill. I would like to thank all of the speakers on the Australian Education Amendment Bill for their contributions to the debate. The coalition government is committed to supporting the delivery of quality schooling and to providing funding and regulatory certainty for all Australian schools. We are committed to making sure every Australian child has the opportunity to reach their potential, through a great education. In government, we have invested a record $64.5 billion over four years in schooling. This includes the $1.2 billion this government restored for schools in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory when we came to office in 2013, money that the former Labor government did not place into the budget. We were very clear in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, including in our Students First policy, that we would maintain the funding arrangements enacted by the 43rd Parliament for the four years of the forward estimates. We have kept that commitment and indeed we have done more. We have added an additional $1.2 billion that the previous government ripped out of schools in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
This amendment bill enables additional targeted support for schools so that we can provide much-needed services to support Indigenous boarding school students. I outlined those earlier. In the Students First policy that we took to the 2013 election, we promised to end the command-and-control aspects of the Australian Education Act, to remove those parts of the act that allowed the federal government to dictate what states and territories must do in their schools and to ensure that the states and territories remain responsible for schools and that non-government schools maintain their independence and autonomy. The minister plans to introduce amendments to the act in 2015 to address the command-and-control features of the act. While the government negotiates with states and territories and the non-government school sector on the command-and-control aspects of the act, the bill amends the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2013 to extend to 1 January 2016, or a later date determined by the minister by legislative instrument, the commencement of school improvement planning requirements under the act. This is to provide regulatory certainty to schools whilst consultations with stakeholders occur in relation to possible adjustments to this requirement.
This bill provides additional funding support for remote Indigenous students, prevents funding reductions for schools catering to students with a disability, delivers regulatory certainty and improves the overall operation of the act.
Taking action to address these will strengthen the legislative framework that underpins the Australian government’s significant investment in schools and contributes to improving the quality of school education in Australia.
On behalf of the minister I thank all of the speakers who have contributed to this bill. I again emphasise the government’s commitment to schooling, to ensuring that every single student has the opportunity for a great education in primary and secondary school. I again emphasise the record levels of funding which this government is providing. This year alone we are increasing funding by eight percentage points. Next year we will increase by eight per cent. The year after, we will increase the funding by a further eight per cent, and the year after that—the final year of the forward estimates—a further six per cent. Included in that funding is the $1.2 billion that the Labor government ripped out of those schools in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. I think it is a great shame that they did that, and I am certainly very proud as a member of the coalition government that we were able to put that money back into those schools and states. I know that those state governments, parents and students from those states particularly appreciate the fact that this government was willing to stand up and replace the $1.2 billion which the Labor government ripped out. It was an important measure we took when we first came to government and it is one we are very proud of. I commend the bill and thank all the speakers in this debate.