PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I thought I must have been given the wrong topic for this Matter of Public Importance debate today because the topic in front of me says we are going to be discussing:
The immediate need for bipartisan support to improve our schools and give our children a better future.
I emphasise the word ‘bipartisan’, which typically means that you are reaching across the chamber and trying to embrace those opposite to try and find some compromise. But what we have seen, as members in the gallery would have observed, is 15 minutes of partisanship like we have not seen for some time.
Let me offer an olive branch to those opposite on the government benches. There is indeed bipartisan support for the intent of this MPI. We on this side certainly would like to improve our schools and give our children a better future; absolutely we would like to see that achieved. I do not doubt the sincerity of those opposite on the government benches who would also like to see that achieved. However, where we do disagree is in the mechanism to achieve that. You will not find bipartisan support in this chamber for wasting billions of dollars. You will not find bipartisan support in this chamber for adding additional red tape to the school sector and you will certainly not find bipartisan support for cutting the funds of 3,200 schools across the country. What you will find bipartisan support for is measures to improve teacher quality, a stronger curriculum and ensuring that no school in the country receives reduced funding. I would like to expand on some of those points.
By and large we actually have exceptionally good schools in this country. When you look at the international testing data, we have performed consistently well for decades now—in the top band of performance. For example, in the last OECD PISA test, out of 65 countries, we performed ninth in reading, 10th in science and 15th in maths. We also have very good social mobility and social equity in our school system, despite what some people may say.
But, despite our absolute levels of performance, we have declined in recent years and quite considerably so. Indeed, we are one of only four OECD countries that has declined in our performance both in absolute terms and in relative terms as well. We are starting to be overtaken by our near Asian neighbours. In Shanghai for example, the average 15-year-old maths student is now performing two to three years above his or her Australian counterpart at the same age level. In science and maths they are about 15 months ahead and that is similar to some of the other countries in our region. This has occurred despite there being a 44 per cent increase in real funding in schools over the last nine years. So we can do better and, indeed, we must do better to maintain our standards, to constantly improve our standards and to offer the best chance in life for our school children. The question is: what should be done to improve our schools? Here is where we do depart from the government in the prescription for what should be done.
The government has been saying for years now that it has got an enormous education revolution occurring throughout the nation. But what we really have had is billions of dollars of waste and the creation of further bureaucracies, which will further strangle our schools. Probably the numberone thing it has talked about ad nauseam is the Building the Education Revolution program. This was a $16 billion program but all the analysis, all the independent reviews and our own anecdotal evidence show that we received about $8 billion worth of value out of that $16 billion program.
We know, for example, that school halls were built in schools which were closing. We know that school halls were built alongside existing school halls. Every single Member in this chamber knows examples of overly expensive school halls built in their electorate. In mine there was a school hall built right beside another school hall. Meanwhile there are other schools which are falling apart, where the maintenance has not been done and where they needed a further injection of funding. We absolutely support injections of capital funds into schools, but we do not support it being done in the way that the government did it, where over $8 billion was wasted in that program—an enormous amount of money. They will not get bipartisan support for programs where money is wasted like that.
Equally, they will not get bipartisan support for some of the teacher quality measures they are putting in place. I fear that they are just adding another layer of red tape. I am pleased that the government has recognised that teacher quality is important—indeed, it is the single most important thing in improving student outcomes. It is great that they have identified that, but their primary reform is the development of what they call the “National Professional Standards for Teachers and School Principals”. This sounds very grand and sounds fantastic, but you need to look at the detail of this to assess whether it will actually improve the quality of teaching or whether it will just hinder teachers. My concern is that it will do the latter. This teacher standards process is going to require each of Australia’s 250,000 schoolteachers to be centrally assessed against 37 different categories. Each of those 37 categories has three or four subcategories, so there will be an incredible 100 to 150 points that every teacher across the country has to be assessed against centrally—not by the school principal but by a central bureaucracy—and they will have to do that on a very regular basis.
This is not going to improve the quality of our teachers. It is another classic case where the government announces a grandiose sounding program, but, when you look into the detail, it may actually have the reverse effect to what is intended. In this case my concern is that this will just consume teachers’ time, as they will be going through enormous checklists on a very regular basis, against 150 minuscule items, in order to continue their advancement. What really should be occurring is that the school community, led by the school principal himself or herself, should be making those assessments about the performance of the schoolteacher.
Finally and most importantly, we will not provide bipartisan support on the government’s proposal—supposedly to improve school education—to cut the funding of 3,200 schools across this nation. It is not me that is suggesting that. This government has put forward a blueprint for school funding—the Gonski review—and this blueprint has been assessed by the Victorian education department—
Mr Perrett: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: under standing order 90, about reflections on members, I find that imputation about what I am supporting in Labor Party policy to be highly disorderly and offensive.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Order! The honourable member will withdraw.
Mr TUDGE: We had an earlier ruling by the Deputy Speaker precisely on this matter in relation to that section of the standing orders, and there was no request to withdraw at that time. However, for the purpose of the House I will withdraw.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I am very pleased that you have done that and I thank you.
Mr TUDGE: I refer to the Victorian education department’s analysis of the Gonski review, which was published in the Sunday Herald Sun just a couple of days ago, which showed that 3,200 schools across the nation would be worse off under the Gonski reforms. It is not just the wealthy schools across the country—which we know those opposite dislike and have targeted in the past—this was down to the very poorest schools in the community. I had four schools in my electorate that were targeted and on this hit list—four low-fee Catholic primary schools. St Luke’s, for example, in Wantirna services an ordinary middle-class community and charges fees of $1,200. According to this Victorian education department analysis, it is going to lose $218,000. That is $750 per student. If this school is to make up for that lost funding in school fees, it will have to increase its school fees by something like 60 or 70 per cent, up to around $2,000. Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Bayswater is going to lose a similar amount. St Jude the Apostle Primary School and Holy Trinity Primary School in my electorate will also be affected. There are 3,200 schools across the country that will be affected, in the electorates of Members opposite as well as in every single Coalition electorate.
We will not be providing bipartisan support for cuts to non-government schools or to government schools. You can have our guarantee upon that, Mr Deputy Speaker. They will get bipartisan support for the intent to lift the performance of our schools, but you do not do that by cutting the funds of 3,200 schools across the nation.
Government members interjecting—
Mr TUDGE: Those opposite are interjecting, saying: ‘No, no, of course we are going to give extra money to schools!’ The Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, just yesterday afternoon, was asked a simple question: he was asked to guarantee that no school would be worse off under the Gonski proposals. It was a simple question. Do you know what he did? He evaded; he could not guarantee it. He has been asked repeatedly to guarantee that no school will be worse off in real terms. He cannot guarantee it, because he knows he has a hit list.
The last time Labor put forward a non-government-school funding policy was eight years ago, and we know how that policy went. It was the famous Mark Latham hit list policy of 2004. In those days only 59 schools were targeted. Today, 3,200 schools across the nation have been targeted. We will not be supporting that.
A few things are required. I will highlight at least three that the coalition has been putting forward as constructive mechanisms to improve the performance of our schools. The first one of course is to guarantee that every school will have real funding increases of six per cent a year. That is the first guarantee. Those on the government side cannot guarantee that. The second thing is to put in place mechanisms to improve the performance and quality of teachers. We know that that is the single most important measure to improve school performance. We also want to give school principals greater independence so that they can manage their school appropriately. We like the model, of 100 independent government schools, that the Western Australian government is introducing. We believe that that type of model should be rolled out further. Finally, there should be a strong and rigorous school curriculum which is benchmarked against the best curriculums in the world, not against some of the weakest. Those are the things which need to be put in place in order to improve school performance. If the government were to propose those things, it would get bipartisan support.