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Australian Education Amendment (Save Our Public Schools) Bill 2023, Private Senator’s Bill debate

I rise to speak on the Australian Education Amendment (Save Our Public Schools) Bill 2023. I want to start by saying that under the former coalition government we dramatically lifted schools funding from $13 billion in 2013 to a very significant $25 billion in 2022 and largely resolved the so-called funding wars over schools. It is regrettable that we have seen these funding wars erupt.

While I appreciate the Greens’ position, this is very much a situation of the minister’s own making. The Minister for Education, Jason Clare, committed to full and fair funding for public schools. The problem with that commitment is that the Commonwealth is already providing 20 per cent of funding to Australian public schools in accordance with the Gonski funding model. So there is no shortfall of funding from the Commonwealth to public schools whatsoever. And it is correct, as Senator Allman-Payne has just said, that the states are falling very dramatically short in their funding contributions. The Northern Territory is sitting at only 59 per cent of its funding contribution out of 80 per cent. Queensland is 69 per cent. Victoria is 70 per cent. Only the ACT, in fact, has committed and delivered its full funding obligations under the Gonski model.

Mr Clare went to the election promising full and fair funding from the Albanese government. This government has now created a funding shambles. We now know that this is another broken promise. The states, quite rightly, interpreted this commitment as the government delivering its increasing share from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. Mr Clare and the Albanese government have led Australian parents, Australian families, Australian students and Australian teachers up the garden path. We’ve now seen a funding shambles erupt on the minister’s watch. There have been big headlines: ‘$3 billion for public schools’, with an offer to take Commonwealth public school funding from 20 per cent to 22.5 per cent. Firstly, implicitly, that is a blatant broken promise. Secondly, within 24 hours five states said to this incompetent minister, who’s had nearly two years to sort this out, ‘no deal’. We know that this minister was rolled by the states and territories at the last education ministers’ meeting in December. He put forward some reforms which he clearly had not done his homework on, and he was comprehensively rolled.

Now we have a situation where we have an absolute shambles on our hands created by this incompetent government. So I say: shame on Minister Clare! Shame on the Albanese government! From the very beginning it was clear that this was a smoke-and-mirrors strategy from this government with many, many weasel words—’We’re on a pathway to full and fair funding.’ What a load of rubbish.

All this government has done is duck and weave, and appease the likes of the Australian Education Union. I have to say that I absolutely condemn the Australian Education Union for turning its back on the reforms that we know will make a difference right now. Evidence based teaching is fundamental to turning around our declining school standards. The coalition has long called for evidence-based teaching methods, like explicit instruction, to be mandated in every Australian classroom. Some schools are doing a brilliant job. They are adopting the best evidence-based teaching and they are seeing their NAPLAN results go through the roof. But this minister doesn’t have the courage, he doesn’t have the guts and he doesn’t have the commitment or the passion to drive the reforms that we need right now that we know will not cost a bucketload of money.

How do we know that? We know that because schools are doing it right now with the funding envelope that they are operating under—schools like Marsden Road Public School. I name that school in particular because it is an exceptional school led by an exceptional principal, Manisha Gazula, in a low-SES area of Sydney, in Liverpool, where 90 per cent of students are from a non-English-speaking background. This principal has looked at the evidence. She looked at the ridiculous teacher-training that her teachers received at university and the lack of support that they received, not getting the foundations in how to teach numeracy and literacy. She said, ‘Well, that’s not good enough. I’m going to bring in the professional support these teachers need; I’m going to give them the coaching; I am going to introduce evidence based teaching, including explicit instruction, in my school; and I’m going to turn around the results of our kids.’ These are some of the most disadvantaged children in Sydney.

The biggest disadvantage children can be given in life is to not learn to read and write. Disadvantage is not defined by a child’s postcode. It is defined by poor and ineffective teaching, through no fault of the teachers themselves. How can teachers possibly be expected to excel in the classroom when this ridiculous Education Union is turning its back on all the very best evidence that we know will work?
This minister is a smooth talker, but Australian schools deserve a tough operator. A tough operator is needed to deliver the reforms that children in this country so demand because, at the moment, one in three children are failing NAPLAN. Our results are going backwards. I started my contribution by talking about the very significant increase in funding delivered by the coalition when we were in government—from $13 billion to $25 billion. We’ve actually seen a 60 per cent increase in schools funding over the last two decades, with a corresponding decline in school standards. That is not good enough. It’s an embarrassment. On classroom disruption, we are one of the worst countries in the world.

Our Program for International Student Assessment results, testing year 10 students, shows that half of all year 10 students tested in the most recent international assessment did not achieve expected standards in maths, and 43 per cent of year 10 students did not meet the grade in reading.

So, while the minister has talked a big game on the National School Reform Agreement, we have seen no national agreement and we have seen very little in the way of school reforms. I condemn this government for reigniting the funding wars through its own actions and through misleading Australians—the rubbish of a commitment that it gave. Now it’s very clear that this government is not going to deliver full and fair funding, as it says, even though the Commonwealth is delivering its full funding commitment to public schools under Gonski. So Jason Clare has led Australian families up the garden path.

This comes at a time when we’ve seen a full-blown teacher shortage crisis on Jason Clare’s watch. There have been some measures announced, but they are lacklustre. The minister is too slow. He’s not responding with the urgency that Australian families require. Some 2,000 positions are waiting to be filled right now in New South Wales. More than 1,000 positions are waiting to be filled in Victoria. Some schools are looking for 20 teachers. That’s in one school. So this is a dire situation.

The really tragic situation that we find is that the Australian Education Research Organisation—an independent and very important body—has done all the work. We know what works. I have, on numerous occasions, commended the New South Wales government for announcing an end to open classrooms, because how can you teach students effectively in a barn with 180 or 200 kids? It doesn’t work. This fad, this era of inquiry based learning, of loose learning, as I call it, has not worked. That’s why our standards are going backwards. We are betraying this generation of children.
The minister should be putting a blowtorch to the universities, who are letting down student teachers. They go into a teaching course thinking they’re going to get a great education and they get nothing of the sort. That also is appalling. We did a lot of work in government to deliver the reforms that we need to see for universities to lift their game. Rather than just take those reforms and get cracking with the job, the minister spent another 12 months doing another review which basically concluded with almost the same recommendations that we handed down in government. It’s delaying action and letting universities off the hook. That is completely inadequate.

It comes at a time when university students and graduates—three million Australians—are staring another massive rise in their students debt in the face—7.1 per cent was the figure by which student debt rose last year due to Labor’s skyrocketing inflation. This government talks a big game about tax cuts. What a joke. Three million Australians had their debt increased last year by an average of $1,700 with no action. We know that when you run the economy sensibly and responsibly, as we did—indexation averaged less than two per cent a year under the coalition government—it’s a system that works. Under this government, Australian students and graduates, young Australians, including those trying to buy a home, are being gouged by increasing student debt driven by high inflation, which directly equates to high indexation. I say: shame on this minister.

We are seeing reports that, while three million Australians are suffering with increased student debt, the minister’s department is holding meetings in one-hat fine-dining restaurants. So, rather than holding meetings in meeting rooms with a cup of tea and a biscuit, he is presiding over a department which is rorting taxpayers’ money by holding meetings in restaurants, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars. That is simply not good enough. I condemn this government for the funding wars that it has created. This is a funding debacle. And, of course, it comes at a time when this government is now looking fairly at non-government schools. It has failed to rule out that disgraceful Productivity Commission recommendation that deductible gift recipient status be stripped away from non-government schools, which it says will cost the Catholic sector alone $2 billion. That is just another shambles on Jason Clare’s watch.

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