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Independent Schools Australia Forum, Re-engaging Students in Education

Graham, good morning, and thank you so much. Yes, I’m very keen to understand what works and what doesn’t work in our education system, and it’s a great pleasure to join you for your national forum this morning. Congratulations to Graham and the ISA for all your work, representing the interests of thousands upon thousands of families who choose to send their child to an independent school.I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I don’t think there are any parliamentary colleagues here right now, but I know that there have been a number who have been engaged this morning.

So as the Shadow Minister for Education, ladies and gentlemen, I am interested in what works and I’m interested in getting rid of what doesn’t work.

And perhaps that’s why we have seen such a change and lift in enrolments in non-government schools, so much so that the government in its budget is cutting $1.2 billion from government schools over the next four years to account for this shift, with the increasing number of students who are moving from government to non-government schools.

As I say, I am absolutely focused on behalf of the Coalition on what works, what is broken and what needs to be fixed in our education system.

That is why we are so strongly advocating for the mandating of evidence-based teaching and learning methods, proven teaching methods which work.

And to those schools and school systems – including Catholic education here in Canberra and the Goulbourn area – to those systems that have embraced evidence-based teaching and learning including explicit instruction, teaching of phonics, the explicit instruction of behaviour – those schools are flying.  But we want every single school to fly in this country.  At the moment, they are not.

One in three children is failing NAPLAN, that is a disastrous result. That’s why we are so strongly advocating that things have got to urgently change.

That’s why we initiated a senate inquiry into classroom disruption.  Because without giving teachers the skills to manage behaviour in the classroom, we are setting teachers and students up to fail.

We are absolutely adamant that we have to turn this big ship around.

In terms of classroom behaviour, according to the OECD’s 2018 Index of Disciplinary Climate, Australia ranked amongst the lowest, 70 out of 77 countries. The explicit teaching of behaviour is fundamental to successful learning and to re-engagement in the classroom.

This morning, we heard evidence from the esteemed educator, Tom Bennett, the Independent Behaviour Advisor with the UK Department of Education.This is a position and a focus that we need in the Australian education system: someone who will both support schools but also hold them to account when they fail to provide the right framework, including consequences for bad behaviour, so that students can shine in the classroom.In Australia, our failure to combat classroom disruption is a leading cause of declining school standards.  So today, I’m calling on the Albanese Government to do something about the woeful state of classroom disruption in this country.

This includes the more serious behaviours we are seeing almost on a weekly basis, the constant bullying of teachers and students, and violence in schools. As one young ex-teacher said to me recently, I didn’t go to work to have tables and chairs thrown at me.Of course, this situation is compounded by the woeful state of initial teacher education in this country – which has been recognised on both sides of the political aisle- where student teachers, bar a few notable exceptions, are not adequately taught how to explicitly teach behaviour in the classroom.In the UK, this has led to the delisting of teaching courses which don’t make the grade, and the same thing needs to happen here.  We have to hold universities to account which fail student teachers.

Building a learning environment that allows students to learn is fundamental to re-engaging students in the classroom.

I really want to congratulate ISA on today which is all about sharing the ideas and innovations which work.  Every young Australian, no matter their background, location, or challenge, deserves to reach his or her best potential.In the case of special assistance schools, this takes very special people to re-engage those who have gone off the rails or, for various reasons, don’t thrive in a mainstream school setting.

One of those very special people is right here, Gavin Morris, principal of the Yipirinya School in Alice Springs, which is a 100 per cent indigenous school.Gavin has turned his school around in just a couple of years, through innovation, through the empowerment of students and teachers, through a passionate belief in his students and a bit of unconditional love as well.

The Sunset School, which operates after hours and on weekends, is just one example of the initiatives that Yipirinya is adopting to ensure that all these students can be as re-engaged as possible.I know that Gavin is going to talk more about his work which is absolutely inspiring.  He has re-engaged so many of his students, driven up attendance and turned around lives, and these are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged Indigenous students in the country.The Coalition has strongly backed Gavin’s proposal for boarding facilities at the school to give children a safe and stable way to attend school and to support students who at the moment have to travel up to three hours a day to go to school, which is just unacceptable.We remain profoundly disappointed that after more than 18 months, the Albanese Government has continued to sit on its hands on this funding proposal.  We committed to these boarding facilities before the last election.  And yet this government, despite the profound evidence that this will make a huge difference to this community, to these kids, has still done nothing.

We are also very concerned that some $40 million provided to Central Australian schools under the Alice Springs Community Safety Package is being used to plug the Northern Territory Government’s Gonski funding gap, and not as Education Minister Jason Clare promised.  That program and that funding was all about funding programs and initiatives to get kids off the street, in some cases out of jail, and back to school.

Under that program, there are 46 Central Australian schools, the 10 independent and Catholic Schools in Central Australia are receiving only 5 per cent of this funding.  They were expecting each to receive – maybe half a million, maybe close to a million dollars – and yet they educate 40 per cent of those students in Central Australia.  So the fact that 95 per cent of this funding went to government schools is just unjust and inequitable, and is also a shocking reflection on the government’s commitment to community safety in Alice Springs because, clearly, that funding is no longer for that purpose.

Yipirinya, for instance, was planning to build an on-country satellite school at Burt Creek, which is about 60 kilometres north of Alice Springs, hoping to use that money to re-engage students on-country, which is what this was all about.  And those plans are now in ruins.

So as I say, the Coalition is very focused on what works and what doesn’t work and this is a really big, missed opportunity by this government.

More broadly, we are seeing some very worrying signs that this government is treating non-government schools as second class citizens.The government’s inquiry into religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws has attacked the right of religious schools to employ staff consistent with their ethos and beliefs.  This is a very dangerous attack on religious freedom in this country.  We are hoping that this position will be reversed, but the government has indicated that its report will be, I think, the drop date for that report is 31st of December. So I am very concerned that the government is going to continue its attack on religious schools and then try and bury the recommendations of the ALRC.

Just yesterday, to my great dismay, the Education Minister Jason Clare announced more than $50 million for teacher training scholarships, worth up to $40,000 for undergraduate student teachers. But this is only going to student teachers who intend to teach in government schools.

This is blatant discrimination, and a direct attack on teacher choice and the one third of Australian parents who choose to send their child to a non-government school.  It reflects that Mr Clare appears to be captive to state Labor governments and the Australian Education Union, and not focused on what’s in the best interests of all Australian schools.This decision must be urgently reversed. And I make the point – this was all about addressing critical teacher shortages.  There are critical teacher shortages in every school sector, particularly in rural, regional and remote Australia where independent and catholic schools have so many schools.So it’s just abhorrent that the non-government school sector has missed out on such a significant investment; unacceptable.

It’s also unacceptable that the distribution of nearly $200 million of wellbeing funding has gone to the states and territories, and the states and territories are now devising their own methods of distributing that funding to all schools.  In Victoria, for instance, non-government schools are receiving a very small share of the pie. That was not consistent with what the government announced when it talked about this wellbeing fund for every Australian child.There, of course, is also the insidious Victorian schools tax, which is the decision to reverse the payroll tax exemption for some independent schools in Victoria.  And there are deep, deep concerns that this insidious schools tax is going to be adopted in other jurisdictions around the country.So, ladies and gentlemen, can I please urge you to raise your voices in relation to what I believe is a direct attack on non-government schools by this government that frankly, we haven’t seen before.  And it’s absolutely unacceptable.

The bottom line is every school matters. Your schools matter, and every young Australian matters.

When I was at school, my school’s motto was ‘sic itur ad astra’, reach for the stars.

I want to thank you for all the work that you are doing to ensure that every young Australian reaches his or her best potential, and has the opportunity to reach for the stars.

Thank you.

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