Standing up for Canberra

Australian Education Bill 2012

When I was elected, I used my first speech in this House to talk about the transformative powers of education and how Labor has helped tens of thousands of people like me break free from a cycle of disadvantage through education. I was the first member of my family to finish high school and the first member of my family to attend a university. My mother worked extremely hard so that her girls could have the opportunity of an education. It was an opportunity that was not available to her, to my grandmother, or to my great-grandmother. The achievements of my sisters and myself are testament to my mother's belief that a quality education is one the most important gifts that you can give to a child. It was through her sacrifices and commitment that I am here today, and my story is by no means unique.

There are countless other men and women who have finished school and gained a higher education because of the hard work and sacrifices of their parents or their family. Like me, they were supported by Labor, by a party that understands that a quality and properly funded education system is the vital link to opportunity and is the core responsibility of government. In fact, when I think about it education is one of the main reasons why I am Labor.

When I visit schools in my electorate—which is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life as a local member—I make time to talk with students about my experiences in a world-class public school system, and what it meant to me to have the chance to attend university. I remind students that my own journey shows how the transformative quality of education can really impact on your life. I talked with them about how education can empower, how it opens doors, how it gives options, choices and opportunities —opportunities often unimagined. Young students talk with me about their great teachers—how they are inspired by them, how their lives are changed by them, and how education can lead to totally unexpected careers, travel and life experiences.

Last year while I was visiting a high school not far from us here at Parliament House, students were sharing their stories about volunteering overseas and furthering their education and knowledge through programs that give them incredible opportunities. Of course, these students were also sharing their educational experiences in a school that had recently been the beneficiary of a massive funding investment as a result of the Building the Education Revolution. It is important to remind the conservatives who opposed this investment that great transformations in education have been fostered by Labor, such as the BER, and now this bill. The education revolution that Labor has championed underscores our belief in building Australia's education sector and providing greater choice and greater opportunities. Every time I visit a school in my electorate, I see how beneficial it is and how transformative it is. The investment that Labor has made in ACT schools over the past few years is truly incredible, and these enhancements are in government schools, independent schools and in Catholic schools.

Those opposite are strangely silent on this, because their local members know that every time they visit a school in their electorate, they see modernisation and investment and improvements in IT, thanks to Labor. They see a national curriculum, and teacher standards being improved and enhanced to the benefit of students, teachers and families. They see better teacher training initiatives, and greater decision-making authority for school principals, and they see a doubling of funding to Australian schools thanks to Labor.

Following the Prime Minister's announcement of the National Plan for School Improvement in September last year, Labor has made a great deal of progress on the pathway to implementation. State and territory education ministers have already agreed to work collaboratively on the main points of Labor's plan, such as higher teaching standards, better learning opportunities, individual school improvement plans and a new, needs-based school funding system. It is equally significant that state and territory education ministers, along with just about everyone interested in education, has welcomed and endorsed the Prime Minister's objective of placing Australia in the top 5 countries in the world in reading, maths and science by 2025. Since that announcement, we have also seen agreement by the states and territories to collaborate on greater transparency and accountability measures, to ensure that funding goes where it is intended and produces better results for our students.

And education is one of the strongest threads that runs through the Australia in the Asian century white paper.

The paper says that by 2025 every Australian school student will have access to learning an Asian language from their first year of school. That is already happening in Canberra schools. Many students in my electorate are already undertaking broad-ranging programs in Indonesian, Japanese and Mandarin. A number of schools in my electorate have little Japanese rooms where they not only learn the language but dress up in little Japanese outfits and do drawings. Their Japanese teacher comes in every day. These rooms are quite extraordinary. They are all decked out in Japanese themes. We have also got one school that has an Indonesian themed room where the children learn Indonesian. They have puppets and dress-ups and all sorts of things. It is a complete experience for these kids. It is not just a case of language; it also involves culture, art, drawing and a great deal of fun.

These are all significant and landmark policies that will have a lasting legacy on Australian education. I want to talk now on this bill. It is the first comprehensive review of school funding in 40 years, a significant length of time. This bill creates the foundation for a legislative framework to ensure that Australia's schooling system is both high quality and highly equitable, while recognising inherent disadvantage. It is a key element of Labor's response to the findings of the review of funding for schooling and it is the first stage of a legislative response to ensure that all our schools are great schools. When we examined our education system a few years ago very critical facts emerged. Although the Australian economy is the envy of the world our school education system was slipping. Over the past decade Australian students have fallen from second to seventh in reading and from fifth to 13th in maths in the international exams. Australia's year 4 students were significantly outperformed in reading and literacy by 21 countries out of a total of 45.

This is not good enough. We can and must do a lot better than this. When we look around the world we see high levels of investment in other countries and we see that this delivers better outcomes. Labor wants to ensure that we have a school system that provides for all Australian children and gives them a real chance to reach their full potential—a world-class potential. And it is not just about disadvantaged kids and gifted kids; it is about all students. To this end, Labor's National Plan for School Improvement will see more money and more resources delivered to every school in the country. Our goal is to see a new school funding system based on the recommendations of the Gonski review. This will include a benchmark amount per student plus extra money for the schools and students who need it most.

I want to take this opportunity to thank St Edmund's College and St Clare's College in my electorate. In the development of the Gonski review and the response to that I went out and did a number of consultative briefing sessions with them. I had one session for staff and one session for parents. They were really worthwhile sessions—getting feedback from staff on the direction in which they thought it should be going and also getting from the parents a very strong sense of what they want out of an education system and their expectations of government and also the schools. In addition to those forums that I held I also spent a lot of time, because of my love of education, out with the school principals and teachers. I go to assemblies probably once or twice a week when we are not sitting. I meet with the union, the Independent schools association and the Catholic schools association to get a sense of the issues that concern them and also their response to Gonski and other education issues.

I want to name a few of the schools whose principals I meet with: St Mary MacKillop College, Saint Edmund's College, St Clare's College, Saint Francis of Assisi college, Canberra Grammar, Richardson Primary School, Bonython Primary School, Conder Primary School, Gordon Primary School, Lanyon High School, Alfred Deakin High School and the colleges. The principals have been extraordinarily excited about this first review of school funding in 40 years and they want to be actively engaged in it. In the conversations I have with them they have been incredibly well-informed and incredibly interested in ensuring that they deliver the best outcomes not just for ACT schools or their particular school but for education across Australia today and into the future.

The Gonski review is not just a question of increased funding, however; it is also about binding extra money to changes that deliver better results. Let me outline what we want to deliver. We want to deliver an innovative funding model for every school that guarantees all Australian schools the money they need to do their job. We want to deliver higher standards for our teachers, with at least a term's classroom experience before graduation and an annual performance review for every teacher. We want to give teachers extra training in managing disruptive behaviour and dealing with bullying so that every school student can learn in a safe environment. We want to increase authority for school principals in hiring staff and controlling the budget—and I know that some of the schools principals I have spoken to about this issue in my electorate have really embraced this concept. We want to improve the My School information to make sure no school falls behind, with more information for parents so they can see how their children are managing. We want every school to have its own school improvement plan that will outline the steps that schools will need to take to improve student results. We want to know which schools need extra help to improve their results, and we will provide the support to ensure that that happens. We want to ensure that school improvement plans are part of a national drive to ensure we meet our goals as set out in the Asian century white paper. And, as I mentioned before, we want every student to have access to learning an Asian language from their first day of school.

The Gillard government is prepared to invest substantially more money to help deliver this plan for better schools and we expect other governments to contribute their fair share too. We know that a quality education is an opportunity that must be available to all Australian students no matter their circumstances or background. This bill lays the foundations for a framework to ensure Australia's schooling system is high quality, highly equitable—that is particularly important bearing in mind my background and that of many here and that of many tens of thousands of Australians—and recognises disadvantage.

This bill is an essential element of our response to the findings of the review of funding for schooling.

What we have before us is legislation that outlines the National Plan for School Improvement and the base for a new national push to improve both school and student results. The bill details the five core reform directions of the plan, which are: quality teaching, quality learning, empowered school leadership, transparency and accountability, and meeting student need. As I noted earlier, these reform directions are based on the collaborative work undertaken by all states and territories, the non-government sector and the Commonwealth to ensure that future funding is directed to what makes a difference in schools.

There has also been extensive consultation with parents groups, education unions and representatives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and disability education sectors, amongst others. It is the first stage of our legislative response to ensure that all our schools can be great, world-class schools. Most importantly, this bill outlines a plan for further reforms to address educational disadvantage and to ensure that by 2025 Australia is ranked as a top five country in the world for education performance.

I hope every member of this parliament agrees with the Gillard government that all students, regardless of their circumstance, geography or socioeconomic situation, are entitled to an excellent, world-class education, so that every Australian girl and every Australian boy can reach their potential and have the chance to experience the world of opportunity that education has provided for me.

Download a copy of this speech.