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Q&A Education Policy Debate - Penny Wright's Responses

Penny Wright 13 Mar 2013

As the Australian Greens spokesperson for schools & education, I watched the Q&A education discussion on Monday with interest.

Unfortunately, I was not invited to be a part of the panel, but given the Greens have strong, costed policies, I wanted to take this opportunity to put these forward. Below are the Greens' answers to a number of key questions asked in the Q&A Education Policy Debate. In keeping with the format, my responses are brief, but I'm keen to get involved in this debate and put forward the Greens' vision regarding the future of school education in Australia, and how this affects our children and our nation.



Ken Boston, Gonski Review Panel, former Director-General NSW Education & Training, has asked: Since 1973, both your parties, have allocated education funding to the independent, Catholic and government school sectors with an eye to political as much as educational imperatives. 
Forty years on, it is clear that approach has failed. By international standards our school performance is poor and declining and we have created one of the most socially segregated education systems in the Western world.
Is it not now time for bipartisan acceptance of the Gonski principle that funding should be calculated on the basis of the measured difficulty of the job facing each individual school regardless of sector, rather than by political deals with school system authorities, lobby groups, church leaders and teacher unions?

RESPONSE: The Australian Greens could not agree more with the central theme of the Gonski review that school funding should be needs-based & that the future of our children & our country should be the focus, not political point-scoring. I gave a speech in the Senate yesterday on the failure to act on these recommendations to date. The Labor Government's delay in responding has put at risk a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a broken funding model, while the Coalition is denying the need for reform in the first place. You can watch the speech here:



Geoff Hewitt, Christian Educational National, asked: The Government's response to Gonski thus far has been aspirations and rhetoric. It is ludicrous that schools only have aspirations with which to do their due diligence and planning for 2014. When will the government release its fully details responses to Gonski, to due-diligence testing and public discussion. You only have five months within in which to announce it; consider informed responses; present and pass legislation; and demonstrate in the May budget how it will be funded.

RESPONSE: Geoff Hewitt is completely right to say aspirations and rhetoric are unacceptable at this stage of the debate. The Greens have been calling for the release of further detail - including a specific funding model - for months. It is now over a year since the recommendations were made public & the delay from the Government in clarifying their funding intentions has alienated the states. We've heard a lot in past weeks about many states considering backing out because of this secret-squirrel kind of stuff. Yes, this is complex law reform. It does require a dexterity of handling and careful, respectful negotiations with state and territory governments because we need all levels of government to work cooperatively and collaboratively in the best interests of Australia's students. The Greens have not been shy about saying the Government is mismanaging a unique opportunity to address shameful disadvantage in our school system but we also have a plan on how to get the Gonski recommendations underway as soon as possible. Plugging the holes in the mining tax would raise $26 billion in the next four years - enough for the Federal Government to fully fund Gonski in its entirety. The Greens are prepared to stand up to the wealthy mining companies to raise the money we need to give all Australian children a world-class education.



Pat Norman asked: I am in my final year of university study and I am pretty intent on becoming a bloody outstanding high school English and History teacher. When I get out I plan to teach in the public system because I want to teach kids whose parents can't necessarily afford to buy an excellent education.
The issue in Australian schools is not teacher quality - that's a cheap cop out to shove political blame onto dedicated teachers. The issue is the clear lack of resources in schools, which Gonski seeks to fix. If you truly believe in improving teacher quality, why do you not also support providing public schools the funding they need to enable teachers to create high quality learning environments?

RESPONSE: Congratulations, Pat! I am sure you will be an absolutely fantastic teacher & we need to attract more people like you into the teaching profession. I agree the Coalition's constant theme of "teacher quality" is a way to find a scapegoat & shift blame. Of course we all want the highest quality teachers for our students & the best way to do this is to support teachers. Teachers are professionals. We should respect them as we do other professionals & provide appropriate salary and conditions. 

Supporting teachers means a whole range of things - it means funding schools correctly so that government schools are able to provide high quality learning environments, as you say. It also means recognising the important & challenging roles that teachers have. Appropriate wages are part of the picture, but it's also about providing professional support, time to plan lessons out of the classroom & offering an attractive career path. Teachers, particularly in government schools, are increasingly being asked to do more with less - less resources, less time. Getting on with Gonski would go some way to addressing these problems & ensuring teachers are supported & able to provide the best possible education.



Karen Jubb, Hunter Sports High School, asked: Christopher Pyne you once said that "the quality of a teacher is the most significant predictor of student outcomes (apart from family background) and increasing teacher effectiveness outweighs the impact of any other school education program or policy." 
What is your definition of a quality teacher? What am I supposed to achieve to be considered a quality teacher? And after 15 years experience, how do you intend to increase and fund my effectiveness as a teacher?

RESPONSE: I think the most interesting thing here is the brackets in the quote - "apart from family background". It's amazing just to skip over this when what those words actually cover is a staggering level of disadvantage in our education system. Numerous studies, including many of those cited by the comprehensive Gonski review of funding for schools, which marshals national and international evidence, have shown wealth and background are the best indicators of educational achievement in Australia in 2013. So how can Mr Pyne possibly call that a satisfactory system? How can we skip over this first & fundamental factor? It was just two weeks ago that Mr Pyne made the demonstrably false and plainly ridiculous claim that Australia already has a world-class education system for all students regardless of location, income and school selection. Just for starters, we know that more than 80 per cent of students who did not reach the level required for proficiency to participate in society in reading and mathematics are in government schools. In relation to reading literacy, the gap between students from the highest and lowest economic, social and cultural status brackets is approximately three years. Three years! Yet Mr Pyne hardly even acknowledges - let alone has plans to address - this drastic inequality & just wants to point the finger at teachers. For my comments on supporting teachers, see my response to Pat Norman's question.



Stephanie Armstrong from Murrayville, VIC asked via video: I go to school in one of the most remote schools in Victoria. It's really hard to do well in education when you are over 2 and a half hours from your nearest public library and you don't have access to tutoring or revision lectures etc. What are you going to do to close the gap in education for country kids?

RESPONSE: Hi Stephanie! Well done on the great work you do teaching in a remote area. As you would know, the vast majority of rural students are educated in government schools, however the NAPLAN 2012 National Report again showed students in remote areas were performing significantly below the levels of children attending schools in cities. Getting a good education in Australia should not be a matter of geography. Wherever our children live, they should have an equal chance to achieve the best they can. The Gonski reforms were a true call to action to fix disadvantage in rural and remote schools. These gaps in resources and outcomes is the reason the Australian Greens will be moving an amendment to the Government's Australian Education Act to ensure any increase in funding goes to disadvantaged schools first. High quality public education is a core role of Government & should apply wherever you live! Each year we wait is another year where rural kids fail to get the education they deserve because of where their family is based.



Debra Hayes, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Sydney, asked: I'm the director of a teacher education program at a major university. In recent years, the policies of successive governments have meant that: Rates of casualisation have skyrocketed; Class numbers have blown out; Early career academics find it almost impossible to get a tenure.

University administration has grown fat while resources for teaching and learning have shrunk. Is this the kind of university system you want for Australians? Is it the kind of place that will prepare the teachers we need?

REPSONSE: The issue of tenure is certainly one we need to address. While this is managed by state governments, the casualisation of the work force is an increasing concern and a key issue that must be examined to maintain teaching as an attractive career option. It is inefficient for teachers to be spending significant amounts of time reapplying for their own jobs, to be worrying about where their paycheck will come from the following year and being unwilling to put down roots and fully invest in the school community they are a part of because they don't know if they will be returning the next year.



Huw Duncan from Freshwater, NSW asked via video: When I was 10 and younger, I was scared, alone and depressed. I knew I was gay. To find out I liked boys when everyone and everything around you was telling you this is wrong was far beyond upsetting. I felt like a mistake and I felt unloved. I believe not enough is being done to prevent youth depression and suicide as a result of schools and parents not giving enough information about who they can love. My question is: Should information be provided in primary schools for children to understand that who they are, who they love, whether it be a boy or a girl or both, is normal?

RESPONSE: As the Greens spokesperson for mental health in addition to education, I am sorry to say that this is not an unusual story for me. Travelling in rural Australia, I have spoken to many young people & know that mental health and sexuality are both hugely important for young people. The Australian Greens are committed to seeing qualified, trained specialists in schools to support them. Another thing the Australian Greens are doing to address discrimination in schools is working to remove blanket exemptions which allow religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and a range of other measures. I recently sat on a Senate committee and heard evidence about the consequences of this kind of discrimination on young people  so I will be doing what I can to convince the government to take this step.



Jennifer Buckingham, Centre for Independent Studies, asked: One in three children attend a non-government school, and a large proportion of children also attend public schools of their choice, which shows that Australians parents value the ability to make decisions about education and are not going to give it up in a hurry. The Gonski Review acknowledges this, which is a welcome development, yet because of financial circumstances or where they live, some families' choices are limited, if any. How important do you think choice in education is for families and how would you go about making it even more accessible?

RESPONSE: True choice is about enabling every parent to send their child to a high quality school,  irrespective of their income, wealth, where they live or what language they speak at home. This can only be achieved if there is a high quality public school available to them so that their child can receive an education that will allow them to achieve their best.  It is in public schools that children will have the right  not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality & other attributes that are not protected in religious schools that are exempt from anti-discrimination laws. First and foremost, it is a core function of democratic governments to provide quality public education for all its citizens.

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