Support for Teachers and Public Schools

(12.51 pm 19 June 2012, Parliament House Sydney)

Parents, principals and teachers in my electorate are concerned about the future of public schools and the impact of the Local Schools, Local Decisions policy. As a former teacher I know the vital role that education plays in building future citizens, and have long supported better resources for preschools, schools, special needs education, TAFE and adult and community education. Successive governments have failed to plan for inner-city schooling needs, and I have worked with parents and school communities to retain our public schools. Past decisions to close and sell inner-city school sites are now bearing fruit. There are more and more inner-city families with children who need a school nearby, while schools are full or close to full, and options for expanding or opening new schools are limited and expensive.

The Gonski report identified the need for a massive injection of resources into public education to achieve better learning outcomes and reduce the widening gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. The poorest fifth of schools are almost all government schools, and four-fifths of the poorest children attend government schools. We fail these schools and these students unless we put more resources into their futures. As yet there is no commitment from either the State Government or the Commonwealth Government for extra resources. Shifting responsibility for allocating too few resources will not achieve better results. The Government says that its Local Schools, Local Decisions policy will give principals more control over 70 per cent of budgets and 50 per cent of staffing. This sounds positive, but teachers, principals and parents believe that it is about forcing principals to make the hard decisions about who misses out.

The OECD Program for International Student Assessment reports consistently show no correlation between student achievement and school structures or autonomy. Instead, the evidence shows that it is vital to get the right people to become teachers, to develop teachers into effective instructors, and to ensure every student gets the best possible learning opportunities. This means that the New South Wales Government should be improving teacher training, selection and practical skills development. It should provide better pay and higher status for teachers, and classroom coaching and real-life training, with on-site coaches, especially for new teachers. The Government should be developing instructional leaders in schools, increasing professional development, using more co-teaching, and increasing the pay and capacity of principals to be effective leaders.

The evidence shows that the Government should compensate schools working with disadvantaged students and provide extra support to schools whose students compare poorly, with more special education teachers for students who have problems at school or special needs. Instead the Government will force principals to become managers who run schools like businesses, with restricted budgets determining all decisions. Principals will have to take on tasks previously done by the department, such as contracting cleaners, repairing buildings and buying stationery. They will have to redirect school budgets to buy financial, employment, and occupational health and safety expertise. They will have to cut back teacher support and mentoring.

While the New South Wales program trial provided extra funds and business managers for schools, the Government does not intend to provide extra resources for schools under the new plan. Just this week we read reports that students numbers in the pilot schools have dropped—the opposite of what the Government intended. New South Wales schools will no longer operate under a staffing formula that has guaranteed the same education for all students in public schools, undermining the statewide employment and transfer system that has ensured teachers for disadvantaged schools, especially in rural areas. Teachers say that budget pressures will result in principals appointing newly qualified, less experienced teachers or casual teachers to save money, with the pilot showing 171 casuals replacing 47 full-time positions. They say experienced teachers will leave and go to private schools, where teachers are already paid more and with better conditions.

Principals will be pressed to find cheaper teachers, increase class sizes, reduce specialist programs, and cut English as a second language and special education. The devolution will not ensure basic provisions for all students; it will reduce consistency for students, and require schools to trade some positions to meet unfunded needs. The New South Wales plan is modelled on the situation in Victoria, where public schools now spend 12 per cent less per student than those in New South Wales. The Boston Consulting Group review calculated that this would mean cutting 7,500 teachers, 1,500 support staff and more than $100 million per year in special education and equity programs. I fear that the long-term outcome will be for government schools to be the schools of last resort, where only students with no choice attend and do not learn what they need to get jobs and be active citizens in a democratic society. Education is too important to be left to market forces, with schools competing against each other. Education in Australia has always been about equity and opportunity for all our children to reach their potential, and we should fight to ensure that this continues.