Dr Chris Back - Liberal Senator for Western Australia

Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017

June 22, 2017

I join with Senator Leyonhjelm in many of his comments regarding the fact that throwing money at education does not improve educational outcomes. I suppose Senator Leyonhjelm and I both went to veterinary schools, where there was not an enormous amount of expenditure of capital—and look where we are today, for the evidence of it! I would be very keen to direct him to my contribution last evening in which I pointed out to the chamber the outcomes of a Senate inquiry on teaching and learning that I ran back in 2011. It was at the time when 'Gonski Macro' was out there doing big-dollar things. Our teaching and learning inquiry, whose report and recommendations had unanimous support, dealt with the non-dollar associations: why children aren't learning and why can't teachers teach? It was things like early childhood, influence of the parents, selection of students leaving school, quality of teacher training, the amount of time that trainee teachers had in practicums, the fact that so many of them—over 50 per cent—regarded themselves as not teacher/classroom ready when they graduated, mentoring that was not happening, professional development that was not being offered to temporary teachers because the very ones who needed it might not be there next year, the quality of teacher training, et cetera.

All of those matters found their way into the recommendations, and of course the biggest one of all was discipline. And how disappointing: even though at that time we made it clear that teachers would not need to have their name or the name of their school made public, we only ever had one Tasmanian teacher who appeared before us to tell us why he cannot teach. And it is because if a child goes berserk at the beginning of a class then not only does it take him half the class time to settle that circumstance but the other 25 or so children are there shivering in their desks, and how much are they going to learn? That same teacher from Tassie also spoke to us about the fact that so many teachers are being required to teach outside of their area of specialty. Why? Because when so many of them went into teacher training all they wanted to do was phys ed or art, and how many teachers in schools are required?

He told us he was often one class ahead for the teachers who were being required to teach mathematics and science but were not qualified in that space, and he was helping them out by being one class ahead. We addressed all those things, and I support you, Senator Leyonhjelm—through you, Chair—that it is evident. For the Finns, who are the best in the world, and the Chinese and the Singaporeans, money is not an issue. Discipline certainly is, and attention by children certainly is.

I want to turn to some of the commentary we have heard in the last couple of days from Senator Collins and Senator O'Neill, for whom I have a high degree of respect. Like me, they have come through the Catholic education system and I suspect know an awful lot more about it than I do—although, as you know, I was nine years on the Catholic Education Commission. And I think it is fair to say—and this is my own comment, not a criticism necessarily, but I would venture the opinion—that the department and the minister might even accept that the minister may have perhaps had a greater level of consultation earlier, may have engaged a little bit more with the systems et cetera.

Having said that, I want to put on record my very clear statement, and it is this. When Senate estimates was on, I met, prior to dinner, with the minister's adviser. Over dinner one night, on the final Thursday night, I met with Minister Birmingham and we discussed where I believed the issues lay with the Catholic education system, particularly systemically. I got out of bed at half past three on the Friday morning to get the 6 am flight back to Perth so I could go and meet the head of Catholic Education, Dr Tim McDonald, a man I value highly. We went through it all, and I said to him, 'Tim, what is it you need?' And he told me what he needed. Just to be sure, I committed it to writing, as I promised Minister Birmingham I would do. I sent it to Dr McDonald asking him to comment and criticise if indeed I had inaccurately reported what I understood to be the circumstance. Remember I had nine years as a parent member on the commission. It was a few years ago. I put to Minister Birmingham the requests of the catholic education system out of WA. Dr McDonald said to me, 'The South Australians are in a worse circumstance than we are.' Then on the Monday, for what was a public holiday for you and me, Temporary Chair Sterle, I participated by telephone from North Yunderup in the Senate inquiry chaired by my good friend Senator McKenzie. Again, I was particularly pleased to hear the questions asked by Senator Collins, because I know she is well across these issues.

But prior to my writing to Minister Birmingham I put to the heads of the Catholic education system—who I believe were the gentleman from the ACT, Ms Danielle Cronin and I think Mr Elder from Victoria—what I understood from Dr McDonald were the key questions. I am sure my report to Minister Birmingham is probably boring, but if he wanted it to be released I would have no trouble with that. I delayed my report to Minister Birmingham about the McDonald meeting because I wanted to test whether or not what I thought Tim McDonald was saying to me was valid. Then, in response to Dr McDonald's suggestion, by teleconference last Friday I spoke to the head of the Catholic Education Office in Adelaide and two others. His name was Bruno and the other two Christian names were 'Paul'. We discussed at great length their special needs. I said to them that I would again be corresponding with Minister Birmingham. It is amazing how much work you can get done on the plane going between Perth and Canberra, as you know, Temporary Chair!

I shared with Minister Birmingham the concerns they had and the requests they had. The requests were these: 'Please impress on the minister that we should preserve the system weighted averaging for a 12-month period. Please don't rush through the proposed SES model for a 12-month period. Please impress on the minister the need for a review independently undertaken.' We discussed a Professor Farish, who I understand had been the architect of the SES scheme and who had in fact said that he did not think it was working or going to work. This was following Mr David Gonski's original statement that he did not think it was going to work either. I will also come to Dr Peter Tannock. So that is what I sent to the minister.

As you know, Temporary Chair, I have never been a person to rush out into the media on issues. I have worked behind the scenes always. But I was so minded, as is obvious on the public record, and I did go out into the media. I did not initiate that. It was the subject of requests. I said to the minister privately—and I repeated it publicly—that if I could not achieve on behalf of the Catholic education system the requests they were making of me I could not give the government my support. My words were, 'Simon, please don't make me vote against the government in my last week in the Senate.' Those were the words I used and they were accurately reported.

So on Monday of this week a meeting took place at my request with the minister and a number of those people about whom I spoke a few minutes ago. It was between Mr Zahra, Mr Crafter, who I think is the chairman of the National Catholic Education Commission, Ms Cronin, Mr Elder, Minister Birmingham and me. We went through those issues again. Questions came up of disability funding et cetera. At that time the minister took on board what the request was and I said to him I would not be going out into the media because I had no interest in going out to the media—I just wanted to get across the line; I just wanted to get what the Catholic system had asked me to achieve. That was it. There were calls coming in and I could have appeared publicly on television and done all the stuff that some of the people around here love to do, but I do not like to do that and I have not.

Senator Jacinta Collins: Neither do I.

Senator Dastyari: I don't.

Senator BACK: Absolutely, Senator Collins—you have my respect. As for the gentleman behind you, we only ever see him. It has come to pass that the minister has been able to accommodate the requests I have made. Last evening, just in case it was not clear, I rose in this place and spoke and I specifically asked him: are you prepared to have the system weighted average retained for 12 months, will you have an independent inquiry, will you include students with disability in it, will you ensure that the outcome of that inquiry, its report and recommendations, are tabled in this place, and will you please tell me the mechanism that will be used to give effect to it. Today my office and I have had phone calls, we have had emails, we have had everyone—very concerned principals, parents and others. This morning I said my staff, 'Gather together my speech from last night and Minister Birmingham's speech in response.' I have shared that with the ones I have had time to speak to; the ones I have not had time to speak to I have sent a copy. Each and every person has either come back saying, 'Thank you, I now understand the scenario,' or they have not responded and I take that to be acceptance because they were so concerned.

I will be bold enough to say that had I had the opportunity to speak to the minister in earlier days I would have counselled him against putting out the so-called per school tables, and because you know the Kimberley so well, Mr Temporary Chairman Sterle, I will simply use the illustration of Sacred Heart in Broome. If you look at the tables, they apparently got a 49 per cent increase. The entire state of WA's Catholic system is funded in a co-responsibility, but you and I know how many kids' parents will be paying fees at Sacred Heart in Broome—very few. If Sacred Heart's school board said, 'You little beauty, we're going to grab the 49 per cent, we're going to get out of this co-responsibility fund and we are going to use those funds', you, Mr Temporary Chairman, would know better than most people that Sacred Heart Broome would probably last for about two weeks because the cost of running that school is vastly greater than that sum of money. It has not helped that we now have this circumstance under way.

I say this to the archbishops who have communicated with me, and the bishops, the principals, the parents and others: yes there is some damage in terms of the system but it has been the underpinning of Catholic education certainly from the eighties when I went onto the Catholic Education Commission in WA to make sure co-responsibility was about the poorer schools being helped—the schools in the bush, the towns across the Kimberley, across the territory and across North Queensland in which there is no state school, it is only the Catholic school, and they get supported because, again, the fees, while attractive for parents, are negligible. I do not want to see the poorer schools in the Catholic system lost, but it is my understanding—I do not think I am an unintelligent person—that should these amendments pass, should we have this 12 months of system weighted average retained with a true independent review including those with disability, then the Catholic education system and indeed the other systems—the Lutherans and the others involved in education—will be able to rebuild their confidence, knowing that they are protected for the future. I have only made this contribution to put on record that that is what I requested and that has been accepted by the minister.

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