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In Parliament


School Capital Works - Matters of Public Importance.

   Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Mr T. SMITH (Kew) (14:19:30)Well, what a pathetic display from a minister who was in government during the Bracks and Brumby period and indeed is now the Deputy Premier and the Minister for Education. He was referring to decisions made during the Kennett era, 25 years ago. He ought to be planning to improve student outcomes, not relying on past assertions from premiers who have long since departed. What was telling in the minister’s speech is that not once did he mention student outcomes — that is, improved student performance. The government has failed to improve student outcomes in the three years it has been in power. By the government’s own figures student outcomes have gone backwards in seven out of nine target areas. In year 5 maths the government is nowhere near its 2020 target of 39.9 per cent of students reaching the highest level of achievement. It is stuck on 30.6 per cent. In year 9 reading, students declined from 20.7 per cent to 20.5 per cent, with a 2025 target of 28.7 per cent. It is no wonder that parents’ trust in the government school system has taken a hit, with only 51.7 per cent reporting high levels of confidence in the sector, down from 55 per cent in 2016.

The Labor Party in Victoria has been in government for 14 of the last 18 years, and yet the Minister for Education constantly makes excuses for student performances going backwards. Earlier this month the minister wrote:

… if you scratch the surface of the numbers there are very encouraging signs that our plan is starting to bear fruit.

With the amount of money that the commonwealth and indeed the state government, over the last two decades, has poured into education you are not seeing any bang for the buck. Sadly it is hard to find any fruit in improved student outcomes over the last 15 to 20 years.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development’s international ranking system for education results, Victoria scored 516 for reading in the year 2000 and 507 in 2015; we scored 513 for scientific literacy in 2006 and the same in 2015; for maths we scored 511 in 2003 but dropped to 499 by 2015. Do not take this from me, take it from a report commissioned by the Victorian government — the current Andrews Labor government — and chaired by the Honourable Steve Bracks, which showed that test results for Victorian students have failed to improve and in some instances have gone backwards. The report states:

Students in Victoria perform well compared with the rest of Australia and international benchmarks. Yet, for nearly a decade, education outcomes in Victoria overall have not improved.

It goes on:

Recent increases in investment have not produced better learning outcomes across the student population.

Indeed the stagnation of literacy and numeracy standards is affecting our economy and our global competitiveness. Our neighbours in South‑East Asia are leaving us behind with Singapore topping the charts of PISA in 2015. Worryingly the OECD policy insight for the survey of adult skills shows there are 3 million working age Australian adults with either low numeracy or literacy skills, or both. Recently Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s PISA international ranking system, visited Australia. Mr Schleicher had a simple message:

Australia used to have one of the world’s leading school systems, but in the past decade learning outcomes have dropped to levels closer to the average of school systems in the industrialised world.

One of the reasons for the decline in student outcomes is, as Mr Schleicher himself observed, that Australia’s curriculum ‘is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is very crowded, with a lot of content’.

A key recommendation of the 2014 national curriculum review was to reduce the crowded curriculum so that teachers could focus on teaching essential knowledge, understanding and skills to a greater degree of detail. Teachers in Victoria are under increasing pressure to cram more non‑core curriculum into class time. It is not hard to see why they desperately want the curriculum streamlined so they can focus on the core subjects that constitute a rigorous and enriching education. This curriculum, the curriculum which combines national and state elements, is over 6000 pages long, and if you ask any teacher they will tell you it is so crowded that our kids are not mastering the basics like literacy and numeracy skills. Cross‑curriculum themes add to the clutter. It is deeply concerning that a recent survey by the Lowy Institute for international policy found —

Ms Green — On a point of order, Speaker, the member for Kew has now been on his feet for more than 5 minutes and is reading us a dissertation. He has not yet mentioned anything to do with the four points of this matter of public importance, which are about school capital. He has not focused on school capital for one‑third of his debate time. I would ask you to bring him back to the matter of public importance before the Chair.

Mr T. SMITH — On the point of order, Speaker, on the matter of public of importance I figure that I am well within order speaking about education in its broadest terms.

Honourable members interjecting.

The SPEAKER — Order! Without assistance. The matter of public importance is predominantly about school capital. The member for Kew is mentioned in point (4) of the matter of public importance, and if he is rebutting the claim that has been put forward in debate around his comments on school infrastructure, then he is entitled to talk about education more broadly.

Mr T. SMITH — Thank you, Speaker. This is the point of difference between the Labor Party and the coalition: the coalition actually believes in improving student outcomes, because we all agree that school infrastructure is important. We all agree that we have to build the buildings for students to learn in. They need to be comfortable, appropriate teaching spaces, where people, and children in particular, have the ability to learn, and to learn in an environment which is conducive to modern standards, particularly with regard to IT and the like. But Labor is completely obsessed with bricks and mortar. Obviously you need to be taught in a building and in a good classroom, but I note that at the moment with all the new school buildings that are going around in Victoria that the government is not providing air conditioners for a number of these new school buildings.

I was with my friend the member for South Barwon at Moriac Primary School recently. There were some new classrooms, and the school was complaining to me that they are not air‑conditioned; indeed the school council has to pay for air‑conditioning. I asked at the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings last week why that was the case, and the department advised that only schools south of the Great Divide get new air conditioners in new school buildings. Now, heavens above! Far be it for me to suggest that south of the Divide it does not get hot every now and again, particularly at this time of year, but I would have thought in a climate such as Victoria’s south of the Great Divide, that putting an air conditioner in a new school building would probably enable students to learn a lot better in the months of December, February, March and the like. That is a matter for the department — they have got their policies — but we will be continuing to point out how stupid it is not to provide air conditioners in new school buildings.

This is the whole point about why this debate is so narrowly skewed by the government. In September 2015 they brought in nine new targets under this so‑called Education State slogan, and they have gone backwards in seven out of nine of them. We obviously would like to see brand spanking new school buildings across Victoria — we would like to see them in our own electorates — but to be frank, if there are any structural issues in the education system in Victoria, Labor bears the majority of the responsibility for it. They have been in government for 14 out of the last 18 years. I have raised issues with regard to the overcluttering of the curriculum. I have raised on a number of occasions the Safe Schools program and how that again adds to clutter and is not really an anti‑bullying program at all; it is an ideologically inspired postmodernist attempt to get Marxist ideology into classrooms.

Can I say those opposite ought to pay attention to the Leader of the Opposition in New South Wales, who has said that Safe Schools is ‘gone for good’ and will never be brought back by the Labor Party if they win the 2019 election in New South Wales.

This is where I find the part‑time Minister for Education a little hard to understand. Mr Merlino was particularly keen to get the education portfolio in opposition. He was particularly keen to hold onto it when Labor won the 2014 election. Yet in 2016 he was given the substantial portfolio of emergency services as well, and it would be fair to say that that has been a disaster for his career. It is a disaster for his popularity in his own seat. But the worst aspect of this is how it has distracted him from his number one job of improving student outcomes in Victoria. That is what the education minister ought to be most concerned about, and I am sorry to inform the house that Mr Merlino has been so distracted by —

The SPEAKER — Correct titles, please, member for Kew.

Mr T. SMITH — The Deputy Premier has been so distracted with Peter Marshall and the United Firefighters Union that he has not had an opportunity to focus on the most important aspects of the education portfolio: enabling kids to be the best they can and to actually improve — to improve student outcomes, to improve student performance compared with other states around Australia where, for example, our year 9 NAPLAN results are particularly concerning. We are not, as we would like to be across Australia, the best in every area of NAPLAN. In fact in year 9 we are third and fourth in quite a number of areas of study. I think that Melbourne has always been seen to be the intellectual heart of the nation, and for Victoria to behind on any NAPLAN area of study is to me personally very distressing. I pledge that the reforms that a Guy Liberal‑National government will bring in in November 2018, if we are lucky enough to win the next election, will go some way to improving the stagnation in standards in education that has occurred in this state for the best part of two decades.

For example, we will bring in a phonics screening check for all grade 1 students. I asked the Secretary of the Department of Education and Training last week why the Victorian government is opposed to this. In South Australia the Labor government and the opposition — it is bipartisan in South Australia — have a phonics screening check in grade 1, but the secretary spent 15 minutes, as per usual, trying to explain to me that we do not need it in Victoria: ‘Oh, we’ve got all these other things that are terrific’. But literacy standards are going backwards. The federal government has embarked upon a process to try and get a phonics check nationally, and from what I can gather the federal opposition is very amenable to that view. Yet state Labor governments, particularly here in Victoria, will not reach across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship to improve literacy for grade 1 students. Why is the phonics screening check so important? Because it enables a teacher to spend 5 to 7 minutes with an individual student and to phonetically gauge their ability to spell out words. We need to ensure that there is consistency across Victoria in the way that the ability to spell out words is checked in grade 1.

Equally, we are going to review the curriculum — the thousands of pages of curriculum, the ridiculous cross‑curricular priorities that exist in Victoria — where, for example, sustainability has to be taught in prep and grade 1 history. We need to get back to basics and build a strong foundation for a lifetime love of learning, and that comes first and foremost from an ability to read. If you cannot read, you cannot do anything else. There are 24 per cent of Victorian grade 4 students who are beneath the basic standard in reading. Now, that for a First World country should be frankly terrifying for all of us in this house — that in Victoria 24 per cent of grade 4 students cannot read to the required standard. That is disgraceful. That means they are functionally illiterate.

Where are we? What year is it? The fact is the ‘steady as she goes; she’ll be right’ mob opposite seem to come in here and say, ‘No, we’re all heading in the right direction because we are building all these new school buildings’. School buildings are important, and I have said that time and time again, but you have to drill down to what is going to change outcomes, and, for example, improving literacy in grade 1 is just one of them. We will review the curriculum. We will get Dr Jennifer Buckingham to review the laborious and lengthy Victorian curriculum to ensure that it is best targeted to improving student outcomes. If you want a difference at the next election in education it is this: the Labor Party will talk about bricks and mortar all day, every day. We will actually talk about improving student outcomes, about the quality of teaching and about the quality of the instruction that is going on in primary schools so we enable every kid to be the best they can be in the great spirit of equality of opportunity, which is a fundamental Liberal principle.