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Schooling Requirements Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 6 Dec 2008

The Australian Greens believe that the best educational and social outcomes for Australian families and their children will be achieved if the children are enrolled in and regularly attending school and actively participating in an education that is relevant to their lives, their culture and their aspirations. However, we do not believe that this is what the Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Schooling Requirements) Bill 2008 is all about. This bill is not a genuine attempt to deliver educational engagement. It is nothing more than an exercise in crass populism, with no evidence base whatsoever, from a government that should know better.

The vast majority of witnesses and nearly all of the submissions to this inquiry-29 out of 31-were highly critical of the rationale for this initiative. They pointed to the failure of overseas trials of punitive measures and argued that these measures were likely to succeed for the same reasons. They also pointed to the success of positive initiatives such as those based on a social inclusion framework, using strengths-based teaching measures or improving educational engagement and outcomes. They also questioned why, if this was really meant to be a trial to gather evidence, it only focuses on punitive measures and only targets families on income support when there is no evidence or reason to believe that their children are the only ones skipping school or that parental responsibility is the primary reason for low attendance rates. The evidence points to other factors.

From the Australian Greens' point of view, the most disappointing aspect of this legislation is its inconsistency with government policy commitments. We welcomed the ALP's election promise of an education revolution, as we saw a real need to address the failure of our education system to engage with some of our children, particularly those from disadvantaged and socially excluded backgrounds. We believe that more needs to be done to address the educational needs of Indigenous students; of children from migrant and refugee backgrounds, for whom English is often a second or third language; and of children growing up in households experiencing complex and multifactorial disadvantage, as described by Tony Vinson in his work on ‘poverty postcodes'. Senator Stephens will know full well what I am referring to. However, we do not believe that this approach is, or ever could be, part of a genuine education revolution. We are concerned that these measures will actively undermine efforts at progressive education reform by unfairly targeting one group of disadvantaged students, a group whom the current system is failing, and making them directly responsible for the ill fortune of their families, rather than addressing the educational barriers they face. What the government is doing here is extending the concept of mutual obligation to third parties who are children. I cannot think of a measure more likely to further alienate disadvantaged families from schools, with which we badly need them to engage; to incite and inflame family conflict; and to increase the social isolation and exclusion of children from a disadvantaged background from their schools, the education system and their peers.

The government's social inclusion agenda, according to the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector, is a very ambitious agenda in which every one of us has a part to play. We have to identify the systems, attitudes, programs and processes that prevent everyone from having a fair go in our society. We have to understand why people are not able to engage in work and education or make connections with family, friends and their local community. Please tell me how this approach could possibly be consistent with what everybody accepts as the definition of ‘social inclusion'. How does it identify the systems, attitudes and processes that lead to the exclusion of children from disadvantaged families? How does it initiate and promote social inclusion? How does it bring about a revolution in education?

The Australian Greens do not believe that the proposed legislation reflects a commitment to a social inclusion agenda or is part of a genuine effort to engage with the causes of social inclusion rather than the symptoms. There is no evidence of a concerted effort by the government to understand the reasons why children are not engaging with the education system or to address the systemic barriers that prevent them from having a fair go. According to the explanatory memorandum, the purpose of the bill is to engender behavioural change in parents who are receiving income support, with the aim being to improve the school enrolment and attendance of the children. The entire approach taken in this bill is built upon the premise that parental encouragement and a lack of parental responsibility among parents on income support is the key factor and the primary cause of poor attendance and that a punitive, sanctions based approach is the most efficient and effective way to improve school attendance. The Greens believe that this approach and these assumptions are fatally flawed and that the system is not only unlikely to lead to better school attendance and improved educational outcomes but likely to lead to an increase in family stress and social exclusion for those affected.

The logic and assumptions underlying this policy approach are not based on the wealth of international and domestic research concerning school attendance, improved educational outcomes and social inclusion. They do not reflect best-practice models or the findings of successful programs. While we have heard a lot lately about the importance of consultation with the community sector and the idea of a compact, we note that all of the charities and crisis support groups who gave evidence to the inquiry complained that there had been no consultation with them about these measures, no consultation about their capacity to support likely increases in demand for the service and no extra resources provided to the already overstretched service providers in the affected areas.

WACOSS, the Western Australian Council of Social Service, told the committee about the already high level of unmet need in the Cannington trial region in WA and the number of people who have already been turned away from crisis centres. There were 9,750 people turned away from overloaded services in 2006-07. The Greens are deeply concerned that no additional resources are being provided for case management or financial counselling of the families affected and that no resources or services are being provided to the schools, who will have an obligation under this bill to engage with these families and offer them support programs to help re-engage their children in school. ACOSS warned that the trials would impose serious implementation and resource challenges and noted that there was potential for the policy to be applied unevenly across the trial sites, depending on the schools' capacity to work with families to address underlying issues.

For a trial that is limited to eight communities and does not put any resources into education or social support, this is an expensive exercise. The administration budget is $17 million. We also know that 80 per cent of the $12.6 million cost of administering the schooling requirements bill has been allocated to IT staffing alone. As welfare quarantining and the NT intervention have also shown, this kind of punitive approach to using the welfare system to push people around has been very expensive to administer. We need to ask ourselves some serious questions when the limited money we have to spend on education and social policy is all being eaten up by bureaucrats and so little of it is being spent on teachers, counsellors or direct support to those in need.

The Australian Greens believe that this money would be better spent on addressing the underlying causes of poor attendance and education outcomes, on building on successful programs like those that engage Aboriginal families and communities in the life of the school, to build on kids' strengths, interests, knowledge, skills and culture; to excite and inspire them; and to build their confidence in themselves and in their capacity as learners and contributors and as the workers and leaders of the future. The reasons for poor school attendance and engagement and for poor education outcomes are complex and multifaceted and those relating to Aboriginal students are doubly so.

A simplistic approach that reduces the problem to an issue of bottoms on seats and forces children to attend school is unlikely to produce any long-term improvement in educational outcomes for marginalised kids. If they do not want to be there and resent the way they have been forced to attend, how is that going to improve their learning opportunities? Unless the approach taken to school truancy addresses the complex barriers to educational engagement and tackles the underlying causes of nonattendance it will not deliver results. There is a huge body of evidence out there about the underlying causes of poor attendance and poor outcomes, and about which programs and interventions have been shown to work and make a difference.

The findings of the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey and the work of Professor Fiona Stanley and Colleen Hayward indicate that low school attendance was most likely to result from student disengagement arising from frustration and lowered self-esteem as a result of poor school performance. It suggested part of the problem was a lack of understanding and identification with the values, expectations and ethos of the school and the failure of the school to be culturally relevant in ways that respect and validate the student's identity, culture and life experience. It also suggested the failure to provide educational experiences that were relevant to the child's life circumstances was a much greater factor than parental responsibility and was highly dismissive of the stereotypes presented by the media which sought to blame lazy and neglectful parents for the truancy of their kids-the same stereotypes that now seem to be informing the approach being taken by this government.

The factors the WA Aboriginal Child Health Survey found to be associated with attendance at school by Aboriginal students in particular included Aboriginality and poverty. Students in schools with a high proportion of Aboriginal students, schools that had Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers and government schools in the highest quartile of socioeconomic index for schools were more likely to have poor school attendance. Other causes included: trouble getting enough sleep at home, often due to overcrowded and inappropriate housing and a rise in family conflict; the education experience and achievement of the carers; the presence of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties; the number of recent significant family life stress events; the lack of access to early childhood education; and nonattendance at day care. Students were more likely to have missed miss 26 days or more of school a year if their main language spoken in the playground was Aboriginal English or an Aboriginal language.

One significant finding of this research is a direct empirical link between intergenerational trauma and poor school attendance. Children whose primary carer had been forcibly removed from their family as a result of policies which produced the stolen generation were much more likely to be absent from school, and I quote:

The survey found that the proportion of students who has missed at least 26 days of school was significantly higher among students whose primary carer was forcibly separated from their natural family than among those whose primary carer had not been separated.

This is why I find it particularly disturbing that the same Rudd Labor government that commenced its term by delivering a historic apology to the stolen generations could be so blind to the impacts of the trauma of that removal that it would continue to implement and expand policies that exacerbate the ongoing problems of those Aboriginal families. It is entirely understandable that parents and carers whose experience of education was being brought up in institutions that brutalised them and denied their humanity, their worth and their culture would have a low opinion of the worth of schooling and a distrust of educational authorities. Of course these values have been passed on within families. It is little wonder that parents and carers who were removed from their families and brought up in institutions subsequently struggled with child rearing when they had families of their own. For this group in particular, who represent a significant proportion of the Nyoongar community concentrated in the Cannington trial area, a punitive approach to schooling engagement is particularly inappropriate.

In evidence to the committee, Professor Larissa Behrendt summarised the results of a number of studies which showed that poor school attendance by Aboriginal children was associated with low socioeconomic status, low parent achievement, domestic violence, child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse. Others, including WACOSS and the ALS in WA, highlighted the link between poor health and school attendance. For instance, the NACCHO Ear Trial and School Attendance Project found that children with chronic ear infections missed more days of school and had much worse educational outcomes.

The 1999 NT Learning Lessons report also found that children with low attendance rates were more likely to have hearing loss resulting from chronic ear disease. If these kids were unable to hear what the teacher was saying it is little wonder that they were doing poorly at school. Poor nutrition, together with hunger from not having breakfast or not being able to bring lunch, have been found to impact on both school attendance and school outcomes. So too have inadequate housing, homelessness and a lack of sufficient sleep. I could go on and on. These are all significant issues which create real barriers to school attendance and educational outcomes, and they should be addressed by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments as a priority.

I mentioned earlier the NT Learning Lessons report from 1999. This major report also found that there was: ‘A widespread desire amongst Indigenous people for improvements in the education of their children.' It blamed long-term systemic failures within NT education and described poor attendance rates as ‘an educational crisis', recommending major changes to the Northern Territory education system and a significant commitment of resources to address underlying issues in health and housing as well as to provide more teachers, classrooms and education resources. It also pointed to the need to collaborate and engage with Aboriginal families and communities, saying that there was:

... a need to establish partnerships between Indigenous parents, communities, and peak bodies, the service providers and both the NT and Commonwealth Governments ... to honestly acknowledge the gravity and causes of declining outcomes, its destructiveness to future Indigenous aspirations ... and to assume the joint responsibility of immediately reversing the downward trend.

That was in 1999, and the NT government has yet to implement the recommendations of this report. It has not even developed an attendance strategy, as was recommended in that report.

We need to build on what we know works. We should be fixing health and housing, addressing poverty and making sure kids are not starving and can hear and understand what is going on in their classroom. We should be encouraging families to get more involved with the school and making school more relevant to the interests, experiences and culture of the kids-not wasting money on these ill-founded, wrongheaded, punitive regimes. Focusing on addressing these underlying causal factors and building on existing successful programs is a more sensible, evidence based approach which is more likely to produce worthwhile outcomes and deliver value for money.

We know the NT government currently lacks the capacity to cater for all of its eligible students. If all of those students who should be at school turned up tomorrow, there would simply not be enough desks, classrooms or teachers to cope. The Commonwealth government has a four-year plan to address capacity and resource constraints within the NT school system and has committed $98.8 million in the 2008-09 budget to provide for 200 new teachers. Perhaps it would make more sense to roll out these positive programs to engage Indigenous students in the NT as teachers, schools and desks become available. The Australian Education Union doubts if enough experienced teachers can be found to fill these places. The NTER review report thought that much more needed to be spent to close the gap in education and said an extra $1.7 billion was needed over five years to provide more teachers, more staff and more infrastructure.

One might ask: is it really a trial, when the legislation is not limited to eight trial sites? The legislation could be rolled out across Australia. If in fact it is only a trial, we believe the government should accept the amendments the Greens are seeking to move-amendments that really limit this trial to the eight sites the government says it is going to be applied to. There is no sufficient detail on how this is going to be evaluated. This is a punitive approach. There is nothing to say that it is a positive approach, an incentives based approach, and at this stage there is no time limit. I have many, many questions to ask during the committee stage of this debate. Many questions arose during the committee inquiry that remain unanswered and many questions have arisen since then.

Why are we not looking at the positive approaches that can be taken, rather than the punitive approaches? There are examples of best practice programs in education which focus on increasing student engagement by making educational materials and programs more relevant and accessible and by engaging families and communities in the cultural life of the school. That is where we should be investing our resources. Has the government thought about how it is going to deal with the many issues that are going to arise out of this trial? What happens to vulnerable children and their families? What happens to the young carers who, during the committee inquiry in Perth, we found were a particularly at-risk group? Young carers are a not properly identified group that are going to be adversely impacted by these so-called trials. We believe this will have a disproportionate impact on young carers who are already struggling to care for a parent or a family member with a disability or chronic illness. Many of these young carers are embarrassed or ashamed of their caring arrangements and are known to be reluctant to acknowledge issues and come forward for health. This issue may become particularly fraught where they are caring for parent who has an intermittent mental health problem-which would be likely to be exacerbated by contact from Centrelink and the threat of income suspension. We are particularly concerned about this group.

We are deeply, deeply concerned about this legislation. We oppose it to the hilt-in case anybody has not got that clear message. It is not the appropriate way to deal with these significant issues of disadvantage in the year 2008. I urge the opposition, with all their concerns about this legislation, to stand with us and oppose this and push the government into taking a truly socially inclusive agenda. I cannot believe a Rudd government would bring this in. (Time expired)

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