The national curriculum; The Abbott Government’s cuts to education; National security legislation

WALEED ALY, PRESENTER: Right now thought we’re going to get the reflections of Kate Ellis who’s the Shadow Minister for Education and she’s been studying the details of this review. Thank you very much for joining us.

KATE ELLIS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Good afternoon Waleed. Good to be with you.

ALY: You described a lot of this review as common sense, especially the overcrowding element of the curriculum. You said that’s widespread feedback that you’ve had and that’s the kind of change that should be there. That begs the question though, given that this national curriculum was a Labor initiative, if it was so obvious, why did Labor create that problem in the first place?

ELLIS: What we’ve said is that many of the recommendations are already underway and are incredibly obvious. They are things that the Authority [Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority] and that the states and territories have already been looking at. In terms of the so-called overcrowding, particularly in the primary school years, there has been a lot of feedback that whilst the Authority was asked to go away and look at the best ways that they could introduce the curriculum for each subject, what we really need to see is how that’s playing out in our schools.

The feedback from our schools is whilst it’s great for each subject, there hasn’t been enough attention paid to what subjects we should be focusing on the most - and are we dedicating enough time to the most important areas? Obviously the national curriculum is new, it is still being implemented for the first time. So I think it makes sense that as it’s implemented that we can look at ways that we can improve it. We certainly don’t shy away from that.

ALY: Right, that does means doesn’t it that the national curriculum that was put forward under the Rudd and Gillard Governments was where the cluttering came from, doesn’t it?

ELLIS: I think it certainly means there can be improvement on the national curriculum. We’re not going to get defensive about this. I don’t see this as a Labor curriculum that is being criticised. In fact it was a curriculum that was come up with by an independent process, an independent body, and was agreed to by all states and territories. More importantly than that, this is something that we should be making sure that we are always looking at how it is being implemented, how it is being rolled out. This review found that overwhelmingly the curriculum is a very good curriculum and it is very positive about the work that’s been done in this area.

What I’m more concerned about is that the recommendations have pointed to the need for more work in a variety of areas. They’ve asked the authority that oversees that curriculum to come up with a new parent friendly version of it for example, to revise the curriculum documents, to come up with more supporting documents, to look at ways that it can include special education experts. Unfortunately, at the same time the authority is being asked to do all of this additional work, they’ve just had their budget absolutely slashed by a quarter.

This is the real point here. We can talk all we like about the curriculum, how we can tinker around the edges. But if we want to be in reality, and make a difference to the outcomes in our schools, we need to talk about the resources that are going to go into improving this, something that the Government hasn’t said a word about.

ALY: Well I thought you might get to the question about money sooner or later. Christopher Pyne of course has been responding to that very point today. Here he is on AM:

PYNE (recording): It’s a bit (inaudible) in Australia that we can’t discuss the curriculum without some voices immediately shouting for more money. There’s a lot more to school education, including parental engagement, teacher quality, the curriculum itself, than there is about just demanding more money. We are putting more money in, a great deal more money in over the next four years than the last four years and schools have all the money they need to get the outcomes for our students.

ALY: So let’s tease this out then, Kate Ellis, because it seems that this is a central part of the argument. When you say money is being ripped out of the education system, and I understand there’s different things, the authority which has oversight but also the schools themselves, you don’t actually mean they’re going to get less money do you? What you mean is they’re going to get less money than you had promised them in Government.

ELLIS: Well, actually I mean both. There’s two things here. One is the cut, particularly to ACARA, the curriculum authority which Christopher Pyne cannot justify because it is a huge cut, and they are getting less money whilst being asked to do more.

But the broader question is about funding for every school across Australia. And what the Government did announce in this year’s Budget is that there would be actually the biggest funding cut that the nation has ever seen, from 2018 onwards when they move to CPI indexation of our school funding.

ALY: Just to be clear then, that doesn’t mean the schools get less money, it just means that they don’t get the increase that you proposed?

ELLIS: It actually means in real terms that we go backwards. Just to put it into context. At the moment CPI is running at 2.5 per cent. Yet the ABS has our Education Price Index running at 5.1 per cent increases a year. So obviously if indexation isn’t keeping up with real cost increases then funding for schools goes backwards. That is funding that is less than what they are getting now. But you are absolutely right, it is also less than what they would be getting under the Gonski agreements, which states and territories signed up to and were told that those agreements would be honoured whether it was by a Liberal or a Labor Government.

ALY: But only for four years. That was the point that the Coalition consistently made, that they only agreed to meet the funding for four years. And the point they make is in the meantime they are actually getting significant injections of funding over the next few years until we reach that 2018 threshold where the CPI kicks in.

ELLIS: One, I would absolutely dispute that the Australian public thought that the Gonski agreements were going to be thrown out. They were specifically told that the school reforms would be kept.

ALY: Well, they were specifically told about the four year threshold. The then Opposition was clear and explicit on that on many occasions.

ELLIS: Well the dismantling of the Gonski agreements is already underway now. It’s not that it’s happening in four years. It’s already happening and people are not being held to the obligations under those agreements. But more so than that, if you are a principal and you are getting additional funding this year and next year, but you know that in 2018, you will see the biggest funding decrease your school has ever seen, you can’t use that funding, you can’t put on extra teachers that are then to be sacked, you can’t set up new subjects which are going to have to be closed down.

It does actually matter that we have a serious discussion about funding certainty and what is going to happen in the years to come if we want to see any improvements in our schools at all. And I don’t think the Australian public are interested in talking about school improvement that might last a year or two years, when we know that our children are attending school for 12 years and it matters that we have certainty moving forward.

ALY: It can be an injection of funds that you then use to set up something that would create a better education system, or a better school for the years to come. Are you suggesting that there have to be enormous increases in education simply every year into perpetuity?

ELLIS: No, what I’m suggesting is that we went through the biggest review of our school system that this country has undertaken in over 40 years. We know the solutions. We know that the gaps are getting wider, but we also know where we need to invest our resources to get the maximum return.

We know that that means ongoing professional development for our teachers, for example. We know that it means a strong and robust curriculum with the resources to back it, up for example. None of these things are free. So of course if I was Christopher Pyne and I was responsible for announcing the biggest cut to school funding in our history, I’d say that funding didn’t matter much too, but it is just not the case.

ALY: To be fair he made that argument though from Opposition, it’s not an entirely new argument, to say that funding isn’t the be all and end all.

ELLIS: Well, what Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott were telling people before the election was that they would get the same amount of funding whether it was Liberal or Labor. And that there would be no cuts to education. We’ve seen that neither of those are true. And we are seeing that whilst the Budget for every school across Australia will suffer as a result of this year’s Budget, we are also seeing that they are out there trying to distract from that by talking about the curriculum. And they do not want to address the fact that they have ripped a quarter of the funding away from the body that oversees our curriculum. So we can have all the reviews you like, I just don’t believe it’s going to amount to anything if there is no funding to implement change.

ALY: You might call it a distraction but I do want to come back to the curriculum for a moment, given that’s the report that’s just come down. The focus on grammar was interesting. But the concerns that it seems to raise about teachers themselves lacking grammar skills. Isn’t part of the problem here that we seem to have gone a generation of education that seems to have run  in the opposite direction to worrying about things like grammar and phonics and perhaps even times tables as I scandalously learned as a parent with a child at primary school not so long ago, and that it’s going to be very, very hard to retrieve this?

ELLIS: Well, look, I think that this is actually a problem that isn’t necessarily directly related to our curriculum. But it does come back to one of those central recommendations of the Gonski reforms, that we need to be investing in professional development. And of course we need to be making sure that the skills and teaching practices that are implemented in the classrooms are based on the most up to date research and have the best practices behind them.

ALY: Isn’t that partly how we got away from the focus on grammar and phonics? There were all these new theories about teaching that suggested these things weren’t that important.

ELLIS: I don’t think it’s about new theories. But I think it is about making sure that we have ongoing teacher training and development. And I think that teacher development is not about saying that our teachers aren’t up to scratch. It’s saying that they are the most important resource that we have in our schools, and it is really important that we continue to invest in their skills right throughout their career.

ALY: One final thing on the curriculum before I move to other matters. The idea that more emphasis needs to be placed on the Judeo-Christian tradition and on Western civilisation and it’s achievements. This does seem to sit at odds with what Labor had proposed in Government which was more of a focus on Asia. Do you object to this?

ELLIS: I think that this recommendation was quite odd and is at odds with all of the statements that the Prime Minister and the Minister have been making about getting back to basics. The reality is that our national curriculum as it stands already includes making sure that students are educated in the basics of major religions around the world. I think that’s really important. But I don’t think that you can argue that we should be getting back to basics and that we should be concentrating on literacy and numeracy, and at the same time arguing that we need to be introducing more religion as a core subject right across our curriculum. I don’t think that that adds up and I don’t think that makes sense.

ALY: No but the idea of Western civilisation and the history of it and the legacy of it including things like the Rule of Law for example, separation of powers, these sorts of things that have been suggested, democratic systems of government. They’re fairly basic, aren’t they?

ELLIS: I think they are fairly basic, but I think you’ll find that they’re already included in the national curriculum too.

ALY: On a different matter. One of your Labor colleagues, Anthony Albanese, over the weekend has spoken about anti-terror laws that are currently working their way through Parliament in a very bi-partisan fashion for the most part. He’s suggested that the Party didn’t have enough scrutiny of that, didn’t give it enough scrutiny, particularly over those provisions that would allow those journalists to be jailed over reporting intelligence operations. Have you had any reflections on that? Particularly the way the internal conversations of the Party resulted in those provisions not being challenged?

ELLIS: I would certainly disagree with the proposition that this legislation has never been challenged or been put under scrutiny. In fact we know that it was Labor that raised concerns about the scope of section 35P regarding press freedoms when the Government first released the Bill. And as a result of the concerns that Labor raised, the fact that it was looked at through the intelligence committee, a number of changes were made to the Bill which I think does provide more balance to the Bills, and does provide some comfort to the concerns that some people were holding.

ALY: As I understand though, as the Bill currently stands, a journalist could still go to jail for reporting and revealing details of something to do with intelligence operations, even if it doesn’t harm those intelligence operations.

ELLIS: As the Bill was amended it was then made clear that journalists would only be covered by that legislation if they recklessly released the information. They had to be aware of the risk and they had to decide to proceed regardless in a reckless fashion. The committee also recommended that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions should take into account the public interest of publishing information before undertaking any prosecution.

ALY: But that is not hard law, is it?

ELLIS: Well if there was a strong argument that there was a case and it is in the public interest for information to be published, then these journalists would not be followed up.

ALY: But that’s not law, that’s at the disrection of the Public Prosecutor. Shouldn’t there be a public interest defence in law?

ELLIS: I think that the way that it’s played out at the moment is that these protections have been strengthened as a result of scrutiny that Labor Members put on the legislation. And we actually feel comfortable that in fighting and ensuring that we have appropriate freedom of the press, that we have got the checks and balances right in this legislation. What I would say is that I don’t think for a moment you can say that Labor has taken this situation lightly. We have gone through intense scrutiny of this legislation and I think that the legislation has been improved as a result of that scrutiny. And of course with any new legislation we need to oversee the implementation and see how that implementation is working in practice, and it is no different for this particular piece of legislation than from any other.

ALY: Kate Ellis, thank you very much for joining us.

ELLIS: Thank you Waleed.