I anticipate that I will have two grievance debates in my time in this Parliament.
I choose to grieve the educational outcomes for students in my electorate and indeed for rural students generally.
I reflect on the importance of education in people’s lives and in particular in my life.
I grew up as a rural kid on a remote property to start with, and my first years of education were by way of correspondence.
I later went to a local primary school and then was sent away to a boarding school. Had that not happened to me, had I not had that opportunity to be sent away to an educational institution such as that, I cannot imagine how my life may have ended up.
We know that education is a very important factor in determining our future, our wellbeing, our health and our opportunity. Over the years I have reflected on things my mother said to me about her education. She simply had little education. While she attended a local school in her regional and quite remote area, she was taught by someone who was not a trained teacher. It was in a time when you just took pot luck, really; if someone volunteered to be a teacher, that is what happened. She similarly got a bit of an education later on when she was sent away to boarding school, but she often grieves the fact that she did not have the opportunities that a good education gives you. She was very determined throughout her life to make sure that all her children did. Also coming from a farming community during the 1960s and 1970s, my parents were very conscious that one farm was never going to be enough for a family to go back to and to live on, so they were very intent on sending all their children away to get an education and forge a future for themselves.
Those of us who had the opportunity to have a commonwealth scholarship or to be educated during that moment of free education following the Whitlam years were also very lucky. There were many people who would not have achieved their educational peak had they not had that opportunity. In a speech at a higher education conference nine years ago University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis put it well when he described free university education as a ‘brief shining moment’. That was between 1974 and 1988, and indeed it was a brief moment when you consider that universities have been teaching in this country since 1852.
We spend an enormous amount of time in this place demanding investments in infrastructure, but the most important investment that we can ever make is in our human capital — that is, in the education of our children to equip them for their future lives. In speaking about the pathway to university, we really have to go back to square one. It is incumbent on all of us to improve the pathway for children from kindergarten to the completion of school wherever possible and for further studies if that is their course in life. The seriousness of the disadvantage suffered by students in rural areas across a range of educational indicators has been troubling me for some time, and I am determined to speak about it today as the first occasion; members will hear me speak about it many times from now on.
The Auditor-General’s report of April 2014 entitled Access to Education for Rural Studentsconfirmed what many of us have known for a very long time — that is, that rural populations in Victoria suffer from a disproportionate level of disadvantage. It further found that students from rural Victoria represent about 30 per cent of the total school student population but far fewer go on to attend university or even study at a certificate IV level or above than do metropolitan students. While those of us who represent regional areas are well aware that we as rural residents have less access to health and social services and the tyranny of distance is real to us, today I am concerned with and grieve for the fact that our children have a reduced chance of achieving success from an educational perspective, apparently because they live in rural areas, and this of course impacts on all aspects of their future health, success and opportunity in life.
There have been so many reports on this subject, but there has been little by way of outcome. The Auditor-General’s report found that rural students are behind their metropolitan peers on academic achievement, attendance, senior secondary school completion and connectedness with their school. The report stated that while the gaps in performance are not always large they have changed very little over time and they show no sign of improving.
There has been a considerable body of research which generally identifies the reasons — the sociocultural factors. These include the socio-economic status of parents, lack of educational aspiration in families, financial constraints, distance and availability of public transport. All these things affect general outcomes, and the consequence is that regional students are less likely to complete their secondary education or to go on to further education. We all know that future financial outcomes, job satisfaction and the like come from educational achievement at an appropriate level for each individual.
Country kids in my electorate are no less intelligent than their metropolitan counterparts, but there is an entrenched disadvantage in rural communities that risks leading to the development of an underclass. Regrettably Shepparton is no exception in this regard. I have been provided with data in relation to Shepparton and Mooroopna secondary schools by a senior retired educationalist, and it shows some really disturbing trends. The data shows that in three of the secondary colleges there was a significant decrease in enrolments in the period between 2008 and 2014. The number of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds has increased significantly as a result of new arrivals into our community. There is a significant Indigenous population. Unfortunately the result of this reduction in enrolments leads to significant disadvantage being entrenched in these three schools. In one of these secondary colleges this disadvantaged socio-economic demographic has changed from 21 per cent of school students in 2008 to 70 per cent in 2014.
We have children, young people, who are going through their Victorian certificate of education (VCE) but who are not achieving anything like the state rate of completion. I really do not want to put the figures out here, because I know we have got principals and schools that are trying really hard to get their kids up and through the school system, but the reality is that at that VCE level our figures are really not good at all, and we have to do something about it. We have many social challenges in our community. We want to address disadvantage and inequality and to demand from our governments an equitable share of the resources for regional communities such as ours.
So what are we doing on a local level? I think we are pretty creative and self-starting in a way, and it is a reflection of our attitude that a lot of work has been done in recent times by the four secondary colleges. They have established the Better Together alliance, which is the result of 18 months of dedicated hard work by the four principals and is an innovative response to a ministerial task force following a review of the senior secondary education system in Greater Shepparton. There have been attempts over past years to try to set up a senior secondary college in Shepparton, but that has not got up.
It is recognised widely that we have these problems in the Greater Shepparton area, so the Better Together alliance is a way of the four schools looking at the resources they have and how they might be able to share them. Just this year, for the first time, they have coordinated their timetables at the VCE level so a student can now go online and look at what time particular classes are on. That means they can share subjects, and they can bus between schools to do that. They can share their professional development among their teachers, and they can share resources such as technology.
I am pleased to say that just in the last 12 months a coordinator at an acting principal level has been appointed to coordinate the Better Together alliance project. It is very heartening to see that happen, but there is a lot more work to be done in this space, and I am glad to see the Minister for Education acknowledging this because there is a need for more technology within these schools. Bussing kids around from school to school over some considerable distance is not really the answer to sharing the availability of teachers. So if you have a great physics teacher in one school and three or four kids from various other schools that want to study it, it would be great if they could hook in through appropriate technology to that class. But not only that and not only locally, what about being able to hook into classes in Melbourne, New York or somewhere else, taking the opportunity to open up the doors that we know are already there and would be available if the technology were provided in those schools? I think we would see some amazing change, some amazing results, if those opportunities were provided.
The Better Together alliance is an innovative alliance between the schools. This pooling of resources was also designed to address what has been identified in our area as a skills gap. While we have that lower number of young people going off to further education, they are falling into a trap of unemployment in our region, and that is a really troubling instance because there are jobs in our region. There are jobs in dairy, in agriculture and in horticulture. We are employing people from overseas on 457 visas to take on many of these tasks, and part of it is that we are not producing children at an appropriate level through the schools system to be able to move on into those jobs.
The Better Together alliance has formed an alliance with our TAFE college and La Trobe University. For instance, a student who perhaps does their division 2 at a TAFE college, completes it successfully and works for a year will be guaranteed a place at La Trobe University to do their full nursing degree. That will not be dependent on their VCE result; it will be dependent on their performance. That is an avenue that has been adopted to again try to get young people moving through the system where there is a lack of opportunity.
The Neighbourhood Schools project is another self-starting project within our community, and this is in three of the primary schools. We have Gowrie Street Primary School, St Georges Road Primary School and Wilmot Road Primary School, all very disadvantaged schools with their own challenges. Let us call this a project, but it is an opportunity within each school to identify the children who are not coping in the classroom. They may have autism, they may have foetal alcohol syndrome or they may be within the child protection system or refugee children who have suffered trauma. It is identifying those children — children who have suffered from trauma and are not fitting in.
Working as a multidisciplinary team, the schools have a paediatrician, the teachers, the parents and anyone working with those children come together on a regular basis to work with the children and try to identify and find ways of helping the children cope. They now need therapists, and an application for funding has been made for therapists to follow up each of those children. I really hope that the government will give consideration to that application for funding, because again it is another self-starting step that our community has taken to try to address the issues we have.
That Auditor-General’s report identified that since 2006 we have had three Victorian parliamentary inquiries and a commonwealth Senate inquiry, and there have been several reviews commissioned about rural educational opportunity. Indeed a report of an inquiry conducted by Steve Bracks called Emerging Issues and Ideas — Government Schools Funding Review was released earlier this year. National assessment program — literacy and numeracy results have been analysed recently, and the Grattan Institute has also just put out a couple of papers on educational issues. So an unending supply of reports on the obvious disparity between outcomes for rural and metropolitan students have been done. But what has been achieved, and how are we going to change the situation? It is pretty clear the Auditor-General has a view on this — that is, whenever programs are rolled out in the schools, we should be evaluating them and seeing whether it is a good spend.
It is important that local initiatives are funded and that local communities are given opportunities. We cannot wait for governments to do everything, so our local communities have taken it upon themselves to be creative and try to find solutions. In the meantime our communities just have to do the best they can. They have been good at identifying the problems, they have devised some solutions and they are working hard. Governments must support them by providing the funding that is required, including funds to evaluate the programs and see whether they are worth doing.