Jason Clare, Member for Blaxland

I thank the member for New England for bringing this important matter of public importance to the House. It is obvious from his contribution that he cares very deeply about his electorate and the education opportunities available to country Australians.

I have a confession to make: I am a city boy. But in the last few months I have spent quite a bit of time in country Australia. I have been travelling with Lindsay Fox and Bill Kelty as part of the Keep Australia Working program in 20 of the government’s employment priority areas around Australia. Twelve of those are outside the major cities of Australia, everywhere from Cairns to Tasmania. Some of these areas, like Port Augusta and Whyalla, have high levels of manufacturing and they have been hit hard. Some are very reliant on other industries. Cairns, for example, has a very high reliance on construction, mining and overseas tourism. As a result it has been hit very hard.

But the common thread across all of these priority areas-city, regional and rural-is a low level of education attainment. It shows a direct link between unemployment and levels of education attainment, particularly in the bush, where rates of education are more often than not lower than in metropolitan areas. Areas of the member for New England’s electorate are in the Richmond-Tweed and also in the Clarence Valley employment priority region-towns like Tenterfield and Glen Innes. In these areas you find only 34 per cent of the priority region’s working age population has finished high school. Across Australia the average rate is 46.5 per cent. Only 11.4 per cent of people have obtained a bachelor’s degree or above. Compare this with the rest of Australia, which is 17.4 per cent.

The member for New England is right when he says that areas like the one he represents face greater challenges than other parts of Australia, so I was interested to hear what he had to say about the QuickSmart program this afternoon. I can relate to this. One of the first things I did when I became a local member was visit my old primary school, Cabramatta Public School. I spoke to the principal about the children who were there and the challenges they were facing. He told me that, of the whole group of children who had started kindergarten that year, 80 per cent came to school not being able to speak English or had very great difficulties writing English and even spelling their own names. But within three years, because of the programs running at that school, when they sat the basic skills test in third grade they were equalling or exceeding the state average. That is the power of education and of good programs that are targeted at young people who need extra help with literacy and numeracy. I think there is something similar happening in New England, judging by the contribution the member for New England made today.

The member for New England raised the issue of continued funding for the QuickSmart program, developed in his electorate at the University of New England. This program aims to boost numeracy outcomes for students through intensive interventions with students and teachers. As the member has noted, QuickSmart has produced some outstanding results for the children falling behind who participated in the program. I know the member for New England has been a strong advocate of this program for a very long time. He has been banging on the door of government in support of what he tells us is a very worthwhile program-because that is what good local members of parliament do. I can inform the member that I had a discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister about this program this afternoon, and I know he has also been in regular contact with her office. We both agree that the program is certainly worthy of further consideration and we will look very carefully at what further support the Rudd government can provide to this program into the future. Currently the government is funding the program through the literacy and numeracy pilot to the tune of $832,000. Through this program, I understand QuickSmart is being trialled in 13 schools in Lismore and Armidale. It involves around 156 participant students and 75 comparison students. Results of the pilot will be available in December 2010.

The program was also provided with funding of $1.5 million as a ‘closing the gap’ measure for Indigenous literacy and numeracy. In addition to this direct support, the Australian government is investing $540 million to support literacy and numeracy reform through the Smarter Schools national partnership for literacy and numeracy. Through this partnership, state based education authorities are responsible for selecting and implementing interventions and reforms in their school systems. I am happy to advise that several states and territories have indicated that they are considering rolling out QuickSmart to their schools as part of the national partnership for literacy and numeracy.

This is one of a number of programs that we are rolling out in regional Australia-programs built specifically to support the education of children living in regional areas and the schools in which they study. An example is Drought Assistance for Schools. The Drought Assistance for Schools program is a big part of the government’s $715 million package of drought assistance for farmers, small businesses and communities in regional Australia. The funding can be used to subsidise excursions or extracurricular activities for whole classes or an entire school which may be cost prohibitive for families doing it tough as a result of the drought. Principals can also choose to direct some of this funding directly to families in need. Up to $10,000 is available each year for rural and remote schools located in towns with populations of fewer than 100,000 in exceptional circumstances declared areas. In 2007-08, more than $22 million was delivered to 3,030 government and non-government schools across Australia. A similar amount was available last financial year and I understand that program has been extended until 30 June 2010.

The Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme helps primary, secondary and some tertiary students to access education when they are unable to attend a local government school. It provides families with a number of allowances which they can use to meet additional costs they incur when they need to either send a student away from home or undertake distance education. Last year, this program helped 11,212 young people from rural and isolated schools at a total cost of $60.7 million.

The Country Areas Program is provided to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for students who are disadvantaged by their geographical isolation. In 2008 this program provided $30.5 million to government, Catholic and independent schools in all Australian states and the Northern Territory. This year Country Areas Program funding for government schools has been incorporated into the National Education Agreement. Country Areas Program funding for all Catholic and independent schools is covered in the Schools Assistance Act 2008. Country Areas Program funds are provided in recognition of the higher costs of delivering education services in regional and remote areas. Funds are distributed on the basis of the number of remote and isolated students attending a rural or remote school.

In the area of training, the declared drought area incentive helps primary producers who hold an exceptional circumstances certificate to continue to offer apprenticeships and traineeships to people living in a drought declared area. Eligible employers can apply for up to $1,500 as a declared drought area commencement incentive and a $1,500 completion incentive for apprentices and trainees who meet the eligibility criteria. This is in addition to other incentives available to employers who take on an apprentice, including the new program that the government has recently announced called Apprentice Kickstart.

As I was travelling around the country with Bill Kelty and Lindsay Fox as part of the program, as I mentioned earlier-and I know there are also members in the House who have participated in that program-one of the things that employers told us everywhere we travelled was that they needed more support to put apprentices on, particularly in regional Australia, at the present time because of the pressures imposed upon them by the global recession. I checked the evidence, and they were right. There has been a drop over the course of the last 12 months of 20 per cent in the number of apprentices that have been put on around the country-a drop of 10,000. And when I looked at what happened in the nineties I saw an eerie resemblance to what had happened then: the recession hit and a big drop in the number of young people taken on as apprentices-a drop of something like 35 per cent from 1990 to 1991. But what surprised me was that we did not recover and return to the same number of apprentices starting until 2004. So it took 13 years between 1991 and 2004 until we started recruiting and training the same number of apprentices as we had before the last recession. It created a skills crisis. It created a bigger problem for Australia than we needed to have. That is why we have implemented Apprentice Kickstart, which is tripling the upfront bonus to employers to employ up to 21,000 apprentices this summer in traditional trades-butchers, bakers, electricians, plumbers, pastrycooks and hairdressers. It is designed to tackle what is a real and emerging problem, one that is as real in metropolitan areas as it is in rural and regional Australia.

For young people from regional areas going to university, regional universities are supported by a regional loading to boost the Commonwealth assistance these campuses receive. Per capita funding is provided for rural and remote non-government school students in further recognition of additional education costs. A remoteness loading is calculated as an additional percentage above their per capita general recurrent grant funding for students studying at eligible locations. The Commonwealth has a big role to play here supporting students while they study with payments like youth allowance. In the last 24 hours this support, unfortunately, has been threatened by the reckless actions of the opposition in the Senate. The biggest risk to educational pathways for country kids today is the insistence of the Liberal and National parties on blocking our income support reforms in the Senate. After 12 years of coalition neglect of the current system, student income support is fragmented. It has failed to deliver support to those who need it most: students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from rural and regional Australia. While the coalition claim that their opposition to the bill that is now back in the Senate is because they want to help regional students, the reality is that in the last five years of coalition government the number of students from the bush going to university has actually fallen-it has gone down. Our reforms would see more students receiving support, a massive expansion of scholarships-more than 28 times the number of education costs scholarships provided than when we took office in 2007-and would ensure that the money goes to those who need it most.

Last night the coalition stood shoulder to shoulder to rip off 150,000 students, including many young people from rural Australia. They did this by tacking amendments onto our legislation which would blow a $1 billion hole in the budget, effectively blocking the legislation. They did this because they want to see students from families with incomes of around $300,000 a year continue to get youth allowance. That is the impact of their amendments. The coalition cannot expect to criticise the government about debt and deficit on the one hand and then ask us to take this kind of hit to the budget on the other.

Blocking the legislation will directly affect thousands of families who will, as a result, continue to struggle to send their children to university. We know that, statistically, rural and regional families tend to have lower household incomes. As a result of the bill being blocked, almost 25,000 families with incomes between $32,000 and $44,000 will miss out on an increase in their support to the maximum rate. A further 78,000 who would have received a higher part-payment or who would have received youth allowance as a dependant for the first time will now miss out. If the legislation that is now in the Senate is effectively blocked, there will be no new relocation scholarships for students who need to move to study. In fact, there will be no new scholarships for students at all next year, excluding Indigenous scholarships.

As a result, the entire university sector has now lined up against the coalition, whether it is Ian Chubb, Vice-Chancellor of ANU, and the members of the GO8 or Ross Milbourne, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney and the Chair of the Australian Technology Network of Universities, or Paul Johnson, the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University and member of the Innovative Research Universities Australia, or David Barrow, the head of the National Union of Students. They all say the same thing. The entire sector has now lined up against the coalition.

The Rudd government recognises the importance of ensuring that young people from rural Australia have access to the best possible education. We know that rural and regional students and their families have special educational needs and that there are particular barriers to their effective participation in education. The member for New England has made that clear in his contribution to this matter of public importance. This government’s record is one of investing in rural and regional education, and we are not going to let that be stopped by the coalition’s irresponsibility in the Senate.

Education is the key not just to a fair society but also to the future of our economy. Early learning projects and literacy and numeracy projects like QuickSmart, apprenticeship projects like Kickstart, environmental skills and work experience programs like the National Green Jobs Corps-which is currently being debated in this place-and the reform of youth allowance that is now in the Senate are all part of making sure young people get a good education and that more people from country Australia go to university. It is all part of Building the Education Revolution, because the education revolution is not just about building infrastructure but about building skills.