On 25 July it was my absolute pleasure to welcome Labor's Shadow Minister for Education, the member for Lakemba, to the Blue Mountains to meet with parents, teachers and interested members of the community to provide an opportunity to voice their concerns about the current state of our schools in New South Wales and to discuss Labor's education policies.
Almost 100 people joined the member for Lakemba and me for the Blue Mountains Education Forum at the Springwood Hub and Centre on a cold winter's evening, which goes to show the level of concern in my electorate about schools and education policy.
Four key issues emerged at this forum, which I would like to record in this Chamber for the benefit of the Berejiklian Government.
First, the schools maintenance backlog – which Labor revealed last year – continues to cause students and parents a great deal of concern. It is, of course, a festering sore for our teachers who must make do with inadequate facilities and equipment that is in disrepair or is well overdue for renewal and replacement.
At a time when this Government is rolling in cash, there is absolutely no excuse for the chronic, sometimes dangerous, maintenance issues in our State's schools. The Berejiklian Government has an unprecedented cash bonanza rolling through State coffers off the back of record stamp duty takings and with the proceeds of privatisation of our State's assets, we need to target money to our schools.
A related concern raised at the forum was the pressure on our teachers to provide an excellent education to our students using the bare minimum of resources. Our teachers do an excellent job in spite of being underpaid and terribly overworked. This makes for a stressed workforce of teachers and it depresses morale. For example, our teachers are currently on a 2.6 per cent efficiency dividend. While this Government will not admit that an efficiency dividend is a cut, at the coalface teachers know it means doing more without the resources they need. It means putting in unpaid overtime just to get the job done.
Education is not a business and it is time we stopped trying to treat it that way. In spite of this self-evident truth, more and more teachers are wasting their time dealing with administration and compliance paperwork instead of planning and delivering lessons to our children.
Another issue that is distressing parents, teachers and students in equal measure is the decision by this Government to tie the year 9 National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy [NAPLAN] results to a student's eligibility to receive the Higher School Certificate in year 12.
All teachers and most parents know that year 9 can be a terrible time for young people as they navigate adolescence. It is also a time when students are at their most distracted and are indifferent to their studies. I am told by teachers that mental ill health problems are rampant in schools.
If a student with a strong academic record feels this pressure—one parent told me that her 15‑year‑old son was waking up at five o'clock each morning stressing about his results for an impending NAPLAN test—how must those not performing with such ease feel about the impact of their NAPLAN results?
These students are being set up to fail from the start.
NAPLAN is problematic. It is a diagnostic tool used to measure literacy and numeracy, but unfortunately it is not used by the Department to Education and Communities to identify needs or allocate resources. This emphasis on data, statistics, benchmarks and testing comes at the expense of quality teaching and learning.
Finally, those in attendance also raised concerns about the Special Religious Education program in New South Wales State schools.
A sensible option to resolve the seemingly unending tension around this issue that was put to me was to adopt the Victorian model in which parents opt-in to scripture classes; that they be considered extracurricular in nature and be delivered outside of ordinary class time. This would have the effect of making religious scripture classes available to those parents and students who want it, but allowing others a greater degree of choice in what material their children are exposed to at school.
I say to all those incredible year 12 students, their teachers and parents going through trial HSC assessment at present, "Take care. Look after yourselves. Be proud of your efforts and this journey. The end result, the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank [ATAR], certainly does not determine the rest of your life. Eat, sleep, exercise and believe in yourselves. Go well."