Hanson-Young backs teachers and Gonski funding

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5 April 2017

Teaching is “the most challenging job there is”, says Greens education spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and it needs proper financial support. She spoke to AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe on the moral and economic imperative to provide equal education opportunities.

Correna Haythorpe: Was there a teacher who influenced you and why?

Sarah Hanson-Young: I had an interesting education experience. I grew up in a remote part of country Victoria and for most of primary school I was home schooled because there just wasn’t a local school and no school buses.

When I went to high school I had to move closer to town and I went to Orbost High. The teacher I met in my first couple of days there in Year 7, Eric Harvey, really stuck with me all the way through to the end of Year 12.

Mr Harvey was my English teacher, and in Year 12 he was my drama teacher. I topped the state in drama in that Year 12 group.

He was really important to me. He encouraged me to explore ideas and to be confident in finding different ways to express them. More than anything it was about understanding that if you have an opinion, find out the way to communicate it and don’t be afraid to stand by it.

You’ve got the schools portfolio for the Greens, what has sparked your interest in terms of education; what motivates you?

Education is the great equaliser.

If we’re talking about how to give kids the best start in life, in terms of early childhood education, the evidence is there for us to see. We know that investing in those early years makes kids more resilient and ensures we’ve got smart and healthy individuals who can contribute positively to society.

As we see frustrations swirling around about the rise of inequality – not just here in Australia, we’re seeing it in other places, whether it’s Brexit or the rise in support of Trump in the US – I believe that has to be taken on directly and strongly and through an education lens.

You’ve talked about inequality and that’s the area I’m concerned about myself. How do we make sure that disadvantaged students can be successful in our school system, how do we support those kids?

We’ve got to find ways of ensuring that schools can cater for the needs of all their students without making any of them feel isolated because of their individual needs.

Of course, that comes down to resources – it’s very complex dealing with that. You can’t put all needy kids in one class; you can’t put all the smart kids in another class. That’s not going to deliver the educational experience for any of those kids that’s really needed. And it makes the job of a teacher pretty hard.

We are in the middle of a big Gonski campaign – how important is needs-based funding for our schools, and what does it mean for you?

The Gonski campaign has been fundamental in starting to shift the discussion around how we fund education, and therefore the value we put on it.

The Gonski report was brilliant in so many ways and is really important. The campaign following that report engaged students, parents and the broader community as well as the business community.

What I’m worried about is that it can all be thrown out the window with this ridiculous obsession by the current government to find budget savings by trying to cut funding from schools.

We have to stand up to that. Obviously having the funding protected in legislation is really important and we’ll be doing everything we can to make sure the senate does the right thing.

The Turnbull government has flagged a new schools funding agreement in the first half of this year to replace the Gonski needs-based funding system. What commitment can you make to ensuring we have the full Gonski?

The government has rocks in its head to think that cutting almost $4 billion from school funding is a good idea.

I’ve been trying to keep an open dialogue with the minister to say the Greens will not agree to billions of dollars’ worth of cuts. But we are prepared to work out how we can make sure that the funding that schools need is sustainable and long term.

Since you’ve taken on the education portfolio have you had an opportunity to see first-hand some of the programs?

Some, and we’re doing more of that with a national listening tour of education, talking to teachers and parents.

The programs that are the most at-risk are those that deal with the most disadvantaged students. We need to ensure that teachers have the support to deal with the different needs of the students in their classroom.

It might mean an extra teacher here or there. It might mean a few extra hours a week to engage with the parents. This is about dealing with the complexities of individual students and sometimes the whole family unit.

As a parent (my daughter is going into Grade 5 this year) I don’t know how the teachers do it, really.

You want to know that the teacher your kid is going to spend most of their day with should have enough time for them to listen and see things before something happens.

The Greens have a strong policy position about kids with disabilities and delivering the loading that was promised in 2013. What are your thoughts about how we secure that loading, because we’re very concerned about the 270,000 students in the system who need it.

Look, we had it costed at $4.8 billion over the forward estimates. So it’s not cheap. I understand that.

But the reality is that, if we don’t find ways of investing this money, these kids are going to continue to fall through the cracks. And it’s going to cost the budget in the long run — whether it’s in other types of welfare services, the health system, or having to try and help young people struggling to get into the workforce.

How do we secure that funding? Well, we have to stand up to the government on their cuts to the years 5 and 6 of Gonski. The funding was promised.

Many students are about to start their teaching courses at universities across Australia.
One of the key issues for us is to make sure that when students complete their courses they’re proficient and are confident to step in front of a classroom.
What are some of the challenges you think are facing these students?

We have to ensure that people who go into a teaching course feel good about the decision — that they’re choosing to be teachers because they see the value in education.

I struggle to see why we haven’t had governments take on public engagement campaigns like they’ve got in places like Scandinavia, where teaching is seen to be something you strive for. You want to be a teacher because the education system is something to be proud of.

We can’t just teach teachers about the facts and figures of the subject, they have to learn how to be teachers and connect with their students.

It’s not an easy job. I reckon teaching is the most challenging job there is, frankly, and we don’t give teachers enough respect.