COMMITTEES;Education and Employment References Committee;Report – 02 Dec 2013

I also rise to speak on the report into NAPLAN. I also was a committee member at that stage of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee. It is really interesting to note that there were no recommendations from this committee as such, but it was suggested, as Senator Marshall has suggested, that this committee look again at how NAPLAN is going, because we need to do more work in that area. We did not have enough time back in June to go any further than a two-day hearing. Senator Back chaired the committee and I support Senator Marshall in saying that Senator Back was a very good chair of that committee. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him.

NAPLAN is an annual assessment of Australian students, and it happens when they are in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. They are tested in the areas of reading, writing, language and literacy. I think I am the only person in this chamber—or in fact in this parliament—that actually was a hands-on childcare worker. So, as an ex-childcare worker, I really understand the value of education.

When I was in the childcare industry we used to do programs for individual children. What I see with NAPLAN is that that is really an extension of what is happening there. Individual students and schools can learn how they are going through the NAPLAN process, and then the schools and the teachers can work to fill any gaps that might be there. We all know that if you are lacking in those really basic areas of reading, writing, language and literacy, your life is going to be much more difficult. Coming from Tasmania, where there is a high rate of literacy problems and concerns, I think it is really important that we keep pushing to have NAPLAN testing continue.

The tests have been conducted every year since 2008, in May. A few months later, around September, the results are made available publically on the My School website and at an individual school level. Over a million students complete three separate tests over a week every year. These results are published online and also reported in the media. That has caused a bit of controversy, because some people agree with NAPLAN and of course there are some people who do not. But I think it is really important in Australia—and we have seen this with a number of reports—where educational standards have fallen. To be a competitive society we need to make sure that we can compete everywhere, and the best way to do that is to make sure that people are able to compete in the job market. If you do not have those basic skills of reading, writing, language and literacy then you will find it much harder to compete in the job market.

We see that once again in my home state of Tasmania, where the youth unemployment is at really high levels and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the education processes do not always meet the needs of the students. NAPLAN to me is a bit like doing a skills audit, and it is really important that we make sure that people are skilled up. Schools also need to be really well equipped and well funded, and we are going to have a few discussions on that possibly later this week but certainly over time with regard to the concerns about Gonski.

We need to do NAPLAN tests, because we need to know what areas students are lacking in. If you do not know what areas the students are lacking in, then of course you cannot help fill the gaps. I think Senator Marshall said that some people have not been very happy with NAPLAN, but ACARA had this to say in the report about NAPLAN tests:

… (ACARA) submitted that the National Assessment Program ‘ is the means by which governments, education authorities and schools can determine whether or not young Australians are reaching important educational goals for literacy and numeracy ‘ .

I do not think that anyone would argue that we really need to know what those levels are. The report went on to say:

On its website ACARA advises that the primary objective of NAPLAN is to provide the:

[M]easure through which governments, education authorities, schools, teachers and parents can determine whether or not young Australians have the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for other learning and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community.

The tests provide parents and schools with an understanding of how individual students are performing at the time of the tests. They also provide schools, states and territories with information about how education programs are working and which areas need to be prioritised for improvement.

I wish to reiterate that it is really important that we have a program such as NAPLAN, because if the gaps start as low as grade 3, even earlier, then you have got a problem with learning, especially for young children trying to catch up. You see this in high schools quite frequently where children have been left behind. One thing the Labor government was very determined to do was to make sure that no child was left behind in the education stakes.

The committee heard some concerns that over time the purpose of NAPLAN has expanded. I think this is partly because the NAPLAN data is our only nationally consistent data for educational outcomes. Before NAPLAN, we did not have that sort of data collection service and so we did not get the whole picture. We got the picture in some schools and for some individual students but we never had it for schools as a whole and we certainly did not have a national picture. I think it is really important for the future of Australia to make sure that everyone can fully participate in society and to ensure that we pick up any problems as early as we can.

I gave a speech not that long ago in this place about literacy levels in Tasmania and how difficult it was for many adults who cannot read and write. In everyday life they have difficulty filling out bank forms or being able to read labels or boxes in supermarkets. I think if some of these adults had been caught early on, if the system had identified them and helped them to correct those problems, then they would probably have a much better lifestyle. It is one of those areas that there is disagreement about, but it is also very important for us to keep working on it.

I noticed in the report that there was encouragement for the new parliament to recommend to the Senate the re-adoption of this inquiry early in this parliament. As I said, we only had two days for the inquiry and we held meetings in Melbourne in June. I would also endorse Senator Marshall’s words about ensuring that that happens.

A lot of the disagreement around NAPLAN was not necessarily about the testing per se but about how the data might be used. People gave evidence that they were concerned about how the data was used and that it might disadvantage particular schools. The criticism did not actually disagree with testing per se. When you go out in the real world, once you have left school, you will be tested on everything, from getting your driver’s licence to job interviews—a range of things. You need those skills. You need to be confident about being tested and it is a very important process. I have not heard from anyone in my home state that their children have been stressed by the process. For all the reasons I have outlined, it is very important that we keep NAPLAN going and that we also encourage this parliament to continue the testing. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! The time for debate on the motion has expired.

Question agreed to.