Australian schools are the frontline of our multicultural society. For generations they have been the bridge that migrant children have used to cross from the homes they grew up in, to the broader Australian society. They have been the first experience of Australian life for many who grew up in homes where English was not spoken.
Most of this has happened at our public schools which have welcomed wave after wave of migrant children. Our multicultural classrooms and playgrounds provide that opportunity for all children to come together, to learn together and play together side by side. A good education for their children, and the opportunities and acceptance that will flow from it, is one of the main reasons people choose to migrate to Australia.
The school system needs to not just offer a good academic education to these children, but to recognise its role in building a society out of thousands of students from diverse backgrounds. It needs to recognise that that students from non-English speaking backgrounds have different needs and cannot be treated the same as other students.
To take the most extreme case, think of child refugees who arrived from war-torn countries, many have suffered unimaginable trauma, have had their education disrupted or have never had formal schooling, and start with a low level of English. School is the first and best chance to support these children and ensure that they can become productive members of our community.
This is why I was a huge supporter of the Gonski Review into schools funding and the needs-based funding model that came out of the review. There are huge differences in circumstances both within and between migrant communities, but the Gonski report found that, on average, the cost of properly educating students from non-English speaking backgrounds was greater. The Gonski model, for the first time will ensure schools are funded the way should be: based on the actual needs of the students they educate.
Children who need extra support in the early years of school because they did not grow up speaking English will be able to get it. Similarly, those students who need extra welfare support will also be able to get it. This support should be seen as an investment in unlocking the human capital that these migrants represent.
The Abbott Government's decision to end Gonski funding from 2018, and to cut indexation of funding to all schools, is a short-sighted decision that will cost this nation in the long-term. It will mean that up to 20 per cent of schools will not meet the minimum school resource standard considered necessary to give every child the best opportunity to reach his/her full potential. I know that these schools will be the ones that educate a disproportionate amount of students from non-English speaking homes, and which are struggling to find the staff and resources to properly support those children.
Diversity is a strength for Australia. It enriches us socially, it opens us up to the world and makes us more competitive economically. But we need to make sure that we have the social infrastructure to make the most of what our cultural diversity has to offer us.
Our public schools are the real training ground for the skills we will need for our interactions with the rest of the world. Public schools not only deliver social inclusion but real multicultural sensibility. The more segregated and culture specific we make our schooling system the more we will push out adults who don't have the knowledge or skills to deal with our multicultural society and international reality.
Many of the business and government leaders who come out of private elite schools have to learn about the diversity that is around them either as part of their constituency or their client market. They might appreciate the smorgasbord of cultural sampling they can enjoy at restaurants, but lack real empathy or skills to interact cross culturally. Our public schools foster this as everyday business.
Education is important in creating the social mobility which has been crucial to the success of migration in Australia, and the long-term integration of migrant communities.
That's why it concerns me that the OECD consistently finds that Australia has one of the most unequal schools funding systems in the developed world.
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