The Canberra Liberals have unveiled a series of education initiatives, including a back-to-basics learning and curriculum approach and a direct pitch to parents in the Catholic school system by pledging an extra $16 million in funding over four years.
In response to what the Liberals see as falling school performance, Education spokesperson Elizabeth Lee is proposing a focus on foundational learning with a core curriculum based on English, mathematics, science and languages, guided by the recommendations of the New South Wales Curriculum Review by Professor Geoff Masters and the ongoing review into the Australian national curriculum by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).
She also wants to free teachers from administrative burdens so they can focus on the classroom and their students.
The Liberals say that under Labor, the education system is increasingly a lost opportunity as academic outcomes continue to decline.
At least six independent reports have revealed the alarming underperformance in Canberra’s schools. Literacy standards have been falling since 2001, and the average 15-year-old maths student is one-and-half years behind where they were in 2003, the party says.
“While a refocus on foundational learning is long overdue, it’s important that we deliver this in tandem with increased supports for students and teachers,” Ms Lee said.
But Labor Education spokesperson Yvette Berry rejected assertions that school performance was slipping and said the move reflected the fact that the Canberra Liberals were the most conservative Liberal branch in the country.
”The Canberra Liberals might as well get out the chalkboard and throw away Chromebooks,” she said, adding that in OECD tests in 2018, 15-yer-old ACT students performed better on average than students across Australia, and better than most of the participating countries when it comes to mathematics, scientific literacy and reading literacy.
Ms Berry also said the extra funding for Catholic schools was not in keeping with the equitable and needs-based funding approach that applies across Australia to all school sectors to fund non-government schools above their benchmark level.
Ms Lee said the Liberals would deliver a fairer funding model and choice for parents, saying Catholic schools received the lowest funding in the country from the ACT Government.
Funding would be gradually increased up to 2025, and government schools would not lose any money in the process, she said.
The Liberals would also consult with low-fee, non-government schools on their needs, with another announcement to come before the election.
The Catholic Education Office welcomed the Liberals’ policy, saying it could put downward pressure on school fees.
The Canberra Liberals will also hire more teacher librarians, pilot a program for Indigenous boys and introduce a mindfulness program for Year 3 children.
They will spend an extra $15.5 million over four years to create 50 new teacher-librarian positions in schools that don’t have them. The party will also pilot the well-regarded Clontarf Academy for 12 months in an ACT Government high school to provide behavioural and lifestyle support to Indigenous boys.
Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health & Community Services CEO Julie Tongs said the intensive support provided by the Clontarf team over the border in Karabar High is already showing great outcomes for disadvantaged First Nations children.
The Liberals will also roll out the Smiling Mind program to all Year 3 classes from the beginning of the 2021 school year if elected.
The Smiling Mind has been successfully trialled in Giralang Primary School since 2015 and is endorsed by Headspace ACT. The program requires at least 10 minutes per day of guided relaxation and breathing exercises and can lead to better academic skills, social skills and self-esteem, and has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.