I recently visited St Mary's High School at Gateshead in my electorate of Charlestown to celebrate 20 years of Planet Ark's National Tree Day initiative. I joined St Mary's Landcare team of 40 students from years 7 to 10, and together we planted more than 250 trees at Kennedy Creek, which runs along the school playground and boundary. I was reminded on that day of the benefits and importance of a holistic education and extracurricular activities, which allow students to pursue interests outside a standardised academic context.

Sometimes extracurricular activities can be seen as a distraction from, and not as important as, academic work. But academic subjects and extracurricular activities complement each other. Extracurricular activities provide a channel for reinforcing the lessons learned in the classroom and offer students the opportunity to apply academic skills in a real-world context. They are essential for a quality education that develops well-rounded, socially-skilled and healthier students. St Mary's has established a Landcare group of its own. Landcare Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that takes a community-based approach to managing and protecting natural resources. I am very proud to be a member of the Parliamentary Friends of Landcare.

The St Mary's Landcare team has established a school greenhouse, which has become an outdoor classroom. Earlier this year, St Mary's received an Environmental Sustainability Grant from Lake Macquarie City Council to support its incredible efforts and allow it to finish the school greenhouse. The greenhouse has enabled the school to undertake seed collection, germination and seedling care for native plants, herbs and vegetables. The greenhouse is also used by science students and Human Society and Its Environment [HSIE] students. In the greenhouse students learn how to propagate local native trees, shrubs, vegetables and herbs. These students then plant the seedlings in the school vegetable and herb garden as well as in the wider school grounds to help improve the quality of Kennedy Creek. They are hoping that in the long term they will be able to supply neighbouring schools and other members of the local community with endemic trees and shrubs.

It is fabulous to see the many Landcare days that St Mary's has each year. It is a great way to break up what can be a long day in the classroom. For 10 years, the St Mary's community has worked to rehabilitate Kennedy Creek by planting thousands of native trees, shrubs and grasses. These efforts have led to a range of benefits and incredibly improved soil and water quality. I was blown away by what I saw that day, and I was certainly blown away at how engaged and passionate the students were. They absolutely thrived in the outdoor and engaging learning environment where they are given the opportunity to contribute. They could see, through the animals and bugs that now call Kennedy Creek home, that their work is making a difference. It is something the whole school and community are benefiting from.

The Landcare group is a great way to get students to explore various interests they may have. It is this kind of hands-on learning that gets students out of the classroom and makes sure our schools cater for a range of students' gifts, talents, abilities and interests. At St Mary's this included one student with a learning difficulty who gained employment at a nursery after finishing school. It was his experience with the Landcare group that opened up this opportunity and made him more employable. When I was talking with teachers throughout the morning they told me how difficult it is for schools to guarantee funding for such initiatives. More needs to be done to help schools fund these extracurricular activities. I must say, though, that some of the students at St Mary's that day seemed to believe that funding would be better spent on BMX bikes and a quad bike for them to use around the school. They are yet to convince me.

I commend the teachers at St Mary's for creating the Landcare group. In particular, I acknowledge the work of Maryann Murray, a quality teacher and passionate environmentalist, who established the St Mary's Gateshead Landcare Group all those years ago. She continues to actively support the group along with Katrina Piper, who coordinated the tree planting day that I attended. They have taught and continue to teach their students useful and practical new skills. They have fostered a sense of commitment and purpose in the students and, most importantly, they have built a whole new community within the area. Well done, St Mary's High Gateshead for this fabulous initiative.