Improving Australia's Schooling System

I spoke in parliament today about the government's schools reforms, flowing out of the Gonski Review.
Australian Education Bill, 12 February 2013

Each of us comes to this place with the perspective of the work we did before we got here. So it is not surprising when we hear former business people calling for less regulation, former union organisers calling for better protection for workers, farmers calling for more assistance to agriculture or, in my case, a former professor arguing for more investment in education. But I think there is some fairly strong evidence to back up the notion that great investment in education not only pays off in a more affluent society but also in a more equitable society. In my first speech I described education as being the best antipoverty vaccine we have yet developed, because a great education gives you opportunities in life which are greater than you can achieve without that opportunity.

Education allows people to make more choices. We know that raising education levels boosts health and boosts happiness. We also know some other things about our education system over recent decades. Work that I did with Chris Ryan found that Australian numeracy scores had flatlined since the 1960s, and our literacy and our numeracy scores had flatlined since the 1970s. Chris and I also showed that the academic aptitude of new teachers fell from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, with students in the top tier of their own class less and less likely to choose teaching. I have also done work looking at the relationship between pay and the academic aptitude of teachers, showing that when states raised the pay of new teachers the TERs of those in teaching went up, and that it is indeed possible to attract more academically gifted students into teaching by raising the pay of the teaching profession.

So it is very pleasing to me as a Labor MP to recognise the importance that teacher quality has in the government's reform agenda. As John F. Kennedy once said:

‘Let us think of education as the means to developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our Nation.’

And the way we fulfil that ambition is through having great teachers.

I recently carried out a survey on education in the Fraser electorate. We got responses from around a thousand electors and a good distribution across school sectors, with 67 per cent saying that their children were in government schools, 25 per cent in non-government schools and eight per cent in both systems. We asked respondents what they thought was the most important issue in education. The issue that topped the list was attracting and retaining great teachers, 43 per cent of respondents. That was followed by boosting literacy and numeracy, 18 per cent; maintaining  a well-rounded curriculum, 15 per cent; reducing bullying and cyberbullying, eight per cent; smaller class sizes, seven per cent; helping students with disabilities, five per cent; and assisting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, four per cent. We asked respondents whether they felt that the school that their child attended was well resourced. Of those whose children attended both government and non-government schools, 19 per cent said the school was not well resourced. Of those whose children attended non-government schools, 20 per cent said the school was not well resourced. And of those whose children attended government schools only, 29 per cent said the school was not well resourced.

A majority of respondents had used the MySchool website and a majority of respondents had seen a BER project, indicating that in my electorate many people are taking advantage of important reforms that have occurred under this government. This history of education reform goes back to the Hawke and Keating era, where funding for schools was considerably increased and a greater emphasis was placed on school completion. It often worried me in the Howard era when you would hear then Prime Minister Howard, and sometimes his ministers, suggest that education was not for everyone, that finishing school might be the right approach in some cases but not in others.

It particularly worries me when I hear politicians give different advice to kids from low-income backgrounds to what they give to their own children. Once was the day when you could leave school in year 9 and get a well-paying job in a factory or as a mechanic. There was a range of good jobs available to, say, a young man who was good with his hands but who had not completed year 12. But these days if you want to be a mechanic, you had better be able to reboot the on-board computer systems and probably download some upgrades. That requires good literacy and numeracy skills, and it requires good people skills because working on cars is a different job from what it once was.

We need an Australia in which everyone finishes school, not just as the Leader of the Opposition said last year, 'the right kids'. This government believes that we need a system which addresses equity and which invests in all schools. We have repeatedly said that the debate over government and non-government schools is a debate of the past. Our passion is in investing in all schools. You saw that when the global financial crisis hit. It was an opportunity then to carry out major infrastructure spending, knowing that the impact on the economy of infrastructure spending is greater than the impact of cash handouts. We used that as an opportunity not just to support jobs, local architecture, construction and tradespeople around Australia but also to provide schools with facilities that would improve the learning experience.

In my electorate, Florey Primary School encourages students to follow in the footsteps of the great Howard Florey, the inventor of penicillin. They used their BER money to invest in better science classrooms. At Amaroo School, they used their BER money to invest in new classrooms with removable partitions to encourage team teaching and allow teachers to learn from one another. That infrastructure investment was right for the times for Australia, and from so many schools the message that came back to me was that this was a once-in-a-generation investment.

But as I said before, we recognise that teacher quality is the No. 1 issue in education. It is the issue that came out as No. 1 from my Fraser education survey. Certainly, if you speak to education researchers it is very likely they will place teacher quality at the top of their list.

This government has agreed the first ever teacher performance and development framework, including annual teacher appraisal processes, starting this year. We have introduced new pathways into the teaching profession through Teach for Australia and Teach Next. I am looking forward to speaking at greater length on Teach for Australia in the Tax Laws Amendment (2012 Measures No. 6) Bill 2012, which is giving Teach for Australia deductable gift-recipient status.

Our plan is to ensure that by 2025 Australia is ranked as a top five country in the world for education performance. As I said at the outset, our test scores have flatlined—in some cases, even gone down. So this is a big ask. Looking back over past generations, the challenge of raising school performance to amongst the best in the Asian region is a major one. But there is strong support for it in the local community, and there is strong support for making sure that we raise the performance of all children.

One constituent of mine in response to the education survey wrote, 'We have one son who attends kindy. He has delayed speech and because of his disability he has fallen behind in literacy and numeracy. More funding for disabled students at both government and non-government schools is highly required as schools don't have resources to deal with children with disability'.

Many respondents spoke about the passion of their staff. One person wrote, 'The staff at our school are extremely hard working and dedicated to providing the best educational experience for our children. This would be enhanced by better resourcing and additional funding to enable them to focus on what they do best, and that is teaching'. Another constituent noted, 'We have been informed that the ACT has only one school with dedicated music teachers for students, with teachers who are actually trained in this subject'. We have listened to experts and to many, many people who have spoken out around Australia about the importance of placing quality teaching at the core of the government's reform agenda.

The bill will commit the government to providing needs-based funding to support schools in the future. It will be tied to parties' agreement on implementing reforms, and that will ensure transparency and accountability. There will be benchmark amounts for each student and, on top of that, loadings for educational disadvantage will make sure that those who need extra support get it.

In closing I would like to acknowledge the many Canberrans and those around Australia who have worked to make the Gonski reform a reality. There is a spectrum of views in the education policy debate, but I pay great tribute to those who have passionately backed the Gonski reforms. In the ACT I  acknowledge AEU Secretary, Glenn Fowler, and officers Peter Malone, Cathy Smith, Bill Book, Sue Amundsen, Sascha Colley, Mike Fitzgerald and Penny Gilmour. I acknowledge the executive: Phillip Rasmus, Roger Amey, Piers Douglas, Stuart Gilmore, Ingrid Bean, Jo Larkin, Roseanne Byrne, Murray Chisholm, Peter Curtis, Nina Leuning, David Stone, Shane Gorman, Janet Harris and Lana Read. There are many other active AEU members who have written, emailed, telephoned, visited, letterboxed and 'given a Gonski'. I am sure David Gonski's mother never imagined that his name would go from being a proper noun to being used in that way. I acknowledge former president of the AEU Phillip Rasmus, current president Lana Read, vice-presidents Roger Amey and Ingrid Bean, and the active parent community under the leadership of the P&C's Vivienne Pearce and, before her, Jane Tullis. The hard work of other organisations in the community has also been vital to bringing this bill before parliament.

This is a mass movement from the Australian community recognising that Australia is at our best when it has an education system that supports all students. The promise of Australia is not fulfilled if a child who grows up in poverty is destined to stay in poverty for the rest of her life because the schools that she attends are not able to bring her out of poverty. The great promise of Australia—the Australian dream—relies on ensuring that we have great teachers in every school, that we address educational disadvantage through targeted investment and, in particular, that we make sure that we get great teachers in every school.

Teaching disadvantaged students is, I think, among the most important jobs in Australia. It is, at times, an extraordinarily difficult and challenging job, but it is a job which can change lives. If you read autobiographies of Australians who have grown up in poverty you will often see that there is a single teacher in the author's life who, at a certain moment, encouraged that child to change their life course and to see the opportunities that lay ahead of them. That is why, in so many first speeches—particularly by Labor members—you will hear stories of education. I know that my colleague the member for Canberra will often tell of the important role education played in her life. It is a powerful story indeed.

We need education to change more lives. We need an education system that reaches out to the most disadvantaged and encourages the top. Our education system can reduce poverty and produce more Nobel laureates. I hope this bill will do just that.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.