Address to the Christian Schools Group, 26 May 2008, Canberra.
Thank you for that warm welcome.
There are a few people I want to acknowledge:
- Parliamentary colleagues.
- Leaders from Christian schools and associations, including Stephen O'Doherty, Chief Executive of Christian Schools Australia, and Bruce Campbell, National Council Chairman of Christian Schools Australia.
And of course the many teachers, administrators and parents doing such a great job preparing the next generation for adulthood.
Let me also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people.
It is a pleasure to be able to do that here in the Parliament House, where the Prime Minister undertook that wonderful and overdue act of reconciliation earlier in the year when he apologised on behalf of the Australian people to the Stolen Generations.
I was struck by the way so many schools took part in that reconciliation process. Many Christian schools around Australia held special assemblies to show the Prime Minister's speech.
Some invited a member of the Aboriginal community to speak. Others heard from school captains, principals and students whose ancestors were part of the 'stolen generations'.
Of course, there are many schools to which reconciliation is a part of their everyday activities.
Schools like Woolaning Homeland Christian College, a remote regional boarding school for Indigenous students of the Daly River region of the Northern Territory which strongly emphasises literacy and numeracy in its education program.
Or Wongutha Christian Aboriginal Parent Directed School at Gibson, north of Esperance in Western Australia.
These schools, like many others, will benefit from the investments in remote and Indigenous education announced in the Budget earlier this month. They will also benefit from the announcement I made last week, that from 2009 non-government schools with a high proportion of Indigenous students will receive the maximum funding entitlement.
They are examples of a generosity of spirit that can be found in schools in many other areas:
- like their openness to the many children who come here as refugees from war-torn and impoverished countries; and
- their efforts to fully embrace children with a disability in the life of the school.
This moral dimension to school life reminds us that they are much, much more than simply institutions for gaining qualifications that help our children get good jobs and give our economy a boost.
As important as the economic, skills and productivity dimensions are, our schools are also places where our culture and our values, including important religious values, are transmitted to the next generation.
These less tangible aspects of schooling are often overlooked as we contemplate the challenge of modernising schooling.
And in recent years they've become weapons in irrelevant culture wars that really should be kept out of education.
Tonight I want to outline for you the importance of values to the Government's schools agenda and relate them to our overall reform priorities.
FROM 'CLIENTS' TO STUDENTS
To do this, we need to understand the really deep changes that have occurred in our education system over recent decades.
The way we have organised and governed our schools, set their objectives and measured their success, have all changed with the times.
If you go back half a century you will see that our schools were run largely in a top-down way, with authority to set curriculum, standards and teaching methods delegated downwards from parliaments - or church authorities - through education departments to principals and schools.
This system had strong features, like an emphasis on standards of conduct and traditional disciplines, and a commitment to helping children and families who would otherwise be unable to benefit from education.
By the 1970s this had changed. Society demanded more open decision-making processes, greater transparency and accountability. Often schools and school systems resisted. At the same time, the self-development of the individual took on greater importance. The public began to have a greater say in the direction of our schools.
Then in the 1990s under the influence of managerialism, schooling policies became more focused around financial concerns. The buzzword became 'efficiency' and success became partly measured in the lowest possible cost of service delivery.
Now, each of these eras brought changes to our schools.
We've managed to go from a system that educated only the elite to a truly mass education system. The expectations of parents and the community that education should offer a rich experience to all children have rightly increased.
Today, we expect a lot more. It seems to me that in the continuing movement towards greater openness, accountability, performance and economic efficiency, we need to ensure important qualities are not lost, like the needs of the individual student, the quality of the curriculum and classroom instruction and the values we instil in our students.
I believe the proper objective of the nation's education system is to ensure our students' intellectual development, moral strength, happiness and general wellbeing.
The human experience of education itself must be the focus of our school system.
Perhaps I could sum it up in this idea: students are individuals who need to be guided and nurtured to bring out their best, as part of a wider community in which they recognise their rights and responsibilities.
Our task is to provide this broad education, while equipping our young people with the skills they need to become successful global citizens of the 21st Century.
It's about getting the balance right between the old and the new.
Our schools did some of these things well back in the 1950s, but only for some of their students. In today's world, those old ways of running our education system - top down, without reference to parents or the community, delivering excellence to only a gifted and fortunate few - just won't work and won't meet Australia's needs.
There's a simple reason for this. Education is more important than ever, especially given the rapid disappearance of unskilled manual jobs and the speeding up of the digital revolution.
These changes are not just influencing professional or white collar work. Those who opt for technical streams will fail to get a firm foothold in society if they lack the grounding of a good education.
So what we need is a new way to join the traditional educational ideal of high academic standards, intellectual inquiry and strong values to the social, economic and technological needs of today and to apply it to every student.
Our questions have to be these:
- Are our students getting the basic learning skills at the right age?
- Are they getting the best in-class instruction from the best possible teachers?
- Is their curriculum giving them strong foundations and are they getting the right curriculum options for their future?
- Are our facilities, including buildings and ICT infrastructure, worthy of the 21st Century?
- Are young people learning right from wrong and learning how to act as responsible citizens in their communities?
- And is the experience of school giving them and their families confidence and optimism about the future?
A NATIONAL PLAN
If we are going to answer 'yes' to these questions, we need an ambitious national strategy to improve our schools, driven by the goal of higher quality.
To do this, the Australian Government is working with States and Territories, through COAG, to develop a shared set of aspirations and policy directions which will provide the basis for our school funding agreements and our reform initiatives over the coming years. Working with and consulting non-government schools is a vital part of that effort.
The new framework will connect new educational investment in schools, teachers and families with challenging new achievement targets and clearer, more transparent reporting systems.
New 'National Partnership' payments will encourage further improvements in the priority areas.
The smartest first step is of course to keep supporting the schools already committed to this approach. We value the contribution Christian schools are making, and we are keeping our pre-election promises to maintain the current Socio Economic Status model through the next Funding Agreement. This includes guaranteeing funding to those schools whose SES score has recently increased.
I have also indicated that I see a long term review of Australia's school funding arrangements as being necessary and desirable and that I see such a review as being completed by 2011.
Of course, funding matters. But there is a deeper debate about how we improve the fundamental quality of school education and it is on this deeper debate that our reform agenda is focused.
In the Budget we set out measures to invest in higher quality across all these aspects of reform; from computers in schools to developing the best teachers; from Trades Training Centres to locally shared facilities.
Rather than going through a detailed list, however, I want to focus on two areas that I believe are essential for strengthening our values - achieving the right curriculum focus and strengthening the role of schools in community life.
THE BEST CURRICULUM TAUGHT IN THE BEST WAY
Above all, we have to ensure we are teaching young people the right things in the right way.
This includes early emphasis on reading, literacy and numeracy, the foundation learning skills.
To improve our performance in this crucial area, the Budget allocated $577.4 million over four years to a National Action Plan on Literacy and Numeracy.
I have to say, when it comes to teaching something as basic as literacy, I'm somewhat old fashioned and a strong supporter of a practical and rigorous approach. I think the teaching of phonics, grammar and punctuation are an important part of the learning process.
I am even more committed to making sure that what happens in classrooms across Australia is grounded in real evidence of success. Nowhere is this more important than in our effort to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
That clarity and rigour is something that we should aim to apply to the whole curriculum and underscores the importance of our national curriculum policy.
One of the criticisms often made of educationalists is that to help disadvantaged children, they are too often prepared to 'dumb down' what is taught.
In my view, dumbing down is the cruellest joke we can play on someone who has to battle against the odds to succeed.
My life has been far from a battle, but as someone from an immigrant family from a coal mining village, whose own life has benefited from studying in the final year of high school demanding academic subjects like English, Maths, Chemistry, Physics and Economics and then at university law and arts with an economic major, I am a passionate believer in the benefits of the rigorous study of traditional disciplines.
Such studies provide the basis for understanding a rapidly changing world.
But more than that, they are a civilising and individually uplifting force that requires no wider economic or social justification. They foster creativity, inquiry, research skills and expression. And they play a big part in imparting values to our young people.
I want students to:
- have an understanding of the logic that lies behind computers;
- have a grounding in narrative history so they can make sense of world events;
- read Shakespeare's plays and modern literature to help them know themselves as well as they know the world; and
- develop high-level numerical skills and be capable of mental arithmetic.
I also want students to imbibe some of the great liberal values that come from study:
- like honesty and intellectual courage;
- standing up for others;
- aspiration, ambition and humility; and
- respect for democracy, individual rights and difference.
The details will properly be left to educators and experts, not politicians. But ideas like these will be broadly reflected in the new National Goals for Schooling in Australia to be released later this year and in the new National Curriculum, to be completed in 2010. Of course, non-government schools are integral to achieving them in practice.
EQUITY, COMMUNITY, PARTNERSHIP: ENSURING NO CHILD MISSES OUT
All these priorities will be delivered in ways that strengthen partnership between government and non-government schools.
We have already signalled our commitment to building a strong and respectful partnership which is focused on improving educational outcomes rather than pursuing redundant ideological divisions.
I hope that commitment is evident in the way we are implementing our priorities, including our willingness to work through shared delivery arrangements and to encourage partnerships across sectors.
I realise that the current COAG process has had an impact on the timetable for developing a new schools funding agreement and I want to reiterate our commitment to open consultation and engagement with our non-government stakeholders.
And I want to conclude with some thoughts about how we work towards building an education system which truly serves the needs of all Australian children and strengthens the common good in an increasingly diverse society.
I believe the way into that discussion is by focusing on a strong Australian value: the fair go. The most successful school systems in the world all devote substantial resources to tackling and preventing student failure.
This is one of the key areas where recent policy has let us down.
Australia performs comparatively well in international rankings, as measured by the OECD's PISA tests. In 2006 we were well above the OECD average.
But we are dropping relative to others.
And one of the major reasons for this is the long tail of underperformance linked to disadvantage.
Obviously, addressing this is not just for schools. Families, neighbourhoods, employers, early years services all have a major influence.
But schools have to play a big role too. And the issue is not just about school resourcing, it is about the strength of community and the ability of schools and families to participate in wider community life.
I know that many of our Christian schools play a hugely important role in helping children and families to overcome disadvantage. It is often a role driven by their sense of purpose and social mission.
And if we are to achieve the combination of educational excellence and equity that I believe all Australian children deserve, we will need to find new ways of combining the specific commitments and identities created by faith communities and the wider connections of a modern, diverse society.
Government policies and voluntary efforts both have a role to play in creating this mix. Government by helping to ensure long term investment and minimum standards, individuals by committing their time and care as parents, educators, volunteers, members of a community.
The Harvard academic Robert Putnam, who has done so much to explain the importance of social capital - those informal social connections of trust and cooperation that hold communities together - makes a distinction between 'bonding' social capital, which reinforces the identity of specific social groups, for example local religious communities and 'bridging' social capital, which enables connections between people of different backgrounds and helps to link separate institutions and places together.
His conclusion - and I agree - is that young people need both forms of social capital if they are going to succeed in life.
In turn, I believe we need to build a schooling system in Australia which enables diverse expressions of identity and religious commitment and also allows our communities to come together around wider commitments to the common good.
We can do this, if we are prepared to commit to building excellence and tackling disadvantage in every community, and if we can develop an approach to schooling which deliberately combines universally high standards with the voluntary commitment of parents and students.
Some of our policies, for example Local Schools Working Together, are directly focused on building wider partnerships across communities.
I believe we can benefit from exploring other ways in which the sectors can work together, for example in relation to the development of school-community partnerships which involve employers in providing opportunities to young people.
And I want to see a national governance system for schooling which creates the right regulatory, assessment and resourcing arrangements for communities because they deal with schools from all sectors in intelligent, consistent and responsive ways.
I look forward to this debate, and to the ongoing contribution of Christian schools to the theory and the practice of excellent, inclusive education.