Release type: Speech


A New Progressive Reform Agenda For Australian Schools

The 2008 Fraser Lecture, Canberra, 28 May 2008

It would always have been an honour to be asked to give what has become one of the most important lectures on the Labor Party’s annual calendar, the Fraser Lecture. But it is a particular honour to deliver the first Fraser lecture after an historic Labor victory. I thank Bob McMullan for his invitation and this opportunity.


In last year’s Fraser Lecture, Kevin Rudd set out Labor’s approach to action on climate change.

He argued that the Liberals were in denial about the nature of the problem and the need for action.

He argued for Government to act domestically and to help forge a new consensus on climate change that makes truly global solutions possible.

He argued that practical innovation is as important as principled argument in bringing about change.

And he argued that it is the job of Government, especially progressive governments, to pursue ambitious reform from the centre ground of politics.

He talked about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s description of climate change as a ‘post-partisan’ political problem, one that is just too important to be used as a political football. And he quoted the California Governor as follows:

… we are not waiting for politics. We are not waiting for our problems to get worse. We are not waiting for the federal government. We are not waiting – period. Because, the future does not wait.

And while the Terminator is not Australian and hopefully is not likely to fall naked out of our skies on to our land, his words summed up how Australians felt when they voted last year.

Why did we win?

John Howard was not hated, and the public does not reject every aspect of his legacy. I have described his defeat as a ‘benign dismissal’, despite the fact that he lost his seat. The public didn’t hate him, but they had moved beyond him.

It became clear, through that year of intense campaigning, that the Government had become stale and that the world was changing in ways for which the Coalition was not prepared.

What people wanted, and will always want, is economic stability, a better quality of life, better opportunities, safe and peaceful communities. But they also saw new challenges ahead.

Climate change was just one.

Australians saw the challenge of building prosperity for the future whilst competing in a new global economy where knowledge and skills are becoming paramount.

And the challenge of delivering in the future on the historic Australian notion of the fair go. Australians wanted a Government that shared their values and was prepared to get rid of Work Choices, which offended their values so deeply.

Labor’s platform reflected these challenges and offered a coherent, realistic approach to tackling them.

Australians wanted a Government that understood the need for change, for a fresh approach, for the need to govern for long term and to build a better future.

Analysis of the election result, and of voter perceptions, confirms that it was Labor’s positive promises that created the most effective differentiation.

We won the election with our fresh ideas.

And we’re going to govern with them.


Education was a central theme of Labor’s whole campaign.

And now it is central to our agenda for Government.

Every year knowledge and skills become more important.

We are a fortunate country. Our schools generally perform well but in the 2006 OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment our absolute and relative performance in reading and mathematical literacy began to slip.

Slipping standards, neglect and division are the Howard Government’s legacy to the nation in education.

It left office with Australia as the only country in the OECD to have reduced its share of GDP spent on higher education and at the bottom of the league in its investment in early years.

You can sum up the Howard Government’s schooling strategy very simply. It used Commonwealth funding and ideological symbols to attack the idea that an education system can achieve universally high standards.

It used the growth of parental aspiration, not as the basis for lifting standards everywhere, but to create a growing gulf between those at the top and the bottom of the opportunity distribution.

In doing so, it drove a wedge between two ideas that are essential to progressives: the idea of individual aspiration and the idea of opportunity for all.

The result is plain to see. Whilst the Liberal Party sought to profit off this wedge politics, it failed to deliver equity or excellence.

While other nations have been investing systematically in knowledge and infrastructure to create world-class education systems, Australia has been spinning its wheels, distracted by internal conflict.

National schools policy has been piecemeal, amateurish, lazy even.

While other nations like Singapore were creating laboratories to determine the best methods of classroom instruction, the Howard Government was obsessed with flagpoles rather than implementing a serious reform agenda.

I guess they thought our student performance was good enough and where it wasn’t good enough they guessed they could get away with blaming teacher unions.

We have to put this sort of thinking behind us.

Because when it comes to education, ‘good enough’ is never good enough.

How could any Australian be satisfied when:

  • Year 12 retention rates and remain at their 1992 level of around 75 per cent?
  • Australia lies in the bottom half of OECD countries for year 12 or equivalent qualifications?
  • Indigenous students record numeracy and literacy test outcomes up to 32 per cent lower than other Australians?
  • And as the Australian Council for Educational Research has stated, we retain a long tail of educational underperformance linked to social disadvantage?

The Howard Government’s schooling failure was perhaps the worst example of its belief that Australia could sit back and live forever off the resources boom and neglect the need to invest in our human capital. They continuously traded long term benefit for short term advantage.

They forgot that while Australia’s resources may be vast, they are ultimately finite and their value is heavily dependent on continuing high terms of trade. They did not understand that, by contrast, the economic potential that lies in the knowledge and skills of our people is infinite.

It is my intention as Commonwealth Minister for Education to do what our predecessors refused to do: to build a new consensus around the idea that when it comes to schooling, that we should strive forbothequity and fostering individual aspiration. A new consensus that in education excellence and equity are partners not combatants.

I want the whole community to accept the logic that we have to invest to help every child succeed because ultimately we all benefit.

And I intend to use this new public consensus to implement a strategy for school reform that in scale, depth and policy direction – finally – meets the nation’s needs.


Therefore a new national strategy to improve Australia’s schools will be a big part of the Education Revolution we have promised.

In outlining the elements of that strategy, I also want to address why it matters for progressives and why it means confronting some assumptions that the centre-left has made about educational equity in the past.

Labor has a long and proud history of education reform. Throughout that history it has used practical innovation to shape the future: creating methods and forms of service delivery that have made possible what conservatives previously said was not possible.

For example, in my own State of Victoria, the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1839, providing opportunities for artisans to gather and learn, as part of an international movement originating in Scotland.

From the 1850s, mechanics’ institutes quickly spread throughout Victoria wherever a hall or library, or a school was needed. Over a thousand were built and 562 remain in Victoria today.

These institutes have been not just an important focus for adult learning, but also a gathering point, or ‘hub’, for social and community life. They were forerunners of universal public education and their history helps to explain the deep attachment of the labour movement to that concept.

But they also illustrate that specific forms of educational provision, and the roles played by different institutions, will change from generation to generation.

In the second half of the twentieth century, this commitment took a different form. In the 1960s, it was the move towards comprehensive high schools.

In the 1970s, the Whitlam Labor Government established the Schools Commission to ensure all Australian schools reached acceptable standards and were adequately funded. The subsequent Disadvantaged Schools program channeled extra funding to 1,000 poorer schools.

In the 1980s we lifted Year-12 participation rates dramatically.

All of these are proud achievements. But you will have noticed that none of them fully overcame the inequality of opportunity and waste of human potential they were designed to attack.

This history creates a danger for progressives. The danger is that in our concern for equity, we conflate specific forms of provision and specific models of resourcing with the principles and the needs which we are seeking to advance.

In so doing, we can too easily become attached to defending practices and arrangements which do not serve our real cause because they do not lead to the long term outcomes that our cause demands.

If we allow that to happen, we inadvertently become defenders of a status quo rather than reformers working to further the interests of citizens.

For example, we can assert the principles of high quality public education, without necessarily accepting that the current organizational models of government schooling serve all forms of student need.

Or we can make the case for a systemic approach to school provision which focuses on the whole community, without thinking that the forms of bureaucratic coordination and planning developed in the last century are going to achieve that goal in practice.

We can also no longer assume that children at public schools are less socially advantaged that those in non-government schools. On average this is still the case, but not everywhere.

So we need to be more flexible in the way we direct resources and energy towards tackling disadvantage wherever it may be. We must maintain the focus on equity and excellence. But we have to do it in new ways.

The old progressive assumptions about the roles of different school systems and the nature of disadvantage don’t hold.

Parents are more educated and articulate than in past times and now insist on a greater say. So we need more transparency and parental involvement. Where children are not achieving minimum standards, engaging parents directly in their children’s learning is essential.

And thanks to new research evidence we know with certainty that the most important factor in determining a child’s likely school performance is the quality of classroom interactions.

I have been struck recently by evidence gathered not in Finland, or South Korea, or any of those other far-flung places that we increasingly refer to in educational debates, but closer to home in New Zealand.

Professor John Hattie of the University of Auckland has analyzed more than half a million academic studies examining the effects of different educational interventions on student learning. He then ranks these interventions by the power of the effect and his findings are salutary.

First, as he says, "It is what students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable." Second, in school "…it is what teachers know, do and care about that is very powerful".

Other factors like school and class size, relative levels of funding, organisational structure and so on, have far less impact on their own.

So resourcing, governance and structure are all important, but only when they enable students to develop the right expectations of themselves and of education, and enable teachers to offer rigorous, stimulating, high quality learning to every student in every lesson.


Our focus must therefore shift to getting the right people into teaching, improving the quality of curriculum and improving methods of classroom instruction.

To repeat, I am not suggesting that investment and resourcing do not matter.

We have already shown that we are ready to make unprecedented investments in equipping students, educators and schools.

What I am arguing is that we need new ways to ensure that resources flow to where they will have greatest impact. That is the task of national reform.

To pursue it, we are working through the Council of Australian Governments, and specifically the Productivity Working Group, which I chair, to develop a collaborative framework for national improvement. COAG has already agreed a set of outcomes and reform directions. In schooling they focus on six key areas:

  1. Improving teacher quality and school leadership
  2. Setting high standards and expectations;
  3. Boosting parental engagement
  4. Greater accountability and better directed resources
  5. Creating modern world-class learning environments, including in information and communication technologies; and
  6. Raising attainment levels in low socio-economic status communities.

Rather than outlining all of these in detail, I want to focus on two in particular to explain the kind of shift that we need to bring about.


The recent McKinsey report on the characteristics of the world’s best-performing school systems reports studies found that:

‘…students placed with high performing teachers will progress three times as fast as those with low-performing teachers.’

Three of the highest performing school systems – those of South Korea, Finland and Singapore – select teachers from only the top 5 per cent, 10 per cent and 30 per cent of university entrants respectively.

And once in the profession, those school systems devote significant resources to developing them into excellent classroom instructors.

Australia needs that sort of ambition for our schools and we know that significant improvement is possible.

For instance, raising teacher status in the U.K. has elevated teaching to the most popular profession among graduates in just five years. We should aspire to do likewise.

School leadership is also vital to improving teaching quality because the best school leaders are those constantly focused on helping their classroom teachers improve their performance.

I welcomed this week’s report from the Business Council of Australia on teacher pay and career structures. It is time for a far-reaching debate, not just on how we reward teaching properly, but how we ensure that all teachers everywhere achieve a quality of work that meets our 21st century expectations.

We need to reach a position where we:

  • Raise the status of profession and build in rewards for excellence;
  • Encourage the best and brightest in to teaching;
  • Recruit more teachers with specialised skills like maths and science;
  • Improve teacher training right from the beginning and throughout teaching careers;
  • Ensure the best teachers go where they can make the most difference; and
  • Find and develop great school leaders.


Beyond teacher quality, we have to attack disadvantage with passion and commitment.

Every child must have access to excellent classroom instruction, rigorous curriculum and the best facilities.

But we know that not every child has an equal start to their education.

Consider the following findings of important U.S. studies:

  • By age three, the average child of a professional couple has a vocabulary of 1,100 words and an I.Q. of 117, whilst the average child of parents receiving welfare has a vocabulary of 525 words and an I.Q. of 79.
  • By the age of seven, children who score in the top 20 per cent of tests of literacy and numeracy are already twice as likely to complete a university degree as children who come in the bottom 20 per cent.

These facts help to explain our long term focus on early childhood development.

But they are no justification for failure at school. In addition to having the best teachers and the best curriculum, the world’s best school systems also work to compensate for the disadvantages a child brings to school from their home.

We know that disadvantage is not destiny. But in today’s Australia, it exercises a disproportionate influence on the life chances of too many children.

The Rudd Labor Government has already committed to investing additional money, beyond our election commitments, in strategies to overcome this disadvantage by lifting attainment.

To understand disadvantage, to understand our schools generally, we need greater transparency about who is attending schools and what is being achieved within them.


The Government has an index that measures the socio-economic status of every non-government school in Australia. This index calculates the socio-economic status of children at a school by measuring the income, education and occupation levels of the census collection districts - areas of approximately 200 households - in which their parents live.

It is not as perfect a measure as real time data about the actual circumstances of individual students, but it is generally robust. We have no comparable measure nationally for government schools.

We have no means of identifying students who are at risk of educational disadvantage such as disabled students or students from refugee families. While we can identify Indigenous students in schools, we do not have a clear picture of their educational outcomes.

Then it is only this year that we have administered truly national tests to measure attainment in literacy and numeracy and that the national Government will receive school by school results.

How can we hope to address the needs of individual students and whole communities if we are not using the best possible information as the basis for our decisions?

We need all of this information, not for the production of crude league tables but to inform a real program to address disadvantage. And we need all of this information, and more, in the public domain to inform parents and teachers in their efforts.

It is only with this information that we can truly assess the work being done by schools, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it is only by having this information we can look at comparable schools, compare results, understand different patterns of disadvantage, identify the best teaching practices and share them.

There is a shyness in this debate from some who fear information will be misused and feed a flight from government schools to non-government schools. I believe this shyness is misconceived.

Parents in every suburb in this country can point to what they believe are the good schools and the bad schools in their neighbourhoods. We are kidding ourselves if we do not realise those judgements are being made every day.

And if we do not provide sophisticated information, then given the demand for it, the media will supply the crude league tables alternative. The issue is not about one Government hoarding all information and deciding unilaterally what to do with it. It is about accepting a collective responsibility to make decisions on the most rigorous and transparent basis.

When we can measure need and quantify how to make a difference we will be best placed to bring extra resources to bear to deliver on the fair go at school.


Tonight I have argued that we can bring about a long term change in the way that Australians view the value of education and the way we invest in it for the future.

This, in my view, will be an Education Revolution.

In doing this, we must use the architecture of federation to bring about reform through intense and demanding collaboration. The test of that reform will not be whether it leads to new policies being agreed and new spending being released.

It will be whether new expectations and practices are adopted by students, families, teachers and communities; better outcomes in people’s lives.

That change is perfectly possible to imagine. It will not depend so much on the actions of government as on our ability as a wider community - of families, citizens, media, experts and professionals, interest groups and civil society – to mobilise a national effort which creates and embeds the solutions in our shared life.

Nonetheless, Government is in a position to lead, to invest, to innovate and to learn.

We have three overlapping opportunities, during the rest of this year, to shape the direction of this national effort.

The first is the COAG process I have already described.

The second is the completion of the National Goals of Schooling, begun last year through the Council of the Australian Federation, which I have committed to joining in partnership with the States and Territories and the Catholic and Independent school systems.

The third is the design of a formal funding agreement which reflects the new priorities and the outcomes of our national collaboration.

These agreements can point us towards a new, progressive consensus on the future of Australian schooling.

Over the last decade we let the Coalition turn schools policy into an electoral wedge by pitting excellence and aspiration against equity.

Now we have an opportunity to demonstrate that this is a false dichotomy.

You simply cannot have a world-leading school system that lets children fail.

The future does not wait. It will be shaped by our choices and our actions.

Our aim is excellence for every child.

In achieving it, we can bring togetheraspirationwithopportunity for all– and create a progressive legacy that will outlast all of us.

Thank you.