Release type: Transcript


Independent Schools Australia National Education Forum 2022, Canberra


The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business
Acting Minister for Education and Youth

Thank you for the opportunity to address you all today to talk about some of the broader things the Commonwealth Government is working through.

And can I say, it is wonderful to be gathering in person after so many years of doing things virtually. It is good to once again connect.

I think the entire nation is relieved about that opportunity. Not just in terms of community groups or education groups but families have also reunited, and workers are returning to workplaces.  And from 20 November, over 500,000 visa holders as well as permanent residents and citizens have come back, onto our shores. Which is pleasing to see.

But challenges remain. There have been challenges posed by getting our kids back to school this year for 4 million children, went back to school which was quite extraordinary. An extraordinary number. At least 320,000 young people, for the very first time. And 240,000 in year 12, for the very last time. So I want to thank you all for your commitment and hard work as we have different jurisdictions and many different approaches. And I think we are now harmonising how we are doing it.

Remote learning, using the best of our digital technology, has played a key role. But I think nothing replaces connection with students and getting back to face-to-face learning. But thank you for supporting families and parents through that.

It has been a challenging three years. With drought and floods, fires and now we find ourselves in terms of the world, once again, at war. But can I thank you all for the work you are doing as we deal with the impact of drought and floods. The challenges have been extraordinary and for those of you who are impacted by floods, on top of that it is, in some ways, breathtaking.

I was in Lismore as the very first Minister. I took my truck in when the waters had receded enough.  It was quite devastating. But in the same breath, the city and community looked after itself with a sense of resilience which is also quite extraordinary. A flotila, the Navy, if you like, 200 boats, just quite amazing. I’m catching up with the local federal member there, Minister Kevin Hogan and Lismore Mayor Steve Kreig. And just watching the way they lead their community is, I think, an example of hope.

I also witnessed brave acts of bravery and brace acts of service and enormous acts of kindness, right across the board. 

But the floods have taken a particularly heavy toll on schools, on teachers and on communities. More than 200 schools have been impacted across NSW and Queensland, 70 of those being independent schools. Five schools remain closed.  Including quite a number of independent schools. Seven of them are seriously damaged.

Two of them in Lismore, literally wiped off the face off the earth. And will have to be rebuilt.

Many teachers are dealing with their own homes, with their own sense of tragedy while supporting their families – and supporting the children of their schools.

The government is of course, of all persuasions stepping in, to assist as you would expect.

The non-government schools facing difficult circumstances can access special circumstances funding.

I encourage any impacted non-government schools to reach out to their Non-Government Representative Body.

The Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments have also stepped in. Over one million and 50 thousand Australians have received a disaster recovery payment in their bank account in the last two weeks. It has been the greatest payment to affected Australians in the shortest period of time in our nation’s history. It is quite extraordinary what Services Australia has been able to do. It is also important to recognise that as schools will start to rebuild the federal government will support you the entire way through. As we rebuilt and get those schools back up and running.

But as we move away from these hopefully difficult periods of COVID, drought, fire and floods and more, and we move away from the dominant period of learning which has been digital, it is important to reflect on what we have achieved in what has been an extraordinary period.

Can I applaud you first of all for what you have been able to do, in circumstances no one was prepared for. You have all definitely pivoted, I think that is the best phrase, between online and face to face learning.  You have supported students from families that have through a very difficult period.

I think it is fair to say your success was demonstrated in the 2021 School Choice Report which shows that the vast majority of your parents felt independent schools have responded to these challenges exceptionally well.  

We all know we need to learn from our experiences. It’s highly likely that alternative modes of education delivery and the increased use of technology will continue to be an important part of ensuring access as we move forward.

AERO, of course, has recently been commissioned to examine remote and online learning and education delivery. This research project, which is being done on behalf of all education authorities, will explore approaches to remote and online education, how it has been used during the pandemic. It will identify areas where it has worked well, and in what circumstances.

It’ll provide a great basis to inform opportunities to further enhance this type of delivery and we will be expected to share that widely so that everyone can have access to it.

I think we all understand it has been a difficult time for students. Especially their wellbeing. Kids have been impacted, I think it’s reasonable to say.

We recognise that lockdowns have increased levels of stress and uncertainty in family environments.

So supporting the mental health and wellness of all Australians, particularly young Australians, remains a key requirement of the Morrison Government.

Since March 2020, more than $1 billion in funding has been made available to support the mental health requirements in COVID-19.

And in last year’s Budget, we invested a further $2.3 billion in the National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan.

We also provided funding for several school-based wellness programs. Over $61.43 million each year in the National School Chaplaincy Program. Which of course is designed to assist many, many thousands of schools to engage school chaplains and support the school community by providing pastoral care and support.

We provided $144.6 million towards the Be You Program which provides teachers and early learning educators with support to teach children skills for good social and emotional development.

Every student should feel safe and welcome at school – and we all have to actively work to do that.

Tomorrow is the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence.

This year’s theme is “Kindness Culture” and I think it presents a chance to reinforce to our children the importance of kindness and showing respect towards one another. What I would call grace. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate grace.

It’s an important opportunity for all of our communities to continue to demonstrate what we do every day to address bullying and violence – and the grace that you all show.

It is one of the reasons many parents have chosen independent schools for the education of their children. Because your schooling system shows a commitment to instilling a strong sense of values. But a strong sense of values and ethics and positively fostering an environment that enhances that.

That’s why Independent schools continues to have a vital role to play in our education system. And in our government, it will continue to have so. Your sector supports diversity and choice in our education system. It delivers high quality education. And it is highly valued.

Put simply – what you do strengthens the education sector.

That’s why the Commonwealth provides funding for all children, regardless of where they go to school. To support choice for parents.

Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister, John Howard, said it very well when he spoke in 2001.

He said: “The truth is that we genuinely believe in the absolute freedom of parental choice when it comes to the education of children. We believe that it is the right of every parent to decide the education for their children and we believe that governments should support and facilitate, not frustrate and deny the exercise of that freedom of choice.” [John Howard, Sydney, NSW, 28 October 2001]

The Morrison Government will continue the very strong tradition of supporting the right for parents to choose the type of education their children receive and to choose a school which reflects the values that they as a family hope to instil in their children.

It’s a choice that we know – I know first-hand, that parents value – and that more and more children are choosing to enrol their children at independent schools. And are voting with their feet.

In the past four years alone, we estimate that funded enrolments at independent schools have grown by 50,000 students. This is a nine per cent increase from 2018 enrolments. That’s a lot of parents choosing with their feet.

We also know that parents who send their children to independent schools have an extraordinarily high level of satisfaction – not just with the education their children are getting. But with the values being installed. In the 2021 Australia Talks survey, 92 per cent of parents with children at independent schools reported a high level of satisfaction with their child’s school, with a similar rate of satisfaction with the teachers at independent schools. 

Margery recently provided me a copy of ISA’s Review into Independent Special Assistance Schools (SAS). It is no surprise to anyone in this room that the sector caters to a very diverse range of students.

The report demonstrated the significant growth in the independent sector of both new SAS schools and enrolments at SAS schools from 2014 onwards. That the large majority of these schools are low fee proves that the needs-based funding arrangements are providing substantial additional funding to disadvantaged students.

I think last year’s School Choice Report also had some telling statistics when it came to how parents feel about independent schools.

Eighty per cent of parents in the independent school system reported they were not likely to leave the sector and 87 per cent of parents would recommend independent schools to family or friends. Educational excellence was the most cited reason for their approval of the sector.

Maintaining this level of satisfaction among parents despite the challenges of drought, fire, floods, pestilence and more, and the transition to online learning – that many of these things has necessitated, is simply extraordinary.

You would have thought some dissatisfaction would have occurred. It’s clear that your system is in an incredibly strong position and well-placed to continue to perform at a high level.

I’ve said the Commonwealth provides funding for all children, regardless of where they go to school, to give parents better choice.

We are incredibly proud of the fact the Australian Government is providing record yearly funding for government and non-government schools.

Under the Quality Schools Package, we are providing more than $315 billion between 2018 and 2029 into the Australian schools sector.

We will provide an estimated $6.4 billion to the independent school sector this year, growing to $8.5 billion by 2029.

Our commitment means Commonwealth funding for all schools is estimated to grow by 86 cent from 2018 to 2029.

That’s a growth of 100 per cent for government schools and 78 per cent for non-government schools.

By next year the Commonwealth will achieve the milestone of funding all schools to at least the agreed Commonwealth funding share.

For government schools that means Commonwealth funding will reach 20 per cent, with the rest being provided by the states and territories.

And for non-government schools, where the Commonwealth is the majority funder, Commonwealth funding will reach at least 80 per cent.

We have achieved and met what we said we would do.

This funding was a commitment we made under the National School Reform Agreement – an agreement that will ensure how the education system is designed both as a high-quality and high-equity by the middle of this decade.

And frankly Independent schools are integral to the Government achieving this outcome. We are all in this together. Whether we like it or not.

As part of the Quality Schools Package, our $200 million Non-Government Reform Support Fund continues to help the non-government sector to achieve continued reform to assist students.

Your representative bodies are funded to support implementation of national and state-specific education reform areas in non-government schools.

This funding recognises the importance of participation by the non-government sector in achieving progress against the reform agreement.

Well we want to help students to do better and to achieve better.

We were once among the top nations in education but unfortunately over the past 20 years we have seen a decline, and this is where I point you back to my departmental secretary. Despite our 42 per cent real per capita increase in school funding our performance as relayed in PISA is going backwards cannot continue. I think it is reasonable to say on behalf of all of us, that is not acceptable.

Funding is incredibly important, and while the Government is providing record funding for schools, we know it is not moving the dial enough when it comes to outcomes.

If I look at just the PISA results in the past 20 years, as I said at the start, the data rarely aligns. In reading the OEDC, the top 30 industrialised nations, we have gone from four to 16. When it comes to science we have gone from 8 to 17, mathematics we have dropped from 11 to 29 in the world. Despite a 42 per cent real increase in funding. Clearly, simply funding education systems does not alone guarantee results.

We do expect that record funding will contribute to lifting school standards. As we target areas which will have the best outcomes.

We have identified three areas of which the Commonwealth Government will focus, where we believe it will have the greatest impact to Australians. And where we believe it will try to arrest the decline and get our nation’s education back to being world leading.

We have to improve what students are taught, how they are taught and the environment in which they are taught.

We have already completed key work in these three areas.

The first and foremost is the national curriculum remains unapproved The Commonwealth will not approve it until we are satisfied with the changes have been made. Because improving the quality of the Australian curriculum continues to be a key Government commitment and is vital to ensuring every young Australian develops the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in this rapidly changing world.

ACARA has been reviewing the curriculum since June 2020 with a view to decluttering it and ensuring it is rigorous and reflects students’ needs.

The curriculum must clearly communicate what students need to know and the standard of achievement they must reach. It is also important that the curriculum addresses issues of social concern such as consent and mental health education.

At the last Education Ministers Meeting in February, we had an opportunity to review the latest draft of the curriculum.

All Ministers discussed the clear improvements ACARA had made to the curriculum drafts since the consultation version last year.

While most learning areas had improved, I, along with the Western Australian Minister for Education, requested further work on the Mathematics and Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) curricula.

On Maths, the Government’s view was that we needed to seize the opportunity to lift standards; to reverse the decline, from 11 to 29. Indeed, in the last 20 years we have also lost a year of learning outcomes. And Singapore, at a level of year 12, when they graduate, are at least two years ahead of Australian students when it comes to mathematics. The direction the Commonwealth gave to ACARA was to focus on clarity in content descriptors, a focus on mastery and reducing any examples that are not evidenced-based.

For example, a previous incarnation said students can use a calculator for absolutely everything. I find it unacceptable that students are not required to do banking and mathematics without their calculator. There were 219 examples of inquiry. The inquiry is important. Students must know their times tables. That is identified in three places. We need to get back to mastery if we are to arrest the decline in mathematics. The Commonwealth is very firm on this.

We are reminded as we look at the events unfolding globally, that it is critical for our children to learn, understand and appreciate our great democracy.

We wanted HASS to be strengthened by reducing the complexity and volume of content - still an issue in years F-6. But my direction to ACARA is doing so was not to dilute the improvements already achieved in portraying a more balanced view of Australian history, including the Commonwealth’s clear demand that Australian history should be taught in years 9 and 10.

The Australian Government’s position is that we should be proud of our Deep Indigenous History, our Western, Liberal and democratic heritage and our more recent history enriched by migration. Noel Pearson calls this the three strands of Australian History – and it is essential our students appreciate each one of them.

The idea that a draft curriculum was presented to me that ostensibly removes the entire Christian heritage of our nation is unacceptable.  It needs to be balanced. It needs to be open. It needs to be transparent. And it needs to be honest.

I have been briefed progressively and substantially by ACARA and my assessment is that the revisions are travelling very very well, and importantly key experts have been brought to the table to provide a more balanced view. 

Ministers agreed that we will resume again in April and once again look at the Curriculum in coming weeks, with the intent on signing off on it, subsequent to the Commonwealth and Western Australia being satisfied with the changes.

So that is the curriculum. In terms of quality, that covers what our students are taught, but next we must look at how our students are taught and obviously a key component of that is our teachers. You all.

High-quality teaching is the most important in-school factor for determining student performance. I think that is reasonable. Every study I have read shows that to be true. There are countless teachers around Australia, some in this very room, who are transforming children’s lives and opening them up to a world of opportunity.

The Government recently released the report on the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review, a very important piece of work by an esteemed panel chaired by Ms Lisa Paul AO.

We want to attract the very best candidates to the teaching profession and to ensure they are well prepared when they first enter the classroom.

The Government welcomes the review’s findings, and we will continue to work with the states and territories, along with the independent sector, to implement the necessary changes.

In the immediate term we want to prioritise system-level changes in areas of Commonwealth responsibility. By tackling the issue at its core, the content of ITE courses, and linking it to Government funding, this offers the greatest potential to make a difference.

By setting the standard of the content at the core of teacher training we have the potential to make the greatest difference to the future of teacher training in Australia.

The final key pillar of lifting school standards is to improve the environment in which our students are taught – the classroom.

Concerningly, research shows that Australia’s classrooms are becoming more disrupted. Australia is ranked 69 out of 76 countries and economies in the OECD PISA index of disciplinary climate – a measure of the extent to which students miss learning opportunities due to disruptive behaviour in the classroom.

And we know that classroom management is a major concern among our teaching workforce. Teachers too deserve to be safe at work in their classrooms, and they deserve respect from students and parents.

After two years of disrupted learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to help students re-engage, and get back to and remain in face-to-face learning.

And we must ensure the classrooms they have returned to are conducive to learning, safe and supportive – to help all students achieve their best including those with a disability, are neuro-diverse, and who have been coping with the impact of traumatic events like COVID-19, and most recently floods in NSW and QLD.

I expect the Government will have more to say very soon about the data, research and professional development support we think is needed to help our teachers and students participate in engaged and positive learning environments.

It is essential that the changes and updates being made to the Australian Curriculum, teacher training and classroom environment lift student learning and standards.

We want our kids to grow up with essential literacy and numeracy skills – and using these as a basis, we want them to excel in the fields of study they choose to pursue.

If we get this right, we have the opportunity to set up our children for a better life and to be able to contribute more to Australian society – socially and culturally as well as economically.

Parents want more from a school than just academic achievement. The question of what sort of young men and young women – young citizens – we want to see our children become, is also an increasingly important consideration for parents. And the reason behind many choosing independent schools for their children.

These values have always been an important consideration of independent schools in Australia – particularly those with a strong focus on values-based education.

With the disruptions and difficulties of the past two years it is time to look forward positively and embrace a future of greater achievement and outcomes for Australian children.

Clearly from the high rates of satisfaction among independent school parents, you are well placed as a sector to lead from the front when it comes to achieving these goals.

I would challenge you all to not settle with the good results you already achieve but to continue to strive to be better.

Thank you all for your unrelenting efforts for the past two years. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.

I look forward to working with you in future.

Question and Answer

QUESTION: When might the Government look at reviewing the Direct Measure of Income?

MINISTER ROBERT: Interesting. I can give you an answer or I can give you an honest one. If you think about where we started. I’ve inherited this, I’m the third or fourth DMI ministry if you like.

Where we started with the SES model which is a broad range of understanding of what is the community’s capacity to pay from the community point of view. Direct Measure of Income with substantially more funding to look at schools specific, and to be very intentional about what a school community can have in terms of capacity to pay and where should government fund go.  The intent, unashamedly, was to provide more funds to communities that didn’t have strong capacity to pay, the parents who couldn’t meet those needs and to allow communities with a capacity to pay to bear a strong burden and that was the whole intent of it. The vast majority of schools have had a drop of 76 per cent. The vast majority of the group are going “this is good”. But like all things in public policy, if you perceive yourself to miss out you will have a different view. 

We’re continuing to have a look at and speak to the leadership of independent schools about what can do if…what we can do more. The Choice and Affordability Fund there of some $1.3 billion is to assist in the transition to the model. We’ll continue to work, Margery and I, as we’ve had some very fruitful conversations in terms of what is possible in that space. But that’s the change, that’s why we went to DMI. It was designed to provide greater funding to schools that needed greater help.  

QUESTION: There’s an argument minister that successive governments have tackled the issue of curriculum, the national curriculum and also the quality of teachers. What is different this time around?

MINISTER ROBERT: Well probably because this Education Minister is quite ruthless when it comes to it. So if you look at it, the curriculum, it’s too busy. Like it’s flat out too full, especially in Maths. I want a 25 per cent reduction, and Commonwealth won’t approve it until it’s reduced. The curriculum is extraordinarily busy, so we’ve got to lock that down and remove some of the business, number one.

Number two, we need to get to mastering of what we’re doing in mathematics and I’m very firm on this. I’m all for enquiry, but mathematics you either know it or you don’t, or you learn it or you don’t. There’s far too much about mutual enquiry, no you’re here to learn your mathematics for crying out loud. I’m on sites where they’ve got builders I was there yesterday in Hobart, with four apprentices and they want to take one eighth and the other four of them don’t have Year 11 mathematics. You can’t be a chippy or a builder if you can’t measure stuff. There’s four young Australians who can’t get a job because no one taught them mathematics in Year 11. I’m sorry but it’s unacceptable.

Now trust me, they didn’t come to your schools – you and I are in unity on this. But here’s got to be a mastery in mathematics and we have to get back to phonics in terms of teaching people to read. I understand there’s lots of views and I get all that, but you can’t accommodate everyone’s views in teaching, and we’ve got to look at what’s best. And we’ve moved away from phonics for over a decade and a half and reading has gone from what fourth to sixteenth? I reckon that’s a failure. I reckon we’ve given our system a big F. And if anyone thinks that going from fourth to sixteenth in reading is progress, respectfully, we’re kidding ourselves. So why don’t we actually acknowledge that we have a problem, and the PISA results tell us we have, and make some fundamental changes and quite substantial changes. For example, in terms of HASS, in Humanities and Social Sciences, I’m not interested in wiping out the Christian heritage out of our National Curriculum we should be proud of it. We should understand our Indigenous heritage and our strong place in the world but understand how our nation was founded. I don’t want to teach children in Year 2 to identify a racist statue, I mean are you kidding me? This is nuts. 

So the difference is the Commonwealth is taking a very strong lead on this. When it comes to teacher quality. Why don't we actually face the fact the brutal reality in every report operating clearly from Andrew Leigh, from the labour side of the house, who was a former professor at ANU, a Harvard PhD, the bright boy. I look at what the Gates Foundation and others have done, and they've all found out that if you knock down the bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers, you will actually get our PISA results back to where they should be. The point being, if we can take the bottom 10 per cent quality of teachers and turn them into the average quality within the teaching profession, we will arrest the decline. No silver bullets, that one comes screaming out. Now I don’t think it's a problem in your schools because frankly, you can hire and fire your own teachers, I'm talking to the heads of your schools here. And there's no way they will accept a dud teacher in their school like, not for a second. So for your school, you just don’t have them, you don't have bottom 10 per cent of teachers dragging the chain. But for every teacher you don't have in your organisation is where they go? When we look at the bottom 10 per cent if you take out your system, which I think is excellent and move to other systems, you start to see not just the bottom 10 per cent. So why don't we face the brutal reality that we have got to arrest the quality of our teaching, if we are going to make a difference when it comes to it and stop pussyfooting around the fact that the problem is the protection of teachers that don't want to be there; that aren't up to the right standard; that are graduating from university or have been for the last 10 years and they can't read and write. They can't pass the LANTITE test.

QUESTION: So therefore, this is a time when there are staff shortages, particularly in some discipline areas, and rural and remote and disadvantaged communities aren't the hardest yet. So how do we tackle the incentives of getting some of the best of the profession into some of the most challenging of circumstances?

MINISTER ROBERT: It’s quite the challenge and [unintelligible] the former Secretary of Education in New South Wales and she and I chat about this often because we have teacher shortages and we will have for a while not just as a doctor shortages and nurses shortages. And when it comes to regional areas, you've got some outstanding regional schools that connect and keep their teaching staff. But it is very, very difficult, especially in the government sector to encourage people out there. The Budget will have a range of things to say about it. But in short, it does provide incentives for teachers to go west. We’ve got to provide incentives for the best of our educational institutions, especially the best of our of our independent boarding schools, to connect with and provide campuses into remote areas. So we look at what our great regional schools are doing. What's it gonna take for Rockhampton Grammar to pick up and put a campus somewhere to remote indigenous community? Let’s have those conversations, what’s it going to take to do that? To take your educational actions, and there's 30 schools like that, to actually take their teaching staff, their quality, their facilities, their boarding house on a rotation, what does it take for an excellent independent school to adopt the community on that rotation construct? We’ve got to start thinking about that really innovative kind of stuff.

QUESTION: Exactly in that spirit there a couple of other questions that I will address to the chair who's the governing board of the morning tea and I’ll report back, But Minister, here's a final one, which is exactly the spirit of your last point that is partnership, sharing of resources, exercising collective leadership.  When you talked about choice and diversity as being at the heart of a quality education for this nation. How do we get a narrative, the story right, so that when we talk about independent schools and increase, as you point out in enrolments, that that should be seen in the national interest for the common good, IE for a healthy nation, because this is still contested territory? So, what's the way in which we can tell that story in terms that you’ve outlined this morning?

MINISTER ROBERT: Well, I'll push back a little and get you to remove your black arm band for a second. I'll tell you why. If you look at Twitter, don’t look at Twitter it’s terrible. But if you look at Twitter, if anything isn't in political terms, there's a hashtag ‘auspol’. So there’s comment, hashtag auspol. 98 per cent of all comments on Twitter with that hashtag comes from two per cent of users. So, if you look to look at the narrative that contested space, if you like when it comes to independent schools in their setting. Every bit of research says I've seen says if parents have equal afford, or the option was there for you to send your children to an independent school, private school, would you do it? The answer is always above 75 per cent. Always, always, always.

So it's not contested. The value of independent school education. It is not contested at all. It is highly valued by parents highly sought after by both the educational aspects of discipline and the values. I have in my city in the Gold Coast, I have got a huge mosque in my electorate. And all of those Islamic kids, they're all in the Christian schools. I mean, a lot of being Catholic or independent schools. So my little boys, three sons, they're all hanging out in the Muslim kids at All Saints Anglican School. And why is the Hindu communities of mine, the Buddhist communities, Islamic communities, why are they sending their kids, in this case an Anglican school or the Catholic schools? For the education, values, discipline. That’s what they’re doing. They are valued like there is no tomorrow.

The nation values what to do. And the reference to take the black armband off is don't believe that the rhetoric spoken and yelled at the media by the two per cent of users that are on a crusade against independent schools. Just deliver high quality, high value, high discipline, just keep doing what you're doing. The system is winning you are the standout across every area, you might have literally bottle, the educational excellence the teacher quality that you live, exude, and that you continue to reinforce in training and the quality and discipline in your classrooms. If I could pick that up and play that across the nation, we would, we would rival Singapore and the PISA results and they’re second in the world in maths, science and reading.  We need to bottle you - pick you up. Or you need to connect and start to get that message out in terms of what we're doing within your community. I don't take a negative view on this. I think we have positive view because with the quiet Australians that you connect with, they're saying with the noisy 2 per cent that yells at me every day. You are never gonna read that.