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Interview — 6PR Mornings with Liam Bartlett

Ministers:

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

LIAM BARTLETT:

I wanted to talk first up this morning about the quality - or not - of our teachers and teaching staff. Now we often talk about educational standards in terms of school rankings, or student results, or even curriculum content compared to other states and other countries. But it's not often we focus on the quality of those standing in front of the classroom. And it's certainly not common for a federal minister in charge of education to give teachers a major sideswipe for being, in some cases, complete duds. His words, not mine. It's a fairly brutal assessment, and it came in a speech to private schools in Canberra yesterday. I've got to say, the acting Education Minister, Stuart Robert, didn't hold back. He insisted that when it comes to teacher quality, and I quote: ‘Why don't we face the fact and the reality that if you knock out the 10 per cent bottom percentile of dud teachers, you will actually get our results where they should be.’ Stuart Robert joins us on the program now. Minister, good morning,

MINISTER ROBERT:

Good morning, Liam. How are you?

LIAM BARTLETT:

Minister, good thank you. Thanks very much for your time this morning. Now, dud teachers, some of them even illiterate. You're not going to win too many friends in the classroom.

MINISTER ROBERT:

One of the challenges we've got, Liam, is our results as we score them internationally through what’s called PISA, which ranks us against 78 other countries in the world. So the last 20 years, our results, our student outcomes, have been slipping. Twenty years ago, we were fourth for reading – we're now 16th in the world. We were eighth for science, we’re now 17th; we were 11th for mathematics, we’re now 28th. So we have been consistently slipping. At the same time, the Commonwealth Government has doubled the amount of money into education, especially since we came to power in 2013. So student outcomes going down, badly, but our funding going up. So we have to ask ourselves what the issue is, and we believe it comes down to curriculum, to the initial teacher education, how we're educating our teachers, and that classroom environment and the environment of discipline.

LIAM BARTLETT:

So you're putting it down to that basic interface in the classroom? So essentially, it's the teacher's fault?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It’s not an issue of any fault. We have to make sure the curriculum is not cluttered. We have to make sure the curriculum is teaching what we need it to teach. For example, at present, the drafts before me say you can use a calculator for every area of mathematics. Well, that's not acceptable. People need to be able to know their times table. We need to teach Australian history and be proud of our country, and acknowledge the great history, our Indigenous history, but also British settlement, as well as our multicultural history.

LIAM BARTLETT:

Yes.

MINISTER ROBERT:

But we also need to reflect that 10 per cent of our teachers coming out of university are failing basic numeracy and literacy, and that that's not acceptable. So we need to lean into that teacher education to ensure we're producing high quality teachers.

LIAM BARTLETT:

Well, I tell you what, you're off the Christmas card list from the public teachers’ union. They say your description is elitist and insulting.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, why doesn't the public teachers’ union focus on why our results have slipped so badly in student outcomes for the last twenty years, despite funding doubling? So I hear the teachers’ union saying: Minister, you’re terrible and everything's wonderful. But everything's not wonderful, at all. The outcomes for students are slipping every single year internationally.

Now, our kids have done incredibly well and our teachers have done extraordinarily well during the last two years now. NAPLAN results have shown that we’ve come through COVID well, but internationally is where we compete, and that's where we've got to lift our standing.

LIAM BARTLETT:

But if you put this figure on it Minister, 10 per cent – so, 10 per cent of teachers – is that the root cause of the problem? I mean, why are we letting such a big number through, if people are coming through to university standard without having literacy and numeracy and things like that? Why do we have those dud teachers in the system?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Around 2016 we introduced the LANTITE test, which is for teachers coming out of university to demonstrate they've got a basic competency in literacy and numeracy. And 10 per cent of them have been consistently failing. Now I'm going to bring that LANTITE test forward to the first year. So rather than finish your university degree in education and find out you won't get a teacher registration, it'll come forward into when you go to university to say here is the basic literacy and numeracy you've got to have. I mean, right now, Liam, 25 per cent of our math teachers in all of our schools are not qualified, formally, to teach mathematics.

LIAM BARTLETT:

[Talks over] Well, that's just ridiculous.

MINISTER ROBERT:

And we wonder why we’re struggling.

LIAM BARTLETT:

It's ridiculous.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Yes, it is. So why don't we actually have a national conversation about what we need to do to increase the outcomes for our students? And the Commonwealth is prepared to lean in on the curriculum.

We're prepared to lean in on initial teacher education, on how we can train our teachers at university better as part of that conversation and part of those solutions.

LIAM BARTLETT:

In your speech yesterday, you were very complimentary towards the private school system. High quality and high discipline, you said. And that may be right, but isn't your challenge, as the Minister, to make sure the public system matches up?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, our challenge, federally, is to work with our state and territory colleagues who run the state-based education system. And the vast majority of them are very high quality, with very hard working teachers.

Except 86 per cent of principals of schools, in terms of the research I've got, are telling me that they have witnessed or been the subject of verbal or physical abuse. I mean, that's just not acceptable, either from students or from parents.

So we need to have classrooms that are safe and non-disruptive.

Sixty per cent of students are telling us that there is disruption occurring within their classrooms on a reasonably regular basis. Again, that's not conducive to learning. So we need to face up to these. These are the data points we have in front of us. We can't ignore them. We need to lean in and solve them.

LIAM BARTLETT:

Would you like to make it easier, or see that it would be easier for public schools to hire and fire teachers?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think every employer should have the right to be able to hire their own excellent staff and to ensure those staff are performing, and if need to, to actually address that performance and move on. For example, in Queensland, in my state and territory, the principals can't use staff meeting times for education or continuing education of teachers. It's not allowed. I mean, that's just ridiculous. Our principals should be free to run their schools. They should be free to employ, and if need be, dismiss teaching staff that aren't teaching to the appropriate standard. Why should we ever be afraid about our leader exercising their judgment.

LIAM BARTLETT:

Well, it's an important point, isn't it? Because if there are so many dud teachers, as you claim - I mean, 10 per cent’s a big number. Let's just keep it at the 10 per cent. How do we get them out of the system if they can't be easily fired, Minister?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The 10 per cent is the figure of the number of people looking to leave university who haven't met the standards of the LANTITE test. So that's new teachers coming out who aren't meeting the literacy and numeracy standard. Now we'll have a bit more to say about that in the coming weeks, about how we're going to respond to the initial Teacher Education Review that we've commissioned, and we've now published. So it's freely available, including all the recommendations, for everyone to see.

LIAM BARTLETT:

[Talks over] Yes, but-

MINISTER ROBERT:

[Talks over] But that’s going to be the Commonwealth focus.

LIAM BARTLETT:

Yes, but you said in a speech yesterday that if you knocked the 10 per cent bottom percentile of dud teachers out, you would get better results in the classroom. So how do we get rid of those teachers and at the same time attract better new ones?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, we train them. We have the opportunity for teacher education and training to lift the standard of  teachers that don't actually meet it, in the same way we do that with every single other profession. No profession should be treated in isolation. We should look to the opportunity to grow and enrich, and train, and improve all of our staff. And education is no different.

The vast majority of teachers are amazing, and what they do is extraordinary.

LIAM BARTLETT:

There's a new national curriculum coming out next month, Minister. What changes do you expect in that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, the Federal Government hasn’t approved a national curriculum, and nor has the Government of Western Australia. So Ministers met in February, we’re coming back again in April to review the drafts. ACARA, so the curriculum authority, has been going through a lot more consultation. But the sort of things we're expecting, the Commonwealth and indeed Western Australian Government, working with your very good Minister over there, is we want to see taught in years 9 and 10. We want to see mastery in mathematics. We think areas of humanity and social science is too packed, it's too busy. Teachers can't possibly teach all that. So trim down the size of that. And we want to see the Christian heritage as well as the great Indigenous heritage, and the current, modern, multicultural heritage of our nation, well respected, well understood, and well taught.

LIAM BARTLETT:

Minister, Thanks very much for your time this morning.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Liam, great to chat to you.