Subjects: Improving school standards
HEIDI MURPHY: Now, as I mentioned a review into teaching in the education sector is being flagged by the Federal Minister for Education. This is in a speech he delivered to the Menzies Research Centre today. At the centre of the problem facing is a decline and it’s been a steady decline over quite a number of years. 20 years in fact, a decline in Australian student achievement. We our students are, on average, about three years behind their counterparts in Singapore when it comes to maths and one and a half years behind in reading. It’s been a point of contention for quite some time that the teaching courses could be to blame, or the curriculum is to blame. Or as several callers told us at the very start of the program back at three o’clock, Leah and Mary, that the curriculum is just too crowded with too many other things and that’s the problem. Like, it’s not a simple thing to fix. The man with the job of trying to fix it, in fact the man who says he’d like to see Australian students up at the top of the ranking lists of nations by about 2030, is the Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge. He’s on the line now. Thanks for your time this afternoon, Minister.
ALAN TUDGE: G’day Heidi.
HEIDI MURPHY: Is there a quick, simple, easy fix?
ALAN TUDGE: I don’t think there is any quick, simple, easy fix and there’s no one thing that’s going to fix this. But it is a problem and our standards have declined quite steadily over the last 20 years and this is despite the fact that we’ve had record funding going into schools. So, what I’ve suggested today is we set ourselves a new target that by 2030 we get back into that top group of education nations.
HEIDI MURPHY: Well it’s nice to have an aspiration but how do we get there?
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, I think there’s a few things that we do need to do. I think that firstly we need to consistently attract the best into teaching. Second, we’ve got to train them well with evidence-based practices which we don’t always do. And then I think thirdly we’ve got to support them with really world class curriculum and assessment materials. Now that does include, as one of your listeners was saying, decluttering the curriculum because I do think that’s been one of the problems, is that we do ask our schools sometimes to do too much. And consequently, we don’t have as much focus on the absolute basics of the reading, the maths and the science and the civics. So that decluttering exercise is very important as well and that’s what we’re going to be undertaking this year.
HEIDI MURPHY: You say trained in evidence-based practices but isn’t one of the issues that there’s evidence-based practices that approach things from vastly different sides of things? The phonics debate has evidence based on one side and evidence based on the other side. How do you decide?
ALAN TUDGE: No, I disagree with that. I mean, that's a good example on phonics. And for your listeners, phonics is just you know, you learn to read by sounding out the letters.
HEIDI MURPHY: By sounding out the words, yeah.
ALAN TUDGE: And that’s what phonics is. And for a long time, many of the teacher education courses stopped teaching that way of learning to read.
HEIDI MURPHY: Because there was evidence that there was a better way to do it or enough evidence.
ALAN TUDGE: Well, there wasn’t, and the evidence is now in that many kids need phonics to learn to read. We've had a national reading enquiry which said this back in 2005. The United States had a similar reading enquiry back in the early 2000s. All of the educational literature will now say it’s particularly important for the least advantaged kids to be able to learn to read. And, you know, one of the things which I discovered actually was, La Trobe University just recently introduced a short course in phonics for teachers who are already in the classroom to go back and do that short course to learn how to teach phonics. They’ve got a thousand teachers who have signed up for that short course, which is terrific. It’s great that those teachers want to learn that. But in some respects, Heidi, it's an indictment on the universities that they weren't teaching the practise of phonics in the first place. And so, these are exactly the types of things which I am talking about, where the evidence is in and we to ensure that those student teachers are learning those things.
HEIDI MURPHY: So, what do you go through, do you go through an audit every single university course and cross and tick things?
ALAN TUDGE: That's exactly right. Now you do that through having standards and accreditation of teacher education courses, which is exactly what we’re doing right now. And we need to ensure that those teacher education courses are up to scratch. Now, we have this with other degrees. You know, you can imagine with a medical degree, there's some very high standards you’ve got to achieve if you're going to be out there treating people. Same with a law degree, you've got to live up to professional standards or an architecture degree. And it should be exactly the same with a teaching degree. It is just as important as all of those. Particularly when talking about the future education prospects of our children.
HEIDI MURPHY: But is there agreement on what that accreditation process should be, on what the measures should be? I mean, I know there's been the arguments around maths curriculum just in the last couple of days, suggestions put forward by curriculum reviewers rejected by a curriculum board. My point is, it's like herding cats.
ALAN TUDGE: There's always going to be some debate in relation to the best approach. But sometimes the evidence is in, and certainly in relation to teaching the phonics, that is the case, that it has to be one element of the reading tools that you have.
ALAN TUDGE: Now, in relation to maths and other subject areas, let's have that debate. The important thing is, though, that we set ourselves the high benchmark to be up there with the other top performing countries, and indeed, Heidi, up there with where we used to be 20 years ago, because I'll tell you, we haven't just declined our standards relative to other countries in the world, but our standards have declined relative to ourselves.
HEIDI MURPHY: There’s been a big drop off.
ALAN TUDGE: There's been a big drop off, such that, for example, a 15-year-old today is about a year behind what a 15-year-old was 20 years ago. It's quite remarkable. Now, you know, we don't talk too much about this, which in part I think because the decline has been slow and steady each year, but when you when you look back at it, it's been quite a profound change. It’s something which we should be concerned about.
HEIDI MURPHY: Do you have any concerns around the quality of teaching courses or the quality of students getting into teaching courses and then into classrooms as teachers?
ALAN TUDGE: We certainly need to consistently attract the best people into teaching and have high quality teacher education courses.
HEIDI MURPHY: That sounds like a very careful answer.
ALAN TUDGE: I think that we can do better in relation to the teacher education courses and how people are trained. I also think, Heidi, that we need to be better at attracting people, particularly who have maths skills, because we have real shortages in the classrooms at the moment in relation to teachers who have got maths skills. That's a well-known problem. So, one of the things that are flagged today in my speech was can we make it easier for mid-career professionals who might have, say, been an engineer or an accountant or another profession which has a strong mathematics background and fast track them into the classroom.
HEIDI MURPHY: Don’t we already have that? Or we have it in Victoria?
ALAN TUDGE: We have some of this already. But over the years, teacher degrees have actually gone to being a minimum of a two year master's degree. So, it becomes a bigger impediment for a mid-year- sorry, for a mid-career professional to go into it.
HEIDI MURPHY: That's right. It used to just be the one year. Yeah.
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, versus it used to actually be a nine-month course, you know, 15, 20 years ago, a nine-month diploma. Now, it’s a minimum of a two-year masters. So, it just becomes an impediment for a mid-career person to have to give up two years of earning a salary, basically, to go and retrain to go back into the classroom. I think we can go back to having a faster course for those mid-career people, take advantage of the experience which they've got, teach them the practices of teaching and get them into the classrooms.
HEIDI MURPHY: You know, one of the other solutions will just be to pay teachers a lot more. I'm sure there'll be an argument for that.
ALAN TUDGE: I think, certainly at the federal level, we don't govern that. That's determined by the states and territories or the Catholic and independent schools, respectively. But when you look at the data compared to overseas, compared to other countries overseas and particularly to the OECD countries, where on average, the teacher salaries are pretty good in Australia compared to OECD countries. Where we fall short actually, is the differential between the beginning salaries and what you can end up with. So it's quite interesting. And my argument would be that there are some absolutely brilliant teachers out there, and we all know of them, and we all want to keep them for as long as possible in the classrooms and we should be rewarding those at a higher level.
HEIDI MURPHY: We’ll just make sure they know how to teach phonics when they're in there, not whatever they agree with.
ALAN TUDGE: If they are the brilliant classroom teachers, I'm sure that they know how to teach phonics because they’ll be transforming kids’ lives, and we have thousands of such teachers.
HEIDI MURPHY: Now, you spoke earlier of clutter in the curriculum and needing to strip it back to some basics: maths, English, I think you said civics in there as well. There is a big push and I think a pretty passionate push to bring in consent training, some sort of consent program, into the school curriculum. I assume you would support that?
ALAN TUDGE: I do support that. There's already in Victoria, sex education, respectful relationship education which the State Government runs. But I can confirm that, also, that we’ve been developing our materials which will be launching in the next few weeks which add to that. It’s called Respect Matters, and it covers both primary and secondary. It talks about respectful relationships and friendships. It talks about abuse. It does talk about consent and decision making as well. So those materials will become available over the next couple of weeks, and I think there’s some very good materials there which will complement the existing curriculum at the moment.
HEIDI MURPHY: And that'll go into private schools as well?
ALAN TUDGE: It'll be available for all schools. Ultimately, though, they'll choose which ones they would like to put in place, but we would hope they'll take advantage of these materials.
HEIDI MURPHY: Alright. Thank you very much for your time this afternoon.