Subject: Improving school standards.
LIAM BARTLETT: Followers of the education debate on so many levels over the past couple of years will know that our rankings have continued to slide and we are getting dumber, well our kids are getting dumber, so I guess that means we’re getting dumber. We’re not quite the dunce but we are certainly getting dumber. There’s no doubt about that, if you believe any of the rankings and the stats. Well today, the Federal Education Minister has admitted that Australia is going to need 10 years, a full decade, to address that dismal school performance and rejoin the world's top 10 education nations. The Education Minister is Alan Tudge and he joins us on the program. Minister, good morning to you.
ALAN TUDGE: G’day Liam.
LIAM BARTLETT: Minister, I find this really interesting because school funding is not really in question here. That's been rising over the past two decades. But our rankings, as you well know and most of our listeners, especially in reading, in science and maths, has gone backward among OECD nations. So, what are we doing wrong?
ALAN TUDGE: That's exactly right, Liam. While our school funding has gone up very considerably over the last two decades, by about 60 per cent in real per capita terms it's gone up, but at the same time, our standards and our rankings have declined. And our standards have declined relative to ourselves as much as relative to other countries. And what I mean by that is, a 15-year-old today would be about a year behind what a 15-year-old was 20 years ago in Australia. So it’s slipped in absolute terms as well as relative to other countries. And it's a really significant issue. And there should be more attention paid on this and in part, I don’t think there is because the slide has been gradual rather than dramatic. But when you look at it over the course of two decades, it's quite profound, nevertheless.
LIAM BARTLETT: That’s significant over just 20 years.
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, that's exactly right. So what I was calling on today was to say, well, we've actually got to stop and take a look at this and set ourselves a new aspiration to be, again, amongst the top group of education nations by 2030. We used to be there, we were consistently in that top group of four or five education nations, which means that we can get there again, but we've got to set that objective and map out a plan to get there.
LIAM BARTLETT: But how do we do it? And please don't tell me you're going to convene another committee. I mean, where do we start this? In a classroom? Do we do it with the teaching methods, with the standards? You know, where is it?
ALAN TUDGE: I think there's three areas that we can do better at. One is to be able to consistently attract the best into teaching. Two, to train them better, particularly in those teacher education faculties at universities. And three, to support the teachers in the classroom with a world class curriculum and strong assessment tools as well. The curriculum becomes very important because in essence, that sets your standards, right? And we're doing a review of the national curriculum at the moment. And I'm suggesting that we effectively benchmark ourselves against, say, Singapore, which is one of the leading countries, and compare ourselves to Singapore and say, well, we've got to get to that standard so how do we lift our curriculum standards over time in order to reach Singapore in, say, a decade's time?
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, that's not a bad idea. So instead of reinventing the entire wheel, we look at Singapore's curriculum and say, right, let's put ours right alongside it.
ALAN TUDGE: Correct. So that's what I'm suggesting. Now, the reason I picked Singapore is because certainly in mathematics, their 15 year olds are three years in front of Australian 15 year olds. So it’s quite incredible.
LIAM BARTLETT: Okay. But then how do you breed all the tiger mums at the same time?
ALAN TUDGE: So, I mean, the issue is it's not just Singapore, though. I mean, it's some of the countries that we’d traditionally compare ourselves to - New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada who are now beating us as well. So we should at least be keeping up with those countries, but equally, we should be keeping up with the countries in our neighbourhood too, across the board - and I'm not talking about just for the very bright students here - I'm talking about for all students because we want every single kid to be able to achieve their absolute potential, no matter where you start from or where you are in the class, you should be able to achieve your absolute best over the course of your schooling.
LIAM BARTLETT: Can I just be a little bit cheeky here? And I don’t want to get into the debate about university funding, I think that's separate. But over those past 20 years that you're talking about, there is no doubt that universities and institutions, teaching, colleges, right across the country, the standards, the entry standards, have lowered. Are we seeing a product of this? Does that mean the teaching standards coming out the other end of the pipe are lower?
ALAN TUDGE: It's hard to answer the second question. Certainly on the first question, only 30 or 40 years ago, Liam, schools used to attract particularly the very best women into teaching because there were fewer career opportunities for women back then. Now there's more career opportunities. And so teaching degrees are competing with many other degrees and professions for those top people in Australia to go into. One of the things I think we can do better at, though, is start to attract more mid-career people into teaching and it might be people who might have been an engineer or an accountant, or they've made a bit of money but now they want to give back and we should make it easier for those people to be able to get into the classroom, bring their experience. At the moment, one of the real impediments, I think, to that occurring is that teacher education degrees are now a minimum of a two-year master's degree. And I just don't think you’ll get that many mid-career people taking two years out of the career to go into teaching. So let's look at whether or not we can fast-track those people. And that would certainly help in mathematics where we have massive teacher shortages.
LIAM BARTLETT: Yeah, that's interesting concept. Minister, thanks for spending time with us this morning.
ALAN TUDGE: Absolute pleasure, Liam.