Being our best: Returning Australia to the top group of education nations
My speech today is about school standards and academic performance, but before I begin, I want to address the issue of the many young women coming forward with their experiences of sexual assault while they were school students.
First, I want to acknowledge the bravery and strength of the young women who have come forward. Their voices have shone a light on an important issue and given it the attention that it deserves. They have alerted us to situations that are completely unacceptable. We must all redouble our efforts to ensure that girls and young women are safe and respected in schools.
It is up to all of us to tackle these issues together. Federal, states and territory governments, schools, teachers, parents and the wider community all have a role to play in changing attitudes and behaviours.
On Monday, our Government launched the third phase of the Stop it at the Start campaign, which encourages adults to ‘unmute’ themselves and take actions that will have a positive influence on the attitudes and behaviours of young Australians.
In the coming weeks, we will roll out new teaching materials on consent and respectful relationships through the Respect Matters program. And through the Australian Curriculum review this year, we will consider feedback on where we can improve the teaching of these issues in schools – understanding that schools and teachers are ultimately the best placed to determine age-appropriate teaching within the framework of the curriculum.
I will be working closely with my state and territory colleagues on this issue and to listen to those who are speaking out.
Today, however, I want to focus on another critical question in our schools – the question of school standards and how we can once again lift Australia into the top group of nations in school education attainment.
In 2019, the Education Ministers of every state and territory along with the then federal education minister came together to issue the Alice Springs Mparntwe Declaration.
The Declaration, the fourth of its kind, set out a clear ambition: "Our vision is for a world class education system that encourages and supports every student to be the very best they can be, no matter where they live or what kind of learning challenges they may face."
I have a long-standing deep commitment to this vision, and as the federal Minister for Education as of late last year, I commit myself and our government to this central aspiration: to give every individual the opportunity to reach their potential. To achieve this aspiration, we must focus on excellence as well as equity in education.
The Declaration explicitly includes the disadvantaged, but it is about all children reaching their potential. Our school system is there for every child.
This is about individual opportunity - to give each child a chance to be the best they can be - but it is also about our economy. Our greatest asset is the Australian workforce – the skills, intelligence, hard work and character of Australian workers. A world-class school system that strives for excellence will protect this advantage into the future, and lift the trajectory of our economic growth.
My argument today is that we are not yet living up to this aspiration of a world class education system set out in that Declaration where every child is reaching their potential. In fact, based on international benchmarks, we have moved further away from it over the last twenty years.
I want to take you through the evidence of this and outline where I believe we need to focus to lift school standards and realise the aspiration of that Declaration. There are many great reforms already in place, but more will need to be done.
We should set ourselves a new goal of being back amongst the world’s best within a decade.
We will only achieve this if we work together. The Australian Government does not run schools, and no state or sector can achieve this goal alone. My approach will always be to work collaboratively with those who share the ambition of a world-class education system that provides opportunities for every student.
I have spent two decades involved in schools policy in some form - from working with Dr Brendan Nelson when he was Education Minister, to assisting with some of the toughest schooling challenges in remote communities as Noel Pearson’s Deputy Director, to being a founder of Teach for Australia, and then in parliament, as a member of the Parliamentary Education Committee and as the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary looking after indigenous affairs.
I have learnt that there is no silver bullet in education. However, I have also learnt that there is good evidence of what works, and that if we are focused, amazing things can be achieved. This is about our children and our nation’s future so what can be more important!
Where I want to start the discussion today, however, is on school funding. I have watched or been involved in the funding debate for many years and I am pleased that the school funding wars are now over.
Funding for schools has increased by 38% in real per capita terms over the last decade. The School Resourcing Standard model for funding schools has been agreed by the Commonwealth with all State and Territory governments.
Since 2013, the Australian Government’s school funding has increased in nominal terms by 80% to a record $23.4 billion, and we have committed a further 40% increase to reach $32.8 billion by 2029. From 2013 to 2029, government schools funding will increase the most by 193%, catholic schools by 109% and independent schools by 161%.
The federal funding is locked in and agreed through to the end of the decade. The states and territories will need to live up to their side of the bargain also, but with record funding to all schools, our focus is now on how to use the money not how much schools should get or the distribution between the sectors.
I mentioned at the outset that over the last two decades, international benchmarks suggest we are moving away from the ministerial aspiration of a world class education system. Our standards have dropped in both absolute terms and relative to other countries.
Consider the evidence, as provided by the most authoritative international assessments: the OECD’s PISA tests of 15 year olds.
Since 2000, Australia’s performance in reading has declined by 26 points, or the equivalent of nine months of schooling.
In maths, we have fallen 33 points since 2003, or by 14 months of schooling.
In science, we have fallen 24 points since 2006, or by 11 months of schooling.
This decline has been consistent across different groups of students. Our top students are less likely to score in the highest achievement bands and our lower performing students are more likely to have fallen below the proficient standard. The problem is not a growing divide in student results; it is a decline in performance across the board.
As our student results have fallen, we have dropped behind more and more countries.
In the early 2000s, we ranked 4th internationally in reading, 8th in science, and 11th in maths. By 2018, we had fallen to 16th in reading, 17th in science and 29th in maths.
We are being significantly outcompeted in our neighbourhood. For example, Australian students are now, on average, about one and a half years behind Singaporean students when it comes to reading and science, and three years behind on maths.
But it is not just the Asian tigers that have leapt ahead of us. The UK, Canada and New Zealand – all countries we used to outperform in education - are now ahead of us on all three assessment domains.
If this was our economy, this decline would be a national topic of conversation. Perhaps the lack of attention is because the decline has been gradual rather than sudden. But when viewed over a twenty-year period, it is profound – and it will have consequences for our long-term productivity and competitiveness if we cannot lift our education performance.
Two other international tests do not show quite the decline as PISA. TIMMS (which covers mathematics and science) and PIRLS (which covers reading literacy) have shown slight upticks recently. Our performance in TIMSS in 2019, especially in Year 8, was promising and perhaps an early indicator of a turnaround. I hope this is the case.
There is no consensus as to why our performance has declined over the last twenty years.
It is certainly not because of a decline in funding. As outlined, our funding has gone up considerably in real per capita terms while at the same time our standards have declined.
Nor is it class sizes which have steadily declined over the past few decades and are now considerably smaller than other countries that significantly outperform us. Moreover, many of our schools are now brand new, with facilities that older generations look at with envy.
But these things don’t have as much of an impact as what happens inside the classroom. The quality of the teaching, the rigour of the curriculum and the discipline in the classroom matter most.
So how do we get Australia back to being amongst the best in the world?
The first step has been done; state and territory ministers, along with the former federal minister, have agreed the ambition to be world class.
But we should go further.
We should set ourselves a 2030 target to be again amongst the top group of nations across the three major domains of reading, maths and science. We used to consistently be in the top group, which means we can get there again.
I will be taking this to the next Education Ministers Meeting in April.
Such a target would then become a guiding principle and place urgency to the task.
Ten years is a reasonable, while ambitious, timeframe to again be amongst the top nations. By achieving the goal, we would be living up to the aspiration of giving Australian students the opportunity to achieve their best.
We have many building blocks already in place to achieve the target.
For example, there are already great initiatives in place across a variety of areas and I commend the state education ministers and Minister Tehan and Birmingham for these. This includes accreditation of initial teacher education courses, the Year 1 phonics check, the national unique student identifier, a new education evidence institute, and many more reforms.
I will continue to work with the state and territory ministers to implement these initiatives. They will make a considerable impact.
I will also prioritise new reform areas in the months ahead to accelerate our progress.
Building on our progress to date, my focus and the Government’s focus will be on three areas: quality teaching, particularly initial teacher education, curriculum and assessment. In addition, I will be leading a continued focus on indigenous students, particularly those in remote communities, whose level of educational attainment remains catastrophically poor.
Let me start with quality teaching.
We have tens of thousands of passionate teachers who transform our children’s lives, giving them skills that they seem to magically acquire. After parents, they are frequently the most important person in a child’s life, and in some cases, the most important person.
Quality teaching is by far the most important in-school factor in determining student performance. If we get this right, we will achieve our goal.
Consider: a student with a teacher in the top 10% of effectiveness achieves in a half a year what a student with a teacher in the bottom 10 percent achieves in a year. That is, a good teacher has twice the impact of a poorer teacher on student learning.
Most of the challenge of quality teaching lies with the states and the non-government education authorities who employ the teachers and run the schools. They manage the issues associated with salaries, conditions, hiring, and firing. There is still much work to do on this front to better reward the brilliant teachers and to more easily let go the ones who are better suited in alternative careers.
The federal government’s main leverage over quality teaching is its funding of universities to deliver Initial Teacher Education courses, and through the provision of high-quality teacher professional development.
Our Initial Teacher Education courses play two central roles - selecting the future teacher workforce and then training that workforce.
Top-performing education systems set high standards for who becomes a teacher. They know and apply Michael Barber’s maxim that, ‘the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’.
Finland, for example, rigorously assesses potential teachers through standard school leaver exams, additional tests of critical thinking, and mock teaching activities. Only one in 10 applicants make the grade. Singapore has a similar level of selectiveness.
Once selected, top-performing systems ensure that teachers are rigorously trained, equipped with the skills, confidence and knowledge to be highly effective from day one in the classroom. The best ITE courses are focused on practical capabilities, essential content knowledge, and proven pedagogical strategies rather than fads. For example, primary teachers in Singapore are rigorously trained in systematic and explicit teaching of grammar – a key to great literacy teaching.
In Australia, we have made real inroads into the task of raising standards in the selection and training of our teachers in the last few years.
Guided by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) recommendations, every initial teacher education course must now be assessed and accredited. This is a big breakthrough that over time will be fundamental to improving student outcomes.
Further, every teaching student now sits a test before graduation to ensure they have personal literacy and numeracy skills that are in the top 30 per cent of the adult population. If they do not pass the test, they cannot enter the classroom to teach.
In addition, we have invested in Teach for Australia, a proven model that I helped found, that supports an accelerated pathway into the classroom for top graduates from non-teaching faculties.
We have made good progress, but there is still room for improvement.
We are still not consistently attracting the best students into teaching.
Moreover, some teachers are still graduating from their courses insufficiently prepared to teach in a classroom either because there has been too much focus on theory at the expense of practice, or because evidence-based teaching methods are not taught. I hear this consistently from school principals and graduates alike.
The OECD data backs this up: teachers in Australia feel less well prepared than the OECD average across curriculum content, pedagogy, managing student behaviour and monitoring student development.
La Trobe University has recently offered a short course in teaching phonics to existing teachers. A thousand teachers have signed up already. It is great that they offer this course and teachers are keen to learn, but it is an indictment on some education faculties that they were not taught this in the first place given how clear the evidence is.
The next evolution of reforms is needed, to build from the TEMAG reforms. I will soon be launching a review to help shape such reforms. This review will investigate where there is still further work to do to ensure that all ITE courses are high-quality and adequately prepare our teachers to be effective from day one.
This has been talked about for almost two decades now, going back to the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, so l will be impatient with education faculties that are not implementing evidence-based practices. It is the kids that miss out!
I will also be looking for mechanisms to enable school principals and expert teachers to have a greater input over the content and delivery of teacher education courses in a similar way that practitioners and employers are in medicine and law.
We need to find additional pathways to attract outstanding students to teaching, including talented mid-career professionals.
Twenty years ago, when our standards were higher, a person could be trained to become a teacher through a one-year Diploma. Now it takes a minimum of a two year Masters. It would be a rare mid-career person who could afford to take two years off work. Shorter pathways are required.
We need a system that recognises that many professionals have deep expertise and relevant experience that would make them highly impactful teachers. I would love to see more engineers and accountants, for example, using their mathematical expertise to help us address our critical shortage of maths teachers.
In the end, the quality of teaching is the most important factor in student outcomes. It is my most important priority when it comes to schooling.
My second area of focus will be on the Australian Curriculum, which is currently under review by ACARA.
This is an opportunity for us to take a step change improvement and put us on the pathway to again being amongst the top nations.
The Alice Springs Declaration sets the objective of ‘promoting [a] world-class curriculum’. It is the right objective: without a world-class curriculum, we will not achieve world-class learning outcomes.
The curriculum sets the standard for the student outcomes we expect – and so our curriculum must reflect our aspiration to be among the best in the world again.
This can be done by benchmarking our curriculum standards against top performing countries like Singapore and using this analysis to set our expectations for student learning.
Education Ministers have given ACARA the job of refining, updating and decluttering the content across the current curriculum. By the start of next year, we will have a more streamlined, coherent, focused Australian Curriculum available to be implemented in our schools.
We will not bridge the three-year gap between us and Singapore overnight, but my hope would be that our revised national curriculum will put us on a pathway over the next decade that will see Australia rise to the top tier of global reading, maths and science standards.
Within the national curriculum content, I would like to see greater focus put towards the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and civics and citizenship. These are the building blocks which underpin other content areas and set individuals up for a greater contribution in our society and democracy.
I will have more to say on these content areas in the months ahead including how we can use technology better (particularly in maths teaching) to make up for teacher shortages in particular areas.
We will need a renewed push in reading where too many are transitioning to secondary school without the fundamental reading skills.
We need to improve the knowledge that young people have of our society and our democracy.
My third priority area will be assessment.
John Hattie’s research tells us that effective assessment and feedback influences student achievement as much as prior cognitive ability – that’s a significant effect that should make us sit up and pay attention. It’s clear that assessment empowers teachers – putting student data at their fingertips to personalise learning plans and address areas of weakness.
This is why our national annual assessment of student progress - NAPLAN - is so important.
We must protect NAPLAN, and not give in to those who call for less accountability and less information for teachers and parents.
At the same time, we will continue to refine the NAPLAN tests to ensure they are optimised to provide the information that schools, teachers, parents and policymakers need to lift school standards. The shift to online assessment will be completed in 2022, which will help deliver results faster. This year, we will assess other opportunities to adjust the tests or their implementation.
NAPLAN assessments must be supported by a range of other assessments. Great teachers use formative assessment on a daily or weekly basis to assess student learning and identify where more instruction and support is required.
We will do more to embed formative assessment in every classroom in the country. The Online Formative Assessment trial, initiated under the National Schools Reform Agreement, is being developed now.
This trial has great potential to increase the effectiveness of classroom teaching by making robust assessment quick and easy for teachers to regularly complete. It is critical that this trial delivers on its great promise, and I will be monitoring its progress closely and supporting its implementation.
I will also be looking into how we can develop a repository of proven assessment tools that teachers and parents can use, in classrooms and at home, to see how children are performing.
Finally, I will continue the Government’s priority on indigenous students, particularly those in remote areas. This has been a long term commitment of mine, as it has been for many Australians. There are no simple solutions, but I do think we can do more. I particularly want to see a greater focus on the early years so that kids don’t start school from behind.
School education is a topic that every person has experience with, a view on, and every Australian should have an interest in. We have all been through the schooling system and many of us have children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren still in the system.
Overall, our school system works well. But as a whole we can do better to ensure that we deliver on our ultimate goal of ensuring that every child reaches their potential.
I am optimistic that we can lift Australian school standards to put us among the world’s best education systems again. And, more importantly, I am confident that we know what it will take to achieve this goal.