A few weeks ago at the Menzies Research Centre in Sydney, I set a new national target - for Australia’s school education performance to again be amongst the top group of nations by 2030.
Since that time, I have been asked repeatedly whether this target is actually achievable.
Today, I want to outline the reasons why I think it is, largely based on the turnaround successes of other nations, particularly the United Kingdom. If these other countries can turn around their school performance having been previously in decline, then so can we!
But there are also other reasons to be optimistic, including some potential green shoots that we are now starting to see in NAPLAN results – the product of our recent reforms.
Before discussing these reasons in detail, let me recap Australia’s recent school performance and the impetus behind the ambitious target I set a few weeks ago.
Over the past two decades, our school standards have declined not just against other nations, but in absolute terms.
The OECD’s PISA tests are the most authoritative international tests of the school performance of 15-year-olds around the developed world. They show that Australia has fallen from consistently being in the top group of nations to now being the middle of the OECD pack. We have dropped from 4th to 16th in reading, 8th to 17th in science, and 11th to 29th in maths.
A 15-year-old today is a full year of learning behind where the average 15-year-old was in 2000. In mathematics, they are a full 14 months behind, and 3 years behind the average 15-year-old in Singapore.
The decline has occurred across all bands of students’ performance: the top performers, the middle band and the lowest performers.
All this has occurred despite a 60 percent increase in real, per-student funding during that time.
Since becoming Education Minister just before Christmas last year, the decline in our school standards, despite the increase in our school funding, has been my central strategic concern when it comes to school’s policy.
Turning the standards decline around is the top priority for me because it is how we give every child a chance to be the best they can be, regardless of where they start. Moreover, it is also about protecting our greatest economic asset – the skills and character of the Australian workforce – into the future.
So I have set our ambition high: to once again be in the top group of nations by 2030. Anything less would do an injustice to the 4 million school students in Australia, who deserve the very best education in the world.
This week, I will meet with my State and Territory counterparts here in Melbourne at the first Education Ministers Meeting for this year, and the first under the new National Cabinet arrangements. At that meeting, I hope that we can agree on this ambition – and begin to map out the trajectory to reach it.
I know it won’t be easy, but why am I confident that we can do it if we focus our efforts?
There are three reasons.
First, Australia has been there before. We were consistently in the top group of nations educationally. Other countries would study our system to understand our success and try and replicate it.
The second reason, and most important, is that we have seen other countries achieve what we are setting out to do. That is, to reverse a decline and indeed substantially improve in a relatively short time.
Take Poland, for example. In the year 2000, Poland sat fifth last in the PISA reading rankings, with an average score that put Polish students more than 18 months behind their Australian peers. By 2018, Poland had vaulted into the top 10 nations, passing Australia, with Polish students now more than 3 months ahead of Australian students. This incredible improvement was powered by getting the basics right - a stronger core national curriculum, expanded preschool programs, improved teacher training, and national assessments and better accountability. Estonia, too, has seen a substantial lift in student outcomes over the past decade – rising from 13th in PISA reading performance in 2006 to 5th in 2018.
Countries like Canada sustain a level of high performance, and countries like Singapore and Hong Kong have made the jump from great to excellent. I mentioned earlier the outstanding mathematical success of Singapore in particular. These are remarkable success stories, but I want to draw attention to the UK as the country we can learn the most from. The UK has achieved a remarkable turnaround in school standards over the past decade. The UK’s story is the most relevant to us, not only because of the similarities between our countries, but because they have delivered a V-shaped PISA performance turnaround that we are now seeking to achieve.
In 2009, the UK hit a low point in its PISA reading performance, falling to the OECD average level, ranked 25th in the world – 16 places below Australia. In less than a decade, average PISA reading scores had fallen 30 points – equal to a year’s worth of learning. However, over the next 9 years, its performance steadily improved, and by 2018, the UK had jumped ahead of Australia in every domain – reading, maths and science.
How did it achieve this incredible result?
Well, it wasn’t through increased funding. In fact, according to the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UK’s real, per-child school funding fell by 9% between 2010 and 2020. (Not that we are planning to change our school funding increases, which are locked in until 2029).
Instead, they relentlessly focused on the core elements of high-performing school systems. Most of all, they brought in measures to improve quality teaching. This included expanding Teach First, the equivalent of Teach for Australia, from 180 participants in 2005 to more than 1,700 in 2019; diversifying pathways into teaching – such as apprenticeship models for the right candidates; and putting top schools, called ‘Teaching Schools’, at the heart of teacher training.
They overhauled the curriculum, focusing on two key elements of academic success: establishing the building blocks of literacy and numeracy early on; and enshrining high expectations for every child, with a stretching knowledge-based curriculum.
And they carefully increased autonomy for schools, while maintaining strong accountability mechanisms. The Government established new models of public schools – known as academies and free schools – which give Principals more control over critical school management questions, such as setting staff pay. Academies and free schools have grown over time, with 3 in 10 primary school students and 7 in 10 high school students now attending one of these schools.
Over the coming months, I’ll be looking more closely at what we can learn from the UK’s turnaround – and from the sustained success of other nations – in shaping our agenda for the next year.
Let me be clear: If the UK can have a V-shaped turnaround, we can too.
The third reason for confidence that we can achieve the 2030 target is that we have collectively spent more than a decade building the architecture for school improvement – an architecture we continue to refine — and we are starting to see green shoots of sustained improvement. We have NAPLAN, the Year 1 phonics check, and the Australian Curriculum, which we are reviewing this year. Public consultation on the proposed changes to the curriculum will open on Thursday, and ACARA CEO David de Carvalho will be addressing this summit later today. We will have a more streamlined, coherent and focused Australian Curriculum ready to be implemented from Term 1 next year. As the UK’s reform journey tells us, our Curriculum must set the standard high for what we expect from student learning.
We have established AERO, a new national evidence institute. We have better data and evidence than ever before about what works, and AERO will put this evidence at the fingertips of teachers around the country. We have locked in school funding which is agreed with every State and Territory. This funding is needs-based, fair and will continue to see record investment in our schools year after year.
We have seen some promising early signs that our reforms may have started to lift student results. The performance of our Year 3 students in NAPLAN has shifted upwards over the past few years. Since 2013, we have seen NAPLAN reading scores jump 13 points and numeracy scores 11 points. This is perhaps an indication that those important literacy and numeracy foundations of later school success are being built in the early years.
Two weeks ago, I announced a new critical element of our school agenda – the review of initial teacher education. This will build on the progress of the reforms we have implemented over the past 7 years, such as the Literacy and Numeracy test (or LANTITE) and accreditation of teaching degrees. This Review is central to our ambition as quality teaching is the single most important in-school driver of student outcomes.
This Review is led by Lisa Paul, our longest-serving Secretary of the Department of Education since Federation, and supported by an expert panel. The review has been asked to answer two fundamental questions: How can we improve the selection of our future teaching workforce? And how we can best prepare the next generation of teachers to be highly effective educators from day one in the classroom?
My hope is that the Review finds practical solutions to improving pathways into teaching, especially for mid-career professionals with expertise in subject areas where Australia currently has a critical shortage of teachers – particularly maths and science. I would also love to see a bigger role for the best teachers, principals and schools in training the next generation of teachers – just as we see in professions such as medicine.
Over the coming months, I’ll have more announcements on the agenda that will put us on the path to realising the 2030 goal of being back in the top group of nations.
Australia is a proud, clever nation. We perform so highly in so many domains, and we used to perform so highly in school education also.
I know we can get back there again and I look forward to working with you all on this vital issue.