Subjects: Improving school standards; Respect Matters Program; Sex Education in Schools; Jenkins Inquiry.
FRAN KELLY: The Morrison Government will set an ambitious 2030 target to return Australian classrooms to the top of the world rankings in reading, maths and science. The Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, will outline the plan in a speech today, which will also flag a review of teacher training, to try and reverse a 20-year decline in student learning. The national and state education curriculums have been put into sharp focus this week after more than 30,000 people signed a petition calling for education on sexual consent to be introduced earlier into our schools.
Alan Tudge is the Federal Education Minister. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
ALAN TUDGE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Well, as I mentioned, the curriculum is very much in the news at the moment, in light of the discussion around sexual consent education. I’ll come to that in a moment, but let’s go to the back to basics approach you’re talking about. You want to return Australian pupils to the top of the class in three major subjects – reading, mathematics and science. This decline’s been underway for a lot of years now; I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been talking to Education Ministers about it. How are you going to do this by 2030? If you’re talking about attracting and training better teachers, how are you going to turbo charge this?
ALAN TUDGE: Yeah, thanks Fran. I mean, first of all, we actually have to set this ambitious target. That’s important so that we’ve got a goal to aspire to. Now, Australia used to always be amongst the top group of nations, educationally, up until about 15 or 20 years ago. But despite the massive increase in funding over this time, we’ve actually seen standards decline, both in absolute terms and also relative to other countries. So, let’s set ourselves the target to start with. And then I think there’s three areas that I plan on focussing on. One being consistently attracting the best into teaching. Two being training them well and using the best evidence-based practices there. And three being supporting those teachers with world-class curriculum and assessment tools, so that they can teach in the most effective manner as well.
FRAN KELLY: And how are you going to do something there that’s different? I mean, again, the number of times federal governments in the last decade and more have come forward with packages for- to attract better teachers and it’s still not happening. So how are you going to do it? Are you going to pay them more for instance?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, we’ve already got some very good initiatives in place. For example, over the last two or three years there’s some new entry standards for teachers. There’s initial teacher education accreditation that’s been put in place. We’ve got things like the phonics check now in place as well. And I’m confident that those things will start to have an impact over the years ahead and on some measures you already see a slight increase, but then we need to go further than that as well. I’m particularly concerned, Fran, with the lack of teachers with maths skills. We’ve had a real shortage in that area and so I would like to see, for example, some mechanisms to be able to fast-track mid-career people who might have been engineers or accountants in the past, to get them into the classrooms and bring their maths skills to bear. We can also use technology better. I think that the technology - the online programs are so much better these days, particularly in maths, and they can also, of course, support the teachers in the classroom.
FRAN KELLY: So, again, though, how are you going to entice those mid-career people who are already working in STEM areas to teaching? Are you going to pay them more? Are you going to pay them commensurate with where they might be paid now in their careers?
ALAN TUDGE: From the federal level, we don't obviously set the salaries, that's done by the states and territories, the Independent and Catholic schools.
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] No, but you're setting the target, you're going to have to provide something to achieve it.
ALAN TUDGE: I certainly have always had the view that the most brilliant teachers should be paid more. Where we can have an impact at the federal level is by looking at those initial teacher education courses. At the moment, we've now got a minimum of a two-year program, which is often a disadvantage for a mid-career person…
FRAN KELLY: Too long.
ALAN TUDGE: … to take two years out of their career. Now it used to only be one year, for example. So why can't we look at that again, particularly if you've already got a lot of skills in the workplace and fast track you into the classroom? I think that's something very practical that we could look at.
FRAN KELLY: Can I go to the other issue that's here in terms of calls for changes to the curriculum and is around the issue of sexual consent and teaching of sexual consent? There's that petition I mentioned which has brought this problem out in the open. It was initially focussed on sexual assaults and harassment at private schools in Sydney's eastern suburbs, it’s broadened, it’s broadened significantly and quickly. Did you have any idea of the prevalence of this issue before this petition was launched?
ALAN TUDGE: To be honest, I didn't. And I've been quite shocked by the number of stories that I've been hearing about and reading about. And I really commend those young women and girls who have stepped up and acknowledged the problem here. I think this is a problem for the entire society. We have to take this seriously. We do already have some good materials in the classrooms, largely driven by the states and territories that is in the national curriculum. But I can confirm to you today, Fran, that the Federal Government will also be launching new curriculum materials in the weeks ahead called a Respect Matters Program. And it will go from prep all the way through to Year 12 and cover many of those issues around respectful relationships, around consent issues, around power and abuse. And so I think that will be an additional useful tool for schools and teachers as well.
FRAN KELLY: How engaged have you personally gone in this? Because we spoke to the New South Wales Schools Minister, Sarah Mitchell, earlier in the week. She'd had a meeting with the young woman behind this petition, Chanel Contos, who’s been driving this. Have you spoken or reached out to Chanel?
ALAN TUDGE: No, I haven't spoken with Chanel, I’ve obviously been following what she's been doing and what she has been saying. At the end of the day, the curriculum is set in the schools by the states and territories and the Catholic and Independent school sectors. However, as I said, the Federal Government, we’ve been developing up some very good materials which we’ll be launching over the next couple of weeks called Respect Matters. And I think that’ll be a useful addition, which really covers off on some of those things we've been talking about over the last few weeks and some of the things that people like Chanel have been calling for.
FRAN KELLY: There's a problem with the national curriculum, as far as I can tell. I mean, I'm no specialist in this area, but as I understand it, it's there for all the states. But there's a lot of leeway for states and schools. They don't have to teach the curriculum in a fixed way. They don't have to teach all of them. How confident are you or are you happy with the way the states and the different school sectors are tackling this topic? Have you ever had a good look at it? I mean, it's not compulsory.
ALAN TUDGE: We do have this national curriculum in place and that was introduced about ten years ago under the Rudd and Gillard governments. And that sets the broad framework and guidelines and standards. But then it's ultimately up to the states and territories and those Independent and Catholic schools as to how that is implemented and rolled out on the ground. Now ...
FRAN KELLY: That's the status quo. And for instance, sex education in Queensland schools is not compulsory, as I understand it. A spokesman from the Education Department told us it's primarily up to parents and carers to educate children about sexuality and relationships. Now, I'm sure that's not how it goes in all schools, but as the Federal Minister would you - will you commit to try to drive a greater commitment from the states and territories?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, I would certainly like to see these topics taught in schools. Clearly, parents are the most important people in a child's life in terms of dealing with some of these very sensitive matters, but I think it can and should be taught in schools, in terms of respectful relationships, in terms of issues such as abuse and decision making processes, what the laws are in relation to consent, which is vitally important to be taught. Queensland does have a program, I do know that. How widely that is rolled out in each individual school, you’re best to speak to the state education minister in relation to that.
FRAN KELLY: There's been, along with the 30,000 signatures on that petition, there’s also close to 3,000 accounts for mostly young women about their sexual encounters, described really as sexual assaults, many of them, during their school years. I'm not sure if you've read them, but I wonder if you agree with Briony Scott, the principle of Wenona Girls School, who told us on this program this week she wants, on the basis of that, a national inquiry into our schools, the Human Rights Commission involved. Is that a good idea?
ALAN TUDGE: I didn't hear that interview earlier in the week, Fran, so I'd like to go back and read the transcript of that to see what she's actually calling for ...
FRAN KELLY: Well, that's what she called for.
ALAN TUDGE: And I’d like just to understand the details in relation to that. I have been very shocked by the accounts which have been brought to the public's attention over the last couple of weeks. There’s clearly an issue there. And it's the responsibility of all of us, Fran, right across the community to be able to deal with these issues. Schools alone can’t solve the problem. It's a community-wide issue, and that's why we have a broader community-wide program which we've just launched the next phase of that, the Stop it at the Start. And you'll see those ads on the television.
FRAN KELLY: Okay.
ALAN TUDGE: But it's also part of the reason why we have these additional new materials which have been rolling out through schools as well.
FRAN KELLY: In terms of a society-wide issue, as you mentioned, a Four Corners report in November focussed on the power imbalance between men and women in Parliament House. That program revealed a consensual affair you had with a staffer in 2017 for which you've expressed regret. She's currently pursuing a workplace bullying claim. We now have a major review of the workplace culture in Parliament. In the months since that program, have you considered your behaviour, the atmosphere for women in your office and in Parliament more broadly?
ALAN TUDGE: I've said quite a lot on this topic last year, and I don't have any more to say on that particular topic, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Do you understand and agree the need for a major review of workplace culture in Federal Parliament?
ALAN TUDGE: I think the Prime Minister’s been very clear in relation to this, that we want to have better standards and better workplace cultures in Parliament House for the hundreds and hundreds of people who work there. And it’s indeed why we've got the Jenkins inquiry in place now, she's the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. She'll do a very thorough job and report back to the Government and the Parliament later this year.
FRAN KELLY: So you agree it's needed, though?
ALAN TUDGE: I think it's a very important step. And to be able to understand what the issues are and if we can make the place better, then of course, that is a good thing.
FRAN KELLY: Alan Tudge, thank you very much for joining us.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks very much, Fran.