Roaring back: My priorities for schools as students return to classrooms
Today, I would like to discuss school education in Australia and how we can not only minimise the learning loss from lockdowns but set a new trajectory for student outcomes in this country.
I want to outline how we can make sure schools roar back to make up lost ground, and perhaps more importantly, put in place a long term plan to return our school performance back to at least where it used to be 20 years ago.
I will take you through that plan and the analysis which underpins it. First, though, I want to recognise the immediate challenges we are facing.
Supporting young Australians out of the pandemic
We are on the precipice of the majority of Australian school students returning to business as usual.
On Monday every student in NSW will be able to get back to face-to-face learning. Some students in Victoria returned this week, while others will go back next week. By November 5, all Australian students should be back in the classroom, in line with the National Plan.
The vaccination take-up among 12-15 year-olds has been really impressive – currently sitting at above 60 per cent first dose. I am confident that we’ll soon also have vaccine approval for 5 to 11 year-olds, but we’ll wait on the medical advice there.
With schools about to reopen, it is a good time to step back and consider the impact of school closures.
Students in Melbourne haven’t had an uninterrupted term since 2019 and have been out of school for 220 days since the beginning of the pandemic. Every state has had learning interruptions in one way or another.
Every time states have closed schools, teachers have quickly pivoted to online learning, parents have shuffled work schedules to help their children through remote learning. I know the sacrifices Australians have made, and continue to make.
We should all take heart from the NAPLAN results released in August this year. They showed that after a year of disruptions, Australian students had not fallen behind — on average. That’s a testament to their resilience, and to the hard work of teachers and parents.
I remain concerned, as do many others, that these headline results don’t tell us the full story.
For many kids, remote schooling has been exceptionally hard. The Grattan Institute’s research tells us that the learning gap widens for disadvantaged students during school closures.
And we know that the impact of school closures and lockdowns is felt far beyond school results. The mental health impact has been devastating, particularly in Melbourne.
Community sport, the lifeblood of so many young people, is disrupted. School formals cancelled. Graduations and Awards nights done online. These are rites of passage, precious points in time that cannot be rescheduled.
So how can we help young Australians as they return to face-to-face learning?
There are a few crucial immediate priorities.
Mental health supports are essential and we have made record investments in this area.
When it comes to addressing learning loss, NSW and Victoria have both invested in tutoring programs to help students quickly catch-up. NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, tells me that 99% of NSW schools are now offering tutoring support to their 3 students, which will be continued next year. I am pleased that our record funding for schools - $23.4b this year – assists these states to put in place learning catch-up strategies.
Going forward, perhaps the most important thing will be keeping schools open.
State governments and non-government school authorities are well-placed to manage these issues and already have plans in place. The Australian Health protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has also released guidelines that schools can employ to keep their community safe. Importantly, the AHPPC says schools “should open and remain open whenever possible.”
Earlier this week, Dr Nick Coatsworth and Catherine Bennett – two of our nation’s leading medical experts – set out a way for schools to remain open when a student has tested positive, based on the successful Danish model. It involves testing students who are close contacts, but crucially does not exclude them from the learning environment.
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute also says schools should be opened safely and remain open with “closure only under exceptional circumstances”.
The plan to improve school performance
Beyond the short term, we must ensure our schools can roar back next year and be on a pathway to higher standards in the years ahead.
The challenge is not just to address learning losses of the past 18 months from COVID, but also the decline in school standards we have seen over the past 20 years.
Over the past two decades, despite a 60 percent increase in real per student funding, our school performance has gone backwards in absolute terms and versus other nations.
According to the OECD’s PISA tests, the average 15-year-old today is 12 months behind in their learning from the average 15-year-old in the year 2000.
In mathematics the slide is even greater at 14 months of lost learning.
When ranked against other nations, we have slid from being consistently in the top group of education performers to now being in the middle.
It is imperative that we not only halt this decline, but reverse it – to achieve a V-shaped recovery in our education performance.
There are three pillars to our plan.
- First, what students are taught. We must strengthen the national curriculum and lift our expectations for student learning, to match the best school systems around the world.
- Second, how students are taught. The evidence is conclusive about which teaching methods have the greatest impacts on student learning, and we must ensure these are used in every classroom in Australia.
- Third, the environment in which students are taught. We need to confront the facts on Australia’s increasingly disruptive and disorderly classroom behaviour, and ensure students have the calm, orderly environments in which they learn best.
What students are taught, how they are taught, and the environment in which they are taught.
Why these three priorities?
Because that’s what the research shows matters most in student outcomes. A Deloitte analysis commissioned by my Department shows that curriculum, teaching practice and classroom environment account for more than 75 per cent of the in-school influence on student performance.
In addition, these three areas offer significant room for improvement, with specific opportunities in each one and clear roles for the Commonwealth to take.
1. What students are taught: the national curriculum
Improving school standards starts with what children are taught. The national curriculum sets learning standards as it articulates our expectations of what students will learn and when.
It is also critical in determining attitudes and values.
I have previously made it clear that I am disappointed by the draft national curriculum published by the independent Australian Curriculum Authority (ACARA).
It does not increase standards, it has a negative view of our history, and is a ridiculously long and unwieldy document at 3,500 pages.
Put simply, I would not support it.
There were many areas in the ACARA draft where learning was delayed, not progressed. Learning the times tables, for example, was pushed back to year 4 from year 3. In other countries, it starts in year 2. There are twenty concerns in maths alone.
The peak mathematics association expressed ‘alarm’ at the draft and asked them to start again.
Evidence-based content, such as phonics, was minimised.
The biggest problem, though, was in the draft history curriculum. It gave the impression that nothing bad happened before 1788 and almost nothing good has happened since.
It downplayed our Western heritage. It omitted significant figures in our history such as Menzies, Howard and Whitlam.
It almost erased Christianity from our past, despite it being the single most important influence on our modern development, according to our greatest living historian, Geoffrey Blainey It introduced ridiculous concepts such as asking year 2 students – seven-year-olds - to ask whether statues could be deemed racist.
I have been crystal clear in my views to ACARA that significant rework was required to address these flaws.
I know that ACARA has taken this feedback seriously, along with thousands of pieces of public feedback.
This week I was briefed on some of these updates, but I am yet to see a full updated version of the Curriculum.
My initial view, based on this briefing, is that the revised draft Curriculum has gone from an F to perhaps a C, but Australian students deserve an A+.
I am told that there is a stronger, clearer focus on phonics. I am told that maths concepts will remain being taught where they are today, and not delayed. I am told that nonsensical concepts like “mathematising” have been removed.
This is proof that the public exposure made a difference.
But I remain concerned that the updated Curriculum does not lift standards. With education standards in decline in Australia over the last twenty years, we cannot have our curriculum stand still. It must aim higher so we are on a path to being back among the top education nations.
I remain particularly concerned when it comes to the history curriculum.
These are matters core to who we are as a nation. We should expect young Australians leaving school to understand how our nation is one of the most free, wealthy, tolerant and egalitarian societies in all of human history — and a magnet for millions of migrants.
Our Western political institutions are not always perfect but think of what they have given us: democratic government, equality before the law, freedom of association and speech, universal education, strong human rights. These are very precious, and very rare institutions.
If students don’t learn this, they won’t defend it as previous generations did.
Lowy Institute polling shows 40% of young Australians say that non-democratic government may be preferable or that it does not matter what kind of government system we have. That is a catastrophe.
Just as Indigenous Australians (along with other Australians) celebrate and fiercely defend Indigenous culture and heritage, we should all also celebrate and fiercely defend our Western, liberal culture.
Ultimately, students should leave school with a love of country and a sense of optimism and hope that we live in the greatest country on earth and that the future is bright.
ACARA’s April draft certainly did not meet this standard, and I was deeply disappointed in its ideological misgivings about our nation.
Based on my briefing this week, there have been some improvements.
Year 2 students are no longer asked to assess whether historical statues are racist. It recognises our democracy is based on our Christian and Western origins, with a reference to the importance of the values of patriotism and freedom.
These are positive changes, but there is still a way to go. The influence of authoritarianism and communism is growing in the world, particularly with the rise of an assertive China. Fundamentalist Islam remains a dominant force in many countries, as we are seeing in Afghanistan. There has not been a more important time since the 1940s to teach children the origins, values and singular greatness of liberal democracy.
2. How students are taught: Quality teaching
The second pillar of my agenda is quality teaching.
We are incredibly fortunate in Australia to have passionate teachers transforming children’s lives every day.
Teachers are the single largest in-school driver of student achievement. According to leading studies, teachers account for 30 per cent of the variance in student results.
So how can we continue to lift the quality of teaching in this country?
We must make it easier and more attractive for high-calibre school leavers and mid-career professionals to enter the teaching profession.
Right now we are confronting teacher shortages in key subject areas, such as science and maths, and in certain locations – like regional communities and disadvantaged suburbs. It’s the number one thing I hear about from principals – recruiting staff has become harder, and the data shows that more teaching positions are going unfilled across the country.
The challenge before us is to address both the urgent and the strategic: to increase the number of Australians becoming teachers (particularly secondary teachers) while ensuring they have the right capabilities and training to be highly impactful in the classroom.
Concerningly, only four per cent of our brightest school leavers (those with an ATAR above 80) are choosing teaching as a career now. Since 2006, there has been a 32 per cent decline in the proportion of high achievers choosing to enter education degrees – the largest drop of any field of study.
As Singapore’s High Commissioner told me when I asked him about their incredible success in school education: ‘it boils down to the human capital you recruit.’
Being an academic high-achiever doesn’t guarantee that a person will be a brilliant teacher, but according to Professor John Hattie, it is the strongest predictor of having a significant positive impact on student outcomes.
The Grattan Institute estimates that recruiting a higher-achieving teaching workforce would boost the average student’s learning by 6-12 months – almost entirely reversing the two-decade decline in our standards.
There has been important national reform in this area since we came to Government.
We’ve implemented the TEMAG recommendations, including the requirement that every teaching student now sits a test before graduation to ensure they have literacy and numeracy 8 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.
But there is more work to be done.
Earlier this year, I launched the Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) Review. The expert panel is looking closely at attraction and the subsequent issue of what happens inside teacher education courses.
One of the issues I had asked them to examine is how to get more mid-career people into teaching, particularly those with maths skills, which must involve shorter pathways into teaching in recognition of their prior learning and work.
Universities have increased their postgraduate teaching degrees to a minimum two years Masters, which is a significant impediment to potential career changers.
A one year degree or more flexible apprenticeship model would put student teachers in classrooms earning a salary after short, intensive training blocks.
One of the organisations that I helped establish before coming into Parliament was Teach for Australia. Its apprenticeship-based model attracts incredibly talented individuals.
The UK has also introduced apprenticeship-style models, on a scale many times larger than Australia.
Critically, we must lift the attractiveness of the profession itself.
A survey run by the QITE Review found that higher top-end pay would increase the probability of young high-achievers becoming teachers by 13 percentage points – more than any other factor.
On this, States and Territories, as well as the independent and Catholic schools authorities, have the leading role as employers.
It has been clear to me for some time that our best teachers are not paid enough. The data backs this up: teachers at the top of their game in Australia are paid only 40% more than a teacher in their first year out of university.
That’s not what happens in other professions: in law, medicine, and engineering, it’s between two and three times more on average. And it’s not what happens in other countries –
Canada pays their top teachers 80% more than the starting salary, and the UK pays leading practitioners more than double the starting rate.
The second aspect of my quality teaching agenda is ensuring that every student training to be a teacher is equipped with the toolkit to be highly impactful in the classroom.
If anything, this is my top priority.
Over the last twenty to thirty years, we have seen ideology and fads dominate instructional practice in our universities’ education faculties, instead of evidence-based practices.
The lack of transparency in these courses mean we do not have all the information we should. But what we do know should trouble us greatly, especially when it comes to two highly effective teaching methods – explicit instruction and phonics. The evidence is crystal clear on these, and yet we have seen ideological resistance which has limited their use in classrooms.
Jennifer Buckingham, one of the nation’s leading experts in reading, has examined the content of 116 literacy units in 66 degrees offered by 38 different universities.
She found that only 4% of these units had a specific focus on how to teach beginning readers in the first few years of school.
In a staggering 70% of the units, none of the five essential elements of effective evidence-based reading instruction were mentioned. Only 16% mentioned phonics, and just 8% mentioned explicit teaching.
This then flows into how children are taught in schools. And has been a catastrophe for learning. It has been the triumph of ideology over evidence, to the detriment of our kids.
It makes me so cross that kids have failed to read or perform to the best of their ability because of dogmatic, ideological approaches to teaching.
The evidence is so clear on explicit teaching. Analysis of PISA data shows those students at the age of 15 whose teachers largely use explicit instruction, with some inquiry learning, were 10 months ahead of the average student.
Those students whose teachers follow the inquiry-based methods without any explicit instruction were two years behind the average.
And yet, that same data shows us that less than half of all teachers are using explicit teaching methods in most or all classes.
It astounds me that explicit instruction, or phonics for that matter, does not yet have universal take-up.
It should not even be a debate. The evidence is in. National Reading Inquiries in the United States in 2000, in the United Kingdom in 2006 and our own in 2005 all concluded that phonemic teaching practices are essential to children learning to read.
Moreover, teachers want this knowledge. The fact that 1,000 teachers signed up to a short course in phonics in its first year of operation, demonstrates this.
Australian principal and teacher Sue Knight has written about the moment she realised she had not been taught the science of reading in her teaching degree: ‘There were many mixed feelings – shock that this information was out there but not in my hands given I had an education degree, devastation at the number of children who had moved through my classroom or school and I could have been doing so much more for them, and frustration that we were wasting precious time.’
I can assure Sue and all of you this is going to change.
It is clear to me that there are not currently strong enough consequences for these course providers. They continue to be funded; they continue to enrol students.
Let me be very direct about this. If you are not adequately preparing student teachers to become effective classroom teachers using evidence-based practices, you should not be in the business of teacher education.
If necessary, the Government will use the full leverage of the $760 million it provides to education faculties to insist that evidence-based practices are taught.
The Expert Panel is also examining other approaches to shift the dial on the quality of initial teacher education in this country.
The UK’s model of inspections rather than paper-based accreditation is appealing to me.
We should also put more information in the hands of prospective students about the quality of different courses, and this in itself would force providers to raise quality.
Beyond initial teacher education, we need to see more evidence-based, impactful professional learning to make up for gaps that the existing cohort of teachers was not taught when they went through university.
3. The environment in which students are taught: Orderly classrooms
The final pillar is to get the environment in which students are taught right – orderly, calm and conducive to learning.
As our largest states emerge from lockdown, we need to support teachers and students to re-engage in school, and roar back from the impact of school closures. And we know that permissive school environments don’t help anyone. They don’t help teachers, who need order to effectively teach, and they don’t help students, who need structure and discipline not only to learn, but also to acquire impulse control and self-discipline.
Over the last twenty years, our classrooms have become more disruptive and less disciplined. This has contributed to the marked decline in educational achievement.
In 2009, in the OECD’s index of school disciplinary climate, Australia scored at the international average. In 2018, by that same metric, we ranked 70th of 77 nations.
Pre-lockdown we could see that behaviour in classrooms had clearly deteriorated, with more teachers and students than ever reporting disruption is getting in the way of learning.
Two in five students report that their peers don’t listen to what the teacher says, up from one in five 20 years ago. Forty-three per cent of students say there is noise and disorder in most or all lessons – a 10 percentage point increase since 2000.
If anything, this may get worse after the disruptions of the past 18 months.
And violence has become commonplace. Eighty percent of teachers say they have been subject to harassment in the past year. One in three principals have been exposed to physical violence from students.
This kind of behaviour is completely unacceptable. Teachers and principals must be safe in their workplaces.
A tragic number of teachers have told me that poor student behaviour forced them to walk away from a profession they loved.
One teacher recently told me, ‘The broader community have no idea of the complexity, prevalence and levels of abusive, violent and risk behaviours teachers are managing on a daily basis.’
The education establishment needs to recognise this and confront it. But sometimes it seems they are going in the opposite direction.
Just last year, we saw an attempt in one jurisdiction to weaken the school suspension policy.
Teachers, principals and parents were rightly outraged.
They know that rather than water down behaviour management policies of schools, we need to strengthen them and support students to re-engage in their studies through a controlled and calm classroom environment – and to give teachers and principals the tools to get disruptive behaviour under control.
At a national level, there are important things our Government will do to support teachers and principals to bring more order to classrooms.
We will increase transparency about this issue, so that school systems have to confront the issue. The first step towards a solution is an honest assessment of the scale of the problem we have.
We know that there are extraordinary teachers and school leaders out there right now, improving their disciplinary climate, and I want to enable them to share what has worked.
Additionally, we know many teachers enter classrooms feeling as though their initial teacher training did not properly prepare them to bring order and discipline to a classroom. I see a great potential for microcredentials and short courses to support these teachers, just as short courses on phonics have helped them with the teaching of reading.
Today, I have outlined our three priorities as we work to ensure that as schools return to inperson learning, they roar back.
A strong curriculum, quality teaching, orderly classrooms. What students are taught, how they are taught it, and the environment in which they learn.
I know there are other critical factors we must pay attention to. Key among these are school leadership, and more independent public schools like the successful WA model.
But if we get these three core pillars right, we will put ourselves back among the world’s best, and we will make good on that great promise of school education – that every child has the opportunity to realise their potential.
One of my first major policy announcements as Education Minister was an ambitious target to return Australia to the top group of education nations by 2030.
It is a deliberate focus on excellence for all students.
I’ll finish by answering a question I am often asked: why am I so confident that we can roar back and put ourselves once again in the top band of education nations?
In short, because other countries have done it: Poland, Canada, Estonia, Singapore – these are all remarkable success stories.
The nation that jumps out at me, though, is the United Kingdom. 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 turnaround that we are now seeking to achieve.
A decade ago, the UK sat 16 places below Australia, and through considered reforms and consistent progress, they have now jumped ahead of us in every domain of assessment. They overhauled teacher training, brought more order and discipline to classrooms, and strengthened the curriculum – showing us what works.
I remain very optimistic for our students, our schools and our nation.