Release type: Speech


NSW Teachers Federation Principals Conference


The Hon Jason Clare MP
Minister for Education


Acknowledgments omitted.

If I started this speech saying that we have the best education system in the world you would probably laugh at me or sneer. Think I was deluded. 

But what if I said we do have the best education system in the world, but not for everyone?

That’s what Pasi Sahlberg told me the other day.

Pasi is part of an Expert Panel I announced a few weeks ago. 

They are led by Dr Lisa O’Brien, the Chair of the Australian Education Research Organisation and the former CEO of the Smith Family. 

And their job is really important. 

We have committed to work with States and Territories to get every school to 100 percent of its fair funding level. 

The Expert Panel’s job is to advise me and State and Territory Education Ministers on what practical things this should fund. 

A week after I announced the Panel, I took them to my old high school, Canley Vale High.  

I love my old school. 

When I went there, back in 1980s, it was called a disadvantaged school.  

The names we use to describe schools has changed since then, but the disadvantage hasn’t. 

Canley Vale is not a flash part of town. It’s full of a lot of people just scraping by. The average income is below the national average. Unemployment is about double the national average. 

And just like when I was there, something magical is happening at Canley Vale High. 

Attendance is above the national average, and so is the percentage of students who finish high school. 

Year 7 students start behind most of the country in reading and maths, and by Year 9 they are in front.  

All of that in an underfunded disadvantaged school. 

If that was happening everywhere I think we would be having a very different conversation about funding and fairness.

But the truth is it’s not. 

This is the awful truth.  

If you are a child today from a poor background, from the bush or if you are an Indigenous Australian, you are three times more likely to fall behind at school. 

Fifteen years ago the gap in reading skills of 8 year olds from poor families and 8 year olds from wealthy families was about a year.  

Now it’s two. And as you know, if you start behind, or if you fall behind, it’s hard to catch up. More often the gap gets bigger and bigger with every year at school. 

And if you are a child from a poor family and you go to a school where there are a lot of other children from disadvantaged backgrounds, well that’s even more likely. 

That’s not me just saying that. 

The Productivity Commission released a report in January, outlining all of this in blistering detail. 

And this is the end of result.

Have a look at this. This is a graph of high school retention rates since 2017.

You can see it’s dropped from 84.8 percent to 80.5 percent over the last five years.

This is non-government schools. The line is pretty flat. About 87 percent. 

And this is government schools. It’s dropped from 83 to 76 percent. 

And here’s the killer.

In 2017, 83 per cent of students from high SES backgrounds completed high school.

Now it is 84.8 per cent.

In 2017, 76 per cent of students from low SES backgrounds completed high school.

Now it is 74 per cent.

That’s what I mean when I say we have the best education system in the world, but not for everyone. 

And remember what finishing high school means. 

In the world we live in today, it’s your ticket to the show.  

Nine out of ten new jobs require a TAFE qualification or a university degree.  

That’s why if we are serious about breaking the cycle of disadvantage this is where we have got to do it. 

And why this can’t just be about closing the funding gap. It’s also got to be about closing the education gap. 

Getting every school to what David Gonski called the full Schooling Resource Standard is important.

But what is even more important is what that funding does. The difference it makes. 

That’s what the work of the Expert Panel is all about. 

To make sure we tie funding to things that will make a real difference. 

One of the things, for example, I have asked the Panel to look at are things like reading and maths small group tutoring to help students falling behind.

In the next few weeks the Panel will put out a survey seeking the views of principals and teachers right across the country. 

And over the next six months they will visit schools right across the country. Talking to people like you. About what you need. What works. What doesn’t.  

This isn’t easy. Even in high performing school systems, the sorts we look to like Finland and Singapore, the same problem exist. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to fall behind and fall out.  I spent a bit of last week talking to the Education Ministers from those countries about that.

But that doesn’t mean change is impossible. You test. You try. You look at the evidence and see what works.

In Harlem there is a community organisation that is doing that.  It’s called the Harlem Children’s Zone, and they seem to have caught lightning in a bottle.  Or what they call a vaccine for poverty.

In Harlem there is a lot of poverty. Intergenerational poverty. The Harlem Children’s Zone work with local kids and their parents.  In schools and in the community.  Twenty years ago they set the audacious target that every single child they work with would finish college.  97 percent have.  Well about the city average. They have closed the gap, and then some. 

I am not saying that what they are doing there would work here.  Or whether it would work at scale.  But it does show is things can change.

What it also underlines is that schools aren’t islands.

You have to deal with all the physical and mental health challenges that children bring to school.  That’s got a lot tougher over the last few years.  And that affects learning.  Of course it does.  It also affects our teachers and school leaders.  And you. 

And that’s why I have asked the Panel to look at this as well.  How we can use the funding in the next National School Reform Agreement to do a better job here.  Tie funding to the sorts of practical things you need in your school.

I have also asked them to look at other things that affect teaching and learning in schools. 

One of the first things I did in this job is call out the fact that we have a teacher shortage crisis.  You know it.  You have to deal with it every day. 

And it hasn’t just happened.  It’s been a long time in the making.  And it’s going to take time to fix.

But the changes the new NSW Government are making are important.  And so is the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan I put together last year with the States and Territories and principals and teachers. 

It includes $328 million in federal funding for extra university places, scholarships and a campaign to elevate the profession. 

It also includes up to $30 million to fund things in schools that will reduce the workload of teachers. I have asked the States and Territories to match this and come up with ideas about the things we can fund that will really reduce workload.

The plan’s not perfect.  It’s not a panacea.  But it’s a start. 

At its core what it recognises is:

  • if we get things like teacher training right,
  • if we do a better job on things like prac and mentoring,
  • if we cut out more of the non-teaching workload and give teachers more time to teach and plan and develop their skills, and
  • if we throw in a big dose of much needed respect,

we will recruit and retain more teachers and they will have a bigger impact in the classroom. 

And the work of the Expert Panel and the next National School Reform Agreement is a chance to build on that. 

This is our best chance to get this right. 

That’s why this year is important.  

It’s not the only thing I am doing.  

This year I have also kicked off the most comprehensive review of early education in Australian history.  

It is led by Professor Deborah Brennan AM, working with the Productivity Commission. 

Their brief is how do we build a truly universal early education system.  One for everyone. 

And at the other end, we are now in the middle of the biggest and broadest review of our higher education system in 15 years. That work is led by Professor Mary O’Kane AC. 

All three reports, on the reforms we need to make to early education, to school education and to higher education, will land on my desk over the next 12 months or so.   

Individually they are all important. Each one will change lives. 

But it’s what they do when they are sewn together that has the potential to change our education system and the opportunity it provides for decades to come. 

Look hard enough and in the terms of reference of all three you will find a common thread.  

If you are from a poor family today, or the bush or you’re Indigenous, you are less likely to go to preschool, you are more likely to fall behind at primary school, you are less likely to finish high school and you are less likely to go to university.  

This is our chance to do something about that. 

To build a better education system. 

And a fairer one.

One that invests in all our children. 

One that gives everyone a fair go, no matter where you come from or the colour of your skin. 

One that doesn’t hold anyone back and doesn’t leave anyone behind.

And if we get it right, one that one day we might even be able to call the best education system in the world.