JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: We’ve got a good education system, but it can be a lot better and a lot fairer. This report out today from the Productivity Commission makes that blisteringly clear. This is a damning report about the former Government’s four-year plan for education. It says the things that were in that report have been rolled out too slowly and have had little effect. It also says that the current plan lacks any concrete targets or any practical reforms that are going to help us to hit those targets.
This report makes it clear that we need serious reform in education. Let me give you just one example of what I mean. This report tells us that 86,000 students every year are not meeting basic literacy and numeracy standards. Now, in any year there are always going to be students who don’t meet those basic literacy and numeracy standards, but it’s what you do about it that really matters. How you help those children to make sure that they meet those standards the next year or the year after that. How you target money and teachers and support to help them to reach those standards. What this report tells us is that if you’re a child from a poor background, or from the bush, or you’re an Indigenous child, then you’re three times more likely not to meet those basic literacy and numeracy standards.
The report also tells us that if you’re a child from a poor background then the gap in literacy and numeracy is growing and getting wider, not shorter, on the gap between the literacy standards of a child from a poor background and a child from a wealthier background. It also tells us this: that if you’re a child from a poor background and you go to a school where there’s a lot of disadvantage, it’s harder to catch up.
I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are, where you live, or the colour of your skin. But we are now. This report tells us that. And at the moment we don’t have the real targets or, more importantly, the real reforms to help us fix that. The next agreement will.
Shortly I’ll be announcing a team of experts and their terms of reference that will guide us in the development of the next National School Reform Agreement. It will help to make sure that we set ourselves on a path to fully fund all schools but also to make sure that that funding is linked to real, practical reforms to fix the sort of problems that we see laid out clearly in this report.
Happy to take some questions.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you spoke a lot about the entrenched inequality. That is a huge theme throughout this report. What are the Government’s next steps to, I guess, address this?
CLARE: The fact is if you’re a child from a poor background, you’re less likely to go to preschool, you’re less likely to finish high school and you’re less likely to go to university. We need to fix that. That’s what the focus of the next National School Reform Agreement will be about, but it’s also what the Universities Accord work – that I’ve already kicked off – is all about. And it will be a key part of the Productivity Commission’s work in reforming early education and care.
There is a common thread that runs through all of these three big pieces of work which I kicked off last year and will kick off this year. How do we open the door of opportunity wider for all children, in particular kids from poor backgrounds and from the bush and Indigenous kids. We know that education is the most powerful force for good in this country. We’ve got to make sure that all Australian children get access to it.
JOURNALIST: In a statement overnight, you also did mention that funding should be tied to achievement. Can you elaborate, I guess, a bit on what that would actually look like? Because I know there has been some concern from some spheres of people in this industry who are concerned that people from some of those disadvantaged backgrounds could be, you know, negatively impacted by that.
CLARE: Thanks for asking that question because I know there’s been some reporting this morning suggesting that there will be funding ripped out of disadvantaged schools. That’s not right. That’s absolutely the opposite of what we need to do. I went to a school like that and I know how important the extra support from teachers and funding in the right areas is to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to get the education that they need and so desperately deserve.
What this report says is in particular for kids from poor backgrounds and from the bush, is you’ve got to set targets to help them get there to those basic standards and beyond and make sure that you’ve got the right reforms to help them do that. The report is not telling us to rip money out of the schools that need it the most; it’s saying put the money in, but make sure that you’re spending it in the right areas. Because funding is important, but so is what you spend it on.
JOURNALIST: Another area that was really common throughout this report was student wellbeing. Why do you think that is so important, and do you agree with the Productivity Commission that it should be part of the considerations and goals that are set in these standards?
CLARE: I do. This report highlights three big areas where investment and reform is really needed: one, to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who are falling behind to get up to those basic literacy and numeracy standards; two, to help to make sure that our teacher workforce is more effective, and a big part of that is tackling the teacher shortage crisis; and the third is the health and wellbeing of our students. It’s been smashed by Covid. You only have to ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that. If you’re a parent, you know that. I was talking to a principal in Victoria only a couple of months ago who told me that for the first time ever she’d seen kindergarten kids still turning up in nappies and linked that back to some of the trauma of the pandemic and lockdowns. So this is serious and real.
And this report makes the point that the teachers have been telling me - in particular, primary school principals – that schools aren’t just a place for education; they’re often a hub where all of the challenges and trauma and issues that children have get brought to bear. This report is saying we need to look at what more we can do here.
This year I’ll roll out more than $200 million across the country to schools to help them to bounce back from some of the impacts of Covid. That includes being able to invest money in things like psychologists and counsellors or school camps or excursions, the sorts of practical things that the experts tell us will help here. And for the average school it means about $20,000 to invest. It depends on population and need. But what this report says is the next agreement needs to look deeper at this and further at this and what more we can do to help children who are either suffering from the pandemic or beyond that who have got bigger issues that our schools might be able to assist with if they’ve got the investment in the right areas.
JOURNALIST: And when do you anticipate that those negotiations for that new agreement will begin and also when they’ll end, and then when the agreement will be implemented?
CLARE: Work on the next agreement has now begun. Ministers got together in December and agreed to extend the time to do this work because, off the back of this report today, which sets out the principles and the areas on which we should focus, what we need now are the real, practical examples of reform that we can tie to funding. And so that work will kick off in the near future. I hope to be able to announce the members of that panel and their terms of reference shortly. And that work will be conducted this year, and it’s that work, with those reforms, that will enable the discussions that the Federal Government will have with State governments and Territory governments, working together to put all schools on a path to full and fair funding.
JOURNALIST: Just one more from me: some critics have said that that extension of the 12-month review, that that is like, I guess, essentially extending a bad strategy. Do you think that that’s fair?
CLARE: I think what this report tells us is that serious reform is needed. I get that. That’s why we have made the commitment to work with State and Territory governments to put all schools on a path to full and fair funding. Now, at the moment, non-government schools are funded above the SRS, but they go down to 100 per cent by 2029. On current trajectory, government schools will only get to 95 per cent by the end of the decade or thereabouts. It varies in different jurisdictions.
So what we’ve got to look at, working with States and Territories, is who funds that gap and over what period of time. And what I’m saying today is we’ve also got to make sure that that funding is linked to real, practical reforms that are going to make a difference to the sort of children that I’m talking about today – kids like the child I was – children from poor backgrounds who at the moment need extra support, and extra assistance to help to get them to where they want to be.
Education is the most powerful cause for good in this country. We want to open the doors of opportunity for all children. This report tells us that there’s a lot more work we need to do.