Address to the Monash University Faculty of Education 50th Anniversary Conference

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

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It’s a pleasure to join you this morning.

This is a special occasion as we celebrate five decades of the Faculty of Education at this university.

1964 was an interesting year:

  • The Beatles toured Australia;
  • The first edition of our first national daily, The Australian, was printed;
  • Related to one of your themes, Lyndon Johnson declared the ‘War on Poverty’; and
  • 38 students undertook their Graduate Diploma in Education in a relatively new university, named after a giant of twentieth century Australia and particularly Victoria, Sir John Monash.

They set about their studies in the multi-purpose Sir Robert Menzies Building, affectionately known as the ‘Ming Wing’ since its earliest days.

The building was well-named.

In 1945, as leader of the newly-formed Liberal Party, Robert Menzies had initiated the Commonwealth Parliament’s first major education debate.

As Prime Minister, Menzies appointed Sir Keith Murray in 1956 to inquire into the state of Australia’s universities, subsequently accepting Murray’s recommendations in 1957.

This marked the beginning of what Menzies called 'a new and brighter chapter' for Australian universities.

One of the first lines in that chapter would be the establishment of Monash University by the Victorian Parliament in 1958.

Menzies followed through with this commitment to education by funding science facilities in both government and non-government secondary schools in 1964.

In promising funds for school science facilities, Menzies had recognised “a special need for improved science teaching in the secondary schools” if we were “to keep in step with the march of science”.

This was the first step in ending the divisive ‘state aid’ debate in education.

But even more importantly, in ending the scourge of sectarianism that had poisoned Australian politics for most of the twentieth century.

Within a single generation, the bitter sectarian debates that had divided communities and families had been almost entirely limited from our vocabulary.

Former Prime Minister John Howard has pointed out, that when Menzies ended ‘one hundred years of discrimination against independent, largely Catholic, schools’, he enabled a diverse non-government sector to flourish, and this led to ‘probably a wider variety of choice within primary and secondary education than is perhaps available in any other comparable country around the world’.

Contentious to some in the sector, it is now an established and immutable aspect of Australian society.

Since 1964, Australia has a more educated population with a more diverse school education system serving larger groups of students.

Monash University’s Faculty of Education has been there every step of the way.

You are rightly proud of your many achievements, to name just two:

  • Being the first faculty in Australia to appoint a chair in Special Education; and,
  • Seeing your Faculty ranked 6th in the world by QS World University rankings in 2013.

With 50 years of achievements behind you, I wish you well for the next five decades and beyond.

As highlighted above, Australia has a diverse school education system, very different to most countries, and this enjoys wide support throughout the community.

Relative to other countries, we have a relatively high proportion of students attending non-government schools.

31% of Australian primary school students compared to an OECD average of just 11%.

This variance is just as strong at the secondary level, where 36% of Australian students attend non-government schools compared to the OECD average of approximately 17%.

And this varies widely across the nation.

The Northern Territory has the lowest proportion of students in the non-government sector while, interestingly, the ACT has the highest.

The other key difference about the Australian school system relates to funding – the non-government school sector receives partial government funding supplemented by large parental contributions.

The complexity of these arrangements becomes more apparent when funding is considered.

Both national and state governments fund schools and there is considerable transfer of funds from the Commonwealth to the States, Territories and non-government sector for a wide variety of school programmes.

A few facts occasionally get lost in this complexity, indeed sometimes they are intentionally misrepresented.

Given the ongoing debates about school funding and the campaign for further increases in Commonwealth spending, it is sometimes assumed that the Commonwealth is the prime funder of schools.

This is wrong. The Commonwealth is not the prime source of funds for schools. It never has been and is never likely to be.

A simple outline of current funding arrangements will highlight this:

In 2014-15, under the Commonwealth’s proposed funding arrangements, $42.4 billion in recurrent funding is being spent by Commonwealth AND state and territory governments on primary and secondary education.

Of this $42 billion, the Commonwealth spends just $14.4 billion – just one third of the total government spending on schools across Australia.

The other two thirds, $28 billion, comes from the states and territories, reflecting the historic and constitutional role of states in providing public education.

This funding issue is further complicated by the allocation of funding to the government and non-government sectors.

Of the $14.4 billion spent by the Commonwealth, nearly two thirds goes to non-government schools. The remaining $5.1 billion goes to public schools.

Australia-wide the public school system run by the states and territories receives only 16% of its public funding from the Commonwealth, the remainder comes from the respective state and territory governments.

While this is occasionally misrepresented as the Commonwealth not sufficiently supporting public schools, such claims omit the other part of this funding equation – that 89% of state and territory spending goes to public schools. Only 11% of state and territory funding supports non-government schools.

This is then further misrepresented to create the impression that public schools are not receiving their fair share, because the two thirds of Commonwealth funding supports the non-government sector. The proponents of this position neglect to mention where state and territory funding is directed.

A simple comparison of public funding per student negates this myth.

On average in 2011-12, total government recurrent funding from both levels of government per student in the public school sector was $13,300.

This compares to only $8,500 in the Catholic sector and $7,200 in the independent sector.

It is important to note that the non-government sector is supplemented by considerable parental contributions, approximating 43% of their recurrent spending needs.

But it is also worth remembering that parental contributions pay for most of the capital works in the non-government sector as well.

In summary, using estimates for 2014-15:

  • Government schools with 64% of students receive around 71% of all public funds;
  • While non-government schools with 36% of students receive around 29% of all public funds.

While some argue against supporting parental choice and directing public funds to reflect this, it is now an immutable part of our education system and arguments directed at somehow changing this fact will merely serve as a distraction.

I might also add that the mixed nature of the Australian school system has saved Australian taxpayers substantial money and allowed relatively greater funds to be directed to the public school sector. The fact that it encourages private resourcing of education is a strength.

I want to take the opportunity now to turn to the issue of quality.

As Education Minister Christopher Pyne has said, “quality should be the prime goal of education policy”.

In a recent speech he also outlined the Government’s view that quality should and will reinforce equity, not undermine it.

The challenge is that in recent years, going back more than a decade, quality has been debated not directly but through surrogate or proxy measures.

Rather than address what are more complex issues, such as what happens inside the classroom, we have focused on the easily measurable proxies such as class size, spending levels and student-teacher ratios.

Education is not unique in this sense. Other areas of public policy often suffer from similar challenges, health being a prime example.

But just as we have learnt in other areas that it is how we allocate resources that matters, we now know in education that focusing on these proxy measures has not led to the outcomes we desire.

Let’s take spending.

If you listened to some participants in the education debate, you may get the impression Australia is a low-spending country.

But this is not true.

We measure up in international spending comparisons across a range of indicators including per student funding, needs-based funding and share of GDP.

The 2012 PISA survey, reported by ACER, highlighted that “schools across Australia’s jurisdictions in general had access to a high quality of resources compared to the OECD average.”

And if we look over the last two decades our spending has dramatically increased.

Between 1987-88 and 2011-12, total Australian government spending at all levels doubled in real terms.

Yet during the same period student numbers rose by only 18%.

This is considerable more spending per student.

Student-teacher ratios in primary schools across Australia fell by 15% between 1993-2013, and even more in some jurisdictions, with the highest fall being 29% in the ACT.

Yet while our spending has increased, our results have not reflected this at all, as our results are slipping by comparison with students in other countries and economies.

Since 2009, Australia has dropped from 15th to 19th in mathematical literacy; from 10th to 16th in scientific literacy; and, from 9th to 14th in reading literacy.

NAPLAN results also show that while there have been small movements up and down in some areas, overall performance has remained largely stable since 2008.

Clearly we have not been spending these extra resources in the best possible way.

The evidence repeatedly points out that funding levels are not a predictor of education performance.

The OECD’s 2012 PISA in Focus report concluded:

PISA findings show that the success of a country’s education system depends more on how educational resources are invested than on the volume of investment.

A different OECD study of 2010 suggested that only 6% of the difference in average student performance across OECD countries can be explained by the influence of spending, measured by GDP per capita.

The remaining 94% of differences “reflect the potential for public policy to make a difference.”

So while we have directed substantially more resources to education, we haven’t had a commensurate or even substantial improvement in outcomes.

This poses a challenge on two fronts:

  1. Continual spending increases, such as those outlined, are simply not sustainable, particularly given the state of public finances in many juristictions; and,
  2. Given we haven’t had the best value for money as measured in improved outcomes, we need to reassess our spending priorities in order to drive improved educational performance.

And let me take this opportunity to put the Commonwealth’s commitments on the record:

  • Over the coming four years, the Commonwealth is providing $64.5 billion in recurrent funding to all schools.
  • Total Commonwealth spending to all schools will grow by 37%;
  • Government schools will receive a 53% increase in funding;
  • While the non-Government sector will see a 29% increase.

This now leads to the focus of the Commonwealth Government, and the priorities outlined by Minister Pyne.

Cognisant of this context outlined above, the limited constitutional role of the Commonwealth and the predominant role of states in managing public schools, the government’s education agenda focuses on four pillars:

  • teacher quality
  • a robust national curriculum
  • school autonomy
  • parent engagement in education.

I want to highlight a few of the initiatives in this area this morning.

First, teacher quality.

There is compelling research to indicate teachers have the greatest in-school influence on a student’s education performance.

A good teacher – one who is not only highly skilled but also passionate about teaching – can make a positive difference to a student.

So teaching is a key area for us to focus on and strengthen.

Professor Hattie of Melbourne University has just been appointed as Chair of the Australian Institute of Teaching and Leadership (AITSL).

He recently commented that the most important criteria of a good teacher was whether students learn! This is the test that parents will use.

While there have been concerns about teacher quality in Australia for some time now, some of these concerns are exaggerations.

However, the 2012 Productivity Commission Report on the Schools Workforce highlighted a number of issues about selection and training of our teachers.

With 48 higher education providers offering teaching and over 400 courses available, it is critical that the community has confidence in the preparedness of all teaching graduates for the important work they do.

For these reasons Minister Pyne established the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group to provide advice on how teacher education programmes could be improved to better prepare new teachers with the practical skills needed for the classroom.

TEMAG is working to identify world’s best practice in teacher education programmes, particularly focussing on pedagogical approaches, knowledge of subject content and professional experience.

The Advisory Group held over 30 consultation meetings in May and June with key stakeholders.

Following the release of an Issues Paper, written submissions were also received from a range of organisations and individuals.

The Advisory Group will ensure that their recommendations reflect the complexity of the education landscape and will provide its advice to Government before the end of the year.

In addition, the Minister has instructed the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership or AITSL under its new Chair, to refocus its activities.

This will mean:

  • a greater impact on course accreditation
  • that quality criteria are not only more rigorous, but enforced, and
  • a better alignment of AITSL’s priorities to the Government’s teacher quality priorities.

AITSL will play a key role in taking forward reforms arising from the Advisory Group’s work.

The second issue I wish to turn to is the strengthening the curriculum.

Earlier this year, the Minister appointed an expert review of the Australian Curriculum to evaluate its robustness, independence and balance.

This was not a precipitous decision.

We made a promise to have such a review at the 2010 and 2013 elections because of concerns expressed to us by parents, teachers, and key education associations. Our mandate on this matter was clear and unambiguous.

The Review reported its findings to the Government in August and report and the Government’s initial response was released earlier this month.

I am sure you have heard the many positive responses in relation to the Review’s findings from commentators, education experts and peak education bodies like the Australian Primary Principals’ Association and also state and territory governments.

The Review will be considered by states and territories at the Education Council meeting in December.

The Minister has provided an Initial Response on what is considered the Review’s five key themes. These are:

  • concerns regarding overcrowded curriculum especially in the primary school years, which could be to the detriment of foundation skills like literacy and numeracy
  • the need to improve parental engagement – parents cannot engage in their children’s education unless they know what is being taught and why
  • improving accessibility for all students – especially for those with learning difficulties and disabilities
  • rebalancing the curriculum – ensuring that a range of views are taught and that important areas are not neglected
  • reviewing the governance of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) – ensuring its members have the highest expertise and that it operates independently of government.

The Government has responded positively to these very sound recommendations and I encourage you to read the responses in more detail. They are available on the Department of Education website.

The final issue to which I wish to turn is parental engagement in education.

And this is where I can provide my own reflections upon being in this portfolio for just over a year now.

We know that parents are the first and most important influence on a child’s attitudes and values toward school and learning.

When parents are engaged in their children’s education, children are more likely to attend school every day and to perform better.

The Government is committed to strengthened parent engagement in education to improve student learning outcomes.

We have funded the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth to undertake targeted research and develop resources to help parents better engage in their child’s education.

School communities, including principals, teachers, parents and students, will all benefit from this research and the practical improvements that will come of it, including the development of resources that can be used in classrooms.

Yet it is critical to appreciate that encouraging increased parental engagement cannot occur unless the other pillars of our reforms are embraced.

Effective parental engagement requires flexible arrangements at the school level, and principals and teachers with the capacities to work effectively with parents.

And as I have said already, making the Australian Curriculum more accessible to parents is another means to achieve this objective.

A year into my work with the Minister a few key reflections have struck me about education in Australia.

First, whether consciously or not, and not unlike many other professions, the education sector has erected barriers between experts and providers on one hand, and consumers and decision makers (in this case parents) on the other.

We must remember that what is used as verbal shorthand by experts, or what may seem as technically exact terms, can very easily seem simply jargon to outsiders, including parents. 

The rise in the use of jargon and terms without specific, easily explainable meanings can only act as a barrier to greater parental involvement and education.

In other professions where a substantial technical or informational barrier has historically existed, such as medicine, those professions have had to adapt to a more informed and questioning consumer.

Education is no different, particularly given the familiarity most feel with schools due to their own time in them.

Second, I think there has been a failure to take the community and parents along what are profound changes in education over the past decade or two. A simple case study can illustrate this.

When I was born, in 1973, the average age at which a woman had her first child was around 21.

If we assume that, like most of that era, she left school at 16, and that her child when to school at age 4 or 5 – then there was a less than ten year gap between that woman leaving school and walking her son or daughter back into a classroom for the first time.

Fast forward four decades.

The average age at which a woman has her first child is 31. If we assume she left  school at 17 or 18 and her child attends school at 5, then it could very easily be more than 15 years between her leaving school and walking her son or daughter back through that classroom door.

And there are many examples where it would be a lot longer.

I would suggest to you that there has also been much more profound change in the way our classrooms and schools operate over the period outlined in the second example than in the first one.

This is compounded by a lot more children being born to older parents as well.

The number of times that my friends who are parents of young children ask me about these changes and express frustration reflecting their lack of understanding about why school is so different to their experience never ceases to amaze me.

Whether it is the way we arrange school desks, the different ways in which discipline is managed or even the way schools are now built without traditional formal classrooms, I believe there is a disconnect between why things are done the way they are and whether significant changes have been explored, explained and engaged with parents.

It is no good to dismiss these queries with jargonistic terms, or dismissive explanations.

We need to much better explain to parents why and how our schools have changed to fully engage them in education.

I’m excited to be part of a Government that is guiding innovative, practical new approaches to school education and tackling areas for reform previously neglected or seen as too difficult.

I am sure we all share the view that education is tremendously important to individuals, to communities and ultimately to the competitiveness and progress of the nation.

So I salute the vision of the founders of the Faculty of Education here at Monash University who recognised this importance and the need for exemplary research and teaching to benefit the state of Victoria and Australia.

Congratulations on your fiftieth anniversary, and I wish you well for the remainder of the conference.


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