Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) 2014 National Conference

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Check against delivery

I am delighted to join you this morning and represent the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, who has fallen ill and is unable to attend.

The Minister is very keen to make up for his unexpected absence today and has will be attending a specially-convened ACEL event in the near future, arrangements are currently being finalised.

It is hoped that details of this event will be announced soon.

I will endeavour to be a worth understudy.

This has been a busy 12 months in the Education portfolio as the Government focuses on delivering our election commitments and reforms that will improve the quality of school education.

I welcome this opportunity to update you on what the Commonwealth is doing and our progress to date.

We have a clear mandate and agenda for practical school education reform that will improve student outcomes.

ACEL’s agenda of promoting excellence in and elevating the standing of educational leadership, and seeking to build leadership capacity at a school level is a key part of our agenda, because you focus on what is needed at the school level.

For too long, education policy in Australia has been dominated by ideology, self-interest, simplistic sloganeering and unrelenting demands for ever-increasing funding – rather than action based on evidence of what works.

The Commonwealth, which, after all, has a very limited constitutional standing in this area, has intruded too far into state jurisdiction and even in day-to-day running of schools in both the government and non-government sectors.

Despite of all the debates; legislation; the immense amounts of money spent, including very large increases over the last two decades; all the grand plans hatched in Canberra and numerous intergovernmental agreements – the quality of education for students, has NOT improved.

While Australian education performs above the OECD average in our results in international testing, we have also been consistently declining relative to other countries.

Between 2009 and 2012, PISA results show that our students’ performance relative to other countries in maths, reading and scientific literacy has fallen.

In 2012, Australia ranked 19th out of 65 countries for mathematical literacy, falling from 15th in 2009.

Reading literacy in Australia fell from 9th to 14th and scientific literacy fell from 10th to 16th.

Of particular concern, our top students’ performances are declining and the lower socio-economic group has made limited improvement over a long period of time despite substantial funding and numerous programs.

Since national testing through NAPLAN began in 2008, national average scores have plateaued.

While over 90 per cent of students tested through NAPLAN meet the minimum standards, what we should be asking is whether simply meeting the minimum standard is good enough?

I and this government don’t think so.

While the Government agrees that international and national test results are not the sole measure of quality outcomes, we cannot ignore this downward trend in results, particularly when it has occurred against the backdrop of significant funding growth for schools during the last two decades.

We have to do better.

It is clear the increased investment in schools by successive governments has not translated into better results.

While we know that quality teaching is the key to student learning, the public debate has tended to concentrate on proxies for quality – such as spending levels, class sizes and teacher-student ratios.

The evidence shows, however, that these surrogate measures do not improve educational outcomes.

Put simply, more money does not equal better results.

PISA results show that the highest performing countries in the world are not the highest spending countries.

Results suggest that in high-income countries, what matters more is how resources are spent rather than how much is spent.

But most importantly, as long as funding, class sizes and teacher-student ratios continue to dominate the education debate, public investment in education will be misplaced or wasted, and the very real opportunities to lift student learning will be lost.

The debate must shift all away from proxy or surrogate measures of quality and focus on evidence based reforms – the kind this government is committed to – that will improve student learning.

The evidence shows that students do best in schools that have quality teachers, where there is appropriate school autonomy, increased parental engagement and a robust and relevant curriculum.

These are the four pillars of the Governments Students First programme.

Another problem we must tackle is that the Commonwealth involvement in schools has become too intrusive, crowding out the states from their appropriate roles in this area.

The Commonwealth has imposed too many controls on jurisidictions and all schools through the increasing use of section 96, or specific purpose, grants.

It is not the level of funding that has been the problem but how the Commonwealth has sought to direct that funding through these tied grants.

This has been accompanied by a swag of agreements, regulations and legislation aimed at directing school providers.

Such trends have blurred responsibility for student outcomes; funding; and, critically, accountability.

Recent developments have made an already complex funding model even more complex.

Intergovernmental agreements negotiated by the previous government were developed in an atmosphere of secrecy and threats.

The culmination of these trends was the previous government’s Australian Education Act, which passed through the Commonwealth Parliament last year.

It was rushed, and replete with errors and omissions, which the Government is correcting this week with a number of amendments.

It gave too much power to the federal minister for education and added significantly to the administrative burden placed on states and all schools across all sectors.

These are the problems we inherited just over a year ago.

Before outlining some of the Government’s achievements, I want to clarify the principles underlying our policies.

First, our focus is unashamedly on achieving practical improvements for students. Students are our prime focus.

Second, our goal is to develop a quality education system with clear measurable standards of attainment. A focus on quality is the best way to tackle socio-economic disadvantage.

Third, the Coalition values choice, diversity and competition because the evidence tells us that leads to improved student outcomes.

Fourth, our policies focus on the purpose of education. It must equip young people with the knowledge, high-level literacy, numeracy and analytical skills to negotiate life in an increasingly complex, competitive and globalised world.

Finally, the Commonwealth has a definite role in schools policy - to provide national leadership, coordination and policy coherence, identify gaps and to develop timely, accurate data to monitor student performance nationally.

Our role is to support the states and territories and the school sectors not to dictate to them.

The Government came to office just over twelve months ago.

Since then we have focused on progressing the Government’s Students First priorities.

We are unapologetic that our priorities and achievements focus on the practical issues that make a difference to student learning and student performance.

Let me categorically restate that there must be an adequate level of funding to support any quality education system.

But there have been two major problems regarding funding issues in Australia.

First, the public discourse has been almost totally dominated by discussions about the quantity of funding, rather than how it should be spent.

In fact, Australia performs very well internationally across a range of indicators of spending: share of GDP, per student spending and needs-based funding.

Reports by the OECD, Productivity Commission and independent researchers confirm this.

It is the priorities we have wrong.

The second problem is that the long debate and consequent delays by the previous government in finalising new Commonwealth funding agreements caused immense uncertainty and instability.

We have fixed that.

The Government has confirmed Commonwealth schools funding over the next four years which is both needs-based and fair.

It exceeds our election commitment by reinstating $1.2 billion that the previous government removed from schools in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Our approach ensures funding stability for all schools while the Minister works with jurisidictions and non-government sectors to deliver predictable and sustainable funding in future years.

The Government has extended the More Support for Students with Disabilities initiative to build the capacity of schools and teachers and to better support the needs of students with disability.

We will also provide $6.8 million to assist non-government schools that have large numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding students from remote areas.

This funding will allow the schools to deliver improved services to students and provide effective additional support to boost school attendance and engagement.

Let me now turn to our progress against the four pillars of our Students First framework:

• Improving quality teaching
• Increasing school autonomy
• Engaging parents in education
• Strengthening the curriculum

This Government is determined to tackle this most important driver of student outcomes – teacher quality.

We are focusing on this because research strongly suggests that the most significant in-school factor influencing students’ achievement is the quality of teaching.

This area has been left in the too hard basket for too long.

The evidence is that teacher quality has declined in Australia.

The previous government did not even formally respond to the important 2012 Productivity Commission report on Schools Workforce.

Therefore, the Government has taken a number of initiatives in this area.

The Minister’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) will provide with a landmark report that identifies challenges, assesses causes and provides advice based on international best practice.

Some of these proposals may be challenging to some stakeholders, but we cannot delay any longer.

This issue and this report will get the attention it deserves.

Similarly the Minister instructed the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) to refocus its activities and ensure it has greater impact on course accreditation, making criteria more rigorous, and that its priorities are better aligned to the Government’s teacher quality priorities.

The Minister has appointed Professor John Hattie, internationally renowned for his research in this area, to be the new Chair of AITSL and school leader, John Fleming as Deputy Chair.

AITSL will play a key role in implementing reforms arising from the work of the Advisory Group.

Evidence overwhelmingly tells us that increased school autonomy, coupled with appropriate levels of accountability, make a difference to student outcomes.

I know this area is also of great interest to members of ACEL.

Increased school autonomy will only work if school principals and leaders have the confidence and skills to implement those initiatives that best suit their students and school communities.

The Government is supporting increasing school autonomy with its $70 million Independent Public Schools initiative.

The initiative aims to give government schools more decision-making control; to develop stronger links between schools, parents and the local community; and, to help support school leaders, including parents in some cases, to carry out these roles more effectively.

I can report that the Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, the ACT and Queensland have all signed up to this programme.

Parental engagement makes a critical difference to student outcomes.

The Commonwealth must and will work with the states and territories to support this goal.

We are providing $1 million per year to the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) to undertake research and develop resources in the area of parental engagement.

ACEL’s work in this area is particularly important because improving parental engagement is closely linked to school autonomy and management and the quality of teachers and school leadership.

The Government looks forward to hearing more from ACEL to progress this task.

In our first year in office we have undertaken several important steps to ensure the Australian Curriculum complements our commitment to deliver a quality education.

The Government has established the Review of the Australian Curriculum to evaluate the robustness, independence and balance of the development and content of the Australian Curriculum.

The Review sought to understand whether the Australian Curriculum is delivering what students need, parents expect and our nation requires in an increasingly competitive world.

The Minister has had some time to consider this review and will release it in the near future.

The Government will work closely with the states and territories to respond to its recommendations.

In particular, the Australian Government has committed to restoring the focus on STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools.

We have provided $5 million to maintain the science education programmes, Primary Connects and Science by doing.

A further $22 million has been provided to Good to Great Schools Australia in order to implement the Flexible Literacy in Remote Primary Schools programme.

Australian students face increasing competition from overseas and will need new knowledge and skills to succeed in a more integrated and competitive global economy.

So, the Government is providing $1.8 million for the development of new languages curricula under the Australian Curriculum.

Hindi, Turkish, and Australian Sign Language will be added to 11 existing languages.

Curricula will also be developed to study the historically significant languages of Classical Greek and Latin.

The Government has also committed $10 million for a one year trial of online language learning in preschool.

In 2015 the Government will work with the states and territories to ensure the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority is focused on developing the highest possible standard curriculum.

To enable states and territories to fully embrace our initiatives, the Government has commenced consultations directed at amending the Australian Education Act 2013 and related regulations to remove the command-and-control elements introduced by the former Government.

These changes will ensure that states and territories remain responsible for their schools and that non-government schools maintain their independence and autonomy.

Amendments to the legislation arising from consultations will be introduced into the Parliament in early 2015.

The Minister has also led a series of roundtables focused on improving education for students with disability and learning difficulties.

Areas covered in these discussions include improvements to teacher understanding of students with dyslexia and better preparing teachers to work with students with disability and learning difficulties.

Assistant Minister Sussan Ley, has hosted a series of roundtables with representatives from the three pillars of Vocational Education and Training in Schools: education, training and industry in order to work towards a stronger VETiS system in Australia through the development of a new and updated framework.

Let me flag some initiatives for 2015.

In looking to data and evidence, NAPLAN and the My School site are essential in ensuring transparency of schooling outcomes and a national perspective on education performance.

It is also important that teachers and educational leaders to know how students are progressing.

NAPLAN identifies whether students have the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for other learning.

While I acknowledge some contention surrounds these tools, the Government supports their continuation.

We do not have high stakes testing in Australia.

This year the Government has made significant progress in meeting our election commitment to returning NAPLAN student results within twelve weeks.

In some states some schools received results within the twelve week period and all reports were delivered two weeks earlier.

More importantly, we are committed to delivering NAPLAN online testing.

Online NAPLAN will allow us to tailor the test to those students who have additional learning needs, enable a faster turnaround of results, and ensure more timely diagnostic information.

We are working with jurisdictions and the non-government sector to deliver this as soon as practicable.

The Australian Government this year introduced additional funding to support students with disability.

Over $1 billion of Australian Government funding is being provided in 2014. This is more funding for students with disability than ever before.

In addition, the Government will continue refine the funding loading for students with disability.

I am sure you would all agree that it is important that we have sufficiently robust and quality data to inform the allocation of needs-based funding for students with disability.

This will ensure the money truly goes to those who need it most.

The Government understands that achieving lasting, sustainable reform in education is neither easy nor quick.

It takes time and effort.

It is not simply about restructuring government departments or throwing more money at recurring problems.

It is about identifying the practical things that a government can do and that we know will make a difference to students.

Once again, I would like to convey the apologies of the Minister. I know he is looking forward to both having an opportunity to present to you in the near future and work with you over the longer term.


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