When I got this job a few months ago the first thing I did was go back to my old primary school and give my teacher Mrs Fry a hug. Cathy Fry started there, at Cabramatta Public School, in 1978. And she is still there. Changing lives.
Cabramatta is not a flash, wealthy part of town. It wasn’t when I went to school there. It still isn’t today. It’s full of people from around the world. Working hard. Scraping by. But they want the best for their kids, and they know the power of education.
The kids I shared a classroom with came from everywhere from South America to Southeast Asia. A lot couldn’t speak English when they first came to school. I’m still friends with a lot of those kids. This sounds like a cliché, but I can tell you it’s true. Today they are partners in law firms, pharmacists, multi-millionaire start up business owners.
How does this happen? You know the answer. Because of people like Cathy.
Paul Keating used to say a good education was like having the “keys to the kingdom”. A master key that unlocks every door. Every opportunity. If he’s right, and I think he is, then our teachers are the key makers. And we don’t have enough of them.
We’ve got a shortage of teachers right across the country. There are more kids going to school now than ever before, but there are fewer people going on to university to study teaching. We have seen a drop of about 16 per cent in the last 10 years. We need to turn that around.
It’s not just a shortage of people signing up to be teachers. More and more teachers are leaving the profession early, burnt out.
The idea that teachers rock up at 9am and finish at 3pm is rubbish. They work longer hours than teachers in many other countries, but less time in front of a class. Only 40 percent of the hours our teachers work involve face to face learning.
If our teachers have more time to teach they will be more effective and less likely to leave the profession they love.
Fixing the teacher shortage is just one of the things I am focused on.
I’m the first in my family to finish high school. In fact, I am the first in my family to finish Year 10. My mum and dad never even dreamt of going to university. They grew up at a time when most working-class kids in Western Sydney didn’t even finish school.
We are a different country today, but that change, that Labor governments have made happen, still hasn’t reached into every corner of the country.
Kids from poorer families are still less likely to go to pre-school than kids from wealthier families. They are less likely to finish high school, and they are less likely to go to university.
Reading and maths skills of kids in primary school have improved in the last decade, but not for kids from poorer backgrounds.
If you’re a child from a poorer background chances are you are a year or two behind children from wealthier backgrounds by the time you are in Year 3. And by the time you are in Year 9 you can be four or five years behind.
If you start behind or you fall behind it hard to catch up. A lot of kids don’t. The gap tends to widen with every year at school.
The end result is 43 percent of young Australians now have a university degree, but only 20 percent of young Australians from poorer backgrounds. It’s about the same for young people in regional Australia. It’s even worse for young indigenous Australians.
I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin. None of us do. But if we are honest with ourselves that’s where we still are today.
Fixing this isn’t easy, but it’s important. As Labor people we get it: education is the most powerful cause for good in this country.
If more Australians get the keys that Paul Keating talked about, it doesn’t just help them. It has intergenerational benefits. Their kids will live different lives.
It also transforms communities like where I grew up. And in an age where 9 out of 10 new jobs will require you to finish high school and go on to TAFE or university, it means we have the skills we need and that we grow together not apart.
That’s why I few weeks ago when I released 20,000 extra university places for areas where we have skills shortages I said all of those places will be reserved for students from poorer backgrounds, from the regions, Australians with a disability, indigenous Australians and Australians who are the first in their family to ever set foot in a university.
That’s just the start. Fixing this means starting a lot earlier. That’s why our cheaper child care plan is important. It will cut the cost childcare for more than 1 million families and help a lot of parents, in particular women, to return to work. But it will do more than that.
I mentioned before that kids from poorer backgrounds are less likely to get access to early childhood education. That means it’s more likely when they get to school that they start behind. Our cheaper childcare plan will help. So, I hope, will the decision I have made to scrap the activity test for all indigenous kids. That means all indigenous kids will have access to 36 hours of care a fortnight whether their parents meet the activity test or not.
The next step is for the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive review into the early childhood and education sector, with the aim of implementing a universal subsidy of 90 per cent for all families.
Remember election night when Albo talked about widening the doors of opportunity. That’s what we do. And what I am determined to do. Doors that only a great education can open.