Thank you to the key makers










“Thank you to the key makers”


NSW Primary Principals Association Annual Conference

Sofitel Wentworth Hotel

25 October 2012




This is most kids’ worst nightmare – standing up in front of 250 principals. 

Not only that, 250 principals who are on the drink.

It’s not mine.

It’s a privilege to be asked to speak to you tonight about the importance of public education.

Like most of us, I am a product of public education.  And proud of it.

I went to Cabramatta Public School and Canley Vale High School.

It’s what I learnt at these fantastic schools that has given me the opportunities I have had in life.

My story is nothing special.  It’s what happened to the other kids in my class that reveals the potency and real importance of public education.

Every classroom I sat in at school was full of refugees. Kids from everywhere from South America to South-East Asia.  Most couldn’t speak English when they arrived.

They are now doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  Some went off to work for big companies.  Some set up small companies of their own.  Some might even be school principals.

Why did this all happen?  Public education – and the teachers and the principals who make it happen.

It is public education that does this – it does the heavy lifting.

This story repeats itself everyday.

I went back to Cabramatta Public School when I got elected a few years ago, and I went and saw John Rice the school principal and he told me the story of what is happening there now.

It’s the same challenge – and the same magic is being created.

80 percent of children who start kindergarten at Cabramatta speak little or no English.  Now, here is the magic – when they are tested in 3rd grade they are at the national average for writing and are above the national average for spelling.

That’s the power of education – and it’s our public schools that do most of this work. 

John invited me back to Cabramatta Public School a few years ago for ‘Return to School’ day.  I sat on the stage and all these great memories came flooding back. 

The hall seemed a lot smaller than I remember it when I was 10.    But one of the teachers seemed awfully familiar.  Mrs Fry.  She was a teacher when I was there 30 years ago – and is still there today. It’s that sort of school.

The thing I most remember though is a DVD 6th grade made – about the story of Vincent Lingiari, the indigenous man whose actions led to the first Aboriginal land rights legislation in the 1970s.

Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote a song about this – ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ – and it played in the background to the DVD.

The lyrics to the song say:

 “a tall stranger appeared in the land, and he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony, and through Vincent’s fingers poured a handful of sand”.

I thought about those lyrics, and that man.

The man who poured the sand through Vincent’s fingers was the same man who helped pour the concrete that built the hall I was sitting in and the classrooms I learnt in.

This man used to live around the corner from Cabramatta Public School in Albert Street.  Two of his children went to the school and his wife did volunteer work in the canteen.  His name is Gough Whitlam.

He did great things for CabramattaPublic School.  When I was in kindergarten he officially opened the new part of the school he helped fund.

He did great things for education right across Australia.

The changes he made, I suspect, are the reason many of us are in this room tonight.

It’s the reason I am here.  I am the first in my family to finish school.  The first to go to university.  My parents didn’t get that same opportunity. 

Whitlam changed that. 

And from little things big things grow.

Whitlam understood this.  So do you.  So do I.  But there is a lot more still to do.

Here’s just one challenge. 

Go to any place in Australia where unemployment is high and you will find school retention rates are low. 

This is important because most of the jobs of the future are going to require a TAFE certificate or a university degree.  That means unemployment is going to get worse in places like this unless we do something about it.

What I mean is this – we have to do more than just increase retention rates to 90 percent across the board.  We have to increase it to 90 per cent in places like Cabramatta.  That’s what will dislodge disadvantage.  And if we are going to do this – again it’s public education that will have to do the heavy lifting.

This is not just about places like Cabramatta.

It’s not minerals in the ground that will determine GDP in the next century – it’s what’s up here.  It’s brain power that will drive economic growth.

We sit at the edge of what will be the biggest middle class the world has ever seen. By the end of this decade, Asia will have a bigger middle class than the rest of the world combined. 

And as Asia grows – they will want the things that only a highly educated work force can provide: legal services, financial advice, consumer goods and advanced manufacturing.

That’s why what we do here is so important.

What we do in education – will determine the standard of living for all Australians for the next century.

That’s why Keating called education the “keys to the kingdom”.

It’s the master key that unlocks every door.  The key that unlocks all the opportunities of life.

That’s why we should be investing more in education not less.

Why I can’t understand why the State Government is cutting education funding by $1.7B.

I am not going to get into the politics of that tonight.

Instead I am going to thank you.

Thank you for everything you do – everyday.

If Paul Keating is right and education really is the keys to the kingdom then you, and the teachers you work with, are the key makers.

And even though the people that walk through those doors might not say thank you on the way through, they are – or they will be.

They will get it one day.  And when they do they will come up to you like I am tonight, and say thank you for what you taught me.