Australian Primary Principals Association National Conference


Australian Primary Principals Association
National Conference

3 November 2022

This is most kids’ worst nightmare – standing up in front of 700 principals.                     

But not mine. It’s a privilege to be asked to talk with you today about some of the big challenges in education. 

As principals you know them better than most. You live them. And some of them have been made worse by the last few years of Covid. 

The mental health and well-being of students is just one example. 

Fingers crossed, we are now past the worst of the pandemic, but we are still dealing with the aftershocks. 

A principal at a school in Newcastle told me about her students’ experience during the lockdowns. 

Her Year 5 students missed out on a camp in the first year of the pandemic. That was ok. She organised another camp for the next year. 

Then we locked down again. And those kids missed out on that rite of passage, again. 

Sam, the school captain, said in a speech at the end of last year, that he’d loved his time at primary school. 

But he wished he’d got to go on that camp with his mates. 

It’s stories like this that are the reason we have put $200 million in the budget last week to support your students’ mental health and wellbeing. 

Every school will receive on average $20,000. This can go towards things like counsellors or psychologists. 

It can also go towards camps and excursions.  The sorts of things that bring children together.  The sorts of things that Sam and his mates missed out on. 

It’s not just students though who have had their lives turned upside down. It’s teachers too, and principals. 

I know you have borne the brunt of a lot of this. 

A principal from the Inner West here in Sydney told me about the weeks she spent trying to find a Year 2 teacher. 

She contacted other principals. Other teachers. Colleagues in state office. 

It took her two weeks of calls before she found a teacher.

It’s a common story. 

We have got a teacher shortage right across the country. 

In government schools and non-government schools. 

It’s bad in the bush. 

And it’s particularly chronic where the power of education is needed most – in schools where a lot of students are from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Covid has made it worse, but it’s not just covid or the flu. 

It’s a problem 10 years in the making. 

In the last 10 years there has been a 16 percent drop in the number of young people enrolling in teaching. 

We have also seen a drop in completion rates. Only 50 percent of students who study teaching complete their degree. 

That all adds up to fewer new teachers. 

Then there is the problem of teachers leaving the profession. 

Something like 30 to 50 percent of teachers leave in the first five years. 

A lot of really experienced mid-career teachers are leaving too. Not retiring – just resigning. There is no one reason why, but one of the reasons is workload. 

They are burnt out. 

The Productivity Commission report from a few weeks ago, told us what I am sure you already know. 

Australian teachers work longer than their counterparts overseas, but less than 40 percent of that is face to face teaching. 

So, not enough students going in, not enough coming out, and too many teachers leaving the profession they love. 

That all comes together to create a teacher shortage crisis. 

Fixing this isn’t easy. 

It took 10 years to create this crisis, and it will take time to fix. 

The next few years are going to be tough. 

No government can do it on their own. I can help provide national leadership. I can help boost the supply of university places and improve ITE. But I don’t run schools. I don’t employ you or our teachers. State and Territory Governments do most of that. 

That means if we are serious about tackling this problem we have got to work together – to boost the number of Australians who become teachers, and keep them once they get there.

That’s what the roundtable I organised in Canberra in August was all about. 

Getting Ministers, principals, teachers and other experts around the table to talk about this. 

There has been a bit of work that has happened since then.  My Department, State and Territory Education Departments, the AEU and the IEU, the National Catholic Education Commission, the Independent Schools Association and principal peak bodies like this one have been meeting and nutting out what a National Teacher Workforce Action Plan should look like. 

The upshot of all this work is this draft, and today I am releasing it to get your feedback. 

It includes about $328 million of Commonwealth Government funding. Including:

  • $159 million to train more teachers,
  • $56 million for scholarships worth up to $40,000 each to encourage the best and brightest to become teachers,
  • $68 million to triple the number of mid-career professionals shifting into teaching,
  • $10 million to boost professional development,
  • $10 million on a campaign to raise the status of the teaching profession, and
  • a $25 million Teacher Workload Reduction Fund – to trial new ways to reduce the workload on teachers and maximise the time they have to teach. 

I want to know what you think of it. What’s right. What’s wrong. What should be in it. What should be taken out. 

And that starts this morning, sitting down and talking with some of you here, after Pasi’s speech. 

In December, I will get together with State and Territory Education Ministers to go through all the feedback and sign off on the plan. 

But that won’t be the end of it. 

As I said a moment ago, this is a problem 10 years in the making and it is going to take time to fix. 

That means this needs to be a permanent fixture of Education Ministers’ meetings for a while to come – building and expanding on what we agree to in December. 

I just think that’s critical. 

If we don’t, we are not going to build and keep the teaching workforce we need and the principals we are going to need. 

There is one more thing I want to talk about today. 

The Productivity Commission’s Report from a few weeks ago focused on three things. 

I have spoken about two of those – mental health and teacher shortages. 

The third thing they focused on was students falling behind, and what we do about it. 

It’s a good time to talk about this, with the NAPLAN data out this week and the next National Schools Reform Agreement negotiations due to kick off soon. 

I know NAPLAN doesn’t measure everything, and I have already talked about the impact Covid has had on the mental health of a lot of young people. 

But we haven’t seen the same impact on literacy or numeracy. 

Despite all the horror predictions, the NAPLAN data was in most cases as good as before the pandemic. 

Given everything we have been through over the last few years, that’s pretty amazing. 

And that’s a tribute to you and the teachers you lead. Adapting and learning. And the parents and students who had to adapt as well. 

The NAPLAN data also shows a long-term trend which is fantastic.

The reading skills of primary school students are today materially different to what they were 14 years ago.

The data shows it.

It shows the reading skills of primary school students today are about a year ahead of where primary school students were 14 years ago.

A year ahead.

You own that.

It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media, but this is important.

Reading is an essential building block for learning.  The better you read, the better you learn, and what you are doing is working.

That’s the good news, but there are things I am worried about.

Despite the big improvements in reading at primary school there isn’t much difference between the reading skills of a Year 9 student today and 14 years ago.

It’s about the same.

In other words, the big gains in primary school aren’t leading to big gains in high school.

What I am even more worried about is this – the gap between children from poor families and children from wealthy families is getting bigger.

I have said a number of times, 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 here we are.

If you’re a child from a poor family you are less likely to go to preschool. Less likely to finish school. Less likely to go to university.

And this data gives us an insight into why.

Fourteen years ago the gap in the reading skills of 8 year olds from wealthy families and 8 year olds from poor families was a bit over a year.

Now it is over two.

And that gap grows with every year of school.

By the time they get to year 9 that gap is over five.

Helping these children doesn’t just change their lives.

It’s more than that.

It ricochets through generations.

It means their children live different lives.

It changes whole communities.

It helps make sure we grow together, not apart.

And it gives us the skills we need and it makes our whole country stronger.

That’s the real power of education. It changes everything.

But what if we fail?

9 out of 10 new jobs in the next few decades will require you to finish high school and go on to TAFE or university.

9 out of 10.

That’s why I worry about the gap in learning growing between children from poor and wealthy families.

And what the long-term effects of that are.

That’s what drives me. It’s what Albo means when he talks about “no one left behind”.

And I think it needs to be a priority in the next National Schools Reform Agreement.

I hope that gives you an idea of where I am coming from, what I am focused on.

What’s important to me, and the value and importance I place in everything you do.

Can I thank you Malcolm for the invitation to speak today and the time you have given me so far to pick your brain.

I am really looking forward to working with everyone here.

Listening to you. Learning from you.

And hopefully play a small role in advancing what has always been the most powerful cause for good.

The education of our children.

Thank you very much.