Australian Education Union Federal Conference – Friday 24 February 2023

The first thing you might have seen me do when I got this job was go back to Cabramatta Public School and give Cathy Fry a hug.

I did that for a reason.

It felt like the right place to start.

But I also wanted to send a message.

A message about what I think is important.

About the sort of Minister I want to be.

That starts with respect.

I am not going to be a Minister who calls teachers duds.

I am not going to be a Minister who bags teachers.

I respect the work you do.

I know how important it is.

Especially in places like where I grew up.

And in the first few months in this job I have got a better insight into how hard and complex the work you do is.

It’s not the same job it was when Cathy started at Cabramatta Public in 1978.

It’s not the same job it was just a few years ago.

It’s harder.

Part of that’s Covid.  You see better than anyone the mental health impact that still lingers long after the lockdowns.

But it’s not just Covid.

Part of it is there are fewer friends now in the staffroom to help bear the load.

Not enough young people want to be teachers any more, and more and more experienced teachers are leaving.

I know that’s not new. It’s been building for a decade.

But now it’s at crisis point.  That’s the truth.

If the first thing I did was give Cathy a hug, the second thing I did was call this out.

And call Education Ministers together to do something about it.

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.

And no government can do it on their own. I can provide national leadership. I can help boost the supply of university places and improve initial teacher education. But I don’t run schools. I don’t employ 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.

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

Getting Ministers together, but not just Ministers. Teachers, principals, unions and others who have worked in education their whole life.

And what came out of that was the National Teacher Workforce Plan released just before Christmas.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not perfect. But it’s a start.

It’s an indication of what a bit of national leadership and bit of good will can do.

And it’s a better plan because we consulted with you.

Expect that to continue.

This is a big year for education.

Two weeks ago I announced the most comprehensive review of early education in Australia’s history. That work will be headed up by Professor Deborah Brennan AM.

The Prime Minister has made it clear what he wants to come from this. The Labor Party created Medicare, universal healthcare. We also created universal superannuation. He wants to add to that a truly universal early education system.

That’s part one.

At the other end of the education system is the Universities Accord.

This is the biggest and broadest review of higher education since the Bradley Review 15 years ago. That work is being led by Professor Mary O’Kane AC.

And as you know, in between both of these, is the next National School Reform Agreement.

Each of these individually is a massive piece of work. A chance for real reform.

It’s how they come together, though, that offers the chance to truly transform lives and change our country for the better.

Funding schools based on need isn’t a new idea.

That’s what the work David Gonski, and his historic review, informed by overwhelming evidence and your significant campaigning, was all about.

It’s based on a pretty simple concept, and a pretty Australian one too.

Fairness.

That’s what funding schools based on need is fundamentally all about.

Fairness.

And we are still not there.

The last decade has been a lost decade.

But you know that.

It’s what comes next that matters.

By the end of this decade all non-government schools will be down to 100 percent of the Schooling Resource Standard.

But apart from in the ACT, no government school will be.

There is a gap that needs to be filled.

At the election we made a commitment to work with State and Territory Governments to get every school on a path to 100 percent of its fair funding level.

Funding is critical, but so is what it does.

If you’re a child today from a poor family, or from the bush, or you’re an Indigenous child, then you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school.

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

Now it is over two.

And with every year at school that gap grows bigger.

By year nine the gap is over five years.

And if you’re a child from a poor family and you go to a school where there’s a lot of other children from poor families, you are less likely to catch up.

That’s not fair.

That weighs heavily on me.

I went to a school like that.

Fixing this is what drives me.

This is what I want fair funding to fix.

Funding tied to the things that will turn this around.

Schools like this are the emergency wards of Australian education.

Ken Boston made this point a few years ago, and I think he’s right.

Emergency wards have a battery of specialists and machines to save lives.

Now compare that to a school like the one I went to, where Cathy still works today. What the teachers there work with.

This is what I mean when I say funding is critical, but so is what it is spent on. What it is invested in.

A few weeks ago a report came out from the Productivity Commission on the current National School Reform Agreement.

It was blistering in its criticism.

It said it doesn’t have any real targets or practical reforms to fix the sorts of things we need to fix.

The next one will.

That’s what the job of the team I announce in the next few weeks will be.

To advise me and other Education Ministers on the things that future funding should be tied to.

The real, practical things to dislodge disadvantage.

The things that work.

And that means talking to you. Listening to you. Working with you.

I know you want me to go harder and faster than I am. And I get it. I really do.

But this is the last best chance to get this right.

To build a better and a fairer education system.

To fix the unfairness in funding and the unfairness in outcomes.

To help children like the child I was.

To create a country where your chances in life don’t depend on how wealthy your parents are, where you live, or the colour of your skin.

There is a lot of work to do to get there, and I am looking forward to doing that with you.

Thanks very much.