Questions without notice – Getting children back to school

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (15:20): My question is to the Minister for Education. What challenges are facing Australia’s education system as children go back to school, and what will the Albanese Labor government do to address them?

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Education) (15:20): Schools are back now right across the country, including in Tasmania. There are a lot of happy students and a lot of relieved parents. I’m asked about challenges by the member for Lyons; there are plenty of them.

The worst of COVID is, hopefully, now behind us, but we’re still seeing the lingering after-effects of it in our schools. Ask any teacher and they will tell you about the mental health impacts that are still affecting some students. That’s why this year we’re rolling out funding to each and every school right across the country to fund things like extra counsellors but also practical things like school camps and excursions.

You can also see the impact of COVID on school attendance rates, which dropped again last year. But it’s not just COVID: over the last 10 years we’ve seen a drop in attendance rates right across the board, amongst boys and girls, primary schools and high schools, government and non-government schools, in the bush and in the cities.

This is serious, because if you’re not at school you’re not learning. That’s why I’ve put this on the agenda to discuss with education ministers when we meet later this month.

We’ve also got the challenge of a teacher shortage crisis. Go to any school and you’ll see it. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a drop in the number of people becoming schoolteachers of about 16 per cent. Not enough young people are becoming teachers, and too many people are leaving the profession they love, and it has an impact on our schools.

In December, just before Christmas, education ministers met to sign off on a plan to tackle this, and the challenge this year is for us to roll out that plan.

But the biggest challenge of all is this: if you’re a child from a poor family, if you’re a child from regional Australia, if you’re an Indigenous child, you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. That’s the verdict of a Productivity Commission report that came out only a couple of weeks ago. Ten years ago, the gap in reading skills between an eight-year-old from a poor family and an eight-year-old from a wealthy family was one year. It’s now more than two, and that gap grows with every year at school, so by the time you’re in year 9 the gap is five years. That’s the awful truth.

In the last 10 years we’ve seen attendance rates getting worse, the teacher shortage getting worse and this gap getting worse as well. That Productivity Commission report is blistering in its criticism of the coalition Education Agreement. It says that it lacks targets and lacks real, practical reforms to get there. The next one will not.

In the next few weeks, I’ll announce an independent panel to advise on what those targets should be and the reforms to get there, tied to funding, to help us build a better education system and a fairer education system for all Australians.