Catholic Education Leaders Forum – Thursday 14 September 2023

CATHOLIC EDUCATION LEADERS FORUM
14 SEPTEMBER 2023 

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Acknowledgements omitted.

In a few weeks’ time all Australians have a chance to make history. 

To put our history in our Constitution and to recognise the fact that Australia didn’t begin when Captain Cook arrived but that the Australian story—our story— goes back more than 60,000 years. 

This year we have a chance to give that history a voice. 

I would like to acknowledge and thank the Catholic Church for its support for the Voice. 

This won’t be easy. But it’s worth fighting for. 

The Irish tell a story about a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks to be let in and St Peter says, “sure, show me your scars.” 

And the man says, “but I don’t have any scars.” 

St Peter says, “what a pity, was there nothing worth fighting for?” 

This is worth fighting for. 

My first ancestor to set foot on this soil 193 years ago. 

In the hull of a convict ship. 

His name was Thomas. Thomas Clare. And he was also an Irishman. 

He was transported to other side of the world for the heinous crime of stealing a book. 

I sometimes wonder what he would think if he knew that his great-great-great-great grandson was now the Education Minister of the place he was sent to in leg-irons. 

He arrived here in 1830. By the time he got here, there was already a Catholic School in Hunter Street, Parramatta. Marist Brothers. 

Established by another Irishman, Father John Therry, who was committed to spreading the power of education to a growing flock of Catholics in a growing colony. 

As Nicholas Moore said last night, until then it had been illegal. 

From one school teaching 31 students 200 years ago, to around 1,800 Catholic schools educating around one in five Australian students today. 

A mission that has been going for more than 200 years. 

A lot of those schools are in the bush and the regions. 

And a lot of those students are from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Including in my own electorate, which is home to 12 great Catholic schools. 

Like La Salle Catholic College in Bankstown that produced a Prime Minister in Paul Keating. 

And the school next door, St Felix Primary, that produced an even more important Australian, my wife. 

Thank you for everything you do. 

I want you to know how much I value what you do. 

Today I wanted to talk about a couple of the big challenges we face in education. 

Some new, some old. 

One of those is AI. 

I know you have been grappling with this. 

When I was a kid, people used to knock on the door trying to sell you encyclopedias. That all went with the arrival of the internet. 

Generative AI takes it to the next level. 

It’s the internet bringing together all that information we used to have gathering dust on our bookshelves and to create new content. Sometimes accurate. Sometimes not. 

This also creates big challenges around privacy and integrity. 

How do we make sure that what a young person types into ChatGPT today doesn’t spit back an ad targeted at them on Tik Tok tomorrow? 

How do we make sure that young people don’t use it to get marks they don’t deserve? 

As the Australian Catholic University said yesterday, “The challenge is finding the right balance between the use and abuse of AI in student work.” 

Just like the calculator or the internet before it, this is not going away. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist or shut it out. We have to learn how to use it, how to work with it. 

I know that’s what you’re doing. 

And there’s lessons from what’s happening in the Catholic system now that we can apply to what needs to happen in every school. 

I’m working with State and Territory Ministers to develop a national best practice framework to inform the way AI operates in our schools. 

This will be a framework that will be designed to work across all schools, Catholic, independent and government schools. 

We’ve put out a draft framework and sought feedback. 

I would like to acknowledge the important role that you’re playing in that, and I thank you for it. 

Ministers will consider all of that when we meet next month. 

Unlike AI, something we should be trying to shut out of our schools is vaping. 

And I’m sure you’re seeing the impact of it. 

In the last few years, we’ve done a good job as a country in reducing the number of Australians smoking. But there’s one group where that’s now going up. 

And that’s young people. 

A big reason for that is vaping. 

Research I saw the other day from the Minderoo Foundation shows about 1 in 3 young people have vaped in the last 30 days. And that if you vape, you’re three times more likely to take up smoking. 

You can see some of the impact of this in the classroom. 

Kids withdrawing from nicotine, sneaking out of class or not being able to focus and becoming disruptive.

Teachers saying they feel like some sort of de facto police. 

And it is blindingly obvious that the companies that make these things are targeting school students, with fancy flavours, like bubble gum. 

They’re designed to look USBs and highlighters, so you can hide them in the pencil case. 

And remember: these things include the sorts of chemicals you’ll find in weedkiller or bug spray. That’s why parents are worried about it. 

That’s why we are cracking down on this insidious product. 

We need to keep them out of our schools, out of the corner shop around the corner from the school. 

The biggest challenge that confronts us in education though is more fundamental. 

And it’s been made blistering clear by the NAPLAN results that came out a couple of weeks ago.

And that’s this. 

One in 10 children are below the minimum standard that we expect them to meet in terms of literacy and numeracy. 

That’s no surprise because earlier this year, Education Ministers raised the bar students are now expected to meet. 

And we did that for a reason. To better identify students who need extra help. 

What it shows is this. 

1 in 3 children from poor families and from the bush are below that minimum standard. 

And so are 1 in 3 Indigenous students. 

Not 1 in 10. 1 in 3. 

A lot of those students are in our public schools. That’s where this is most acute. Most widespread. 

It’s not just that though. 

If you look at NAPLAN results over the last decade, you’ll find that many of the children who fall behind, never catch up. 

Only 1 in 5 who are below the minimum standard in year 3 are above it by the time they’re in Year 9. 

Only 1 in 5 catch up. 

And if you think that’s bad, wait for this. 

Of all those Indigenous students who are below the minimum standard in year 3, it’s not 1 in 5 who catch up, it’s around 1 in 17. 

Indigenous students are 3 times more likely to be below the minimum standard. 

And 3 times more likely to stay there. Stuck there. 

What a waste of potential. 

The next National School Reform Agreement will be about fixing funding and fixing things like this. 

Tying funding to the sort of things that are going to help to do that. 

To help a child who falls behind to catch up, keep up and finish school. 

When Jacinta and I were in Alice Springs a few of weeks ago, we got a chance to see the sort of things that can help do that. 

Things at Gillen Public School, but also the sort of things that are working at Our Lady of Sacred Heart in Alice Springs, like small group tutoring. 

In 18 weeks, students learn as much as they are expected to learn in a year. They catch up. 

We’ve also got a teacher shortage crisis in this country. 10 years in the making. 

There are a bunch of reasons for that, but one of them is this: at the moment only 50 per cent of students who start a teaching degree finish it, and 20 per cent of those leave the profession in the first three years. 

Part of tackling this teacher shortage is fixing this. Increasing the number of people who finish the course and increasing the number of people who stay on teaching. 

This means improving teacher education, improving the uni course, improving the prac. 

Not many teachers tell me they felt ready for the classroom when they started, that the course had everything they needed to succeed. 

Things like how children learn, the evidence-based practices that work and teach children to read, to write, to do maths, and how to manage a disruptive classroom. 

Those fundamentals are now going to be embedded in every teaching course. 

We are also going to set up a National Quality Assurance Board to make sure all universities do this. 

And I want to thank Catholic education for your support of these reforms, in particular the Australian Catholic University. 

This isn’t everything, but it’s important. 

I’m interested in what works. What’s going to make sure that we get more young people studying teaching. Get more finishing the degree and get more young teachers stay in the profession. 

On that first point about getting more young people to study teaching, in the next few weeks, we’ll also be rolling out a national campaign to raise the status of teachers. 

I want to change the way we as a country think about our teachers, and the way our teachers think our country thinks of them. 

It’s why the first thing I did in this job was go back to my old primary school and give my former teacher, Mrs Fry a hug. 

At the moment, only about 39 per cent of teachers think the work they do is valued by the community. 

In places like Singapore, that figure is more like 68 per cent and they’ve got a line out the door at university of people wanting to become teachers. 

I want more young Australians to want to be a teacher. 

That teacher that inspires, that changes lives. 

And in a few weeks’ time, you’ll see a campaign online, on bus stops, on billboards and in shopping centres that will hopefully make more Australians want to be that teacher. 

Teachers like Mirakai, a primary school teacher from Queensland. 

Mirakai teaches a blind student, Matias, who is five years old. 

At the school’s sports carnival this year, Matias wanted Mirakai to hold his hand and run with him instead of running with his cane. 

Imagine this. The starter’s pistol fires. The race starts. 

Matias is nervous. A serious look on his face. 

They set off and his fellow students on the sideline begin chanting his name. 

Matias! Matias! Matias! 

In a matter of seconds, his face turns from serious to a smile. 

A smile from ear to ear. 

One of Mirakai’s colleagues took a photo of them crossing the finish line together. And it’s that picture Mirakai points to when asked why she’s a teacher. 

Who wouldn’t want to be that teacher? 

I know you understand this. 

Because everything you do helps the children in your schools to aim higher, to be kinder, to work harder, to be braver. 

And because you believe in them, you make them believe in themselves. 

That makes what you do the most important job in the world. 

In a couple of months if you live in Queensland, you’ll see you’ll see Mirakai’s story. If you live in another state or territory, you’ll see another teacher and another story just as moving. 

It’s intended to move and inspire and to make more Australians want to become a teacher, to be that teacher. 

Again, it’s not everything, but it’s important. 

I know you get that. It’s why you have dedicated your life to this mission. 

It’s why Parramatta Marist was set up all those years ago. 

And it’s why you’re here today. 

You understand that deep in your soul. 

That this is something “worth fighting for”. 

That arguably it’s even worth stealing a book for. 

Thank you for everything you do.  

I look forward to working with you to build a better and fairer education system for all Australians. 

Thank you very much. 

[ENDS]