Doorstop Interview – Menindee – Thursday 19 January 2023


SUBJECTS: Teaching shortage crisis.; very remote teacher HELP  debt 

JOURNALIST: So, Minister, how would you define the state of the teaching crisis? 

JASON CLARE: It’s serious. We’ve got a shortage of teachers right across the country, in our big capital cities, but also in small country towns, and it’s really bad in the more remote parts of Australia. And that’s why we’re doing this. From today, we’ll scrap your HECS (HELP) if you work as a teacher in a small country town, a remote community like this, for four years. And that’s a real incentive for, we hope, a lot of teachers to make the decision to come and work in some of the more remote parts of Australia. 

JOURNALIST: Now, the specific eligibility criteria. How would you explain that? 

JASON CLARE: If you’re a schoolteacher and you work for four years in a remote school across the country, there’s about 300 of these schools right across the country from Menindee, where we are today, to Burke or Wilcannia or Birdsville or the Tiwi Islands off the coast of Darwin or King Island off the coast of Tasmania – really small schools, small populations, but with a shortage of teachers, then we’ll scrap your HECS. And the average HECS bill for a teacher is about 35 grand. So, we think that’s a pretty good incentive to come and work in a fantastic place like this. 

JOURNALIST: So, looking at the specific wording, there’s a definite difference between “remote” and “very remote” so places like Menindee, Wilcannia, they’re very remote; places like Broken Hill, which are also experiencing teacher shortage problems, they’re considered remote. They’re not eligible, so why are those bigger centres like Broken Hill, Alice Springs, things like that, why are they missing out? 

JASON CLARE: So, this scheme has been set up for very remote places like Menindee. There’s legislation in the Parliament at the moment to set up a similar sort of scheme for doctors and nurse practitioners not just for places that are really remote like Menindee but also places like Broken Hill and bigger places like Dubbo as well. If this scheme works, if it does what we want it to do, which is to attract more teachers to where we really need them, then we can have a look at whether we might potentially expand it. At the moment, we think that this year up to 2000 teachers across the country will be able to immediately benefit from this. They’re teachers who are already here, who have been working in schools like this school in Menindee for the last four years. And every year after that about 500 extra teachers will benefit from this. But if it works, if it does what we want it to do, which is to attract people to our country towns and our remote communities and centres, it’s something we can look at expanding in the future. 

JOURNALIST: Just for the record, stating as well, this does apply retroactively as well. 

JASON CLARE: Yes, that is right. If you’re a teacher that’s been teaching in a remote country town for the last four years, so going back to 2019, then you can apply from today and get your HECS scrapped immediately. But if you move here and you work here for four years, we will scrap it then. It will help people who are already here teaching, but it also acts as a drawcard and an incentive for people to move here. 

JOURNALIST: Now on Indigenous education. How big is the gap for Indigenous education now? 

JASON CLARE: The short answer to that is ‘too big’. We have fewer Indigenous young people finishing school. We’ve got challenges with attendance rates right across the country but particularly in Indigenous communities, and this is one of the things; if you have got a great teacher, there’s nothing more important than shaping the person’s education than their [inaudible]. At a school like this here in Menindee you’ve got incredible teachers. You’ve got a chance to meet them today. But we have still got a shortage, still got gaps and if we can fill those gaps, that means that the children here benefit. 

One of the things that I learnt just in the conversations that I’ve been having with the teachers here today is the difference between being a teacher in a place like Menindee to, say, being a teacher in a big capital city, one of them is that everybody knows you in town. You can’t be anonymous. But also you’re teaching in smaller classes with smaller groups of kids. Sometimes it’s one‑on‑one or one teacher and it might be four or five students, and so your impact is bigger, your chance to shape and change and improve the lives of people is bigger. And in a school like this, where 75 percent of the kids are Indigenous, that really matters. 

JOURNALIST: Similar sort of question there, but what about in terms of remote versus non‑remote? 

JASON CLARE: If you come from regional Australia or remote Australia, the chances are that you’re less likely to go to preschool, you’re less likely to finish high school, and you’re less likely to go to uni. 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 we are now, and we can do something about that through the decisions we take and the decisions we make to help to make sure that young people get a chance at a great education, get a chance to go to preschool, to finish high school and to go onto uni. It wasn’t so long ago that at a school like this in Menindee you couldn’t finish high school. It finished at year 10. At the moment, only about 20 per cent of people who live in regional Australia have a uni degree – 20 per cent of young people in their 20s and 30s. It is about 45 per cent across the nation. We need to bridge that gap as well. That starts not at the door of university. It doesn’t even start here at school. It starts way back when kids are really really young. This is one of the things that will help. It’s not going to do everything, but it will help.

JOURNALIST: You alluded earlier, Minister, to a program that’s currently before Parliament about doctors and nurses, trying to address that. Are there any other measures the Government are in the planning stages of or already have in place to help close the gap as well? 

JASON CLARE: There’s no one thing that’s going to do it. There’s a whole bunch of things we need to do. One of the things I passed through the Parliament last year was to increase the amount of time that Indigenous children get access to early education. Whether your mum or your dad is working or not, studying or not, we’ve increased the amount of time that Indigenous kids get access to early childhood education to 36 hours a fortnight from 1 July this year. The reason I did that is in the first days in my job we got information that told us that readiness [inaudible] is going backwards. About 50 per cent of kids are assessed as ready to start school when they’re four, but only about 34 per cent of Indigenous kids, so that’s a big gap. Before COVID, it was 35 per cent, so it’s getting worse. We know that if you go to preschool, then you’re going to be more ready to start primary school. So that’s why I’ve upped that because I think that is going to make a difference. But that’s not the only thing we’ve done. There’s a whole bunch of things we did. 

JOURNALIST:  Are there other things you are addressing in relation to this scheme, the current state of remote education and things like that?  

JASON CLARE: Oh, there’s lots. You know, we started by talking about the shortage of teachers. We need to encourage more people to want to become a teacher. I was really encouraged to see on the wall pictures of some of the students here and some that are really little in primary school saying, “I want to be a teacher when I grow up.” I want more kids to want to be a teacher when they grow up. Part of that is an obligation on me and other politicians to stop bagging teachers and start giving them a wrap. There aren’t many jobs that are more important than being a teacher and you see that many times here in the more remote parts of the country. So, I want to encourage more people to be teachers. That’s why we’re rolling out scholarships worth up to 40 grand, so some of our best and brightest become teachers. We want to make sure that more people who start a teaching degree finish it. Only about 50 per cent of people who start the degree finish it. We can do better than that. And this idea that teachers sort of clock on at nine o’clock and finish at three o’clock is just rubbish. School hasn’t started yet, but we’ve got a lot of teachers here today. Why? Well, it’s not just because the ABC is here. It’s because they know how important their job is. So, I want us to look at: what are the things we can do to reduce the workload of teachers to make their job a bit easier and build respect for the profession. If we do that, then we know that the impact on our children will be enormous because our teachers will be more effective at what they do and there will be more teachers in the classroom. 

JOURNALIST: Just quickly based on that, in terms of the responsibility between the State and Federal Government to try and address that because obviously these government schools do fall under the State Government, but how do you think those government levels should sort of work together to try and address that problem? 

JASON CLARE: I think you hit the nail on the head. You can’t achieve anything unless you work together. The Federal Government plays a big role in helping people to get to university and the university courses. The State governments run the schools and so they determine the salaries and the workload. But if we really want to fix this, it requires the Federal Government and the state governments to work together and that’s what I’m doing. Last year, I got a roundtable together to talk about this with all of the different State and Territory Education Ministers. But not just them. It’s no good just having politicians talking to each other. We got teachers and principals and other experts in the room. We put together a work plan that we kicked off in December. Now, that’s not the end of it. It by no means does everything we need it to do. That’s just the start of it. I want to keep working with Education Ministers on this and everything else that we need to do to get our education system right. 

JOURNALIST: Thank you so much for that.