Press Conference – Sydney – Monday 20 February 2023


SUBJECTS: Albanese Government reforms to early education, school education and higher education

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: This is a big year for education. This year we’ll kick off three big pieces of work to reform early education, school education, and higher education.

Two weeks ago, I announced the most comprehensive review of early education in Australia’s history. That work is being led by Professor Deborah Brennan AM from the University of New South Wales. She’ll do that work with the Productivity Commission. That work kicks off next month and will report to the government in the middle of next year.

At the other end of the education spectrum 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 AO. That work gets real this week. Tomorrow I’ll meet with the Ministerial Reference Group for the first time, and on Wednesday, Mary and the team will release a discussion paper at the Universities Australia Conference in Canberra. I’ll be provided with an interim report in June of this year and a final report by December.

And in the middle, in between the work we do in early education and in higher education, is the work that we need to do in school education, the work that will start this year on the next National School Reform Agreement. Funding is important, but so is what it’s spent on, what it’s invested in, and that’s what the work that we will do this year will be focused on.

A couple of weeks ago, the Productivity Commission released a report on the current National School Reform Agreement, and it was blistering in its criticism. It said that it was rolling out too slow, that it hadn’t had any real effect, that it lacked concrete targets and any practical reforms to implement those targets. Well, the next one will.

One of the things that was mentioned in that report that has always stuck with me is this; if you’re a child from a poor family or from the bush or an Indigenous Australian, you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. And with every year at school, that gap gets bigger. Ten years ago, the gap in reading skills of a child from a poor family and a child from a wealthy family in primary school was about a year. Now it’s two. And by the time they’re in year nine, that gap can be up to five. And that report also said that if you’re a child from a poor family and you go to a school where there’s lots of kids from poor families, it’s even harder to catch up. That weighs heavily on me because I went to a school like that and that’s what I want to fix. Over the next few weeks, education ministers across the country will finalise terms of reference and a team to give us the advice we need on what are the practical reforms to help children who fall behind. And more broadly, what are the real reforms that we need to embed in the next National School Reform agreements.

Individually, each of these big pieces of work are important. Each of them offers the opportunity for real reform in early education, in school education, and in higher education. But it’s what they do together that can make a real difference, that can help to transform the lives of children right across the country and change our country for the better. And I hope by the time all of this work is done, you will see, weaving through it all a common thread. Today if you’re a child from a poor family, you’re less likely to go to preschool, you’re more likely to fall behind, you’re less likely to finish high school and you’re less likely to finish university. This is an opportunity to change that.

Happy to take some questions

JOURNALIST: Minister, when we talk about inequality in schools, we often talk about funding because the disparity is just so great between the richest and the poorest schools. When are we actually going to see all schools, public schools, brought up to 100 percent of their SRS?

CLARE: I want to see 100 percent of schools, 100 percent funded. At the moment, non-government schools, or many non-government schools, are funded above 100 percent of the SRS. Over the course of the next six years or so, that will taper down to 100 percent. At the same time, over the same period, we’re going to see funding rise for government schools, but that will top out at 95 percent. So, there’s a 5 percent gap. And what we committed to in the election is to work with state and territory governments to make sure that all schools receive full and fair funding. Now, funding is important, as I said, but so is what it’s spent on, what it’s invested in. And here is our last best chance to get this right, to make sure that we’re funding the sorts of things that are going to help children who fall behind.

Last week I spoke in Parliament about changes to NAPLAN, changes that Ministers agreed to two weeks ago to NAPLAN are the biggest changes in 14 years. Putting it online, we’re bringing it forward to March. We’re also simplifying the information that we provide to teachers and to parents. And in that last category that identifies children who aren’t meeting minimum standards, we classified that as children who need additional support. Parents told us to call this that. They wanted to make it very, very clear that these are children who need additional support to catch up. There are always going to be children who fall behind at school, but our job is to make sure that they don’t stay behind, or they don’t fall further back. We’re going to help them catch up. And that’s work that teachers do, that’s work that parents do, but it’s also work that we can do here in this agreement to make sure that we’re funding the things that work. And that will be the focus of this expert panel that we’ll establish and announce in the next few weeks.

JOURNALIST: Are we leaving it too long, though, Minister? We’ve had such a poor track record over a long period of time and results have just been declining over that time. Can we be assured that this process is not going to drag out over multiple years and we’re just going to get to a point where we’re talking about the same issues in five years’ time?

CLARE: Two things. We’ve had mixed results. If you look at the reading skills of children in primary school today, compared to 14 years ago, there’s reason to be positive. The reading skills of children in primary school today are about a year ahead of where they were 14 years ago. So that’s a good thing. What troubles me, though, is that children, by the time they get to high school, haven’t improved at the same rate, they’ve tapered out. And what worries me even more than that is the fact that you’ve got children from poor backgrounds, children from wealthier background, the gap in learning getting bigger. Now you talk about taking too long. Let me make this point, at the moment, about 45 percent of Aussies in their twenties and thirties have a university degree, but only 20 percent of Aussies from a poor background, only 20 percent from the bush, only 7 percent of Indigenous Australians in their twenties and thirties have a uni degree. I’m not naive, you can’t fix that at the door of university. You’ve got to go back to what we do in school, but you’ve got to go back further than that into what we do in early education. The first five years of anyone’s life are everything. Everything you see, everything you eat, every smile, every book, every lesson shapes the person that you become. That’s why what I’m talking about today isn’t just reform of school education, it’s reform of the whole education system.

JOURNALIST: And we talk a lot about teacher shortages, especially here in New South Wales, and it’s a problem across the country. Lots of schools report that they’re having to combine classes with very little, very minimal supervision, and very little learning goes on in those environments. You waived HECS debt for teachers who work in regional and the most remote communities, but should that programme be extended to fix shortages even in the metropolitan areas?

CLARE: One of the things that is in the National Teacher Workforce Plan are scholarships to encourage more people to become teachers. There are different ways to encourage people to take up a particular path. The way in which you fund university degrees is one of them. The way in which you can waive HECS for a teacher, for example, to go and work in a remote community. And I think that’s a really good idea, something that the previous government put in place and that we have continued. I was in Menindee a couple of weeks ago and the teachers at the school there said the fact that you’ve got to work four years in remote schools to waive the HECS is important because they’re sick of teachers coming and going. So that’s a great incentive. We’ve done the same, by the way, for doctors who work in country towns and remote communities and nurse practitioners as well.

But there are other ways you can do this too, and I talked about scholarships. In the budget last year is funding of more than $50 million to fund 5000 scholarships worth up to $40,000 to encourage some of our best and brightest to become teachers. I want young people bursting out of high school wanting to become teachers rather than lawyers or bankers. And this financial incentive is one of the things that we can do to help. Chloe, I might hand over to you.

JOURNALIST: Thank you, Minister. I appreciate you may not have been briefed on this, but we’ve just seen reports that an Australian professor has been taken hostage in a remote area of PNG. Are you aware of this situation? Do you have any details?

CLARE: No, I don’t have any details on hand, Chloe, but obviously that’s extremely concerning, and thoughts are with him and his family at this time.

JOURNALIST: No worries. Thanks, Minister.

CLARE: No worries. Thanks, Chloe.

JOURNALIST: Sir, do you feel that the states and territories are working closely enough together and with the Federal Government when it comes to education? It feels like we’ve got very disparate curriculums and very different outcomes across the country. Should we be doing more to work together?

CLARE: Look, a quick shout out to education ministers right across the country. We don’t always get a great rap, but I’ve got to tell you, we work well together. And the proof of that, the changes that we agreed to NAPLAN in the last couple of weeks, as well as the National Workforce Plan that we developed to tackle the teacher shortage crisis in December. These are Ministers who are Labor, Liberal and National Party, all working really well together. And I think we got a good outcome couple of weeks ago. We’ve demonstrated our determination to work together here by our commitment to develop an expert panel to give us advice on the next National School Reform Agreement. There is always more work that we can do here, and particularly collaborating to identify what is best practice identifying those schools that do better than other schools. What’s the magic? What’s the secret sauce that you can find in some schools that we can identify and make sure that we roll out into other schools? Now, ACARA has done some of that work for us, but I think there’s a lot more that we can do there to make sure that we capture the magic and make sure that every school gets that opportunity.