WEDNESDAY, 29 MARCH 2023
SUBJECTS: Expert panel to inform a better and fairer education system; Housing Australia Future Fund
MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, JASON CLARE: Thank you very much for coming along this morning. Can I introduce Dr Lisa O’Brien. Dr O’Brien is the Chair of the Australian Education Research Organisation and former Chief Executive Officer of the Smith Family, an organisation dedicated to tackling educational inequality. Dr O’Brien is the chair of the expert panel that I’m establishing today.
She will lead a team that also includes Lisa Paul, the former Secretary of the Department of Education; Professor Stephen Lamb, a professor at the Centre of International Research on Education Systems at Victoria University and also a current member of the National School Resourcing Board; Dr Jordana Hunter, School Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute; Dyonne Anderson, the President of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principals Association and the Principal at Cabbage Tree Island Public School in northern New South Wales; and Professor Pasi Sahlberg, the Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Melbourne.
Their job will be to advise me and to advise all State and Territory Education Ministers on what are the key targets that we should include in the next National School Reform Agreement and what are the real and practical reforms that we should tie future funding to in the bilateral agreements that we negotiate with State and Territory Governments next year.
This is a big year for education. Last month, I announced the biggest and most comprehensive review of early education in Australia’s history. That work is now underway. It’s being led by Professor Deborah Brennan AO and the Productivity Commission. At the other end of the education system is the Universities Accord, the biggest and broadest review of our higher education system since the Bradley Review 15 years ago. That work is being led by Professor Mary O’Kane AC. In between both of those is the work that Dr. O’Brien will lead.
We’ve got a good education system in Australia, but it can be a lot better and a lot fairer. In January the Productivity Commission released a report that revealed that if you’re a child from a poor family or from the bush or if you’re an Indigenous Australian, you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. That report also told us that the reading skills of primary school students are improving right across the country, but that the gap in reading skills of 8-year-olds from poor families and wealthy families is getting worse.
Fifteen years ago, that gap was one year; now it’s two. And that gap grows with every year of schooling. By the time that child is in year 9 at high school that gap in reading skills can be as much as four or five years. That report also told us that if you’re a child from a poor family and you go to a school where there’s a lot of disadvantage, then it’s even harder to catch up. That weighs on me because I went to a school like that. That’s what fair funding has to fix. Funding is important, but so is what it’s spent on, what it’s invested in and what it is tied to. This is our last, best chance to get this right.
The Productivity Commission report was scathing in its criticism of the current National School Reform Agreement. It said that it lacked the key targets that we need and, most importantly, the real practical reforms that we need to tie future funding to. I’ve told members of the press gallery here, I’ve told the Parliament what the next one will. That’s what this expert panel is about – providing us, providing ministers, with advice on what are the targets that we should put in the next agreement and what are the key, practical, real, tangible reforms that we should tie funding to in the next agreement and those bilateral agreements that we negotiate with State and Territory Governments next year. I’ve asked Dr O’Brien and the team to provide me with that advice by the end of October.
I’ll ask Dr O’Brien to say a few words and then happy to take some questions.
DR LISA O’BRIEN AM: Thank you very much, Minister. And I’ll only say a very few words. But I do want to say what a great pleasure it is and an honour to lead this important task and to work with such an outstanding panel of experts. So the panel members have a very broad range of experience and expertise they will bring to this task. And, as the minister said, we’re going to build on the work of the Productivity Commission, the report that was released last year, early this year, looking at the review of the National School Reform Agreement. We’re also going to draw on the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan which has already been released as well, and other existing government commitments that are in place. We’ll provide reports on the sorts of reforms that should be tied to the funding in the next school reform agreement.
So as a panel, we’ll be focusing on what governments can do to drive real change and real improvement in learning and in well-being and focus on how we can ensure that students are getting the education that they need and that the outcomes they’re achieving are what we would all want to see for young Australians.
So, we want to make sure that those reforms will be transparent and will importantly, those reforms will be linked to improvements and student outcomes. We’ll be working with closely with state and territory governments. We’ll consult very widely with stakeholders. We want to ensure that we get a really deep understanding of the issues and understanding possible areas for reform in this space. So I look forward to working with my fellow panel members. We’ll have a final report by the end of October and it will be a report that aims to drive real change and measurable change in the Australian education system and it will benefit teachers and parents but, most importantly, students.
CLARE: Thanks, Lisa.
JOURNALIST: So if the report is going to be delivered by the end of October, obviously there’s going to have to be a whole lot of negotiation. At what point do you think that your recommendations can be put into place?
CLARE: Let’s run through the timetable of what will happen. We’re establishing the panel today. They’ll provide their recommendations to education ministers at the end of October. We’re extending the life of the current National School Reform Agreement by 12 months to enable this work to happen. At the conclusion of this report then we’ll be in a position as a Commonwealth Government to begin negotiations with the states and territories on the head agreement, the next National School Reform Agreement, as well as begin those negotiations on the bilateral agreements that are struck with each and every state and territory.
We’ve made a commitment to make sure that we put all schools across the country on a path to 100 per cent full and fair funding. We made a commitment to work with states and territories to do that. But, as I said in my introductory comments, funding is important, but so is what it is spent on, what it’s invested in. And this is our last best chance to get this right. That’s why this work is so important.
We need to do this work to make sure that we identify what are the real, practical reforms that we should tie that funding to. Let me emphasise one point in case there’s any misunderstanding, because when the Productivity Commission report came out there was an assumption that we would be tying funding to outcomes, and so if a school didn’t meet a certain outcome you’d rip the guts out of the funding for that school. That is not what this is about. That would be totally counterproductive. The sort of schools that I went to need additional funding and need the sort of reforms that Dr O’Brien and her team are going to recommend to us to inject in those schools. This is not about ripping money out of schools that don’t meet certain marks; it’s about trying to make sure that we identify the reforms that are going to help them.
You’ll remember, Julie, that we’ve made some big reforms to NAPLAN, and they’ve come into effect this year – bringing the test forward, putting it online, simplifying the way in which we describe the categories of students and the results that they get. And that bottom category is all about identifying students who need additional assistance. This report is about recommending what that additional assistance should be.
JOURNALIST: So it will be for the schools most in need, so carrot or stick. It’s not going to be a stick; it’s going to be more carrot?
CLARE: Well, it’s not about carrot or stick. I think that metaphor doesn’t ring true.
CLARE: It’s about recognising the fact that not all schools in Australia are fully funded. Non-government schools will go down to 100 per cent of the student resource standard by the end of this decade. Government schools will top out at 95 per cent over the course of the next 10 years. South Australia and WA are at 95 per cent now. The victory by Labor in New South Wales on the weekend means that they’ll get to 95 per cent by 2025. Victoria is on a path to get there by 2028, Queensland by 2032. The Northern Territory won’t get there until something like 2050. So, there’s a gap that needs to be filled by the Commonwealth and the State and Territory Governments working together. But before we get to those negotiations what I think is critical here is that we do the work we need to do to identify what that funding should be tied to. And that’s what Dr O’Brien’s team will be focused on.
JOURNALIST: Yeah, because the Productivity Commission has basically said, you know, there’s so much additional money been going into universities – to schools, sorry, over the last, you know, 10 years and yet there has been very little improvement, in fact, going backwards on PISA. So, is – the money is going to be tied to actual implementation of things like using learning sites, using explicit learning, of behaviour management? I know you can do that with initial teachers, but what about the existing workforce?
CLARE: What the Productivity Commission recommended was that the next agreement focus on three major areas: helping students who are falling behind at school, student wellbeing, as well as support for teachers. And I expect – this will be something for Dr O’Brien and the team to look at – but building on the advice of the Productivity Commission that said these are the three areas where we need real, practical reforms to make a difference. The work of Dr O’Brien and the team will zero in on what are the things that we need to do in those three areas.
JOURNALIST: The unions are focused on teacher retention being a big issue. Is Dr O’Brien looking at that, and is that something you can improve?
CLARE: I’ll hand over to Dr O’Brien in a minute, but you’re dead right – we’ve got a teacher shortage crisis at the moment. Not enough young people are jumping out of school and into university to study teaching. I want more people to want to burst out of school and become teachers rather than lawyers or bankers. So that’s a part of the challenge in front of us. And there are things that we announced last year that are all about encouraging more people to become teachers, like bursaries or scholarships. We’ve got 40 grand for the best and brightest to become teachers.
We also don’t have enough people finishing their teaching degree – 65 or 70 per cent of people who start a uni degree finish it; only 50 per cent or thereabouts who start a teaching degree finish it. And if you ask any teacher, they’ll tell you that what they learned at university didn’t really give them everything they need to be ready to be a teacher in their first year out of university. So, the work that Mark Scott and his team are doing will complement this. They’ll give us their recommendations at the end of June in terms of how we improve teacher training, how we improve initial teacher education.
But we’ve also got teachers who are quitting in their first year or two of teaching. Think about this – we’ve got 30 to 50 per cent of teachers who quit in the first five years. And in the work we did last year, one of the things that came out of it is if you’re better prepared from the start, you’re more likely to stay. And if you’ve got a mentor or more support at school, then you’re more likely to get through those first five years.
So, nothing’s off the table here. I’m in the market for good ideas – this is the year for big ideas in education, and I think that the work that Dr O’Brien will do with this team can help to leverage off some of the things that we put in that National Teacher Workforce Plan last year.
O’BRIEN: Thanks, Minister. I think one of the key takeouts is that nothing is off the table here, especially at this point. We’re announcing the panel today. We’re going to consult widely. We’ll be looking for the sorts of reforms that can result in improving student outcomes and to obviously having teachers in classrooms is pretty crucial to achieving student outcomes. So it would be that sort of broad look as to what are the things that can really be – are won’t be, I’ll be making recommendations to ministers and the challenge will be to get them into the agreements to make sure that there’s clarity around what success looks like. So it’s also about what are the targets, how do we measure progress over these coming years and the progress that we anticipate seeing as a result of putting those reforms in place.
JOURNALIST: Just lastly about pay, so one of the things about teaching is, you know, when you graduate you’re only a relatively low salary, but it taps out and plateaus at 10 years. There was a report this week I think from New South Wales about frontline workers – teachers, nurses, ambos – who can’t afford to live in the area where they work. You know, I heard Tony Burke on the radio this morning talking about minimum wages for frontline workers. So, it’s complicated for teachers, obviously, because you’ve got to negotiate with each state and system. So can you just talk to me about that?
CLARE: I can do that.
JOURNALIST: Thank you.
CLARE: A couple of points here – you’re absolutely right; the average teacher starts at about 70 grand and their wage or their income goes up in increments until about the 10-year mark and then it just plateaus, which partly explains why you see a lot of teachers leave midcareer, why they either leave the classroom to go into leadership roles at a school, because that’s the way you get a pay rise, or they leave the profession altogether. That’s why the work that’s being done in some jurisdictions around HALTs for highly accomplished and lead teachers is important. New South Wales is doing some of that work but so are other jurisdictions. The plan we announced in terms of the workforce plan in December last year talked about increasing the number of HALTs in Australia from about a thousand to 10,000 by simplifying that process. I think that’s a big part of it, too.
But there’s a debate going on in the Parliament at the moment about the Housing Australia Future Fund. Now that’s going to build 30,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years, if we can get it passed through the Senate. That will build homes for the homeless, that will build homes for women fleeing domestic violence, that will build homes for veterans. But what’s probably been missed in the debate is that 10,000 of those homes are affordable homes below market rent for frontline workers – for nurses, paramedics and for teachers. You’re dead right that teachers find it hard to afford to rent where they live. If you know that’s true and if you think we should be building more affordable housing, then you’ll be voting for that in the Senate.
Just to wrap up – two final points just to round out the announcement today. In addition to establishing the panel, we’re also going to establish the joint ministerial reference group. Julie, you’ll know from the work we’re doing on the Accord in higher education that we’ve established a panel like this and also a broader group that the panel will consult with. We’ll do exactly the same here so that we make sure that we’ve got unions and experts right across the field feeding in and providing advice to this panel. And I would expect that when Education Ministers next meet that will convene that ministerial reference group, too, so that we’ve got ministers, the panel as well as that broader group feeding in, helping to provide the advice that we need to make sure that we get this right.
And then the final thing, just to point out, is I spoke about three big pieces of work – reviewing early education, this work to establish the next National School Reform Agreement, and the Universities Accord. Each of those are big, each of those are important. Those reforms can make a difference. But there is a common thread that runs through every single one of them – and that’s this: if you’re a child from a poor family you’re less likely to go to preschool, you’re more likely to fall behind at primary school, you’re less likely to finish high school and you’re less likely to go to university and get a degree.
We’ve got a chance to fix this, and it’s the reforms that are recommended and implemented in all three of these areas that has the chance to change children’s lives and change this country.
Thanks very much.