Doorstop Interview – Canberra – Friday 7 July 2023






SUBJECTS: Teacher training reforms; School funding; Use of AI at schools; Mobile phones at schools; Vaping at schools. 

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks for coming along. Yesterday we had a very important meeting of education ministers. Yesterday education ministers agreed to major reforms to teacher training and how we better prepare teachers for the classroom.

Our teachers are awesome and they do one of the most important jobs in the world. But ask a lot of teachers and they’ll tell you that they didn’t really feel prepared for the classroom on day one. We’ve got a teacher shortage crisis in this country at the moment. There are a bunch of reasons for that, but one of them is this: we know that only 50 per cent of students who start a teaching degree finish it, and 20 per cent leave the profession in the first three years. The report that we examined yesterday, and that we gave in-principle approval to, says that if we make reforms to the way we do teacher training and we provide teaching students with better practical experience, that more will complete their degree and more will stay on for years and provide invaluable education to children right across the country, and they’ll be more effective in the classroom. 

We also looked at the issue of mobile phones in schools. Most states and territories have already banned or restricted phones in schools. New South Wales will move to do this in October of this year and Queensland has now made the decision to ban the use of mobile phones in schools in Term 1 of next year. From my point of view, it just makes sense. If you’re on TikTok in the classroom, you’re not listening to the teacher. But it’s more than that, it’s also the impact that it has in the playground, during lunch or recess or, as I’ve now learned having a child at primary school, crunch and sip. 

If you’re in the playground and you’ve got a mobile phone, you’re probably going to do what we do here in Parliament House, which is scrolling through your phone. Take the phone away and children start talking to each other and playing with each other and running around the playground having fun and exercising. So this is an important decision, and I’m glad that we were able to get to this point yesterday. 

We also looked at the issue of AI in schools. At the moment, artificial intelligence, things like ChatGPT, are banned in government schools across the country. We’re seeing it used, though, in non-government schools. This is one of those things like a calculator or the internet, we need to learn how to grapple with this new technology. But there are challenges with it. There’s risks with it. How do you make sure that we use it for good to help children to learn but we don’t have children getting the marks that they don’t deserve by using generative AI, and also the privacy implications of this as well. How do we make sure that if our children are using generative AI technology like ChatGPT that what they’re typing into the system doesn’t get spat back at them as an ad on TikTok. 

All of these issues are looked at as part of a draft framework that ministers considered yesterday, and we’ll release that draft framework for consultation with teachers and principals and unions and others that are interested in this issue shortly. 

Today’s another big day – today we’ll be meeting as education ministers with teachers and principals and students and other education experts across the country to look at what should be in the next National School Reform Agreement. As a government we’ve committed to work with states and territories to get every school to 100 per cent of their fair funding level. Non-government schools are on a pathway to be at that 100 per cent level by the end of this decade, by about 2029. But no government school is, except for the ACT. In all other jurisdictions that funding tops out at 95 per cent in different years. We have said that we’ve got to fix that funding gap, but we’ve also got to fix the education gap. 

The fact is that if you’re a child from a poor family or from the bush or you’re an Indigenous child, you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. And we now know that the gap in learning of children from poor families and children from wealthy families is getting worse. We also now know that over the last five years, the number of children, the number of young people at high school, in public schools, finishing the HSC, finishing year 12, is going down. In 2017, 83 per cent of young people finished the HSC in public schools. Last year it was 76 per cent.

I want to close the funding gap, but I also want to close this education gap. I want to make sure that we’re tying this investment to the sort of things that we know will work to help children who fall behind to catch up and help to make sure that more people finish high school and go on to TAFE or go on to university. Because that is the key to success in the economy we live in today. So I’m looking forward to that important discussion.

Happy to answer questions. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, in terms of fair funding, have you put a timeline on that? You’re saying that schools are on track to get full funding by the end of the decade. Have you put a faster timeline on that, and who will pay for it? You or the states?

CLARE: Those negotiations will happen next year. What the focus of today is about is what we use that funding for. Because I’ve been pretty clear about this, I want to make sure that the next agreement has what the last agreement didn’t: real targets and practical reforms to hit those targets. I want to fix the funding gap and I want to close that education gap as well.

JOURNALIST: Okay. And in terms of these reforms to teacher training, are you trying to make teaching as rigorous as medicine so that graduates, you know – you wouldn’t have doctors all learning different things in universities without any external control over it?

CLARE: One of the things that’s different between medicine and teaching is the way in which prac works. With prac you’ll often see the Department of Health work with the universities for placements for interns. In some jurisdictions it’s up to the individual student to find a school to do prac at. So one of the recommendations in the report is how do education systems make sure that they’re providing a deeper, better and more organised level of practical experience. 

The report specifically says that if we do a better job with prac, more people will finish their degree and more people will stay on longer as teachers. So that’s an area of learning from health that I think we can take into education.

JOURNALIST: Minister, what are some of the criticisms you’ve heard from teachers about their classroom readiness after their university degree? 

CLARE: I’m just thinking back to about August last year when I convened a meeting a little bit like the one we’ll see today, we had teachers here in Canberra to talk to education ministers about the shortage of teachers right across the country. And we had teachers in that room that won awards, including Rebecca, who is on the expert panel that gave us this report. Rebecca was Teacher of the Year a few years ago. And she said she didn’t feel prepared on day one. She didn’t feel like she was ready for everything that came at her the first day that she was in the classroom on her own, whether it’s managing classroom behaviour or whether it’s the skills that you need to teach a young child to read, to write, to do maths. And that’s a common story.

Ask a couple of teachers today, “Did you feel ready on day one,” and a lot of them I suspect will tell you what Rebecca told me – which is that we didn’t feel ready and that the course didn’t have enough concentration and focus on the fundamentals – how do children learn, what are the evidence-based practices that work that teach children to read, to write, to do maths, and how do I need to be prepared to manage a classroom where there’s disruption. What do I need to know to make sure that I can manage a school, a classroom where there’s children with complex and diverse needs.

Mark’s report says these are the fundamentals. They’re not the only thing that you need to learn at university, but if you get those things right and if you provide a better quality of practical experience while you’re still at uni, then the chances are they’re more likely to finish their degree and then you’re more likely to stay on for years and years and years to change the lives of thousands of young people. 

JOURNALIST: Universities are quite used to having their own autonomy and setting their own courses. What will happen if they don’t implement that core content that you just discussed? 

CLARE: It will be mandated. So it’s going to be a requirement of all of those courses to implement that. And there’ll be an assurance board to make sure that they do. And they will oversee and verify the fact that universities are doing this and report annually to ministers on that. But also provide recommendations to us if they believe we need to update that core content. 

Mark was on the record in the papers this morning saying that potentially a university could lose its accreditation to teach. Now that’s the nuclear option. But as the report also says, there’s the potential for universities to get conditional or limited accreditation. And a lot of vice-chancellors have told me that the last thing that they would want to see is their university teaching course given some type of conditional accreditation because of what that says about what they’re doing at the university and what their board or council will be saying to them about what’s going wrong here. 

So I think all universities want to do the right thing. They understand how important this course is. They understand that if we don’t get it right we don’t have enough people in our classroom changing the world that we live in for tomorrow. And so I think there’s an enormous amount of goodwill to make sure that we implement this, not just education ministers but the university sector as well. 

JOURNALIST: Will there also be some across-the-board agreement on how AI is used both by teachers and by students so you don’t end up with the private schools all using it in a positive way, perhaps, and different states and territories allowing it or not allowing it? How are you going to –

CLARE: Ultimately, it’s a matter for each jurisdiction. But what ministers have agreed is that we need a common framework that different departments of education can apply hopefully from next year. The report, when it’s released, you’ll see it quite clearly that what ministers are concerned about, what experts are concerned about also, is the equity divide. If this is a tool for the 21st century, like the calculator for the 20th century, and if some schools have access to it and some students have access to it but some don’t, then that’s a problem too. But it also comes with challenges. And I talked about those a moment ago, about the integrity of learning, about privacy. And so, what the report says – we’ll release that shortly, it’s being developed by the New South Wales government – is here’s a draft framework for how to get it right. And then we’ll consult on that. 

Incidentally, South Australia is already piloting this in a number of schools. Other jurisdictions are contemplating that as well. And that’s a good idea because before this goes out at scale, I think it’s always a good idea if you can to try and trial it in a number of schools and see what works and what doesn’t. 

JOURNALIST: How confident are you and your fellow education ministers around the country that the initial university training that’s being implemented will actually help stop the exodus that we’re seeing out of the teaching sector, especially considering the multitude of reasons that people are leaving? 

CLARE: It’s only one part. So put it in context: not enough people are enrolling in teaching courses. We’ve seen a drop in the last 10 years of 12 per cent in the number of people becoming teachers. And there are other things we need to do if we want more young people to leap out of school and want to be a teacher. About 38 per cent of teachers say they feel valued by the community. And that’s pretty common across the OECD. And they’ve got a shortage of teachers as well. Whereas if you go to Singapore – the same survey asked – 70 per cent of teachers say they feel valued by their community. And they’ve got a line out the door at university of people wanting to become teachers. They turn people away. 

So what we can do to celebrate, respect, value our teachers has a big impact on whether people make the decision when they’re in year 12 to go into teaching or potentially mid career, in their 30s, to say, “Hey, I might want to become a teacher.” Stay tuned. Ministers are working on a $10 million national campaign that will rollout later this year to celebrate and elevate the work of our teachers. And I think that’s one part of that.

The $40,000 scholarships that we’re rolling out across the country start from next year as well, and that will encourage I hope more of our best and brightest to want to be a teacher rather than banker or a lawyer. This is about making sure that young people who’ve made the decision to go to uni and become a teacher finish the degree, get the skills that they need, get the practical experience and support so they’re ready to go from day one. 

JOURNALIST: Queensland’s finally agreed to join other states with a mobile phone ban in schools. Is it important that there’s a national approach, and what impact will this have on learning in schools and potentially safety for schools as well? 

CLARE: I think it’s only a good thing. Take the phone out of the classroom and children are focused on the teacher, not focused on TikTok. But as I said just a moment ago, it has an impact in the playground as well because if you’re not focused on scrolling through TikTok or Instagram or whatever it is because your phone’s not there you’re more likely to be talking to your friends and playing with your friends in the playground. So that has an impact as well. 

I think the benefits in terms of cyber bullying are limited. You know, let’s accept the fact that when school ends and the phone gets handed back that cyber bullying is still there. And that’s still an issue. It is a bigger issue than banning phones during class time for kids. But making sure that the phone is away all day during school hours will have a positive impact. 

JOURNALIST: In terms of school refusal and that sort of educational carnage that has been left after the pandemic when a lot of, you know, schools were closed and kids stopped going, was there any agreement on extra funding for, say, small group tutoring or different programs to try to get these kids back to school? 

CLARE: That’s one of the things that will be looked at today. In the consultation paper that Dr O’Brien put out two days ago there’s a big section there on the benefits and the value of that multi-tiered approach, about small group tutoring to help children who need that extra support to catch up or to keep up. But you’re right, the impact of Covid has been massive, and we’re still seeing the after-effects of it now. The teacher shortage crisis, part of that is teachers just deciding that they were going to retire early rather than in a couple of years’ time. The wellbeing and mental health impact on our children is still there. Talk to principals, talk to teachers, they’ll tell you about that. The learning loss and the learning divide, that’s there as well. 

I was at Chullora Public School, a school just outside my electorate, recently, and I talked to the principal about this. And she made the point that, in a classroom of 30, when Covid happened and they went online, suddenly there were 10 kids online and not 30. So access to technology and ability to learn is massive. 

It also had the flow-on effect that fewer young people in kindergarten at school this year went to early education during the pandemic than children in the years before. At that school where there’s 70 children in kindergarten today, only two of them went to child care or to early education the year before. And as we all know, this is not babysitting; this is early education. And the more time that a child spends in early education the better prepared they are to learn, the better prepared they are for the classroom. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, another issue in school playgrounds is vaping. Will vaping be a topic of discussion with ministers today?

CLARE: It was a topic yesterday, and we talked about the reforms that Mark Butler announced a couple of weeks ago. It’s on the mind of ministers; it’s on the minds of every teacher. I spoke with the Queensland Teachers Federation Conference last week and I got interrupted by applause when I talked about the fact that teachers are being turned into de facto police here – having to find vapes that are disguised to look like USBs or highlighters in pencil cases. Having to deal with the fact that you’re having children withdrawing from the impact of the vapes in the classroom or leaving the classroom to vape. 

Let’s be honest about it, the companies that make these things are targeting our kids. There aren’t many issues that parents of high school children are more worried about than this. And so getting rid of the fancy flavours that are designed to target children, like cookies and cream and watermelon and whatever, is important. Getting rid of the fancy designs that are designed to target children are important, but also getting them out of these convenience stores, getting them out of petrol stations is important as well. If vapes are designed to get people off the smokes, they should be in the pharmacy, not in the store at the railway station across the road from the school. 

Thanks very much, guys.