Education Minister Bishop Calls For Higher Standards In Schools

The Education Minister, Julie Bishop, has attacked education standards in Australia, calling for performance-based pay for teachers and improved standards of literacy.

Quoting Margaret Thatcher, Bishop argued that increased funding over recent decades had not led to increased standards.

In an address to the National Press Club, Bishop reiterated the federal government’s policy of literacy and numeracy tests and attacked the States for not being accountable.

  • Listen to Bishop’s speech (56m)

This is the text of the Address to the National Press Club by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop.

Preparing children to succeed – Standards in our schools

Julie Bishop, Minister for Education, Science and TrainingToday I will talk about preparing children to succeed by raising standards in our schools.

I am yet to meet a parent who does not want their child to succeed in school to the very best of their ability, so they can succeed in life.

Parents are concerned about standards in our schools.

They don’t want a revolution.

They want their children to have access to a quality education.

They want to be assured that the school education their child receives will give them fundamental skills to get a job, undertake further training or go to university, and to provide the skills they will need for life – such as financial literacy.

Are our schools providing an education of the highest standard that will give students the skills and knowledge for the jobs and careers of the 21st century?

Or are they out of step with the aspirations of students and parents, and the needs of employers?

Has the education sector grown complacent about academic standards in schools?

Generally, in fact invariably, whenever the issue of quality in education is raised, the finger is pointed at funding.

So let’s look at funding.

The majority of students in this country are in public schools.

State Governments own, operate, manage and provide most of the funding for State Government schools, with supplementary funding from the Commonwealth.

Federal funding for State schools is calculated on a percentage of the State’s investment – and has been for decades.

If State Governments increase their investment the Federal investment increases automatically.

Contrary to the claims of Labor and the unions, the Howard Government has provided record funding to State Government schools every year since 1996.

Funding has increased by almost 120% since 1996 while enrolments in State Government schools increased by 1.1% over that time.

When the unions say there is inadequate Federal funding, it is really a criticism that State Governments are not investing sufficiently in their schools.

State Governments accredit and regulate non-government schools, while the Federal Government provides the majority of taxpayer funding.

Enrolments have increased by more than 20% since 1996.

State Governments have primary responsibility for Vocational and Technical Education, including TAFE colleges, while the Federal Government significantly supplements funding, and is funding the establishment of the Australian Technical Colleges network.

State Governments own and regulate public universities, while the Federal Government provides virtually all taxpayer funding – (I should point out that the States are in fact a drain on university finances by taking almost $150 million more in payroll tax each year than they provide in support.)

Education is a shared responsibility in this country between State Governments and the Federal Government.

When Labor tries, for example, to isolate the Federal funding component from total public funding for government schools it is trying to disguise the fact that more taxpayer funding is provided per student to State Government schools than non-Government schools.

67% of students are in State Government schools that receive 75% of total public funding.

In terms of funding for education, it is not just a matter of quantity, it is a matter of quality. It is how the funding is spent.

Increases in public spending have to lead to higher standards.

The Howard Government is investing a record $33 billion in school education during the current four-year funding agreement.

However, governments cannot simply increase the level of investment year after year, cross their fingers and hope that it will inevitably lead to higher standards.

In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher noted that although there had been increases in public spending for UK schools it had not led to higher standards. She cited the case of the Inner London Education Authority, which spent more per child than any other authority in the country yet achieved some of the worst examination results.

Tony Blair, in what he has termed his “Education Revolution” has focussed on improving the quality of teachers and schools to lift standards.

Notwithstanding the billions of dollars invested in schools in Australia, there is evidence that standards have declined, particularly in the teaching of the fundamental areas of literacy and numeracy.

As the landmark Teaching Reading report from the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy said:

“Reading competence is foundational, not only for school-based learning, but also for children’s behavioural and psychosocial wellbeing, further education and training, occupational success, productive and fulfilling participation in social and economic activity, as well as for the nation’s social and economic future.”

The same can be said for numeracy.

Employers complain of young people lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Universities admit they are offering remedial classes in English and mathematics, to bring first-year students up to an acceptable level.

The Australian Defence Force Academy says that many Year 12 school leavers are not ready for university mathematics despite achieving good results in Year 12 maths and finishing in the nation’s top 15%.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed the literacy and numeracy skills of 15 year olds in 41 countries in 2003.

The PISA testing revealed that 30% of Australian students failed to achieve a reading ability necessary to meet the demands for further learning in our rapidly-changing world. 12% did not meet the lowest benchmark.

The equivalent international test for mathematics revealed in 2003 that 36 % of Year 4 students and 35% of Year 8 students achieved only the lowest benchmark or did not even reach the lowest benchmark. We are talking very basic maths here.

All State and Territory Governments gave a commitment in 1998 that every child commencing school from that year would achieve the minimum acceptable literacy and numeracy standard within four years. Every child.

This has not yet been achieved.

Currently, States and Territories have their own assessment programs and tests to determine minimum acceptable literacy and numeracy standards.

Data from each test is then subject to a lengthy, and I mean lengthy, equating process so that it can be reported at a national level.

Consequently the latest results available are from 2004.

These tests only assess minimum standards below which a child would have difficulty progressing at school – that used to mean they would fail.

There was very little change in the failure rates in the same grade between 2001 and 2004.

But the number of students failing increased the longer they were at school.

In 2004 the percentage of students failing was 6.3% in Year 38.8% in Year 517.9% in Year 7.

Student’s results were getting worse, not better.

Statistics can tell one story.

The personal anecdotes are also concerning.

Last Friday I received an email from a parent in Queensland. I phoned him. He teaches at a Queensland university.

His 13-year-old daughter cannot spell. He has raised his concerns with the school and was told to buy her a computer so she can use a spell-checker.

A teacher in Queensland wrote to me recently:

“I am a member of the Australian Education Union but do not feel that they speak for me on many issues. I have spent many years as a primary school teacher frustrated by what I feel are diminishing expectations of students and also by the vague curriculum guidelines that we have to work with.”

From New South Wales:

“As someone who has run very large and small businesses, I can speak with some experience and frustration at the poor literacy and numeracy skills of those coming through the education system.”

I have received hundreds of such letters from across the country.

The Australian Government’s view is that we must introduce higher standards to lift performance, particularly in literacy and numeracy.

The Australian Government is insisting on national literacy and numeracy tests, which will be administered for the first time for all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and Year 9.

For the first time students in different states will sit the same tests so that there will be increased accuracy of results, increased efficiency through reduced duplication and increased timeliness of national results and increased comparability State by State..

For the first time, there will be a national assessment of language conventions including grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Parents will be able to track their children’s progress against national standards between Years, 3, 5, 7 and for the first time in Year 9.

This is particularly critical.

Research from the Australian Government’s Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth shows that the strongest influence on tertiary entrance performance is literacy and numeracy achievement in Year 9.

While the Australian Government will continue to take a leadership role and insist on higher standards through greater national consistency, I am constantly reminded by State Labor Education Ministers and education unions that the Australian Government does not own or operate any schools or employ any teachers.

They expect to receive increased Commonwealth funding, but they don’t expect to be accountable for it, and I am told, not so politely, to butt out.

Education is a national priority and it is too important to be left at the mercy of State parochialism and union self-interest.

Last week, in support of my push for greater national consistency in curriculum, I released a report of the Australian Council for Educational Research, which compared curriculum in key subjects across the 8 State and Territory education systems.

It revealed substantial duplication in some subjects, and wild inconsistency in others.

The report makes a compelling case for national consistency in our curriculum, assessment and reporting.

I support its recommendations and will take a proposal to the education ministers’ meeting in April, seeking their cooperation.

However, the immediate response from State Labor Governments was illuminating.

Premier Iemma says New South Wales does not want the “dumbed down” curriculum of other States. Apparently if you don’t live in New South Wales you are being “dumbed down”.

The Victorian Education Minister does not want the “dumbed down” curriculum from other States, (presumably including from NSW.)

The Queensland Minister argued that we didn’t need nationally consistent curriculum because the States are continually “leapfrogging” each other. (That’s the point! They are always out of step with each other.)

And my memory of leapfrog was that you were meant to leap in a forward direction.

Not one of them answered the fundamental question – In a country of 20 million people, why do we need to develop 8 curricula in 8 jurisdictions?

And with an increasingly mobile workforce, why should students and teachers be disadvantaged when they move interstate from one education system into another? We will work with the States to achieve what the public believes must be achieved.

Our goal should be that every child reaches the highest standard possible for that child.

The aim should not be to just meet minimum standards.

Some of the greatest gains in literacy and numeracy are to be made in our most disadvantaged school communities, including our indigenous communities.

Raising academic standards and improving educational outcomes for Australian students involves making some hard choices.

It means making decisions that State Labor Governments, education unions and other vested interests will not like.

For we must open up our education systems to greater public scrutiny.

This will be resisted because it will highlight something that has been obvious to students, parents and principals – there are good teachers and schools, and there teachers and schools that need to improve their performance.

And that is why Federal Labor will not be able to deliver on promises to reform school education.

They will not take on State Labor governments nor the all-powerful teachers unions.

There is resistance to reform at every level.

As a report released this week from the Centre for Independent Studies, entitled Teachers and the Waiting Game states: “If public schools are to thrive and flourish into the future, the power nexus between teacher unions and state governments must be broken.”

The Federal Opposition spokesman on education has already confessed that he “doesn’t support imposing anything on the States in the education area”.

The Australian Education Union recently threatened to withhold campaign funds unless Federal Labor backed down on calling for greater teacher accountability.

What more will the Howard Government do to achieve higher standards in our schools?

Principals must be given greater autonomy over their schools.

In particular, principals must have power over staffing.

How can we expect a principal to guarantee the quality of education in their school without some control over who is employed at that school?

The Australian Government already requires the State Governments to provide principals with some responsibility for budgets and at least a say over staff appointments.

These were relatively modest measures.

Many school principals across Australia cite as their biggest frustration the fact that centralised education bureaucracies parachute teachers into schools or summarily remove valued teachers, against the wishes of the school community and the teacher.

Just when they have secured an excellent teacher, who brings special skills and extra commitment to that school, State education bureaucracies transfer them out.

I propose to work with the States to move even further in the direction of principal autonomy and ensure they have the power to hire and fire teachers based on their performance, just as the head of any organisation or enterprise is able to do.

As the CIS study observed “Centralised staffing systems are the bastion of teacher unions, which fiercely protect regulations that shelter poor teachers and privilege longevity over performance”, noting that “poor teachers are more likely to be shuffled between schools than disciplined or dismissed, with serious repercussions for the teaching profession as well as students.”

Giving the power to principals will fix the problem of State Governments, captives of the unions, unable to deal with under-performing teachers.

International studies show that one of the characteristics of effective schools is the autonomy to make important decisions that impact on the quality of education they offer.

There must also be greater accountability to parents at the individual school level.

The States have a wealth of data about individual schools, yet they refuse to make it public.

Otherwise it would expose the truth that not all teachers are equal, not all schools are equal, and there are vast variations in how schools are resourced and how they perform.

The community has a right to know how individual schools are performing.

Parents would be in a better position to decide which school is the right one for their child if they were able to compare schools in relation to:

  • staff qualifications and turnover
  • suspension and expulsion statistics
  • attendance and retention rates
  • raw academic scores and improvements in scores demonstrating progress over time
  • post-school first destinations; and
  • feedback data on parent, student and teacher satisfaction levels

Making this type of information public gives parents informed choice when deciding which school their child will attend, and also creates an incentive for the school to continuously improve.

We cannot hope to raise standards in our schools if we continue with the fallacy perpetuated by State Governments and unions that teachers do not deserve incentives and rewards for better performance.

Teachers are a precious national resource. After parents, teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s educational outcomes.
Like other professions, teachers should be recognised and rewarded on merit.

We must move beyond the low salaries and artificial salary caps that are imposed on the profession, and supported by education unions in their one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator mentality.

I will put to State Governments a proposal for the inclusion of a performance element in teacher salaries, focusing particularly on teachers in disadvantaged schools who are making a significant difference to their students’ achievements, and work with the States to improve the status of the teaching profession.

Let me tell you about a school in Victoria – Bellfield Primary – that exemplifies much of what I am talking about.

It is in one of the lowest socio-economic areas in the State and was among the lowest achieving schools in literacy and numeracy.

In 1998, only 33% of Year One students could read with 100% accuracy – the Victorian average was 67.4%. Likewise for other years in the school.

By 2003, the number of Year One students reading with 100% accuracy had improved from 33% to 97.4%. Similar results were achieved throughout the school.

It went from being one of the lowest performing to one of the highest achieving schools in the State in literacy and numeracy.

The principal John Fleming, who drove these outstanding results, is now employed in a private school.

There are other dedicated teachers who are striving to make a difference in some of our most challenging and disadvantaged schools.

I want to see teachers of the ilk of John Fleming and schools like Bellfield rewarded for the difference they make to the lives of young Australians.

And I point out that the successful teaching methods employed by John Fleming are in line with the findings of the Teaching Reading report, to the effect that the focus in teaching literacy should be on phonics instruction.

I urge the Deans of Education at our universities to adopt the recommendations of that report in relation to the way university students are instructed to teach reading in our schools.

In addition to performance-based pay for teachers, I believe there must also be rewards for schools that are able to improve student performance in the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy.

With the start of national testing and assessments in 2008, we have an opportunity to identify the schools across the country which are adding value to the lives of their students, by significantly improving their literacy and numeracy skills.

These schools will be rewarded.

The 2008 tests provide another opportunity. The Australian Government already provides reading assistance vouchers to students who fail to meet minimum State literacy standards in Year 3.

As we are testing Year 9 students for the first time in 2008, we must once again step in to raise the bar.

Given the importance of literacy attainment in Year 9, those students who fail to meet minimum standards will also be supported.

To ensure a continuous supply of specialist knowledge in schools, the Australian Government will also explore alternative pathways into the teaching profession.

There are people with valuable knowledge, experience and expertise, who don’t have a Bachelor of Education, but who are keen to bring their talent to our schools.

I am asking Teaching Australia, the body established by the Federal Government to raise the status, quality and professional standing of teachers, to provide advice to the government on alternative pathways for teacher registration.

We need a teacher training and registration process that is nationally consistent, not only for the benefit of the current teaching workforce, but also to make it easier for potential teachers to enter the profession, including as adjunct teachers.

This will increase the diversity and skill base of the profession, and help address issues such as teacher qualifications in science and maths, and specialist subjects – particularly in conjunction with performance pay and more flexible working conditions.

Building on our existing reform agenda, these measures will go a long way to achieving higher standards in our schools.

We need to ensure our students leave school with at least the fundamental skills to ensure they can get a job, directly from school or after further education and training.
How will young Australians judge the quality of their education?
By the opportunities and options available to them – entry to university, vocational training, a job, a career, and the life skills they acquire.

Our schools must have stronger links to employers and the business community.

Business leaders must engage in the future of our nation’s children and our education system to ensure that students leave school with strong literacy and numeracy skills and are ready for further education and the workforce

I am already supporting our universities to build links with business.

We are ensuring the VET sector is in constant dialogue with business and industry.

This is an issue of national importance to our long-term economic prosperity and I will shortly establish a Schools-Business Dialogue, bringing together in Canberra this year business leaders, parents, teachers, educators and State Education representatives, for the purpose of determining better ways for business and schools to engage and exchange ideas.

This will be a forum that focuses on the quality of education – and the most efficient use of existing resources.

We must build a bridge between business and schools, so there is a greater connection between what students learn at school and what employers believe are the necessary skills for the workplaces of the future.

That bridge will ensure the goals of educators are aligned with the expectations of employers.

Parents and the community can then have more confidence that the nation’s children are being prepared for success.

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