The Australian Council of State School Organisations 2006 Conference
Rydges Hotel Carlton
Thursday 26 October 2006
I’d like to acknowledge Jenny Branch, ACSSO President and Terry Aulich, former senator and ACSSO Director. Also Victorian Education Minister, Lynne Kosky, with whom I had the great pleasure yesterday of opening a new primary school at Berwick Fields in one of Melbourne’s growth corridors.
As I walked into Berwick Fields Primary yesterday, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how tired, world-weary or cynical you feel. It’s impossible to walk through the gates of a school, particularly a primary school, without all of that falling off you.
Mind you. schools don’t affect everyone in public life the way they affect me. Take Governor William Bligh one of the first people in charge of education in Australia. His view of education was that it might “overbalance and root out the vile deprivates bequeathed by their vicious progenitors”. But I’m delighted to be here on behalf of someone who does like schools – Julie Bishop – who will be joining you by DVD shortly.
I’ve been thinking of Julie lately as the debate rages about standards, resourcing and curriculum. I pondered who it may have been who first sought to tackle these issues in Australia. Her policy forebear was a gentleman by the name of the Reverend Richard Johnson who in August 1798 drew up fifteen “Rules or Articles to be observed respecting the school at Sydney.” The school “at Sydney” was Australia’s first and the only one on the continent at the time.
We can see much that is familiar in the articles of his school. Article 1. stated that the school was “for the benefit of children of all descriptions of persons, whether soldiers, settlers or convicts.” Although a church school, very much the model for Australia’s pluralistic state education system.
Now those unable to pay were not compelled to do so subject to the delightfully termed “Judgment and Humanity of the Schoolmasters”. Like Australia today, lack of means was no a barrier to school entry. And, like today, there was a premium placed on literacy and numeracy. Article 5. required “such children as are learning to read, to pay four pence per week; those learning to write, or arithmetic, six pence.”
And to show that resourcing is an issue as old as education itself, Article 15. stated that, “As books of learning are at present very scarce in the Colony, the children are to give up their Books to the Master every noon & evening.” But there was an exception to this rule. Books could be taken home on Saturdays so that parents could see the improvement made during the week. Even then, parental involvement was recognized and encouraged.
And the problem with non-merit based teacher pay can all be traced back to Article 16. which declared “The pecuniary Benefits derived from teaching school from the time these Rules & Regulations were made, to be divided equally amongst the Schoolmasters.”
Our schools sector in some respects resembles a little too closely Reverend Johnson’s school of 1798 in issues such as teacher pay. But perhaps we’ve actually regressed in relation to the autonomy of schools and the authority of principals.
But clearly the policy issues in education haven’t really changed that much in 208 years. Nor has the essence of learning itself. It’s still about firing up a curiosity and a hunger for knowledge. Learning to research, to analyse, to store and to retrieve what is discovered.
More than buildings and resources it’s quality teaching that inspires students to learn. That’s why the Government is advocating two propositions. To start giving teachers performance-based pay. And to develop a national and rigorous system of professional development.
We need to recognise that not all teachers are equal in their ability. Or their commitment. Or their performance. And we need professional development for teachers to motivate them to improve their performance and to lift their skills.
In addition to improving the quality of teachers, we also need to improve the quality of what is actually taught. The community, as you would all be aware, is demanding an end to curriculum fads. They want a return to a commonsense curriculum with agreed core subjects such as history. They want a renewed focus on literacy and numeracy.
As a Government we’re also trying to address some issues which, like rail track gauges, pre-date Federation. There are over 80,000 young people who move between states each year who are disadvantaged by fragmented and inconsistent approaches to schooling. I should know. I went to five schools. Three public. Two private. In three different states. So we’re working towards a national eligible school starting age. An Australian Certificate of Education. And an Interstate Student Data Transfer Note.
And we’re seeking to strengthen school communities. That’s why the Government is working with the ACSSO and the Australian Parents Council to trial the draft Family-School Partnerships Framework. The Framework will be used by schools to audit their engagement with parents and families and be put to the Ministerial Council for endorsement.
The Australian Government is endeavouring to take a leadership role in all these areas and to work with the states and territories.
Now these are all good and worthy things which I wholeheartedly endorse. But for my part – not speaking as Julie’s representative nor as Chairman of the Government Education Committee – I think as parents, citizens and governments we need to take an even more fundamental look at education.
Many of the things we are trying to do in relation to standards, consistency, curriculum and funding are really an effort to compensate for the failings of what is essentially a centrally-planned and provided education system. A system that is provider-driven rather than consumer-driven.
Under a more consumer-driven system many of the issues we are tackling would actually self-correct.
In my view there are five things that would revolutionize the standards of our schools, the quality of teaching and the choices available to parents.
1. Giving schools greater autonomy. Changing governance so that schools have boards that govern rather than advise. Boards that have the power to invest principals with the authority they need.
2. Giving principals the responsibility for all staffing and budget decisions including paying staff what they are worth.
3. Establishing more academically selective high schools that offer opportunities to students on the basis of merit, regardless of means.
4. Establishing centres of excellence in particular disciplines such as music, science, sport, agriculture, technology and the performing arts.
5. Introducing a voucher system where the money follows the child, offering parental choice and incentive for poorly performing schools to lift.
These changes could be driven by a two-fold approach. The establishment of US style ‘charter’ schools operating with increased autonomy to drive the governance changes. And vouchers to determine resource allocation.
Vouchers have been a major political and policy issue in many American states and cities since the early 1990’s and in the United Kingdom since the early 1980’s. By way of contrast, education vouchers are a relatively unexplored and undebated issue in Australia.
School vouchers are not the policy of any party state or federal. But the concept of vouchers is already being used in a targeted manner. The Commonwealth has introduced $700 reading tuition vouchers for primary school students. And only the week before last the Prime Minister announced $3,000 skills vouchers for workers who didn’t completed year twelve. The Commonwealth is also currently investigating the feasibility of a portable funding arrangement for students with disabilities.
We are getting used to the idea and the practice of vouchers. Indeed, it is a practice that has been with us for longer than we might think. We already in effect have a partial voucher system with Commonwealth funding of non-government schools. This money follows the student and offers a choice that would otherwise be closed to all but the very wealthy.
A sector-wide voucher system which replaced all direct funding of schools would necessitate the Commonwealth and states pooling their schools budgets. This would give parents a wider choice within and between the school sectors. Funding would follow the child to government, independent or catholic schools. Good schools would prosper. Poor schools would improve or lose students and potentially close.
While I would like to see a comprehensive voucher model, political reality means that although desirable, this would be difficult to achieve in the current environment. But a needs-based voucher for students at underperforming schools is achievable. There are plenty of international examples where vouchers for students at underperforming schools have been successfully implemented. And it’s a concept which has been cautiously embraced by one Opposition middlebencher.
In a rigid and inflexible school system it’s the students from modest backgrounds at underperforming schools who are at greatest risk of being trapped in sub-standard education. Vouchers would liberate these students, provide a way to a better education and serve as an incentive for schools to improve. To fail to explore such an option can only be to maintain a fallacy that all schools are of adequate quality.
We shouldn’t treat current funding models or the structure of school sectors as immutable. After all, education in Australia was originally the responsibility of individual churches, then denominational school boards. In the late eighteen hundreds colonial education departments took over. And today the formal constitutional responsibilities for education now bear only a passing resemblance to the reality of Commonwealth and state roles.
Paradigm shifts occur in education. There is another on the way. A shift away from the monochromatic and the comprehensive towards greater choice and autonomy. Will each state sit back and see who moves first? Which jurisdiction and which sector will drive the change? We can and we must do better for Australia’s students. We must be guided in all we do by the inalienable right of parents to choose the right school for their children.
I commend ACSSO for being a strong and vigorous advocate for its sector and also for being prepared to have open and robust debate. I wish you success with the conference and wish you well as you explore ways to ensure Australian students enjoy the schools they deserve.