28 August 2008, Parliament of Australia.
MR CRAIG THOMSON
My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister outline the importance of the government’s education revolution to Australia’s future?
What is interesting when the word ‘education’ is raised in this chamber is that it brings about peals of laughter from those opposite. They regard this as somehow secondary or irrelevant to the country’s future. I would suggest to those opposite that, if there is to be a serious debate about the future direction of the economy, that should in turn focus on how you go about setting up long-term productivity growth in this economy. If you look at the productivity growth numbers which have been generated in recent years, we have seen them go down from plus three to plus two to plus one, with no strategy on the part of those opposite to turn around labour productivity growth. We know that non-inflationary growth in the economy can only be effectively generated by productivity growth. That is what it is all about. But, in response to repeated warnings from the Reserve Bank, some 20 warnings about problems with infrastructure bottlenecks and skills constraints across the economy, we had no action from those opposite. What we have done instead is said that our government is committed to an education revolution and proudly so. It is not only an instrument to advance the educational opportunities of kids right across the country but also a long-term investment in our country’s economic future.
Yesterday I announced a further chapter in the education revolution concerning the quality of our education system. If there is one single quote which I would ask those opposite to reflect on if they were serious about their engagement on education and the economy into the future, it is this: ‘The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.’
Research clearly demonstrates that the quality of instruction is the single greatest influence within schools on student performance. Countries like Korea, Finland and Singapore all recruit their teachers from the top-performing university graduates. It is no surprise, therefore, that, when we go to the international performance benchmarking, their students get the best results when it comes to international testing. We also know that right across Australia some schools are struggling to recruit motivated, highly qualified, highly effective teachers, particularly those in the areas of greatest disadvantage. Those opposite talked long and hard for 12 years about this but did practically nothing in this area - talking about quality eduation; doing nothing of substance about quality education.
They commissioned a total of 24 reports during their period in office on teaching alone, some 220 sets of recommendations. You have to ask yourself: where did that all end up at the end of the day in terms of real changes on the ground in classrooms and with teachers? We are working through the Council of Australian Governments on a practical program of reform to make sure that our kids in the classroom have a decent pathway to the future. One of the areas of reform we are looking at is: how do we ensure that we get the best quality teachers deployed into those schools of greatest disadvantage? How do you do that? We have looked around the world for other examples.
We have looked in America. Teach For America is an example of such an innovative approach. Since 1990, more than 14,000 young Americans have completed Teach For America placements in US schools, and it is now highly sought after, with more than 19,000 applications for 1,500 places a year. Recruits to Teach For America receive five weeks of intensive training and are then placed in disadvantaged schools. Research shows that Teach For America members have a positive effect on the performance of individual students within those schools. The incremental impact of having a Teach For America corps member has been three times the incremental impact of having a teacher with three or more years experience. The objective here is to get your most highly trained, highest qualified tertiary graduates into the classroom.
Teach First in the United Kingdom has a similar approach. It takes top new graduates from universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, provides them with six weeks training, then places them in hard-to-staff schools in disadvantaged areas. The graduates typically teach for a couple of years only before embarking subsequently on careers as lawyers, doctors or professionals. This program has also been highly sought after, not only because it allows graduates to have a more direct contribution to the community but also because it enables blue-chip companies in the United Kingdom to be engaged in the active encouragement of these young professionals to pursue a career in teaching and then to move off into the professions
It is this sort of partnership between schools and government and corporations that we wish to embrace here as part of our response for the quality teaching revolution which we believe now needs to occur in Australia. In Australia also, corporates have taken a big interest in their possible contribution. I recognise publicly the contribution of the Australian Business and Community Network. It has a membership of some 29 leading Australian companies, including companies like KPMG, the Commonwealth Bank, UBS and Channel 10. Through this network, employees of these firms help with mentoring students, mentoring teachers and principals and helping kids with their reading.
The Australian Industry Group is also an important contributor in this area through its Adopt a School program, where companies and schools work together to provide opportunities which broaden the experience of students and help them prepare for the world of work. The government’s agenda is clear-cut. An education revolution is necessary in order to bring about long term productivity growth in the Australian economy. Those opposite had 12 years to act on this - report after report after report gathing dust, more dust and more dust again on the shelves, recommendations not resulting in concrete action. This government intends to get on with the job of reforming the nation’s education system and reforming the quality of teaching within our schools, and we therefore will be prosecuting this bold agenda of reform in contrast to the 12 lost years which those opposite presided over.