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2GB Overnights with Luke Grant, 15 August 2023

Luke Grant: Now I received a note today from Senator Sarah Henderson, who of course, talks about education on behalf of the federal Coalition. She says the Albanese Government and the Education Minister, Jason Clare, must act urgently to combat the growing teacher crisis across Australia, particularly in regional Australia, and she says a new report from the Centre for Independent Studies has highlighted a raft of teacher training and retention failures, which have contributed to a severe shortage of teachers in the classroom. The Australian Education Union says there’s been a 90% increase in teacher vacancies this year, 90%, with schools desperately trying to recruit 1,244 teachers, 394 support staff and 237 leadership positions. Now we can’t even find enough teachers. What the hell’s going on here? Sarah Henderson’s on the line, are you well?

Senator Henderson: Luke, very well, great to join you.

Luke Grant: Thank you for your time very much indeed. This is appalling.

Senator Henderson: This really is appalling, and we’ve seen a huge acceleration of teacher shortages right across this country since the Labor government was elected. Regrettably, Luke, we’ve seen very little action from the Education Minister, Jason Clare, and even as the Australian Education Union has pointed out, an alarming number of teacher shortages, a 90% increase in vacancies this year, and no plan at all from the Albanese Government coupled, of course, with the fact that students are being let down by declining school standards, right across this country where teachers are not getting the support they need in the classroom. And it goes right back to the universities, which are really not doing the job in training, we are really seeing the education system fail in a number of very significant respects.

Luke Grant: One of the issues you raised today is that when the Albanese Government was elected, they received a report which, when in government, the Coalition organised, it was a review into teacher education and the like and then, rather than respond to that, are you suggesting that the now government then basically ordered the same report which just put things off by a year?

Senator Henderson: That’s exactly right, so we handed down the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review and made a whole raft of recommendations, including that universities should lose their funding if they’re not delivering proper courses for student teachers, and that includes doing things like evidence-based teaching and learning, teaching students all about the importance of phonics, and other science-based methods of teaching. So what the Albanese Government did is rather than take those recommendations, it then turned around, did its own review over some 12 months and produced almost exactly the same report. This has wasted time under circumstances where we have no time to waste. Students deserve the very best teachers in the classroom. They are not getting this and, of course, we’ve now seen the situation in Australian classrooms where one in every five year 7 students has a reading ability of a grade 4 students. These statistics are terrible and that’s why urgency is required both on reversing declining school standards, but also on getting more teachers into the classroom.

Luke Grant: I just want my listeners to hear that again. So one in five year 7 students, one in five, have the reading ability of a grade 4 student, yet Sarah I’m right and I want to say we’ve never spent as much money as we do today, in education across the country.

Senator Henderson: That’s exactly right. We have had a 60% increase in schools funding over the last two decades and yet we are seeing a dramatic decline in school standards. Luke, we’ve gone through  the inquiry based era of learning. I call it the era of loose learning rather than strong explicit high impact instruction, which tells students exactly what they need to know. That information is then reviewed. It’s drummed into their long term memory, and that is proven to be the best way to teach young Australians. So as I say, universities are really failing student teachers. In fact, there was one course, a parent said to me, she sent her daughter to a university, she did a four-year bachelor degree and not once did they mention phonics. Now the teaching of phonics, teaching kids to read and write with phonics is the proven way to teach children to read.  And the Australian Education Research Organisation says, we know how to fix this, we know how to turn around declining standards. I have to say, Luke, some schools are doing an incredible job. Schools like Marsden Road Public School in Liverpool, absolutely amazing work under the leadership of the principal there. But so many schools are not doing a good enough job for students and we are now seeing that in the evidence.

Luke Grant: Is there an argument to say to universities, if you turn out under qualified or poor performing teachers at such a level, then government should reassess funding? Isn’t that one way of ensuring that those teachers that come out of the universities are better equipped to get better outcomes?

Senator Henderson: That was a key recommendation that we made when we were in government. There must be immediate consequences for frankly, arrogant universities, which fail student teachers. So if they are not up to the job, if they are not delivering good enough courses, if they are not teaching students how to teach in the classroom, why should they continue to get the funding? Of course, this is taxpayer-funded funding, Luke, these university courses are no good when they don’t do the job, and that’s why we were so tough on that when we’re in government.

Luke Grant: We’re almost living at a time where there’s no consequences for poor choices I have to say just as a side issue. You raised a really important issue, I think last week, I hope we can remind listeners because listeners to my show tell me that there are little parts of Prime Minister focusing on his one issue, his Voice, which we know in the polls now is, well, potentially facing defeat. But you actually see, don’t you Sarah, by the actions of people daily, just how fair dinkum they are, and in relation to indigenous disadvantage, how can we have a federal government on one hand calling for the Voice saying that’ll make the closing of the gap much easier, yet denying the building or scrapping of building schools in remote and indigenous areas? I mean, it’s just appalling.

Senator Henderson: Well it is absolutely appalling.  We are waiting for the Albanese Government to provide us with more information, questions that were due last week from Senate Estimates – about the fact that under our government, Luke, we provided $75 million to build three new Indigenous remote boarding schools and upgrade another one, a fourth one.  And now this government under the watch of Education Minister, Jason Clare, has axed two of those boarding schools that would have helped some of the most disadvantaged Indigenous students in the country, one in East Arnhem land, and one in Roebourne, in WA in the Pilbara.

So this is appalling hypocrisy from the Prime Minister to travel to the Garma Festival in East Arnhem Land, talk all about great opportunities for students, what he’s going to do with the Voice, how this is going to change lives.  And yet just up the road, the government is axing the construction of a boarding school for Indigenous students. Of course, this is not the only hypocrisy, since I’ve been a shadow minister, there’s a number of ways in which they’ve let down Indigenous students.  The government has so far refused to fund Yipirinya school in Alice Springs, which has 100% Indigenous students. They’ve had some very, very challenging things happen there. A lot of the kids are facing great dysfunction. Some of them come from quite unsafe environments. The principal, Gavin Morris, is doing the most incredible job but he needs to build a boarding facility for some of the students because they’re travelling up to three hours a day, Luke.  I mean, how can students learn under those circumstances? Those kids are living in tents in the Alice Springs town camps.  They cannot learn.

So Gavin bought forward this wonderful proposal which we backed before the last election. Of course, this was very much led by the incredible Jacinta Price, who did all of the work on the ground. And so far, after more than 12 months, this government is still refusing to fund the boarding facility in Alice Springs. And to make things even worse, they announced this $40 million package for schools to combat the community safety issues in Alice Springs, and the indigenous students largely missed out, they didn’t get equitable funding from that package. And so we are seeing example after example, where this government talks the big talk on the Voice, and yet on the ground in the communities where it matters, Indigenous young Australians are being let down time and time again.

Luke Grant: You know, and the prime minister can make all sorts of allegations about people that have commentary around the Voice. But I’ll never be convinced, never Sarah, that this is not primarily about his legacy, and not about closing the gap. Here’s a great example how it could make an immediate difference. And I spoke to a Jacinta a week or two back about that school. I mean, it’s a no brainer. It might be a bit more expensive than building something in metropolitan Melbourne, or Sydney. But this can make a real difference to young lives right now and to think the Prime Minister walks away from this, I think it’s absolutely appalling and shame on him. We had a couple of listeners ring and say, Luke, you’re about to see some Qantas planes with Yes written all over them released to the public, it turned out that the tip was right. You had a bit to say about that during the day on Monday. It’s, you know, the big corporates. I don’t know if they think this is a good business move. But my listeners told me it’s far from that shouldn’t they focus on delivering for their customers and let the politics and the other stuff for people to consume and work out on their own?

Senator Henderson: Well, look, as I said on my social media, Luke, I think it’s really regrettable that if Qantas is backing a Yes vote in the Voice.  And by saying that the Albanese Government is doing such a great job, then it looks to me like Qantas is also backing the decision to axe two indigenous remote boarding schools not to fund Indigenous kids in Alice Springs. So it can’t have it both ways. If it’s backing Albanese Government’s stand on Indigenous Affairs, on its whole attitude towards the Voice, the Yes campaign, then how can Qantas in all conscience do that when it knows that this government is not listening to the voices of the kids on the ground, it’s not listening to the voices of the kids in the communities including some of the remotest communities in Australia.  Kids who are crying out.  I went to the Alice Springs town camps, and it is very confronting. And there were kids there who just need very basic health care, and dental care. And I looked at these beautiful children, some of whom have got teeth literally falling out of their heads, and I just think, oh my god, I mean, what is going on in our country?  We are spending more than $300 million on the Voice campaign. This government is spending this sort of money and we can’t get a dentist to the town camp so the kids can get basic healthcare. It just astonishes me. A couple of kids from Yipirinya are living in squalid conditions in a tent, Luke what is going on in this country?

I understand the scale of the challenge. I know how difficult it is.  But there’s a lot of stuff that if we listened to Indigenous people in their community on the ground, from the grassroots, we could do a lot of really good work straightaway. But so far, I have not heard one idea from the Voice activists about what they’re going to do. We’ve come up with lots of different suggestions and Jacinta has been, as you say, extraordinary. Why can’t they find the money to build these boarding schools? Why can’t they help Yipirinya, why can’t they get out to the town camps and give these children basic health care? As the shadow education minister, there is so much that this government should be doing for Indigenous kids, and it seems to be failing them over and over again.

Luke Grant: Yeah, they’re too busy playing politics. Senator Sarah Henderson, thank you so much for your time. Great to talk to you.

Senator Henderson: Really great to talk to you. Thank you so much for your great interest in this. It’s very important.

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