Skip to content

Address to Economic and Social Outlook Conference, Melbourne

Good afternoon, everyone. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.  And thank the Melbourne Institute and The Australian newspaper for putting on this very important conference.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no more powerful way to drive the growth and prosperity of our nation than education. It is education which drives innovation, investment, skills, productivity, both in Australia and globally.

Today, as I have done since first being appointed the Shadow Minister for Education, I won’t mince my words.  Our declining school standards are a national embarrassment, and this is costing us billions in lost productivity and lost opportunity for our nation.

We are not the clever country we once were.

  • • Shockingly, one in three children is failing the most recent NAPLAN.
  • • One in every five year 7 students has the reading ability of a grade 4 student. One in five.
  • • Compared with other OECD countries, things are bad. Twenty years ago, Australia was ranked fourth in reading, eighth in science and eleventh in maths. Now we are sixteenth in reading, seventeenth in science and twenty-ninth in maths. No wonder we are going backwards in STEM.
  • • The average 15-year-old Singaporean is now three years ahead of their Australian counterpart.

A report by the Public Education Foundation back in 2018 found that poor student outcomes were costing our nation about $20.3 billion, or the equivalent of 1.2 per cent of GDP.

Another analysis by Deloitte in 2016 confirmed that improved schooling delivers better economic outcomes.  If schools with the worst-performing practices were lifted to the quality of the highest-performing counterparts – those schools where students are thriving – GDP would be around 0.5 per cent or $8 billion higher.

As Australia moves more and more towards a knowledge-based economy, high-quality schooling education is becoming more valuable than ever.  And as Richard made the same point, this is not just about investing more money in schools. We have seen a sixty per cent increase in schools funding over the past two decades, Liberal and Labor governments, and standards have declined.

The worst thing, or perhaps it’s the best, about this dire situation, is we know what works. The evidence is in.

As the Australian Education Research Organisation confirmed again in Senate estimates last week, it is not – and there is an exception in the last couple of years of school- it is not inquiry-based learning. The era of loose learning must be over, as I call it, until the last couple of years where inquiry-based learning can come into its own. It is evidence-based teaching methods – explicit instruction, the teaching of phonics, a laser-like focus on literacy and numeracy, the foundations of education. It’s the explicit teaching of classroom behaviour.

For classroom disruption, shockingly, Australia is 70th worst out of 77 countries. As I mentioned before, teacher coaching and professional development is so critical and initial teacher education, which ensures our teachers can excel in the classroom so that every Australian child reaches his or her best potential.

With some notable exceptions, we have a very serious problem in Australian universities which is why the former Coalition government was so focused on critical reforms that we need to initial teacher education.

I spoke to a young 26-year-old woman from Canberra this morning who left teaching after four years. She said she went into teaching because she really wanted to make a difference, but she started her first day as a primary school teacher with a $30,000 HECS debt and she had no idea what to do.

She said – at university we were not taught how to teach children, phonics was not even mentioned. There were no lesson plans, there was no summary as to what she was expected to teach. She went to an overcrowded Australian curriculum – she literally started with a blank sheet of paper and she made the point, “Why am I writing lesson plans when my friend down the road at another school is also writing the same lesson plan? Why are we not sharing these valuable resources?” During her four-year degree, she hardly spent any time in the classroom and she said that set teachers up to fail.

So I ask, under those circumstances, why should universities not be held liable for such negligence? Perhaps if higher education providers which demonstrably failed their students were forced to share in their HECS debts for instance, we might see some very different outcomes.

While the government has adopted many of the Coalition’s proposed ITE reforms, it should be taking up our threat to defund university teaching courses that do not make the grade. Whether the education minister has what it takes on that front is a different matter altogether.

So it is no wonder the teachers are leading this profession in droves which, of course, is contributing very substantially to the teacher shortage workforce crisis in Australian schools, particularly in rural and regional areas.

The greatest disadvantage a child can suffer is not their postcode, but not being taught how to read and write properly, those critical high-level skills in literacy and numeracy.

Some schools who have adopted the best evidence-based practices, they are flying, they are seeing amazing results in their NAPLAN, going up through the roof.

But this needs to happen, ladies and gentlemen, in every Australian classroom.  Because we know that if we continue to do the same thing over and over again – as we have done for two or three decades and more – we will see the same mediocre results.  And that will cost our nation dearly.

Thank you.

Share this