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Sharri, Sky News, 22 August 2023

Sharri Markson: Now we’re seeing declining education standards in schools. Despite all the research about the best teaching methods, more and more children are struggling to learn to read and write. The number of year 3 students in the bottom two bands for reading has increased from 8.6% in 2018 to 11% last year. Shadow Minister for Education, Sarah Henderson, gave a speech on this at the Financial Review conference today and she says this is now a crisis and she joins me now. Sarah Henderson, welcome to the show. You said that the biggest disadvantage a child can suffer is not their postcode, but a poor education. Tell me about this.

Senator Henderson: Sharri, so great to join you. And yes, again, I’ve raised very deep concerns about what is a national embarrassment. Our declining school standards across this country are very serious and that means that too many children are falling behind. And part of the blame, I should say, rests with the university sector, which has for many years produced deficient teacher training courses which don’t reflect the science, and so it’s absolutely critical that the Albanese Government, in concert with the mainland states and territories, mandates the introduction of explicit instruction in every Australian classroom.

The best evidence-based learning and teaching, which the evidence shows, is the best way for students to thrive. The government has really dropped the ball on this. It is not being tough enough. Jason Clare is just tinkering at the edges and I am really raising the alarm bells about this situation.

Sharri Markson: But Sarah the Coalition government was, of course, in power until May last year. So this isn’t a Labor government problem, this has been progressing for some time. What is the fundamental issue here? Is it that the teachers could be better trained or, you know, what do you think needs to happen?

Senator Henderson: Look, there are a number of issues and I have to say on the whole, our teachers do a magnificent job. They are hard working. They are dedicated. At the moment, there is a growing teacher shortage crisis. We’re not seeing the government do anything about this. There are no immediate solutions in sight, so teachers are under enormous stress, and as I say, Jason Clare is really sitting on his hands on this issue. But fundamentally, we’ve had this era, Sharri, of what I call loose learning or inquiry-based learning. Teachers have not been supported by the best evidence as to how to instruct children in the classroom and we know that the teaching of phonics, explicit instruction, direct instruction is the best way for children to thrive. And I understand that the NAPLAN results that will be released tomorrow will show an even more serious picture, with one in four Australian children in every year level are not reaching expected standards. So it’s a very grim picture. This government needs to do something dramatic about it. We urgently need major change in our classrooms and it really starts at the top with the Albanese Government.

Sharri Markson: Those NAPLAN results, I mean that’s shocking. Have you had an advanced look at them?

Senator Henderson: Look, I’m just getting a bit of indication about what is going to be announced tomorrow, but things are looking quite grim and, of course, it’s compounded by very grim circumstances in which children have had to learn. There are many children, particularly in Victoria, who are still recovering from two years of being locked down and not going to school.

Sharri Markson: But fundamentally, are you seeing, sorry for interrupting, but are you seeing worse literacy and numeracy outcomes in Victoria than in the other states?

Senator Henderson: Well, we have to wait and see. The results are out tomorrow but I certainly know anecdotally that many families in Victoria are pulling their hair out, trying to cope with teaching their children how to adapt again to being in the classroom, after two hellish years. But the bottom line, Sharri, is that we as a nation are falling behind. Twenty years ago, we were neck and neck with 15-year-olds in Singapore, and now we are three years behind. The worst statistic, I think, is that one in five year 7 students has the reading ability of a grade 4 student. I mean, that is absolutely appalling, Sharri, and as I say, governments have got to act, but so do universities.

Sharri Markson: Yeah, no, it’s completely unacceptable to have children who are in primary school and can’t read and write. Sarah Henderson, thank you very much for your time.

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